Week 4 Focus: Joan Didion: Lifetimes Told in Short Stories

  Suggested Reading Assignments:



Before examining more of Didion’s written work, it is important to equally consider the construction of her chosen genre – the memoir – when contemplating her trauma narratives’ successes. In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser explores the memoir’s power as being found in “the narrowness of [its] focus. Unlike autobiography, which spans an entire life, memoir assumes the life and ignores the rest” (135). Zinsser continues by explaining that authors of memoirs must “become the editor of [their] own life, imposing an untidy sprawl of half-remembered events a narrative shape and an organizing idea” (136). Ultimately, Zinsser claims, “Memoir is the art of inventing truth” (136). This claim begs the question: what is true when considering an individualized experience? 


In both of her memoirs, Didion tackles the notion of truth. The very nature of her first memoir’s title – The Year of Magical Thinking – questions the reality of truth. In her article on Didion, Zadie Smith explains, “Magical thinking is a disorder of thought. It sees causality where there is none, confuses private emotion with general reality, imposes—as Didion has it, perfectly, in “The White Album”—’a narrative line upon disparate images.’” As Didion seeks to break away from non-realities, the truth of her world and her narrative is questioned. Her writing is not inherently false, untruthful, or even invented, as Zinsser puts it. Instead, through the acknowledgment and explanation of her misguided attempts to construct a false reality emerges a fully formed truth regarding the self and its relation to memory, connection with others, and place in society. Moreover, this truth is grounded through rhetorical attempts to universalize individual experience – essentially making an individualized truth a collective one.


         The nature of truth as an individualized and collective reality is directly examined in Didion’s Blue Nights. Didion writes: “It is horrible to see oneself die without children. Napoleon Bonaparte said that. What greater grief can there be for mortals than to see their children dead. Euripides said that. When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children. I said that” (Didion, Blue Nights 13). Her understanding of truth and reality emerges from an analysis of others. Compared with both Bonaparte and Euripides, Didion becomes a character within her own story. Her constructed reality is less a philosophical understanding than a truth she must live with – one that expands upon others’ previous explanations. In this way, Didion’s truth is presented as equally valid when compared to others and is one her readers can claim as their own should they identify with the statement’s truth.


Zinsser’s claim that writing the memoir is about inventing truth seems to undermine the reality of truth within this genre. A story about one’s life from experience is not simply a created truth but lived reality. The writing of a memoir assists authors in acknowledging a particular reality. The construction of a memoir – the pulling together of events from a particular moment and the assumption of a more significant life, as Zinsser defines it – acts as a reckoning between a past reality and a current understanding. The memoir’s positionality offers the opportunity to craft a story that conveys a personal understanding and experience while also asking its readers to reconsider how their own truths may shift as a result of another’s story. 


Didion crafts truth within her memoir through the use of short stories. Interestingly, these short stories are not restricted to a specific moment in time and offer us glimpses of entire lives lived with her husband and daughter. In this way, Didion rejects Zinsser’s assumption that memoirs “assume the life” and, instead, she strings together moments across lifetimes to give us a sense of herself as she was with them and who she is without them. While Didion breaks from the generalized description of what a memoir is supposed to be, it is safe to say that these narratives still fall into the genre category through their revolving around the implications of a singular moment – a singular loss.


The use of short stories in Blue Nights allows Didion to lean into her curt and emotionally restrained writing. In chapter 24, Didion described leafing through Quintana’s journal from her senior-year English class. “I had an exciting revelation while studying a poem by John Keats,” Quintana writes, “In the poem, ‘Endymion,’ there is a line that seems to tell me my present fear of life: Pass into nothingness.” As Quintana begins describing her argument, Didion explains she stopped following the logic and “appallingly” began editing (Didion, Blue Nights 131). It was only a time later that Didion began to realize that her focus on the words themselves took away from an appreciation of what Quintana was actually saying. Didion questions whether the shifted focus was deliberate – whether she was screening off Quintana’s fear of life. “Did I prefer not to hear what she was actually saying?” Didion asks herself, “I try the passage again for meaning./What she said: My present fear of life./ What she said: Pass into nothingness./What she was actually saying: The World has nothing but Morning and Night. It has no Day or Lunch. Let me just be in the ground. Let me just be in the ground and go to sleep.” Didion concludes by simply stating, “Does it frighten me?” (Blue Nights 133). Didion is curt in her explanation of the interaction with Quintana’s journal.  She is emotionally removed and instead focuses on her own shortcomings – the appalling inability not to edit and initially read for meaning. She grasps for insight into her own life and emotional response through Quintana’s words but is left only with rhetorical questions. This short story exemplifies the realities of grief and asks the reader to address their own perceived shortcomings as they relate to trauma – literally prompting us with the question: what is it that frightens me? Didion’s curt style and tone of writing in short yet impactful stories seem appropriate for a memoir seeking to tackle traumatic subject matter as well as give context to a life more deeply defined than simply by the death of a loved one. 


Similarly, The Year of Magical Thinking uses multiple short stories to explore the ways memory can also serve as a means for unsuccessful longing for a past life that will never return. In the days following John’s death, Didion details the feeling of confusion when she woke up in the middle of the night in bed alone. She writes:


It was the same leaden feeling with which I woke on mornings after John and I had fought. Had we had a fight? What about, how had it started, how could we fix it if I could not remember how it started? Then I remembered. For several weeks that would be the way I woke to the day…Of course I knew John was dead…Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believe that what had happened remained reversible. That was why I needed to be alone…I needed to be alone so that he could come back. This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking. (Didion, TheYear of Magical Thinking 31-33)


This brief story introduces Didion’s impaired emotional state and her position as an unreliable narrator. The belief that through her memories John could remain alive – could come back to her – works both to introduce yet another universal emotional response to trauma, which is how she begins to write short snapshots of their life together and uncertainty surrounding the motivations for writing these stories. The reader, through Didion’s disclosure of her tendency toward magical thinking, is brought in to feel the confusion she felt herself during this time as she tried to discern what is real and what is fiction. 


Though Didion moves away from Zinsser’s strict definition of what is and is not a memoir, her work successfully reimagines the way a singular moment can be understood through a collection of memories that span a lifetime. Her use of short stories further leans into the universalization of trauma and grief response, as a moment in life is almost never remembered in a linear fashion or as singularly defined. In week 5, you will learn more about Didion’s approach to writing and her stance as an “aggressive” writer.


Works Cited

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

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

Smith, Zadie. “Joan Didion and the Opposite of Magical Thinking.” The New Yorker, 24 Dec.

2021, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/postscript/joan-didion-and-the-opposite-of-magical-thinking. 

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well. Harper Paperbacks, 2013.


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.
  • A Life in Short Stories – Both of Didion’s memoirs are collections of different memories, pasted together in a seemingly non-sensical order to tell two stories – one of a life that was and one of her new reality. In 2 to 3 paragraphs, write across your own past and present storyline. Choose the information you wish to share, the stories you want to tell, and how they all fit together. In an additional paragraph entitled “Author’s Note,” reflect on how writing in this way impacted both your perception of your own story and how you were able to convey it to others. 

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