Quotes by Shirley Jackson on Writing and Life

Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965) was an American author whose work explored motifs of psychological horror and “prettied-up accounts of everyday family life.” Many of her works addressed the dark side of human nature. “The Lottery” (1948)  is her best-known short story; standouts among her novels are The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. 

Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons  pioneered the genre of “momoirs” that inspired such writers as Erma Bombeck and Jean Kerr. In Jackson’s case, her own family life wasn’t quite as fun as the glossy and wry depictions in her pages. 

As a master of the psychological horror genre, Jackson influenced Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Joanne Harris, and others. A heavy smoker, overweight, and possibly a barbiturate addict, she was only 48 when she died of heart failure. Jackson’s literary legacy has proven sturdy and enduring. Here are some quotes by Shirley Jackson writing and life.

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“When shall we live if not now?” (The Sundial, 1958)

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“In the country of the story the writer is king.” (Come Along with Me, 1968)

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“I very much dislike writing about myself or my work, and when pressed for autobiographical material can only give a bare chronological outline which contains no pertinent facts.”

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“Materializations are often best produced in rooms where there are books. I cannot think of any time when materialization was in any way hampered by the presence of books.” (The Haunting of Hill House, 1959)

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“A pretty sight, a lady with a book.” (We Have Always Lived in a Castle, 1962)

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“I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from there.”

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“Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach to themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad.” (The Haunting of Hill House, 1959)

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House

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“So long as you write it away regularly nothing can really hurt you.”

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“I remember that I stood on the library steps holding my books and looking for a minute at the soft hinted green in the branches against the sky and wishing, as I always did, that I could walk home across the sky instead of through the village.” (We Have Always Lived in a Castle, 1962)

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Shirley Jackson

Learn more about Shirley Jackson

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“My dear, how can I make you perceive that there is no danger where there is nothing but love and understanding?” (The Haunting of Hill House, 1959)

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“Someone — I forget who — once referred to the easier sections of his work as “benches for the reader to sit down upon,” meaning, of course, that the poor reader who had struggled through the complex maze of ideas for several pages could rest gratefully at last on a simple clear paragraph. Provide your reader with such assistance.”

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“Let my reader who is puzzled by my awkward explanations close his eyes for no more than two minutes, and see if he does not find himself suddenly not a compact human being at all, but only a consciousness on a sea of sound and touch …”

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“Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.” (On her story The Lottery; San Francisco Chronicle, July 22, 1948)

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The lottery by Shirley Jackson

The Lottery 

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“I began writing stories about my children because, more than any other single being in the world, children possess and kind of magic that makes much of what they do so oddly logical and yet so incredible to grown-ups.”

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“I am apt to find, in the laundry list, a scribble reading, ‘Shirley, don’t forget—no murder before chapter five.’”

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“The children around our house have a saying that everything is either true, not true, or one of Mother’s delusions.”

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“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.”

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“Remember, the reader is a very tough customer indeed, dragging his feet, easily irritated. He will willingly agree to suspend disbelief for a time: he will go along with you if it is necessary for your story that you both assume temporarily that there really is a Land of Oz, but he will not suspend reason, he will not agree, for any story ever written, that he can see the Land of Oz from his window.”

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We have alwasys lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

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“It is much easier, I find, to write a story than to cope competently with the millions of daily trials and irritations that turn up in an ordinary house, and it helps a good deal—particularly with children around—if you can see them through a flattering veil of fiction. It has always been a comfort to me to make stories out of things that happen, things like moving, and kittens, and Christmas concerts at the grade school, and broken bicycles…”

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“I delight in what I fear.”

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“I think that the popular notion of the writer as a person hiding away in a garret, unable to face reality, is probably perfectly true.”

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“A writer who is serious and economical can store away small fragments of ideas and events and conversations, and even facial expressions and mannerisms, and use them all someday.”

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“What I am trying to say is that with the small addition of the one element of fantasy, or unreality, or imagination, all the things that happen are fun to write about.”

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“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 sort of simple word or phrase—such as ‘Why don’t you pick up your room?’—and get a little peace to write in.”

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Raising demons by Shirley Jackson - cover

Shirley Jackson on Motherhood, Experience, and FictionWriting

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“Always, always, make the duller parts of your story work for you; the necessary passage of time, the necessary movement must not stop the story dead, but must move it forward.”

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“You will actually find that if you keep your story tight, with no swerving from the proper path, it will curl up quite naturally at the end, provided you stop when you have finished what you have to say.”

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“All the time that I am making beds and doing dishes and driving to town for dancing shoes, I am telling myself stories.”

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“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.”


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