Dani Shapiro
August 3, 2009

On the Elusive Shimmer

Joan Didion once said that she knew she needed to write about something when she saw a shimmer around the edges of it — whether it be a person, a bit of overheard conversation, a landscape. It has always stayed with me, the idea of Didion’s shimmer. It seems exactly right. I know when it happens to me it feels like a little jolt from behind. No words form, no shape, no coherent idea. Not even a conscious thought. Just a deep, silent knowledge that some day I will write about this, in some way.

I have a few assignments on my desk right now. Work I’ve already committed to doing, and in fact am looking forward to doing. An essay, a couple of speeches. But now that I’m between books–a strange, amorphous state–those shimmery bits and pieces collected over the past couple of years are calling to me, as if I had closed them off in a drawer as I finished Devotion, and now the drawer is ajar. Trying to get my attention. What next? The question follows me around. What next? I need to be writing. I’m not okay in the head when I’m not writing. My mind becomes, in some of my favorite words of Virginia Woolf, pecking and wretched.

But how do we make the choices we make? How do we know where to place our creative energy? That energy is finite, after all. I find I have maybe three good hours a day. I need all the other hours around those hours, but when I get right down to it, in terms of actual writing time, three hours and I’ve spent all my capital. So what to spend it on?

My husband–a screenwriter–has a big bulletin board in his office where he keeps titles and ideas for future projects within his line of vision. I love looking at that board–it’s such a hopeful thing–all those possibilities. The future unfurling. A lifetime of work is on that board. And often we talk about it: which one next? Where to place the emphasis? What makes the most sense?

This much I know about making choices — to a great degree, they must be creative choices. If they come from what a writer thinks she SHOULD do next…that’s where the trouble begins. I try not to think: I need to write something funny/profound/commercial/short/long…whatever. This is always a bad idea, coming at the work from the outside in. From a place of thinking what the world might applaud, as opposed to finding the shimmer. For a writer, it’s always there. All that is really necessary is quiet and careful attention to it.