Posted in Writing

6 Quotes by Shirley Jackson to Make You a Better Writer


Shirley Jackson (1916–1965) was the author of such legendary classics as the novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, as well as the iconic short story, “The Lottery.”

Here are six fantastic quotes from Ms. Jackson to inspire your writing!

1. 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 he sees, always noticing.

Writing is something that truly happens at all times of the day. Shirley Jackson was right in that writing doesn’t begin and end at the writing desk. Yes, that’s where you put the words on the page. That’s by far the most important part. If you don’t do that part, nobody will ever know or read or hear your stories.

But writing goes far beyond the work you do on the page. You’re in a sense writing all throughout your day and night as long as you’re paying attention to the things happening around you. As long as you’re reading books and watching films and consuming stories. Listen to how people talk. Notice anything in your world out of the ordinary. Look at colors. Take note of the way children behave. Pay attention to everything and use it in your stories.

2. What I am trying to say is that with the small addition of the one element of fantasy, or unreality, or imagination, all the things that happen are fun to write about.

What I find so inspiring about fiction writing is that you can often take something that happened in your own life, something that might even be super dull, and then twist it into a super compelling story with just one small addition of fantasy or unreality or imagination, as Jackson talks about. That boring walk with your dogs can become a story of action and suspense with a single addition of a hole opening in the ground or an old woman with a shotgun standing at the edge of a cliff.

It can be anything you want! Stephen King often talks about the “what-if” factor when it comes to his stories and novels. Something will happen to him, and he’ll ask “what-if.” If you’re looking for ideas, always pay attention to the “what-if” factor as you go about your daily life. Sometimes an awesome idea is right there in front of you… you just need to add a single element of the imagination to turn it into something great.

3. The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, as long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were.

Ray Bradbury said something like, “keep on writing so reality can’t destroy you,” and I think about that quote all the time. It’s not the main reason I write so often, but it certainly plays a major factor in my life. Writing allows me the time and space and isolation I need to indulge endlessly with my oddness, to put all those crazy and weird thoughts in my head down on paper.

Writing is something you do alone with nobody looking over your shoulder. There’s nobody telling you what to write, or how to write that next chapter or story. You get to do what you want at the end of the day. That’s why it’s so important you write what makes you happy, what compels you, what you feel passionate and ecstatic about. Write what you love, and the writing will never feel like work ever.

4. Always, always, make the duller parts of your story work for you; the necessary passage of time, the necessary movement must not stop the story dead, but must move it forward.

Fiction writing is tricky especially when it comes to novel writing because there are often long passages of time that need to be covered… and you don’t want to cover them in ways that are dull and bland for your reader. No matter what genre you’re writing in, you don’t want dull scenes or chapters or even paragraphs that drag the story down, that give the reader an excuse to put your book away and possibly move onto someone else’s story.

Something to think about as you revise your fiction is how each part of the story moves it forward. Is that page or two you wrote that covers a necessary passage of time doing anything in particular for the story? If not, cut those two pages down to two sentences and then get on with it. Movies just cut from one scene to the next. You can do the same thing in your fiction writing! You don’t have to cover every single beat of your character’s summer. Feel free to move around more freely. Move the story forward always.

5. You will actually find that if you keep your story tight, with no swerving from the proper path, it will curl up quite naturally at the end, provided you stop when you have finished what you have to say.

Endings are tough. Endings can be frustrating. Sometimes you start your latest story thinking it’s going to end in a certain way, but then your story takes enough unexpected tangents to lead you to an ending you never could have expected. Sometimes it’s great when that happens. Sometimes it’s nice to be surprised. Other times you lose your way and find yourself with an ending that makes no sense, and it’s back to the drawing board to figure out what went wrong.

But Jackson is right in that as long as you keep your story tight, staying true to your original intentions and not straying from them, often the piece will curl up naturally at the end. I always start a new piece of fiction with a clear idea of how it starts and how it ends. The middle I’m always a little hazy on, but as long as you don’t swerve from the proper path too much, you’ll find the ending that makes sense. And by all means, stop when the story’s over. Don’t overstay your welcome.

6. So long as you write it away regularly nothing can really hurt you.

Oh, man, does this quote hit me hard. Because it’s so true. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, whether you’re writing something for a mass audience or just for yourself, writing things away truly do make it so nothing can really hurt you. All those things you’re afraid of? All those things that happened in your past you wish you could do over again or take back?

You can write it all away. You can write the thing that happened to you and make it better. You can take those fears that paralyze you in real life and work your way through them on the page. Again, in fiction or non-fiction, it doesn’t matter. Writing is therapeutic for so many of us, and every time I’m having a bad day even just ten minutes of good writing can turn it all the way around.

So keep writing, won’t you? I know I will.

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