A Letter to the Woman Who Taught Me to Keep Writing

Dear Shirley Jackson,

I first read the story that made you famous-famous in my eighth-grade English class. It wrapped me in a full-body dread that took weeks to shake. That age was, for me, one of wild imaginations rarely realized. What happened after the first stone was cast? I filled it in despite myself.

Many years later, I escaped from a too-long Thanksgiving with your collection and devoured it in one sitting. The stories, the short, rictal gems, were each, in some way, about the effects of oppressive expectations — to be a good wife, a good mother, a good housekeeper, a good neighbor. You took the mundane and slowly inched it into the macabre. By the end of each, I thought, Of course, and also, How awful. From this, I learned that there is infinite possibility in the familiar.

Your familiar was New York, where I live now, and then North Bennington, Vermont — one town over from my father’s home. Your familiar was four children under the age of eight and having to plead with your husband for the money you’d earned and grin-and-bearing his many, many dalliances and writing, writing, writing in snatches of time. Virginia Woolf was convinced a woman writer needed a trust fund and a room of her own if she were to be successful. You had neither and yet, in less than two decades, you wrote more than 200 stories and six novels — one of which, The Haunting of Hill House, tops the list of influences of some of our best contemporary horror novelists.

You also wrote two wonderfully wry and almost entirely unsentimental memoirs of child-rearing and husband-wrangling in rural Vermont — memoirs which, by the way, make no mention of your other writing life. When anyone thought to ask how you managed it, your response was both blunt and vague: You were always, always writing in your head, and whenever you had a spare moment, you transcribed from head to paper. You eschewed editing and multiple drafts, and the results are as brutal and seamless and pointy as an acorn.

I reread your memoirs in the waning days of my pregnancy, and they gave me confidence that it would be possible to keep on writing once the baby came and, beyond that, once I went back to work. You showed me that it’s not a physical room of one’s own that is needed, but a mental one.

In the end, though, your mental room, so conducive to writing, was not enough to keep at bay those oppressions you wrote of so chillingly. You were severely depressed and cripplingly agoraphobic when you died of a heart attack at 48. I am sorry for that, Mrs. Jackson (I am for real). But this is a fan letter, not an apology, so: Thank you for the hauntings, the thrills and the chills, and thank you for the inspiration, for getting shit done. The next time I’m in North Bennington, I shall plant a ghost flower as close to the lawn of your first home, whose much-maligned columns still stand, as I dare.


Photo via Getty Images. 

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