The author and critic Ruth Franklin has a terrific article about Shirley Jackson in New York Magazine (it’s a selection from her new book, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, which comes out today– very exciting!) that includes these couple paragraphs:
Jackson often complained about the mental calisthenics required to be at once a mother and a writer — the “nagging thoughts” about finishing the laundry or preparing meals that often interrupted her creative work. When she was working on a novel, she once wrote to a friend, she preferred to “lock myself up in my cave for four dogged hours a day, and sneak a minute or so here and there for writing letters and making lunch (‘You will eat vegetable soup again today and like it; Mommy’s beginning chapter three’).” But many writers, especially women writers, learn to derive imaginative energy from their constraints. Alice Munro has said that she began writing short stories because as a young mother she had no time to write novels: “When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children, particularly in the days before disposable diapers or ubiquitous automatic washing machines, it’s hard to arrange for large chunks of time.”
Writing in the hours between morning kindergarten and lunch, while a baby napped, or after the children had gone to bed demanded a discipline that came to suit Jackson. She was constantly thinking of stories while cooking, cleaning, or doing just about anything else. “All the time that I am making beds and doing dishes and driving to town for dancing shoes, I am telling myself stories,” she said in one of her lectures. Many of her stories were already virtually finished by the time she managed to sit down at the typewriter. Her friend Kit Foster told of playing Monopoly one evening with Jackson and Hyman when Jackson abruptly withdrew from the game and went into her study, where she banged audibly at her typewriter. Less than an hour later, she emerged with a story that was sent off to her agent the next morning. The idea for “The Lottery” came to her while she was grocery shopping with her daughter Joanne, then age 2. After they came home, she put away the groceries, put the child in her playpen, and wrote the story.
Two things jump out at me.
The first is the “four dogged hours a day.” This is an incredibly consistent pattern in the lives of creative people. Whether it’s mathematician John Littlewood, writer Raymond Chandler, cartoonist Scott Adams, novelist John Le Carré, or a host of others, they regard four really focused, productive hours as a good day’s work. And given everything that they accomplished, I’m inclined to trust people like Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens on this score.
The second is how Jackson managed to both cordon off her time for writing, and create a kind of mental state that allowed her muse to keep trying out ideas even as while she had the kids at the supermarket.
There’s also this conclusion, which is very insightful.
She needed the children as much as they needed her. Their imaginations energized her; their routines stabilized her. More important, their heedless savagery was crucial to her worldview. Jackson could not come into her own as a writer before she had children. She would not have been the writer she became without them.
Jackson was one of those writers, like JRR Tolkien and Bram Stoker, whose fiction drew on and was intertwined with their lives. Tolkien’s books started as stories he told his children; Stoker’s Dracula was drew on his decades working as a theatre manager in London, and spending time in the company of actors, men of letters, police, explorers, political exiles, and other colorful (or dark) characters.
Personally, I’m in awe of the fact that Jackson managed to write when she had two small children; I ended up taking several years off from doing serious writing when my kids were younger.* But she did that in part by finding a style of parenting that both sustained the kids and worked for her: “she could be permissive — or absentminded — to the point of laxness,” Franklin writes. Jackson illustrates a balance that it’s critical to strike. You can draw material from ordinary life or family or child-rearing; but even when you do that, you still need to be able to seal yourself off for a time, to make sense of it and reinterpret it and turn it into something more creative than a simple transcription.
*This wasn’t intentional, and by “serious writing” I mean “books.” I should also add that I don’t think a second of that time was wasted.