Week 3 Focus: Joan Didion: A History

Suggested Reading Assignments:


Didion was all too familiar with the realities of trauma and grief. Her life is one many remember as distinctly marked by a time before and after the events of “December 30th, 2003, a Tuesday” (Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking 9). Joan and her husband John had just arrived home from visiting their daughter Quintana Roo, who was in a coma at Beth Israel North’s ICU. The two sat down to dinner, and one minute, “John was talking, then he wasn’t” (Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking 10). John had experienced “a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death” (Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking 7). Eighteen months later, on “August 26, 2005” (Didion, Blue Nights 157), Quintana “died of complications from a flu that turned into pneumonia — then septic shock, an induced coma, a brain bleed, five surgeries and months in intensive care” (Stamberg). 

Didion published The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005, which chronicled the loss of her husband. This memoir was an effort to reflect on the contradictions between the wishful thinking that keeps the grieving hopeful and the necessary realities they must face. Blue Nights, which concentrated on the loss of her daughter and was published in 2011, would assume the same narrative focus as Magical ThinkingBoth memoirs seek to “cut loose any fixed idea [Didion] had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad…about grief, about how people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself,” (Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking 7). Since the publication of these two texts, Didion has prevailed as a voice of truth – lived and imposed –  for her readers in moments of profound loss and traumatic change. 

Didion’s reflections on grief and trauma in The Year of Magical Thinking won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction. The memoir was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Mary Ann Gwinn, in her original 2005 review of The Year of Magical Thinking for The Seattle Times, writes: 

[The memoir] ends a year after [John’s] death, but the informed reader knows Didion’s journey has just begun. It [sets] the reader to [think] about his or her own journey, his relationship with loved ones, the importance of living in the moment. It [sends the reader] into a recognition of the difference between reading for diversion and reading for your life. I’ve never read anything by Joan Didion that didn’t force me to peer hard at our fractured world and into our burdened hearts. The Year of Magical Thinking may be the apotheosis of that kind of reading experience. This is a sad and anguished book, told in some of the plainest, yet most eloquent prose you’ll ever encounter. Everyone who has ever lost anyone, or will ever lose anyone, would do well to read it.


Didion’s power lies in her ability to clearly write the realities others might not be able to face or put into words. Her “plain, yet…eloquent” (Gwinn) prose universalizes her experience and acknowledges the complicated realities surrounding her trauma response. Moreover, she builds a certain optimism toward the future, even in the face of trauma, which asks the reader to examine avenues through which hope might shine in moments of darkness. Michiko Kakutani perfectly equates Didion’s particular optimism to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of first-rate intelligence. Didion’s writing maintains “the ability to hold two oppos[ing] ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function…[She is an individual who is] able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise” (Fitzgerald). Kaktuani furthers this definition by stating that Didion is an individual who “believe[s] that nothing matters and yet…believe[s] more strongly that it is worth making a record of experience anyway” (Kakutani).

The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights position Joan Didion as one of the foremost writers of traumatic experience, a legacy that is not unfounded. In an interview published before Blue Nights‘ release in 2011, a long-time friend of Didion, Sara Davidson, reveals the extent of Didion’s trauma resulting from losing her husband and daughter. Davidson describes how she called Didion when she heard John died, “and Joan said she was doing ‘okay.’ But Magical Thinking made it clear she was not.” When pressed on why she did not express how she was feeling at the time, Didion explained that “it’s easier for [her] to write than talk… to express the state [she’s] in at any time.’” Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking in three months “to capture how she felt: ‘Raw. Exposed. Unprotected.’ She said it was like ‘sitting down at the typewriter and bleeding.’” The raw and exposed nature of grief fascinated Didion and inspired both memoirs. “It came to her that everybody she’d known who’d lost a husband, wife, or child looked the same: ‘Exposed. Like they ought to be wearing dark glasses, not because they’ve been crying but because they look too open to the world…[Didion]…spent so much of [her] life guarding against being raw.’” She leaned into the exposure through her memoirs, bearing her broken heart and utter disbelief on each page. Though, in the end, these memoirs assisted in coming to terms with the reality of loss, Didion remained unable to let go of a past life that included John and Quintana. Davidson asked whether Didion ever planned to move from the apartment filled with memories of a life with her husband and daughter, to which she responded: “I’d have to move something that was here…I just want everything the same” (Davidson).

