✍️ All That Shimmers
or, How to Recognize Ideas that Will Inspire Your Writing (Part 1)
“Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer.”
What a delicious statement! Some act of randomness – or rather, lack of an act – led to what for this particular writer was a life-altering path. By “credentials”, the writer meant an ability to contemplate intangible ideas:
“During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract… I failed.”
Later in the essay, the author discovers that writing was that temporary visa.
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means."
I know where this writer is coming from. Personally, when I’m trying to work something out, I find it very helpful to write about it. Especially when I’m thinking about complex topics. I put the words and ideas down on paper like jigsaw pieces, playing with them until they press together. I think this is what the writer means. It’s a form of concrete thinking in a way, like we discussed in Alice’s Novel Problem (if you accept words on a page as concrete, moveable items… and I do).
What the writer is describing is a bottom-up, me-first writing style. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking…” The implication is that the writer trusts (or at least hopes) the resulting pages are interesting to readers, too.
Of course, that was rarely a real concern here. Because this writer, Joan Didion, was considered to be one of the best writers of her time. Writing was a vocation for Didion in every sense of the word; not just a way to communicate and make money, but a way to live.
Shimmering Lessons from Didion
I have read a fair amount of Didion, but until I started writing this post, I’d never read this essay, Why I Write. Strange how these things that you should be intimately aware of float right by you in this world. In any case, reading it was a revelation, as they say.
Another relevatory insight I found in this essay is the use of the word “shimmering” that (apparently – who knew?) many writers and artists use to describe the intangibility of creative ideas. Didion wrote about finding the “shimmer” – an idea or (in Didion’s case) an image that fixed itself in her mind that she couldn’t shake. Then there’s Vladimir Nabokov, who talked about the “shimmering go-between”, the space separating fact and fiction. DH Lawrence explored art’s magical qualities through one of his characters, an artist who describes one particular sketch as shimmering without shadow. “Only this shimmeriness is the real living. The shape is a dead crust. The shimmer is inside, really."
Definitions of the shimmer are all slightly different from artist to artist, it seems. But they all have common elements. To me, it smacks a little of synesthesia, that rare condition in which people involuntarily see different colours when they see numbers and letters or hear musical notes.
Of course, this artistic shimmering is not synesthesia. But it’s a decent metaphor for the effect within the creative mind. And just like synesthesia, where the letter “A” might be red to one person and green to another, this phenomenon manifests itself slightly differently in each artist. An image or moment or made-up vignette, highlighted in some sort of synesthesia-like aura or electricity that burns it into the memory and says, “This is important!” The creative mind desperately wants to explore it, tempting and holding all focus like a cookie on a plate.
To be clear, these aren’t thunderbolts and lightning – not always, anyway. They are generally quieter moments easily overlooked if you’re not paying attention.
For example, Didion writes in the above essay about watching a woman who gets paged for a phone call at 1am in a casino in Las Vegas. It is someone she vaguely knows – not enough to say hello to, but the familiarity seems to add another layer of meaning to the image for her. Didion wonders what this woman was doing there, all by herself, in a casino at 1am. This seemingly innocuous moment became an inspiration for a whole novel, Play It As It Lays.
We see that scene and maybe casually wonder on it for a moment before it passes us in our oblivity. Didion sees the shimmer and writes a book. But not worry – we can turn these shimmering moments into gold, too. We’ll get to that…
Sing, Blue Silver
Despite my lack of awareness of the “shimmer”, I understood the concept immediately. I experience a similar feeling.
There is a line from Duran Duran’s “The Chauffeur” that goes “Sing, blue silver”. I’ve been fascinated by that deceptively simple lyric, and I’ve tried to figure out what it means. If you google it, you learn that nobody really knows. (Yes, welcome to one of my rabbit holes!) I never did get a handle on it. But I realize now that Blue Silver is a great way to describe when a moment or scene, real or imagined, strikes me. Blue Silver is my synesthesiatic highlight colour that tells me, “Hey, pay attention! There’s something here!” Singing, in this context, means writing it down and bringing it to life. It beckons me to follow it down its alleyway, lit alluringly with moonlight and soft indigo neon.
Here’s an example. As many of you know, I am writing what is right now called Novel 5. It has not been easy, for various reasons. (What novel is, I suppose…) But what has been happening the last several months is that I’m writing snippets and scenes haphazardly. An idea will come to me based on something completely different, and I’ll feel compelled to stop everything and write out that scene.
One of those writing spurts was triggered by the word “shimmering” as I researched this post. To read the passage now, you may not know what the core of it has to do with shimmering at all. I had a flash of an idea for a scene and spent some time getting it down while it was fresh in my mind.
But I’m not a natural at this as Didion seemed to be, and often those Blue Silver ideas would slide on by me unexamined. At some point I got smarter and starting jotting down ideas that came to me. That’s worked with varying success. I’ve been most successful when I stop and take 10 minutes or a half-hour to write the scene going on in my head.
So we can train ourselves to recognize these Blue Silver moments. We can also dig around the ol’ brain box to see what shards of glass are stuck in our memories already. But since this post is already too long talking about the why, let’s keep the how for Part 2.
Key Takeaway: Writers and other artists talk about a “shimmer” that seems to emanate from ideas that stick with them and need exploring. Sometimes it’s quieter, and you don’t always notice. But when you do notice, the shimmer highlights it saying, “Hey! This is important!” Learning to recognize and act on those shimmering moments can spur our creativity.
Over to You – What Are Your Blue Silver Moments?
Do you see the shimmer? Do you have Blue Silver moments? Let us know in the comments below! As I say, it’s different for everyone. I’d love to hear what it’s like for you – and how you capture the moment.
I’ll leave you with Duran Duran’s “The Chaffeur” on YouTube, below.
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon!
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