October 30, 2018

What Shirley Jackson has to say about writing


It’s almost Halloween, or at least almost that wondrously cold-hearted holiday where everyone basks in our imminent death. 

If you’re like me, you do that year-round. If you’re like Shirley Jackson, you explore those deathly themes in everything you write, no matter what. Given that it’s a season for suspense (and candy), let’s chew on a few of Jackson’s best writing practices.

1. Persevere.

Writing. It’s a pain in the ass, but one of the most important steps is to, well, keep at it. Whatever the routine, “all you have to do is … keep writing. As long as you write it away regularly, nothing can really hurt you.” Well, except feeling guilty for not writing. So keep writing.

2. Carve out a workspace.

So much of writing is getting in the mood, setting the tone, surrounding yourself with touchstones–coffee, a bunch of books, music, etc–so as to keep procrastination at bay. The gateway to productivity is getting ready. So don’t be afraid of the fact that it takes you 30 minutes, maybe even an hour, to start writing. According to Jackson, it’s bullshit to think that you can just sit down and dive right in. “I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again…”

3. Be realistic.

About your goals, your ideas, your notes. “Store away small fragments of ideas and events and conversations, and even facial expressions and mannerisms, and use them all someday.” Just because they don’t work now, and maybe that chapter, that whole story, that book, doesn’t seem to fit right, don’t think it’s a complete bust. Set it aside, use it as salvage. You may be amazed to discover what fits in where down the line.

4. Be afraid.

You know that story idea that seems so impossible? Or maybe that essay that seems absolutely too harrowing, too personal to write? Jackson stands by the thought of facing your fears on the page. Life itself might be full of anxieties and dead-ends, but on the page, in the stories you write, you can “delight in what [you] fear.” Fear becomes fodder for therapy.

5. Life is chaotic, so is writing.

Jackson thrived on chaos. Her personal files were rife with pencil sketches, watercolor paintings, and other sudden, manic designs aimed to capture what often feels ephemeral, so quick to leave us. She also kept logs and calendars, collected postcards and magazine clippings, not to mention her countless drafts of novels and stories. Jackson stored everything as a means of curtailing chaos but all it did is further prove how frenetic the creative mind can be. Let the brainstorming run rampant. Save those napkins with random lines of poetry. It isn’t a waste. So don’t waste it.

6. Enjoy getting lost.

Experience informs a writer’s work, but so too does their frustrations, their losses, their regrets. In fiction, Jackson made sense of the insensible, the loss she couldn’t quite work through in life. Real life horror can, and will, haunt you, but Jackson believes that it becomes the very demon you attempt to design in your story. Like fear, don’t turn away from the demons that attempt to lay claim to your life. In the work written, you just might find solace.




Michael Seidlinger is the Library and Academic Marketing Manager at Melville House.