We tell ourselves stories in order to live—Joan Didion
This writing assignment, in a nutshell, is to imitate the outline of Joan Didion’s landmark 1979 essay, “The White Album.” You do this writing a succession of shorter “mini-essays.” The trick is to write these in an order that is different than what will appear as your final version, then reassemble them. The result will be your own “White Album.”
First, pick a Time Period (from 12 months to 5 years) in which your life was at a crossroads, were about to experience a great change of place or mindset, or were otherwise experiencing some sort of transformation or self-definition.
For some, such as Joan Didion, it is a longer period, in which the outside world as well as her personal life was in a major upheaval. For a college freshman, it may be senior year of high school; for others, it might be the death of a child or when they came out of the closet as a gay or lesbian.
Write a series of short, “mini-essays” that focus on different parts of your Time Period. Make them 300-500 words each. Write them in this specific order as you move along. They are as follows.
1. 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, sports event, wedding, funeral; you will get to that later). Give the exact calendar date, to the best of your recollection (day, month, year).
2. 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 AIM/MySpace, your childhood street. Think of a way to randomly pick from this list: every other person, every 20th; 2, 4, 6, houses down from you on your street. Write down their names, any official information (address/AIM), 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.
3. Road Trip Story. Tell a story about a road trip you took during your Time Period. This can be anything from a field trip with the school, or a debauched trip to a resort.
4. Important Things List. A list of items—ideas, objects, posters, belongings, medicines, drinks or drugs, prescription or not—that were important to you in your Time Period.
5. Hit Parade. Find the top five songs on the charts from the week of either the Big Day or Day in The Life. List them, plus impressions of those songs that stick in your mind.
6. 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.
7. 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. Plus: describe stories or events using two forms of media from the Day in The Life. Try to use both a newspaper or magazine with TV or internet. Summarize the story and discuss how it might have related or directly related to your own situation.
8. 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, if necessary.
9. Icon Story. Summarize and commentate 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.”
10. Friend. Tell a story from your Time Period about you and a friend, something you did that is memorable to you.
When you are finished writing all the sections, re-order your mini-essays. Don’t worry about writing any transitions, not yet at least. Here’s the order:
2. A Day in The Life (1)
3. Home and The News (7)
4. Official Day (6)
5. Icon (9)
6. Friend (10)
7. Yearbook Entry (2)
8. Important Things List (4)
9. Hit Parade (5)
10. Road Trip Story (3)
11. Preparation for the Big Day/Day in The Life (8)
What inevitably happens is we re-create this order, and then customize it to suit our purposes.
Next, Write the Introduction and Conclusion (1, 12). Look at all these 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? Try writing about yourself in the third person, perhaps even in the present tense.
Here are some writing prompts for your Introduction and Conclusion.
•The narrator of this story is like _____.
• This is the time of my life when _____.
• The actions here took place between _____ and _____ .
• I had a job/I did not have a job. I made _____ a year/hour.
• I had/did not have a girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband/partner.
• Most of my time was spent doing _____.
• What do I miss most of this time? _____ . What do I miss least? _____.
• This story shouldn’t be told because _____ . This story should be told _____ .
• Which actor/actress should play the narrator in this story? _____.
• What is the color of this story? _____ .
• What does this story smell like? _____.
• What section of the library does this story belong? _____.
• During the time of this story, I met the following famous people or important local figures: _____.
• I believed in God/I didn’t believe in God. I still believe in God/I don’t believe in God now/I still don’t believe in
• The narrator of this story is like me in the following ways: _____.
• The narrator of this story is not like me in the following ways: _____.
• The headline on the front page of this life story’s newspaper read _____.
• What did I expect to happen in my life? _____ .
• What really happened? _____ .
• If I passed the narrator of this story on the street, I might have though to myself, ‘_____ .’
• What would I say to the narrator of this story? _____.
Remember: Writing these mini-essays out of order is the whole trick! For many writers, this is
one of the only way you can write an essay that is disjointed thoughts- and timeline-wise, that
reflects the disjointed states of mind we all have in certain times of our lives; one that, as
Montaigne or Creeley might say, gives a form or shape to our content.
Read Joan Didion’s essay before you start and keep it as your side as you write the sections.
Think of how you will tell your stories.
Make up titles for each section.
Interview people from this time. Use other peoples’ words, sources, literary works.
A version of this assignment is included in Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism, and Creative Nonfiction Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers Edited by Sherry Ellis. Tarcher/Pengiun, 2010.