Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings

More excellent previously unpublished or collected writings by Shirley Jackson. Hundreds of pages of delightful short stories, essays, and —what I found most useful—lectures about the craft of writing.

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…They keep me working, my stories.

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 she sees, always noticing. Just as I believe that a painter cannot sit down to her 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.

(From Memory and Delusion: A Lecture)

Fitting in lockstep with the approach I’m learning from Method Writing, Shirley Jackson hit on this idea decades before Jack Grape did:

I am actually going to talk about what I call images, or symbols. It seems to me that in our present great drive—fiction-wise—toward the spare, clean, direct kind of story, we are somehow leaving behind the most useful tools of the writer, the small devices that separate fiction from reporting, the work on the imagination from the everyday account. OF these the far most important, and the most neglected, is the use of symbols; I am using the word loosely, because it has altogether different meanings elsewhere, and yet I hardly know what other word to use. The thing I am talking about is best identified by reference to a theory of acting that has always seemed to me very profound, and certainly useful to the writer: Before entering upon a role, the actor, having of course familiarized himself with the character he is to portray, constructs for himself a set of images, or mental pictures, of small, unimportant things he feels belong around the character.

There must be at least one basic image, or set of images, for each character in a story, a fundamental symbol the writer keeps always in mind; as these images grow the character grows, and the accumulation of material and information about the image slowly makes up the character in the story. Various things belong to a character—a manner of speaking, a manner of moving, a particular emphasis, a group fo small physical things—and each of these must take on, like a perfume, the essence of the character they belong to. Just as a tune or a scent can evoke for most of us an entire scene, so the basic image of the character must evoke that entire character and his place in the story. As a result of this, of course, the characters themselves grow apart in the writer’s mind, become entirely separate people, and by the end of a book or a story the writer can no more mistake one for another than he can mistake a can of beans for a pearl necklace.

Suppose a story needs a male character. In the story he must further the action, although he is really a minor character. If the story requires no very definite attributes from him, suppose the writer were to assign, arbitrarily, the image of a bird to this character. He need never be named or called a bird, but his gestures and his habits are birdlike, his voice and his very words are sharp and twittering, and in his brief appearance he might select nuts or pieces of popcorn, and pick them up like seeds from the ground, with a quick darting movement. Even if this character never appears again, he has been alive for the space of a page, perhaps, and has added depth and imagination to the story…

Within these strict limits the writer must operate as vividly as she can, drawing as much as possible upon a sympathy with the reader, hoping that a single word will be enough to turn the reader inward, remind her, perhaps, of a similar emotion of her own, to bring her along willingly down the path of the story. Many experience in life are common to all of us, and a word or two is frequently enough to enrich a story with a wealth of recollection; take, for instance, the words “income tax.”

(From Garlic in Fiction: A Lecture)