Why (and How) Joan Didion writes

I remember reading Joan Didion's essay Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power and being really absorbed by her writing and wanting to write like her.

In an excerpt from her book Let Me Tell You What I Mean, she talks about what a writer is, why she writes, how she develops stories in her books, and about shimmering pictures.

A writer is

a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.

Why does she write?

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.

She talks about how she couldn't live in the abstract, and her attention was always veered to the specific, to the tangible, the peripheral. On what she could see, taste, and touch. She has pictures in her mind.

"Why have the night lights in the Bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years?" "Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956?"

For her, these images shimmer around the edges.

Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t talk to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.

She means "shimmer" literally, just like how she means "grammar" literally

Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.

These pictures dictate the arrangement and shape of the sentences (active or passive, long or short, ends hard or a dying-fall)

The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene:

It tells you.

You don't tell it.

When starting her book Play It as It Lays, she had no notion of characters or plot, but only two pictures. The first was just white space; empty space. The second was a young woman who walks through the casino at the Riviera in Las vegas at one in the morning.

And for A Book of Common Prayer, she had several pictures, one of them was the Bevatron. Another was a newspaper photograph of a hijacked 707 burning on the desert in the Middle East. Another was the night view from a room where she spent a week with paratyphoid, a hotel room on the Columbian coast. And so on.

I love the idea of writing from pictures in your head, images that shimmer around the edges. Snapshots from your life that you can't get out of your head, the ones that imprints and sears like a tattoo and lifelong scar. And how all these images can coalesce into a story.