Author: Shirley Jackson
Genre: Fiction, Non-Fiction
My Rating: 4 out of 5
Let Me Tell You is a collection of previously unpublished essays, lectures and short fiction by Shirley Jackson. By nature, a book like this is hard to summarize since each piece has its own unique plot or approach. The selection was edited by her children, Laurence and Sarah, with items chosen for their tone and representation of Jackson’s approach to writing.
Jackson Isn’t (Just) a Horror Writer
I’ve read We Have Always Lived in a Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, both of which I found eerie and beautifully written. This collection is clearly Jackson, with many of the same techniques permeating the stories that we see in her novels. Jackson’s full-length fiction is often categorized as Horror, but I think Discomforting would be a better term (albeit a non-traditional genre). Horror is effective when we find aspects of it relatable (similar to comedy). And Jackson’s short stories and essays are relatable in ways that we may not want to explore or admit in some cases. Her works make you think about reality and how we would handle certain uncomfortable situations with neighbors or children. She explores a bit of the supernatural, but just enough to make you question how likely it could actually be. She makes you look over your shoulder while you read, presenting a reality through a lense only slightly distorted and asking us to look at our own fears or discomfort to see if we flinch.
Writing Isn’t Glamorous
Jackson tackles the question of writing and what it is like to be a writer in quite a few of the pieces in this collection. Jackson is all humility, deferring to her first duty as a mother and repeating how she only gets a few hours a day to work at the typewriter in between wondering what to make for dinner and folding the laundry. But I wondered as I read how much of this is downplaying the creative process and her own talent, and how much of it points to her struggles in balancing her creative and personal time with the time demanded of her children. Jackson makes it clear that the life of a writer is not glamorous. These essays also show the effort and intent that went into her writing. As readers, we often close read and pick texts apart looking for authorial intent. Jackson speaks to this in her description of how she used symbols in her writing and how to carry themes through from the beginning to the end. She also points out the challenge of the reader, and how some readers are ready to pay attention to every detail while others are halfway reading while lounging in hammocks. As a writer, readers are the true obstacle to writing.
We Have No Excuse
How often do we delay our own creative pursuits because we say we don’t have time or have too much to do? Jackson was a dedicated genius, finding the time – making the time – for her craft and creativity. She notes that she sometimes only gets a few hours a day to write, but she always seemed to make the time for it. And when working in the kitchen or making the beds, she kept pads and pens in every room to be able to jot down ideas. In an arguably repetitive and (the way she portrays it) sometimes stifling role as a mother, she always manages to engage with her creative side. She talked to the cats, noted the ghosts that haunted her home, and imagined her appliances were fighting one another. She let her mind roam and maximized her downtime to collect her thoughts (literally, they were all over the house) and shape them into amazing works of literature that have a lasting effect on readers today. This approach to life is inspirational, and an example that we have no excuse to put off our goals just because the timing is not perfect (and when is it ever?).
Short story lovers will find this collection to be among the best. The selections are thought provoking and stay with you long after you are finished reading. The collection itself is well organized, and the scattered illustrations that Jackson drew were a fun touch. The book is not another Haunting or sampling of horror writing. So Jackson fans looking for a repeat of Castle may be let down a bit. Go into this one with fewer expectations, and Jackson does not disappoint.
4 out of 5
Minus a star since I am less of a short story fan in general, had gone into it hoping for more Haunting or Castle, and ended up slightly sad.