Artistic genius – Shirley Jackson & “The Lottery”

Writing buddy Peggy Becker shared this article on Shirley Jackson and her creation of “The Lottery”: “Reminder: the most famous short story in American literature was written in one day.” This piece prompted me to recall that I had put aside an earlier article on the author, “The Alternating Identities of Shirley Jackson,” a review of the recently published collection of her letters. It’s informative to consider them together for what they say about Jackson as an artist and about how she was treated by her family.

As with the article I discussed in a previous post about genius, this article is the account of how Jackson wrote “The Lottery,” “the most famous short story in American literature,” in one sitting–artistic genius in practice. The idea for the story came to Jackson while she was grocery shopping and when she returned home, “she put her two-year-old daughter in her playpen, and wrote the story in just a few hours,” finishing before her son came home for lunch. And Jackson’s story reportedly went through very little editing or revising.

How wonderful for inspiration and execution to be so clear, quick, and rewarding. Maybe other writers, maybe even we could do that – its hopeful. Indeed, the article’s author suggests a possible lesson: “there’s no need to doubt your good first draft.”

What Jackson faced on a personal level, however, was doubt and criticism, particularly from her mother and husband: her mother an elegant socialite could not reconcile herself to a daughter who was “introverted, brainy, and prone to frumpishness”; her husband, though initially a champion of her talent, was neither a faithful or kind partner or a true supporter of her “serious” writing.

Jackson’s “alternating identities” include the “sinister enigmatic fiction” of works like “The Lottery” and the novels The Bird’s Nest and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But also the more lucrative writing she did for women’s magazines which were collected in two books: Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). These were “genuinely delightful, humorous” and “semi-fictionalized accounts of raising her four rambunctious children” (in nearby North Bennington, VT).

The Jackson that emerges from the letters is lonely and harassed and unappreciated, and yet she is able to produce such rich and varied work, sometimes in a draft produced in one sitting. And she is able to assert (when she is about 45) in a letter to her mother, even if it was unsent, “Surely at my age, i have a right to live as i please, and i have just had enough of the unending comments on my appearance and my faults” (in her “habitual lower case prose”).

Jackson was a genius – and she also worked at her craft. We can also succeed at our writing, and maybe even produce that good first draft. One of my favorite quotes on writing is by Syd Field, who produced many books on screenwriting which offer lessons to people writing in other genres as well. Field wrote, “Talent is God’s gift, either you’ve got it or you don’t. But writing is a personal responsibility, either you do it or you don’t.” We may not all be blessed with talent equally, but we can choose to write and can work on our craft. Writing is a practical art. Do you choose to write?

(References: Walker Caplan, “Reminder: the most famous short story in American literature was written in one day”; Laura Miller, “The Alternating Identities of Shirley Jackson”)

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