Grasping at glimmers
I attended a writing workshop recently—my first in many years—because I knew the teacher. I had studied with Pam Houston for a week in Montana. In 1998.
Her debut story collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness, featured free-spirited, wilderness-loving women who camped alone with their dogs. I had written my first short story, about a girl and her dog, and though I was there to learn, I also hoped I might impress her.
We bonded. And some months later, we had coffee in New York.
Pam invited me to ranch-sit for her in Creede, Colorado, while she taught in California for the semester. I would feed her horses and somehow protect the chickens from winter and wolves. The rest of the day, I could write.
But I was 38, newly married, and wanted a child. So, I did the opposite of what a Pam character would do. I kept my day job. Had the kid. Stopped writing fiction.
I was sure she’d remember me.
The workshop was called The Physical Stuff of Your Life (and how to use it to gain access to the emotional stuff). Afterwards, she would be reading from Deep Creek, her new memoir about the ranch I never saw.
“The concrete physical world is inspiration for the work,” Pam said. She instructed us to pay strict attention to physical details, and to use all of our senses when we write.
She described her creative process.
She waits for a “glimmer.” For something that resonates. Then she writes it down. “Later, I look at the glimmers and see which ones are hot or funny. Which ones stick together to make some kind of frisson.”
Whether we aim to jumpstart our writing—or to make sense of our lives—isn’t everything we need to know located in the glimmers—the reflections—of what we experience or observe?
If so, why do we look away?
Glimmers are scary. It’s hard to look straight at the thing that’s grotesque, or ordinary, or unclear. We dread those moments, when what we see doesn’t square with what we’ve been told. Or with what we imagined.
Glimmers activate the senses. A good glimmer is specific and descriptive. It creates a mental picture, which stimulates the brain. The “crosstalk” between our senses significantly informs our experiences. We feel everything more acutely.
Glimmers accumulate weight. It’s far easier to gather glimmers than it is to start a story or a novel. Or to quit a job. Or end an affair. But those small epiphanies are the beginning of greater understanding.
After the workshop and reading, I said hello to Pam. I rambled on about how 20 years feels like no time at all. And about Montana. And how I almost lived at her ranch. And how I’m writing again.
As I talked, I saw nothing. No glimmer of recognition. No reflection of my joy.
But to me, the moment was hot and funny. And I felt a thrill.
I went there to be remembered.
But the frisson mattered more.