It is reductive, however, to remember Didion as primarily a writer of traumatic experience. Jacob Berstein explains that Didion’s rise to fame was as “an essayist who wrote on nearly every aspect of American life: [from] presidential campaigns, [to] tarot card readers, murders, rock ’n’ roll, [and] civil rights.” At her memorial service in September 2022, David Remnick remarked that “so many readers and so many writers absorbed the news of Joan’s death as a kind of devastation. The reason is clear. Is there an essayist today who is more admired by young readers and writers?” (Bernstein). Authors such as Lili Anolik disagree with the recent focus on Didion’s work as solely aligned with narratives on trauma and grief. Instead, Anolik focuses on the lasting impact of the author’s distinctly detached and cutting tone: “Didion is not, let me repeat, not a holy figure, nor is she a maternal one. She’s cool-eyed and cold-blooded, and that coolness and coldness—chilling, of course, but also bracing—is the source of her fascination as much as her artistry is.”  

Contextualizing Didion in terms of her personal history as well as through the opinion of other writers assists us in better understanding her chosen style. Her cutting tone and strong perspective define both her trauma-related and non-trauma-related work. Writing consistently in this way works in both genres of Didion’s work but is successful for different reasons. In her non-trauma-related work, this cold tone commands the reader’s attention – demands that they listen to her and accept what she has to say as truth. In her trauma memoirs, this tone gives the feeling of detachment – of longing for a previous, more joyful time but being unable to connect emotionally for the sake of her own sanity. This tone adds to Didion’s explanation of the implications of grief and trauma – closely mimicking the emotional reality of many living through traumatic moments. Both instances work in the favor of crafting a rhetorically successful piece of writing. Didion is able to maintain her signature tone but highlight the drastically different emotions of her readers given the context of her writing. In this way, we need not look to the trauma narrative as a document requiring novel rhetorical resources or strategy. Instead, looking to other writers of trauma demonstrates the successful ways universal writing techniques can be implemented in order to form a connection with other readers and writers of traumatic experiences.

In week 4, you will learn about the construction of the memoir, specifically Didion’s memoirs, and begin analyzing excerpts of her work in an effort to examine how her style and self-presentation universalize the trauma experience.

Works Cited

Anolik, Lili. “How Joan Didion the Writer Became Joan Didion the Legend.” Vanity Fair, 2 Feb.

2016, https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2016/02/joan-didion-writer-los-angeles

Bernstein, Jacob. “A Star-Studded Goodbye to All That.” The New York Times, The New York

Times, 22 Sept. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/22/style/joan-didion-memorial.html.

Davidson, Sara. “Exclusive: The Role of Tragedy in Joan Didion’s Life.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 7

Dec. 2017, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/joan-didion-life-tragedy-blue-nights_n_1035562.

Didion, Joan. Blue Nights. Vintage International, 2012.

—.  The Year of Magical Thinking. Vintage International, 2007. 

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “The Crack-Up.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 6 June 2022,


Gwinn, Mary Ann. “‘The Year of Magical Thinking’: A Chronicle of Grieving.” The Seattle

Times, The Seattle Times Company, 8 Dec. 2005, https://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/the-year-of-magical-thinking-a-chronicle-of-grieving/. 

Kakutani, Michiko. “Joan Didion: Staking Out California.” The New York Times, The New York

Times, 10 June 1979, https://www.nytimes.com/1979/06/10/books/didion-calif.html. 


Suggested Writing Assignments:

  • Weekly Reading Reflection – Pick an excerpt from a reading from this week – a paragraph, a page, a single line – and reflect. Why did you choose this expert? What does it add to your understanding of writing or thinking about writing? How does this excerpt complicate your understanding of Didion’s work? Of course, there is no need to answer all of these questions, but what is required is careful thought about how reading can inform the way that we understand writing and the writing process.

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