Week 7 Focus: Keeping on Nodding Terms with Who We Used to Be

Suggested Reading Assignments:



As we have seen throughout the past six weeks, Didion’s memoirs serve as documents through which writing can be examined as a rhetorical tool that forms community and understanding around traumatic events. It could be argued that The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights were a form of therapy through written disclosure for Didion. However, I contend that while writing as an act for Didion might seem insularly focused, her memoirs are understood now in terms of the reader – how her writing helps others understand trauma and grief. She approaches writing in response to trauma logically, thinking of this act as an “attempt to make sense” (The Year of Magical Thinking 7) of an event rather than a method to heal or cure herself from emotional pain. Analysis of Didion’s work points to how she universalizes her experience through a lack of sentimentality and offers readers various rhetorical strategies to write about and examine trauma as a means of connecting with others.


         Among the many things we can learn from Didion regarding writing about trauma, her memoirs also shed light on generalized successful writing strategies. As Sara Davidson points out, Didion demonstrates the impact of confidently using the first-person singular; to control the information you give to the reader; and to make your titles and first lines count. To this end, there is much to be learned from trauma narratives about the impacts of rhetorical style and choice. The context of the trauma narrative provides a transparent space wherein vulnerability is valued, and, thus, a variety of rhetorical choices can be explored as means of varied expression. 


Looking to Didion, I encourage students to work both in conversation with her and through emulation of her writing style and technique. John Yohe explains in his work that people fear that through imitation, their variation night “feel like a second-rate hack.” He opts for the word ‘emulation’ instead of imitation because it “carries with it the idea of caring about the other thing/work/artist. There’s certainly no such thing as cheap emulation” (Yohe 77). He further explains that “Whether imitation or emulation, both come from inspiration, from liking something so much you take it in, breath it in. And, like breathing, it’s just something we do naturally, and something that gives us life, helps us grow, and get better. We breathe out, and that’s where our voice comes from – from what we have breathed in. Our voice a combination of the voices that have come before us” (Yohe 81). To engage with Didion’s work and allow it to inspire your own is to lean into a tradition of writing that relies on an – albeit at times uncomfortable – context of trauma, but also encourages the formation of community and communal emotional understanding through the written word. Working in conversation with and through emulation of Didion’s work encourages the continued learning of good writing practices and an introduction to meaningful rhetorical strategy. 


This course examines how one author discusses trauma and identity – literally asking, ‘what would Joan Do?’. This guiding question, however, very quickly sparks another: why Joan? Why not include the many authors of compelling trauma memoirs? It can be argued that focusing on one author in this way may limit a student’s broad understanding of comprehensive writing strategies about trauma. Recently, I re-read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Bechdel uses the graphic novel to tell the story of her father’s traumatic death, reflecting on their tumultuous relationship and its implications on her view of life. Though Fun Home adopts a much lighter tone than Didion’s memoirs, Bechdel achieves a similar effect to that of Didion. Readers are walked through memories of a past self, defined by the person the author has lost, and journey with the writer to begin conceptualizing a future self that has emerged from the trauma. As a writer, Bechdel offers a queer perspective on trauma and grief as she connects her queer coming of age to her father’s closeted queerness. The narrative’s nuances, many would argue (including myself), are much needed in our current cultural, social, and political moment. Didion is a white, well-off, educated, cis-gender, heterosexual woman who ran with the upper echelons of high society. For better or worse, she lived a life aligned with a relatively ‘normative’ experience. Again, one must ask: Why Didion?  


To answer this question, I would first like to acknowledge the importance of many perspectives – of actively working against a single-story power dynamic and keeping an open mind to different realities. Engaging with collections of different stories by various authors allows individuals to grow as thinkers and participants in their own lives and the lives of others. There is a particular reason, however, behind choice to focus solely on Didion that does not overlook the value of multiple perspectives but recognizes the importance of connecting with one author to examine the rhetoric of trauma. Focusing on one author, as opposed to examining comparative traumas between authors, allows for the development of a deeper connection between the writer and the reader. The concentration of this course is less aligned with the narrative story arc of Didion’s memoirs in favor of examining successful rhetorical strategies relating to trauma. Analyzing the lack of sentimentality in Didion’s writing furthers this focus on the power of the written word and its ability to universalize an individual experience. To this end, Didion’s mastery of her craft illuminates the ways spirits plagued with trauma might lift in the face of great writing and art, finding comfort in her invitation to navigate feelings together instead of alone.

Works Cited

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home a Family Tragicomic. Frist Mariner Books, 2007. 

Davidson, Sara. “What Joan Didion Taught Me about Writing.” Medium, Creators Hub, 13 Jan. 2022, https://medium.com/creators-hub/what-joan-didion-taught-me-about-writing-6cd1a59b6b43.

Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. Vintage International, 2007. 

Yohe, John. “Imitation/Emulation in the Writing Process.” Writing on the Edge, vol. 25, no. 1, 2014, pp. 72–81. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24871682.



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.


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