Steffie Nelson at the LA Times:
In the essay, Didion describes a particular “shimmer” that would form around images in her mind, creating a frame of sorts that pulled her in, impelled her to set down words as a means of telling the scene into being. She compares this shimmer to the way a schizophrenic or someone under the influence of psychedelic drugs is purported to perceive his surroundings — ”molecular structure breaking down,” foreground and background “interacting, exchanging ions.”
“I’m not a schizophrenic, nor do I take hallucinogens,” she continues, “but certain images do shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss [it].” Didion goes on to illustrate several tableaux that emitted the shimmer: the minor actress with long hair and a short halter dress, walking alone through a Las Vegas casino at 1 a.m., who inspired the dissolute ennui of her 1970 Hollywood novel, “Play It As It Lays”; and an early morning at the Panama airport, heat rising off the tarmac, into which the author inserted Charlotte Douglas, one of the main characters in “A Book of Common Prayer,” with her square-cut emerald ring and a demand for tea made from water boiled for 20 minutes (no doubt drawing on Didion’s own bout with dysentery after visiting said airport).