Suggested Reading Assignments:
- Read Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking 18 chapters through 22
- Read Didion’s Blue Nights chapters 28 through 35
Beyond her ability to infiltrate and change the minds of her readers, Didion’s prose possesses the gift of getting “us on the side of “the past” and then reveal[ing] that she’s fully a creature of the present” (Flanagan). For Didion, moments of comforting nostalgia bind the reader and writer. These moments are abruptly cut short by realizations of disillusionment, of magical thinking. The past and present work together as two extremes of the same reality. Kathleen Vandenberg explains, “Turning her unflinching eye on her own life, past, and present…Didion achieves resonance more through omission than accumulation, more through implication than explication.” Didion writes in the last pages of The Year of Magical Thinking, “I realize I do not want to finish this account. Nor did I want to finish the year. The craziness is receding, but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution and find none” (224-225). The reader never receives an ending to her story about the 1990 Christmas in Honolulu with John. Instead, they are given an abrupt end to the irrational thinking that allowed Didion to live in past reflections of a happier time. What resonates at this moment is not her narrative but the absence of it. Just as the reader is abruptly forced from the past to the present, they are robbed of a clear ending. Kathleen Vandenberg argues, “This is Joan Didion’s magic trick.”
Much of Didion’s Blue Nights focuses on the relationship between the past and present – a time with and without her daughter. The past defines her present, yet both feel distinct in their own right. She writes, “awareness of this passing time – this permanent slowing, this vanishing resilience – multiplies, metastasizes, becomes your very life…Time passes. Could it be that I never believed it?” (Didion, Blue Nights 17). Didion highlights a newfound awareness of the passing time following her daughter’s death. To conclude this second chapter, she repeats the phrase “Time passes” (Didion, Blue Nights 16-17) three times, demonstrating the recurring but unacceptable reality that we must move on in the face of tragedy. Didion does not fear time but dreads becoming a different version of herself, of forgetting who she was when Quintana was with her. It is this dread that metastasizes her life. She concludes Blue Nights writing,
“Vanish./Pass into nothingness: the Keats line that frightened her./Fade as the blue nights fade, go as the brightness goes./Go back into the blue./I myself placed her ashes in the wall./I myself saw the cathedral doors locked at six./I know what it is I am now experiencing./I know what the frailty is, I know what the fear is./The fear is not for what is lost./What is lost is already in the wall./What is lost is already behind the locked doors./The fear is for what is still to be lost./You may see nothing still to be lost./Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her,” (Didion 188)
These final lines take the form of a poem. In and out of the brightness and blue, between the past and present, nothingness remains for Didion. The reader is reminded through this passage of Didion’s ability not to explain how she feels but to make you feel it as well. Moving between the past and present, desperation for previous normalcy is palpable. In this moment, not only does Didion grapple with the intertwined nature of the past and present, but also the undeniable future that is born from this relationship. Didion’s trauma emerges as she sits among the remains of a shattered identity and fragmented memory that keeps her waiting in agony for the next blow. This self-presentation between the past and present, uncertain of how to make sense of the connection between identity and memory, brings the reader in to experience the same. Once again, Didion universalizes her understanding to demonstrate how trauma can be explored and written as a collective experience.
Examining the past and present in this way illuminates how Didion is able to use certain rhetorical moves as a means of writing “entirely to find out what [she’s] thinking, what [she’s] looking at, what [she’s] see[s] and what it means” (Let Me Tell You What I Mean 49). Specifically, in Blue Nights, we witness Didion rely on repetition, questioning, and obvious dissociation as a means of teasing out both for herself and her readers the realities of her state of mind. She writes:
My cognitive confidence seems to have vanished altogether. Even the correct stance for telling you this, the ways to describe what is happening to me, the attitude, the tone, the very words, now elude my grasp. The tone needs to be direct. I need to talk to you directly, I need to address the subject as it were, but something stops me…Am I no longer able to talk directly? (Didion, Blue Nights 116)
Didion reveals that she feels as though she is being indirect with her story – she is talking around the point and around the memories she is recounting. To this end, she questions her ability to speak and write directly in relation to this topic. She feels lost altogether on how to discuss her daughter’s death. At this moment, she addresses her dissociation with words. Didion repeats herself: “I need to talk to you directly…Am I no longer able to talk directly?” Through this repetition, it is obvious that what she so desperately desires is also that which she is unsure she will ever be able to attain again. Though no resolution is found at this moment, this does reveal a particular way writing can illustrate, both for the reader and writer, issues hidden deep within the subconscious. Furthermore, Didion’s rhetorical tactics continue to carry the reader alongside her own self-doubt and emotional confusion through moments such as this.
As we enter the final module of this course, you will begin to learn about how you can use writing (and reading) about trauma as a means for more than individualized therapy, what there is to gain from trauma narratives for readers and writers alike, and the power to be found in written emulation.
Didion, Joan. Blue Nights. Vintage International, 2012.
—. Let Me Tell You What I Mean. Vintage International, 2021.
—. The Year of Magical Thinking. Vintage International, 2007.
Flanagan, Caitlin. “Joan Didion’s Magic Trick.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 19 May
Suggesting 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.
- Writing Capable of Mental Invasion – During week 5, you learned about Didion’s understanding of writing as “an aggressive, even a hostile act.” Moreover, scholars like Zadie Smith point to Didion’s capability for “mental invasion” as a key to analyzing what makes this writing so powerful. Look to Didion’s work in The Year of Magical Thinking or Blue Nights. Identify a moment where Didion’s words invade and write 2 to 3 paragraphs in response to or in conversation with her. If you are responding to her, analyze why her words feel the way they do. What does this accomplish? If you are writing in conversation with her, how can your words perform a mental invasion?
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