We Have to Write While It’s Still Shimmering

Meg Miller

In the recent film The Super 8 Years, the writer Annie Ernaux narrates over home footage taken by her former husband P​​hilippe Ernaux in the ’70s and ’80s, and assembled into a feature film by her and her son David Ernaux-Briot. In one early scene, Annie and her two young sons come home from the grocery store and stand awkwardly in the foyer as Philippe points the newly acquired Super 8 camera at them. “None of the three knows what to do,” Annie Ernaux later writes of the scene in her autobiography The Years. “One might almost say they’re posing for a photograph that won’t stop being taken.” Much of Ernaux’s writing in The Years is similarly photographic, or filmic — she writes at one point about a state in which her memories come to her in a series of images that overlap and float on top of one another. She calls it the “palimpsest sensation,” a time in which “past and present overlap, without bleeding into each other, and where, it seems, she flickers in and out of all the shapes of being she has been.”

This was one of the passages I pulled out in my opening lecture of the grad seminar from which this publication arose. I was trying to give definition to a nebulous idea I was forming, by gathering examples of writers who write from images, or about images, or whose writing is particularly imagistic. I had collected quotes from Naomi Shihab Nye and May Sarton about finding poetry in everyday scenes. We read Toni Morrison on working from memories in the mind, and Dodie Bellamy writing about how she never tires of describing photographs. Leslie Marmon Silko on writing and film. Georgina Kleege on how dependent visual perception is on language. These writers’ processes, in one way or another, started with the image. My point was simply that if they were using language to see and images to write, perhaps writing and image-making are not such different crafts.

Here’s one last example that gives perhaps the most evocative expression of this idea: In her 1976 essay “Why I Write,” Joan Didion describes how her writing comes from the pictures in her mind, things that she sees and that then stay with her. “When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges,” she writes. “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.” Later in the essay, Didion writes about the “grammar of the picture,” proposing that the arrangement of the writing — the composition of a piece — can also be found in these shimmering images.

Didion, Morrison, Ernaux, etc. — these authors tell us to pay attention to images, because images bring forth language. And anyone, whether they consider themselves a writer or not, has a bank of memories that live as images in the mind, and float to the surface in quieter moments. Graphic designers and visual artists are perhaps even more equipped than most at preserving those images, understanding their importance, and making them legible to themselves or to others. Since this seminar was made up of MFA students at VCU’s School of the Arts, we took the semester to explore what would happen if we thought of writing as just another form of image-making. How would that shift who we think of as a writer, or who feels they have access to the practice of writing? How would it change how we write, and what gets written about?

At least, that was the set up. But throughout the semester, the authors of this book took that premise and pulled on it and unraveled it in so many interesting, funny, messy, thorny, thoughtful directions. They connected memory to inheritance, lineage, culture, and a sense of place, as exemplified by Aya, Rasim, and Bradley’s lovely meditations. Yangyang and Weitong deftly experimented with visual arrangements of text on page, combining text and image into unexpected compositions. Quinn and Tariye infused their writing with surreality of dream and sci fi imagery and the strangeness of reality. In class, this group introduced me to new ways of thinking about access and opacity, themes you’ll see played with in Jalen’s text. We experimented with the kind of meaning-making that writing can do when it connects the disparate material that makes up one’s interests, which you can find compelling examples of in Molly and Kai’s works. We admired writing that was choral, that brought in multiple voices and perspectives, as carried forth by Taehee and Yuan’s writings (and echoed in the first part of this publication’s title).

Polyphonic Shimmering was authored, edited, and designed by the participants of this seminar: Jalen Adams, Rasim Bayramov, Kai Chu Chuang , Molly Garrett, Tariye George-Phillips, Aya Khalife, Bradley Sinanan, Quinn Standley, Weitong Sun, Taehee, Yuan Xin, and Yangyang Zhang. All of their pieces are richly rendered, beautifully described; their research and experience gives depth and fascinating texture. These pieces shimmer and hum, they play with duration and pacing and expand language beyond its conventional encasements. They allow us to see what they see, in ways both visual and textual, but mostly through language that blurs the distinction between the two.