Suggested Reading Assignments:
- Read Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking chapters 12 through 18
- Read Didion’s Blue Nights chapters 21 through 27
Zadie Smith explains, in her article “Joan Didion and the Opposite of Magical Thinking,” Didion “radically upgrad[es] Hemingway’s ‘bullshit detector,’ she probed the public discourse, the better to determine how much truth was in it and how much delusion.” It is this cold and unwavering focus on an ever-present disillusion Smith describes as a “dissection: of our fondest aims and beliefs, of all of our watchwords.” Didion “wasn’t looking for approval…[and] would not be bullied by what ‘everyone’ was saying or what ‘everyone believed’” (Smith). Smith rightfully describes Didion’s chosen (and now famous) tone as one of authority. Didion discusses this tone when she explains in Why I Write: “writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act” (Let Me Tell You What I Mean 44). Accounts of Didion throughout her life often remark on her incredibly petite physical frame, a reality that contrasts the assertive writerly voice she assumes. As Zadie Smith points out, the fact that Didion was “even…capable of mental invasion…for this was another thing [20th-century authors] had feared women could not do” (Smith) serves as a reminder that reducing an author to any singular ability or topic works against all that a piece of writing that achieve.
Didion demonstrates her capability for mental invasion in The Year of Magical Thinking when she first describes a universal trauma response. She writes, “Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of ‘waves.’” (Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking 27). Didion relies on the image of a wave to begin conveying the feeling of overwhelming grief. She cites psychiatrist Eric Lindemann’s definition of a stereotypical grief response, stating: grief manifests in “sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing…” (The Year of Magical Thinking 27). The shift from focusing on her individualized understanding of grief to Lindemann’s generalized findings groundings her feelings in an indisputable medical reality. She writes, “Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of ‘waves,’” only to prove her point with Lindemann’s explanation of the common symptoms of grief (The Year of Magical Thinking 27). Her writing goes so far as to mimic these waves, repeating that she feels “Tightness in the throat. Choking, need for sighing” (The Year of Magical Thinking 27). At this moment, Didion’s specific experience is made to feel universal.
In the year following her husband’s death, Didion “need[ed] more than words to find…meaning” throughout her trauma experience (The Year of Magical Thinking 8). She uses the wave as a concept that is understood literally and felt visually. Stylistically, it conveys how grief and trauma can be understood as individualized and collective experiences. Moreover, it explores how the written word can achieve emotional responses without explicitly describing what a reader should feel. In this way, successful writers of trauma narratives must consider the ways that their narrative can be an all-inclusive journey – this is to say that in order to make reading trauma ‘aggressive’ but not an imposition, your writing should strive to produce feelings within the reader without asking the reader to search for an emotional response.
Didion’s reliance on the rhetorical question within her trauma narratives similarly produces a level of emotional confusion for her readers that universalizes the grief experience. Didion writes,
A night or two before he died John asked me if I was aware of how many characters died in the novel he had just sent to press…He has been sitting in his office making a list of them. I added one he had overlooked. Some months after he died I picked up a legal pad on his desk to make a note. On the legal pad, in very faint pencil, his handwriting, was the list…why was the pencil so faint, I wondered. Why would he use a pencil that barely left a mark. When did he begin seeing himself as dead? (The Year of Magical Thinking 147).
Once again, Didion finds herself leaning into abstraction, focusing on the faint lines of John’s pencil on the legal pad. The final question she poses seems to come out of left field – jumping from wondering why he would opt for a dull pencil to suspecting this was a strange omen for his impending death. While shocking, it is equally as heartbreaking for the reader to make this leap without explanation. In moments such as this, the rhetorical question serves as Didion’s means to bring the reader into her illogical thought process. One cannot help but follow her – albeit flawed – logic and pine for an answer that will never come. Writing in this way further solidifies Didion’s position as an aggressive writer capable of mental invasion – one that commands the reader’s thoughts through her written words.
In week 6, you will learn more about the rhetorical choices used in Blue Nights that further Didion’s stance as both an aggressive writer and one who is attempting to figure out what she is thinking and what it means.
Didion, Joan. Let Me Tell You What I Mean. Vintage International, 2021.
—. The Year of Magical Thinking. Vintage International, 2007.
Smith, Zadie. “Joan Didion and the Opposite of Magical Thinking.” The New Yorker, 24 Dec.
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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