Monday, August 17, 2015

Readings: Shirley Jackson on Memory, Fans and Garlic

Earlier this month, Random House released a collection of previously unpublished work by Shirley Jackson. It's called Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings and I eagerly anticipate the arrival of my copy any day now. Also this month, The New Yorker ran a three-part series, to whet your appetite for these new pieces by Jackson, and it's one of the best things I read this month. How could I not be affected, when she talks about her home life with four adolescents?

"My situation is peculiarly poignant. Not, perhaps, as sad as that of an orphan child condemned to sweep chimneys, but sadder than almost anything else. I am a writer who, due to a series of innocent and ignorant faults of judgment, finds herself with a family of four children and a husband, an eighteen-room house and no help, and two Great Danes and four cats, and—if he has survived this long—a hamster. There may also be a goldfish somewhere. Anyway, what this means is that I have at most a few hours a day to spend at the typewriter, and about sixteen—assuming that I indulge myself with a few hours of sleep—to spend wondering what to have for dinner tonight that we didn’t have last night, and letting the dogs in and letting the dogs out, and trying to get the living room looking decent without actually cleaning it..."


"Actually, if you’re a writer, the only good thing about adolescent children is that they’re so easily offended. You can drive one of them out of the room with any kind of simple word or phrase—such as “Why don’t you pick up your room?”—and get a little peace to write in. They go storming upstairs and don’t come down again until dinner, which usually gives me plenty of time in which to write a short story."
These excerpts are packed with practical writing advice too. The first relays the convoluted process we writers sometimes have; the third deals with symbol in fiction and speaks absolute truths about the short story form. Here are a few quotes:
"A writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing..."
"Far and away the greatest menace to the writer—any writer, beginning or otherwise—is the reader. The reader is, after all, a kind of silent partner in this whole business of writing, and a work of fiction is surely incomplete if it is never read. The reader is, in fact, the writer’s only unrelenting, genuine enemy."
"Here is one of the greatest pitfalls for beginning or inexperienced writers: Their stories are, far too often, just simply not very interesting."
 "It seems to me that in our present great drive—fiction-wise—toward the spare, clean, direct kind of story, we are somehow leaving behind the most useful tools of the writer, the small devices that separate fiction from reporting, the work of the imagination from the everyday account."
So get a cup of something hot and clear some time for these three wonderful pieces:


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka