In preparation for this unit’s writing assignment, read the innovative essay: “The White Album”

Make Your Own White Album


In 1979, Joan Didion published “The White Album.” Her essay doesn’t function as essays “should.” The promising first line is “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The last line is “but writing has not helped me to see what it means.” Between these two conflicting expressions is the arc you must travel as a reader. Didion gathers scenes, compiles lists, strings together data in numbered sections. There is a structure, an order, and a form. But it is not the sort of academic, argumentative, analytical essays we have worked with so far.

Still, there are many ways to truth, and the paths are not always linear.

Read “The White Album”

In preparation for this unit’s writing assignment, read the innovative essay: “The White Album”

by Joan Didion. It is about 40 years old and 40 pages long, so carve out the time and space to read.

As you read Joan Didion’s essay, think of how you will tell your own stories.

It’s Your Turn

After reading Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” it’s time to write your own innovative essay.

Make Your Own White Album
You will do this assignment in a succession of shorter pieces–written in an order that is different from what will appear as your final version, then reassemble them.

Follow these steps:

1. Pick a time period (from twelve months to five years) in which your life was a crossroads–you were about to experience a great change of place or mindset, or you were otherwise experiencing some sort of transformation. (examples: a time period in which the outside world, as well as your personal life, was in major upheaval; senior year of high school; the death of a child; a divorce; when you came out of the closet, etc).

2. Write a series of short pieces that focus on different parts of your time period. These can be quite short (some will be a paragraph, some longer). Focus on showing rather than telling. Remember the “Portrait of Jack” exercise; use concrete details, dialogue, and the five senses. Write the short pieces in this specific order as you move along. They are as follows:

(a.) A Day in the Life. Tell a story from your time period when you feel your life was changed in a significant way–this cannot be an “official day” (graduation, prom, wedding, funeral–you will get to that later). Give the exact calendar date, to the best of your recollection.
(b.) Yearbook Entry. Take out some sort of list or directory from your time period: your senior year high school yearbook, a buddy list (friends from Facebook), your childhood street (here, the list is the addresses: 809 W. Washington, 811, 813, etc). Think of a way to randomly pick from this list: every other person, every twentieth, two/four/six houses down from you on your street–etc. Write down their names, and a paragraph or memory about them. If you do not remember a person, try to explain why he/she has not lasted in your memory.
(c) Road Trip Story. Tell a story about a road trip you took during your time period. This can be anything from a school field trip to a debauched trip to a resort.
(d). Important Things List: A list of items–ideas, objects, posters, belongings, medicines, drinks, or drugs, that were important to you in your time period.
(e) Hit Parade. Find the top five songs on the charts from the week of either the Big Day or the Day in the Life. List them, plus impressions of those songs that stick in your mind.
(f) Official Day. Describe a major event in your life that was in fact formal or official–a prom, wedding, graduation day, funeral acceptance or denial from college.
(g) Home and the News. A description of your home during this time period: your family (all of the names, full) a description of your bedroom or kitchen. Plus: describe stories or events using two forms of media from the Day in the Life. Try to use both a newspaper or magazine and TV or the Internet. Summarize the story and discuss how it might have related or directly related to your own situation. In short: write about your home and about a news story at that time (this may require research).
(h) Preparation for the Big Day/Day in the Life. Describe the days leading up to the Big Day or the Day in the Life. Tear away or cut out parts from those parts you have already written.
(i) Icon Story. Summarize and comment on a story that was in the news–a specific figure in the culture–from your time period. Focus on one person, one event with that person if possible, and explain why you picked it (without of course saying you “picked it”).
(j) Friend. Tell a story from your time period about you and a friend, something you did that is memorable to you.

3. When you are finished writing all the sections, reorder your mini pieces. Don’t worry about writing any transitions right now. Here is the order.

1. Introduction (haven’t written yet)
2. A Day in the Life (a)
3. Home and the News (g)
4. Official Day (f)
5. Icon (i)
6. Friend (j)
7. Yearbook Entry (b)
8. Important Things List (d)
9. Hit Parade (e)
10. Road Trip Story (c)
11. Preparation for the Big Day/Day in the Life (h)
12. Conclusion (haven’t written yet)

4. Write the Introduction and Conclusion. Look at all these mini stories, how they are ordered. What can you say about yourself? What larger statement can you make about this scrapbook, this White album of your life?

Here are some prompts/ideas for your intro and conclusion (but you can also go your own way–you can write your own creative intro/concl):

–This is the time of my life when___
–The actions here took place between ___and ___
–Most of my time was spent doing____
–What do I miss most from this time? What do I miss least?
–This story shouldn’t be told because___. This story should be told because ___.
–Which actor/actress should play the narrator in this story?
–What section of the library does this story belong?
–During the time of this story, I met the following famous people or important figures.
–I believed in God/didn’t believe in God. I still believe/I still don’t believe…
–What did I expect to happen in my life?
–What really happened?
(or you can try writing about yourself in third person, perhaps even in the present tense):
–The narrator of this story is like__
If I passed the narrator of this story on the street, I might have thought to myself__
–What would I say to the narrator of this story?

Remember: writing these mini pieces out of order is the whole point. For many writers, this is the only way to write an essay that is disjointed–and in terms of timeline–that reflects the disjointed states of mind we all have in certain times of our lives (one that gives form or shape to our content).

Make up titles for each section or simply use numbers. You may want to research (even a simple Google search) or talk to someone from this time. Or you may want to include other people’s words, sources, lyrics, or literary works.

Add details to the mini stories. These are tiny narrative essays, so, as I said: rely on showing (through concrete details and the five senses) not telling.

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In preparation for this unit's writing assignment read the innovative essay The White Album


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