It’s me, Suchandrika Chakrabarti!
I’m now on Clubhouse - find me @suchandrika
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The days are definitely getting lighter and longer in London, and wow, that really does help… but I’m still a bit tired. Are you?
I tried out something new last week, a comment thread about holidays! A note to other Substackers thinking of trying it out - the comment thread got about 200 more views than a usual newsletter, so they’re definitely worth a look…
Onto the subject of this email, “images that shimmer around the edges” - let's dive into a Joan Didion essay that turns 45 in December!!*
Didion’s ‘Why I Write’ (1976), is included in a new collection of her work, Let Me Tell You What I Mean (1968-2000). The sentence most often pulled out of this essay is: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means,” but for me the piece really gets going in the next few lines, when Didion starts to talk about images.
“What is going on in these pictures in my mind?” Didion asks, as though they’re haunting her. “When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges.”
I love the use of the word “shimmer” here. The pictures in my mind are now of hot days on holidays, when the heat rises up and makes everything shimmer. It could also mean a mirage, and maybe it does, for those stories we chase down but they’re not quite the right thing, they don’t really live up to their initial promise.
Do you have a visual imagination? Or do you hear characters loud and clear in your imagination? I’ve heard of both kinds (and maybe there are others??), but I’m definitely on the visual side. A good writing session for me usually involves a film playing in my head that I’m writing as it plays, if that makes any sense at all?
Writing that down, I can see that it’s a lot like descriptions of lucid dreaming. I’ve never tried lucid dreaming, but when I wake up from a dream, I do feel in control of the action in those last few seconds before full consciousness - so maybe lucid dreaming has tried me out…?
Back to Didion: “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.” These words could be instructions for a medium, trying to make contact with the other side.
For me, they bring to mind Keats’s “camelion poet,” a concept that he mentions in one of his beautifully-written letters. He goes on to explain:
A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity---he is continually in for---and filling some other Body---The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute---the poet has none; no identity---he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God's Creatures…
… When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins so to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated…
I’ve always interpreted this passage is as Keats saying that he’s a mere conduit for the poetry to reach the page; it sounds almost as though he is possessed. Like Didion, it’s a moment when he needs to be away from other people, or he risks losing this spark - or shimmer - which by its nature is a delicate thing, quick to disappear if not put to use.
So there’s a moment of inspiration, a need for the writer to disappear into themselves and time (because that’s the best kind of writing session, when you look up and time has flown) and then? Didion?
It tells you.
You don’t tell it.
After this moment of passivity… then the flurry of activity. Keats’s “night’s labours,” all the questions about the images that Didion now has to answer. The almost religious moment of communicating with the unknown makes the work possible, and maybe that answers the question of why some days, weeks, months, years - it isn’t. Does it?
*I found the Joan Didion piece via Sofia Koutlaki (thank you!)
Kieran Yates’s newsletter is a thought-provoking, personal read about housing
This is an excellent list from Tahmina Begum, especially 7, 16 and 21
I’ve been delivering a fair bit of training - the start of the year’s always like this - if you want to know more, just hit reply on this email
You can watch my talk on personal essays for the Student Publications Association Conference over on YouTube, and a reminder that there are 5 tickets left for my London Writer’s Salon Personal Essays Masterclass on 25th February
Thank you so much for reading!
If you enjoy my work & fancy buying me a virtual coffee, I’d be delighted (and will hopefully experience a virtual caffeine rush):