Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Only Way Out is Through - Shirley Jackson and the Book Tour

I've been thinking of Shirley Jackson this morning. Maybe you know of her through her short story "The Lottery" or her novels THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE or WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE. I didn't read "The Lottery" until I was well into my adulthood and have never read the novels. I came to Shirley Jackson through two of her books of collected magazine pieces: RAISING DEMONS and LIFE AMONG THE SAVAGES, hilarious accounts of raising her four children with her husband, critic and Bennington professor, Stanley Hyman, in the 1940s and '50s in rural Vermont. Above is a photo of their children taken by Lloyd Studio during a 1952 photo shoot for SAVAGES.

In the midst of piles of dishes, broken refrigerators, constant mayhem and dishevelment in an ancient 21-room house; in the days that were laced with Sally's imaginary friend Mrs. Ellinoy, Janney's raucous overnight birthday parties, Laurie's fervent trumpet playing, and little Barry's turn as "Mr. Beekman," Shirley Jackson managed to write both memoir and fiction while sardonically and efficiently dealing with her husband's overzealous students and the school-mom populace which seemed to roil with its rules of propriety, all the while fending off a very real sense that she was not doing a good job at any of these endeavors, that she had never been pretty-enough or interesting-enough or just-plain-good-enough, AND while battling increasing difficulties with alcohol and prescription meds.

I can relate.

Surprised? Me, too. I don't have the same life history as Shirley Jackson, but I did (it seems so long ago) raise four kids while trying to write and be a PTA Mom, soccer parent, choir director, Brownie leader, child nurturer, good wife (what does that mean?), daily cook, seasonal gardener/canner/freezer, freelance editor, and did I say writer? Who was this person? I know so well the feelings of trying to raise a family and loving it, while knowing that there is something else you feel called to do as well, and trying to make time for it outside the social graces, while the swirl of community or family (and this may be mostly in your head) says, "not good enough" the way Shirley Jackson thought it did.

And what if you're not good enough? -- Oh, I know that feeling, not only with my writing, but with my parenting, my "fitting in" to the family I grew up within, the marriage I chose in my twenties, the marriage that I fell into by accident at 18, and more. I think of Jackson often because of a biography about her I love written by Judy Oppenheimer: PRIVATE DEMONS. It's a generous, poignant look at a gifted, tortured soul.

I tend to believe that we all have -- or have had -- our private demons. They don't have to be the deepest, darkest secrets the world has ever known. Maybe they are just the things that consistently trip us up as we try to live our lives... maybe that's the "not good enough." And maybe, if we are lucky, we learn to make friends with those demons. I wonder if we can ever banish them. Perhaps what we can do is learn to understand them and live peaceably with them.

Shirley Jackson died wrestling her demons in 1965. Her children were still young. She was 45 years old. She wanted to be true to herself and her stories, and she was afraid of the spotlight. Sort of like me. Her husband said after her death, "She consistently refused to be interviewed, to explain or promote her work in any fashion, or to take public stands and be the pundit of the Sunday supplements." I wonder what she would have made of going on book tour? I wonder, if she had been able to make peace with her demons, if a book tour might have alternately thrilled and petrified her? Sort of like me.

THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS book tour dates are listed to the left of this blog. Y'all come see me in September if you can... I know to my bones it's going to be wonderful -- I know it! I'm excited about the possibilities, and I'm looking forward to all the folks I'll meet. I'll take photos, I'll write about each day and I hope that you'll write me back -- I'll bring you along with me. I hope you'll come.. I'll need all the demon-bashing support I can get.