Shirley Jackson on Motherhood, Experience, and Fiction Writing
By Nava Atlas | On | Comments (0)
Novelist and short story writer Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) rose to fame with her haunting classic short story The Lottery in 1948. Her output (six novels, four children’s books, and dozens of short stories) continued apace during the years of childrearing.
She also mined family adventures and misadventures for wry, cheery observations in her memoirs, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. These family stories may well have inspired the genre that Laura Shapiro called “the literature of domestic chaos” later perfected by Erma Bombeck. Echoes of this form reverberate into today’s abundance of “momoirs” and motherhood blogs.
Though Jackson’s “momoirs” were idealized, they contain precious nuggets of wisdom about how to wrangle the juggling act, or indeed, any kind of experience, into fodder for one’s writerly output, whether fiction or nonfiction. In her collection, Come Along With Me, she described how she managed this feat without going completely mad:
All experience is potential material
“Perhaps the most useful thing about being a writer of fiction is that nothing is ever wasted; all experience is good for something; you tend to see everything as a potential structure of words. One of my daughters made this abruptly clear to me when she came not long ago into the kitchen where I was trying to get the door of our terrible old refrigerator open; it always stuck when the weather was wet, and one of the delights of a cold rainy day was opening the refrigerator door.
My daughter watched me wrestling with it for a minute and then she said that I was foolish to bang on the refrigerator door like that; why not use magic to open it? I thought about this. I poured myself another cup of coffee and lighted a cigarette and sat down for a while and thought about it; and then decided that she was right. I left the refrigerator where it was and went in to my typewriter and wrote a story about not being able to open the refrigerator door and getting the children to open it with magic. When a magazine bought the story I bought a new refrigerator.
… 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; it is easier, as Sally said, to magic the refrigerator than it is to wrench at the door.”
— Shirley Jackson, from the chapter “Experience and Fiction” in Come Along with Me, 1948
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