Monday, October 19, 2015

Jackson on the writing life

Private Demons, Judy Oppenheimer's biography of Shirley Jackson that I wrote about here a few days ago, includes some noteworthy comments about the writing life. Here are a few:

Many original, creative people have had the experience of being unpopular in high school.

This is true, of course, not just of budding writers but of teenagers gifted at just about anything other than football and basketball. Partly this may be due to the fact that creative people often tend to be introverts, who are rarely popular, in high school or elsewhere, whatever their natural talents. I am reminded of something Travis Hugh Culley wrote in his memoir A Comedy & A Tragedy. He attended a high school for students gifted in music, art and performance, and he recalls "a thin line ... between being original and being 'a problem.'" Thus creative teens may have difficulty fitting in even when they are surrounded by other creative teens.

Baking a cake was creative, too, after a fashion. You took the ingredients, combined them, and ended up with a product. Not so different from clothespin dolls or short stories, after all.

That reminded me of a blog post I wrote comparing writing with cooking, the blending of ingredients to create something new. A cherry pie is more than just cherries, just flour, just sugar, etc., Blended together and baked, it becomes a new creation. One baker's pie will be different from another baker's pie. In the same way writing involves blending ingredients from different sources, baked in the writer's mind with that writer's own experiences, creating something entirely original.

Throughout her life, Shirley loved the writing of a much earlier age -- Jane Austen, Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney. These writers "give no sense of being hurried or pressed for unique ideas; they are peaceful and gracious and write with an infinite sense of leisure that I envy greatly," she wrote once.

If you are reading a thriller, "an infinite sense of leisure" is probably not what you want in a writer. "Get on with it," you want to shout whenever there is a break in the action. Yet many of our best writers, including Shirley Jackson, write with an unhurried, easy grace that hides how much work may have gone into each sentence. Or in Jackson's case, her style disguises how quickly she wrote. It took her just two hours to write her greatest story, "The Lottery."

"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, so long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were. All you have to do -- and watch this carefully, please -- is keep writing. So long as you write it away regularly nothing can really hurt you."

For Shirley Jackson, her words spoken at a writers' conference were literally true. As long as she was writing, using up the oddness, as she put it, she remained mentally and emotionally strong. It was between books when she seemed to have her most serious problems.

"Writing itself is a happy act."

Writing can be lonely, difficult, exhausting work, yet as Jackson summarized near the end of her life, it is also happy work. I am rarely happier than when I am writing, or for a few hours after writing something, almost anything, I feel good about. For some of us anyway, writing is good therapy.

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