Suggested Reading Assignments:
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). Rarely within trauma narratives do you find yourself comforted by the final few pages. It is a harsh reality we all must face that real life does not always come wrapped perfectly in a neatly tied bow. It is also a reality we must face, just as Didion had to, that just because the memoir ends does not mean life ends. Didion life continued on for more than a decade following the publication of her final trauma memoir. It’s difficult to say whether much changed about her mindset as a result of these books. Just as she notes above, she could’ve kept writing forever – every story that popped into her mind about John or Quintana, but to what use? In this way, I think Didion would be in agreement that we need not seek out or look for clarity or resolution in any trauma narrative. Instead, it would be of use to us all to examine the ways these texts help to form connections with ourselves and with others.
Though we are wise to move away from seeking resolution when reading or writing any trauma narrative, this is not to say that hope cannot be included in the conclusions of these narratives. Didion concludes The Year of Magical Thinking by writing, “I was afraid of missing the swell, hanging back, timing it wrong. John never was. You had to feel the swell change. You had to go with the change. He told me that. No eye is on the sparrow but he did tell me that” (227). Didion does not relinquish her grief here but instead opens her mind to move on, going with the change, comforted by the memories of those she has lost and their messages that carry her through. Hope is not lost in face of trauma, and Didion reminds us of this in lieu of a comfortable resolution.
In Why I Write, Didion recalls how she nearly failed to graduate from Berkeley after neglecting to take a course on Milton. As an English major, she needed to be certified “proficient in Milton” (Didion, Let Me Tell You What I Mean 48). To fulfill her requirement, she drove to Sacramento every Friday during her final summer to discuss the cosmology of Paradise Lost. Didion admits that, even a few years later, she could not “tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in Paradise Lost, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which [she] wrote ten thousand words that summer.” What she could tell you, however, was “the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait into a greyed and obscured sinister light,” (Didion, Let Me Tell You What I Mean 48). As a student, Didion’s focus was never wholly aligned with academics. She “knew that [she] was no legitimate resident in any world of [academic] ideas.” Her years at Berkeley were defined by an acknowledgment of what she was not, and it took her many years to find out what she was: “which was a writer” (Didion, Let Me Tell You What I Mean 49).
It is difficult to say whether Didion would wholeheartedly agree with using her writing in the context of a composition course. Her papers situate her firmly in the belief that writing “tells you. You don’t tell it” (Didion, Let Me Tell You What I Mean 51). Knowing what I do of Didion, it would be fair to assume she would hate the idea of this course altogether. I also think, however, she would appreciate that this course is published regardless of her opinion – that is, after all, a very Didion-esque move. All musing aside, I assume a part of Didion – the English major in her, no matter how small – would appreciate the analysis of her style and narrative. I also assume she would appreciate the reliance on writing to understand ourselves and our world better. She acknowledges the way even she, during her time writing for Vogue, learned “a kind of ease with words, a way of regarding words not as mirrors of [her] own inadequacy but as toys, weapons, to be deployed strategically on a page,” (Didion, Let Me Tell You What I Mean 61). Even Didion agrees that writers of precision, who can use language as a meaningful tool, are writers who take the time to learn.
Didion writes in On Keeping A Notebook: “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise, they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends” (Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem 203). To connect with ourselves, past and present, through writing is to encourage an ability to move forward. Didion offers us a road map to address the complicated reality we currently find ourselves within. Those who seek to begin on this road toward a newfound understanding of self, society, trauma, and recovery need only ask, “What would Joan do?”
Didion, Joan. Let Me Tell You What I Mean. Vintage International, 2021.
—. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Picador Modern Classics. 2017.
—. The Year of Magical Thinking. Vintage International, 2007.
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.
- Making Didion’s Magic Trick Your Own – For your final writing assignment of this course, look to moments of nostalgia in Didion’s work. Write 2 paragraphs telling a story that emulates her style – try your best to bring to life the notion that one can simultaneously be a creature of the past and present. In an additional paragraph entitled “Author’s Note,” reflect on the techniques you used to emulate Didion’s style. What is the significance of writing this way when considering trauma and grief?
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