On Following Strangers and Shimmering Pictures

Upon reading Didion, Orwell and Sullivan’s explanations of why and how they each write, I was especially moved by Joan Didion’s “Why I Write.”

At first, I wasn’t sure how much I was going to have in common with Didion’s viewpoint.  I was a bit put off by Didion’s claim that writing is an “aggressive, even hostile, act.”  I have trouble qualifying writing in general as aggressive or hostile.  Yet when Didion explained that writers often attempt to subdue the hostile act with frequent use of qualifiers or evasions, I thought of my own work.   How often have I rearranged sentences, tried out a dozen different words or deleted a particularly brazen statement to tone down a piece of writing I think may seem too abrasive or harsh for a particular medium?  As Didion explained, writing is an intrusion into a reader’s world.  By putting our disagreement with a popular opinion or a memory we found particularly moving into black and white print, we’re asserting that our ideas and words are worth recording and reading.  To thrust those ideas into the world of complete strangers, whether through a blog or newspaper, certainly takes gumption and a big of aggression, even if not always hostility.

As I continued to read Didion’s thoughts, I was particularly touched by one idea.  In fact, this concept has been engrained in my mind since reading her essay.

As Didion explains, her stories are inspired by shimmering pictures that infiltrate her mind, flourishing in her imagination and growing into characters and plot lines.  Each picture carries a unique story and potential and the job of a writer is to be a steward of those pictures.  According to Didion, “The picture dictates the arrangement.  It tells you.  You don’t tell it.”  So although writing requires a level of confidence and aggression, it also requires a level of humility.  The writer must not get in the way of the stories these shimmering pictures have to tell.

Didion’s method made me think of stories inspired by actual paintings, like Girl With a Pearl Earring, a novel by Tracy Chevalier based on the painting by Johannes Vermeer. Something about that painting shimmered for Chevalier and brought an entire novel to life.  As Didion explained, sometimes the images can be something the writer witnesses, something I recently discovered for myself.

Johannes Vermeer’s painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring, the inspiration behind Chevalier’s book.   The painting is now on display in New York’s Frick Collection.   Image from: npr.org
Johannes Vermeer’s painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring, the inspiration behind Chevalier’s book.
The painting is now on display in New York’s Frick Collection. Image from: npr.org

In an acting class I’m in this semester, we were recently given an unconventional assignment that I soon realized was, as Didion would say, finding shimmering images and thinking about them for a while.  Our professor asked each of us to follow a stranger whom we found interesting.  We were to observe every detail about this person, from where he held tension in his body as he walked to where his eye focus was.  Then, we had to create the details his life from his occupation to where he was headed.

When I began searching for my subject, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, I found myself drawn to an African American man of about 58 years who walked with an unhurried pace, quiet swagger and tired kindness.  As I followed him from a discreet distance, observing the way he warmly waved at several people, kept his right hand in his pocket and let his left arm swing easily while looking side to side, I let his image shimmer and began to imagine who he might be.  I imagined that he had one daughter who lived far away in Boston with two children, his greatest source of joy.  I decided the quiet sadness etched into his face was from the death of his wife a few years ago and the fact that he couldn’t bring himself to move out of their home, even though it had more space than he needed.  I pictured him reading the newspaper and drinking decaf coffee and decided he had been teaching for 23 years at University of Michigan.  Yet, I couldn’t decide what subject he taught.  Nothing from Economics to Philosophy seemed quite right.  It wasn’t until I continued to write about him and flesh out the details of his character that I could finally decide he taught Psychology.  As Didion so astutely says, sometimes we write because we need to discover answers to our questions.

Putting this on paper, I find myself eating my words.  After all, what is more aggressive and, yes, hostile than following a complete stranger, inventing his life and putting it on paper?  Not a whole lot.  Yet, that’s exciting.  As Didion says, “You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer.”  After all, these pictures are what breathe life and inspiration into honest and brave writing.  That’s the kind of writing I want to create.  Thanks to Didion, I have a sudden yearning to seek out and treasure these shimmering images and follow them with words wherever they may go.

3 thoughts to “On Following Strangers and Shimmering Pictures”

  1. I absolutely adore the way you were able to use your own experience as an enhancement of Didion’s text. The idea of creating a backstory for someone is a concept I’ve always struggled with, because I worry about crossing the line from creativity to blatant judgement. I’ve often found myself creating assumptions, usually for my own amusement and desire for answers (I don’t like not knowing something), but seeing this used as an assignment intrigues me so much more about the ability to use this as a creation of a character for writing. I’m still not sure I’ve experienced any kind of shimmering images, but do we actually know them in the moment or is it anything that just kind of sticks with you?

  2. Christina, I really enjoyed your interpretation of Didion’s essay and how it resonates with you. It was hard for me to connect with her explanation of why she writes, as it seemed so far removed from my generic process, or even any “outside the box” writing I’ve attempted. But, the examples you share give a clearer picture of what the shimmering and aggression Didion describes could entail. I love the idea of finding inspiration from a painting, and maybe one day I’ll work up the courage to try the backstory experiment. Thanks, your blog really helped my understanding of the piece!

  3. I thought it was completely fabulous how you tied your experience with your acting class in with Didion’s essay. The bit on following the stranger and constructing a life for him was not only super interesting, but it really helped to bring your whole post together, and gave me a new perspective on Didion’s essay. I’ve never attempted to look at a stranger and create a backstory for him/her, but now I have to say, I just might have to give it a try!

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