This is the first piece in a three-part series featuring Shirley Jackson’s lectures on writing. They are drawn from “Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings,” a collection of Jackson’s work. Part two of the series is “On Fans and Fan Mail.”
The children around our house have a saying that everything is either true, not true, or one of Mother’s delusions. Now, I don’t know about the true things or the not-true things, because there seem to be so many of them, but I do know about Mother’s delusions, and they’re solid. They range from the conviction that the waffle iron, unless watched, is going to strangle the toaster, to the delusion that electricity pours out of an empty socket onto your head, and nothing is going to change any one of them.
The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, as long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were. I am, this morning, endeavoring to persuade you to join me in my deluded world; it is a happy, irrational, rich world, full of fairies and ghosts and free electricity and dragons, and a world beyond all others fun to walk around in. All you have to do—and watch this carefully, please—is keep writing. As long as you write it away regularly, nothing can really hurt you.
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, and driving children to dance class and French lessons and record dances and movies and horseback riding lessons and off to town to buy a Ricky Nelson record, and then back into town to exchange it for Fats Domino, and over to a friend’s house to play the record, and then off to buy new dancing shoes…. It’s a wonder I get even four hours’ sleep, it really is. Particularly, I might add, since I can’t use the telephone. There is always someone using the telephone. The best I can manage to do is shout out the front door to the grocer’s son when he drives past in his hot rod, and tell him to ask the grocer to have fourteen lamb chops ready when I come by later.
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.
At any rate, assuming that I am paying for my mistakes in judgment and never have enough hours in a day to spend at the typewriter, I would like to pass on a few things I have learned from those harassed, tense, welcome moments when I finally sit down to write. This, by the way, is what makes for Mother’s delusions. All the time that I am making beds and doing dishes and driving to town for dancing shoes, I am telling myself stories. Stories about anything, anything at all. Just stories. After all, who can vacuum a room and concentrate on it? I tell myself stories. I have a whopper of a story about the laundry basket that I can’t tell now, and stories about the missing socks, and stories about the kitchen appliances and the wastebaskets and the bushes on the road to the school, and just about everything. They keep me working, my stories. I may never write down the story about the laundry basket—as a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure I won’t—but as long as I know there’s a story there I can go on sorting laundry.
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; a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing. Just as I believe that a painter cannot sit down to his morning coffee without noticing what color it is, so a writer cannot see an odd little gesture without putting a verbal description to it, and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.
I was playing bridge one evening with a musician, a chemistry teacher, and a painter when, during a particularly tense hand, a large porcelain bowl that we kept on the piano suddenly shattered. After we had all calmed ourselves down, we found four completely individual reactions. Looking at all the tiny scattered pieces, I thought that I had never realized before how final a metaphor a broken bowl could be. The chemistry teacher pointed out that someone had emptied an ashtray into the bowl with a cigarette still burning, and of course the heat had shattered the bowl. The painter said that the green of the bowl was deepened when the light caught the small pieces. The musician said that the sound it made when it broke was a G sharp. Then we went back and finished our bridge hand.
Someday I know that I am going to need that broken bowl. I will keep the recollection of those scattered pieces, lying on the piano, and someday when I want a mental image of utter destruction the bowl will come back to me in one of a dozen ways. Suppose, for instance, that someday I had occasion to describe a house destroyed by an explosion; the manner of destruction would be different, of course, but what I can remember is the way the little pieces of the bowl lay there so quietly after they had been for so long parts of one unbroken whole; now, not one of them could have found its place again, and the compactness that had held them together no longer existed in this world.
Suppose I wanted to describe the effect of a sudden shock—I had just played a jack of spades when the bowl broke, and for what must have been three or four seconds I sat staring at the jack of spades uncomprehendingly before I caught my breath again. Suppose someday I want to describe the sense of loss over a treasured and valuable article—my green bowl was not particularly valuable, or I wouldn’t have let people dump ashtrays into it, but I can remember how I felt when I swept up the pieces and put them in the garbage and how entirely destroyed the pieces looked.
The act of remembering is in itself an odd thing, of course. I had not thought of that green bowl for weeks, until I wanted a vivid image to explain how all things are potential paragraphs for the writer. I have been struggling against an odd memory effect for quite a while now; perhaps if I describe it, it may show more clearly what I mean when I say that nothing is ever useless, and certainly is never lost.