Why I Write – The “Shimmer”

Of the three readings I found Joan Didion’s article, “Why I Write” to be most compelling and relatable. While I personally do not write entirely for the sole purpose to find out what I am thinking or feeling, I do agree that a work of writing is inspired behind this idea of the “shimmer” of an image within the writer’s mind. Didion emphasizes that these “shimmering” pictures poses great influence and power as she states, “it tells you. You don’t tell it”. Every word, sentence and phrase is dictated by this image, and collectively they tell you what is going on in the picture.


I found it to be very interesting how many aspects to a piece of writing can be completely made up, yet they are all motivated from a “shimmer” of an image. For example, Didion explains how she wrote her novel “Play It as It Lays” with only two pictures of mind. The first image was white space and the second was of young women.  However, when she finished the novel, the story was fully developed with fictionalized people and places that extend far beyond the original white space and young woman.  In fact, this is how Didion begins all of her novels “with no notion of ‘character’, or ‘plot’, or even ‘incident’”. I believe this technique can definitely be beneficially and helpful to keep in mind when writing myself. A “shimmer” of an image is not supposed to be overthought or scrutinized heavily. Instead this picture should be left to explore and further develop as you write.


This theory of the “shimmer” as a motivation for writing clearly intrigues me, but it also leaves me curious if other authors and writers feel the same way or if they even use the same technique when they approach writing. Is it possible that J.K. Rowling also never had any notion of character or storyline and that the Harry Potter stories were all developed from a “shimmer” within her mind?


I cannot say that I believe this is the best way to always write.  As fun and interesting of a technique this style is, not developing or thinking too deeply about a “shimmering” image may only work best under certain circumstances like fictional stories. Other writings that can still be motivated from an image within the mind may be most effective when planned out and developed before they are written. For example, can this theory be applied to the writings of journalists and researchers? Are their works of writings inspired form a “shimmering” picture and if so do they follow Didion and “lie low and let them develop”? This is not to say that it is not possible for all writing to be motivated from a picture within, but I am definitely curious if this theory is relevant to all genres of writing.


2 thoughts to “Why I Write – The “Shimmer””

  1. Do you feel like this “shimmer” is in color? Lucille Ball-style black and white? It’s super interesting that this sparked your interest from the pieces because I was engrossed in Didion’s imagery surrounding this concept. All along, I felt like her “shimmer” was glowing, golden and completely illuminated, but not totally visible (kind of like shining a flashlight on something polished and getting a glare). We’ll never really know…

  2. Brandon- I agree with Emily, this “shimmer” idea is really interesting. I have never really started that way, unless maybe when I was writing stories in elementary school, but it would be interesting to apply this process to academic writing. I think it might take a while and there would be a whole lot of revisions, but I think one nice thing about this process is you wouldn’t be too attached to your work. Also, I tend to over think papers about one third of the way through, so maybe not knowing where I am going would be a good thing. So thanks, for highlighting this shimmer idea and maybe I will try it next time…

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