Wednesday, March 1, 2017

My Idol- Shirley Jackson

I just received my copy of Ruth Franklin's new biography of my favorite author, the woman who is my idol- Shirley Jackson A Haunted Life.

I knew nothing about Shirley Jackson until high school when we read The Lottery in an English class. Next is was a segment of Life Among the Savages titled Charles. These two selections from the myriad novels and short stories written by Jackson highlighted the dual nature of this amazing author. She could take the ordinary, the mundane and turn it into something truly terrifying, unsettling and spooky. Her fictionalized domestic life was always filled with humor and insights about being a parent raising four boisterous children.

After high school I didn't read anymore Jackson until I met a young woman who lives in New Mexico. She and I became ardent pen pals when I was selling off a huge chunk of my teddy bear collection that numbered over 400 teddies after the birth of our daughter, Kelly, in 1991. I just didn't have enough room in the house for a baby, a cat, and all those teddy bears.

Darcy bought some bears and we began writing back and forth. In one of her letters she mentioned that she liked Emily Dickinson, a local poet who had lived in nearby Amherst. In another letter she mentioned that she'd always been a huge fan of Shirley Jackson's and wished she'd kept her Jackson library intact. I began scouring ebay and slowly found the novels and books she was missing and bought them for her for her birthday and Christmas. In rebuilding her library, I rediscovered Jackson and built my own Shirley Jackson (SJ) library. I tracked down old biographies and bought the new ones. I bought new story collections her family released.

One of my first short stories was titled Such Pretty Eyes and emulates Jackson's talent for taking something ordinary and making it deeply unsettling. In my story, as yet unpublished, a young housewife in the fifties lives a fairly quiet and ordinary life, doing routine things such as keeping house, taking the bus downtown to shop and occasionally have lunch. She's a pretty young lady with extraordinary eyes that people often comment upon. She is married to a man who more or less takes her for granted. He's rather self absorbed and a career man, bringing his work home with him from the office. He never compliments her, never notices when she wears a new hat. His impassive neglect of her emotional needs begins to eat away like an acid at her mental health- and one day she stabs him to death.

My mother read the story and hated it! She demanded to know why I'd written it. I told her it was my first attempt at writing like Shirley Jackson, her style. Mom, more or less, told me to stop it.

How could I stop what I cannot control- my muse is vociferous, verbose, and has the ability to tap into a deep well from which he (my muse is male) draws forth all these amazing stories.

Here's a true story- my Mom was dying in the year 2000. I had "known" since childhood that I would lose her in the year 2000. The awareness of this haunted me as I grew up. In late September she was in a hospital room by herself. It was a large room without much of a view-mainly rooflines of the hospital's older section and its power plant. She couldn't see the trees changing color. She couldn't see much of anything but gray skies as it was rainy, gloomy weather during this hospitalization. When I went to visit her she was asleep, so I sat down in a side chair facing the side of the bed and began writing in a notebook I'd brought with me. I was busily writing a story about a young woman whose mother had been brought into the ER downstairs, who knew her mother was dying, had made the identical trips multiple times (much like I had). In the waiting room is a huge aquarium full of colorful fish, but there is one flesh-colored fish, larger than the others, drifting about in the tank.(This fish actually existed in that Holyoke Medical Center ER fish tank at that time.) The young woman is waiting to be allowed into the ER to see her mother. The doctor is working on resuscitating her. As she waits, the fish drifts down to the end of the tank near where she is sitting, and begins a telepathic conversation with her. He is a philosophical and omnipotent fish. She is, of course, startled by the fish initiating a conversation with her, but ultimately accepting of the surrealism of it (perhaps it's a manifestation of her own inner thoughts in part). I was writing this story when Mom woke up and asked me what I was doing. I replied that I was writing a new story. "You're always writing," she said. This was the truth. I have always written. My Mom never told me anything I'd written that I'd shared with her was any good. It was, and still is, a wound that pulses within my heart- that she never saw me as the writer that I am. But that story, Tank, had many of the qualities of a Jackson short story. I still can't read it without crying because Mom passed away less than two weeks after I had written it. I'd spent the remainder of that visit with her describing the leaves changing color on the trees, how the wind between the hospital buildings caught the falling leaves and spun them upward toward the curls of gray smoke coming from the power plant's round chimney tower. I created visual images for her to see (she was also legally blind from diabetic retinopathy by then) in her mind. That day was the next to the last solo visit I had with my dying mother.

Since high school I have felt a sort of spiritual connection to Jackson. Her writing spoke to me like no one else's ever had. Sometimes I feel as if I am channeling her when I write. Keen observations, sly humor, strange twists into the unexpected and unnerving.

Not everything I write evokes the voice of my favorite author. I certainly do have my own voice. But sometimes when I read something that I've written I smile because it reminds me of her, of something she might have written had she lived in this day and age.

If you've lost touch with Shirley Jackson since the mandatory reading of The Lottery in school then you might want to search her novels and story collections out in used bookstores, or online and rediscover her voice. She is an American classic...she is my idol.

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