by Ralph Greco, Jr.
THE LETTERS OF SHIRLEY JACKSON is a new book that features, yes say it with me, ‘the letters’ of the famed author. Of course, those intimately familiar with American literature know Jackson from her seminal and profoundly disturbing short story “The Lottery.” This strange little tale of ‘gathering’ rocks is a required read for young people in some regions of the country. And when published in 1948 in “The New Yorker,” the story generated more letters than any other piece of fiction the venerable magazine had ever published.
One of the letters that was unpublished (until now) in this new book was one Jackson wrote to herself, saying, in part: “One world is writing, and one is not and from the one which is not, it is not possible to understand the one which is.”
I pretty much agree with this view. Pretty much. Yes, to a writer (or at least to the writer I am), oneworld, the one I am in most of the time, whether I am actually writing, or just thinking about writing, is quite unlike the world that does not involve writing, which is pretty much the rest of existence, in my view. And if one lives in that non-writing world, which non-writers do, they don’t much understand the world of the writer. Not that they should, really.
I don’t feel any privilege viewing the ‘real’ world from my writer’s view, nor do I think a more rarified air swirls around me in my writing world. There is no comparison to be made between which world is better or worse…this is where I might differ in my opinion about all this from Jackson. There just is, as Jackson postulates, a difference between the two worlds, and one not easily understood.
But that’s ok.
I don’t understand the world of the mathematic or science-minded person. I know plenty of these folks. Their world spins logically, with a machine-like precision where most things are defied by formula and numbers. I am sure these folks view the rest of us, spinning around in always seeming chaos, as not understanding the bigger picture.
Or the picture as they see it in their world.
Then there is the painter or photographer, regarding position, composition, angle, and color where I can’t. I have a very close friend who is a world-class illustrator, my partner in a series of children’s books we produce. Beyond how he draws, shades, and colors the pictures in our books (pretty much astounding to me at every turn), the way he can ‘dress’ a table when we set up to sell our wares at a market or a book fair is fantastic; there’s no clutter, every inch of space is used perfectly but never crowded. Left to me, every space is taken, and the tabletop is always a mess.
I think that whatever your art might be, no matter how often you even get to engage in it, you see the world in that way, even for so brief a time. The ‘other’ world you live in, where we raise our kids, make our morning coffee, suffer our relationship highs and lows, is different than the world of our art and the people populating this other world with us (the ‘real’ world) will most likely not understand your world of art, or at least, the way you come to view it. Nor will you ever understand theirs.
So, the big questions then become—and maybe not ones Jackson would ever consider – Do we all live in two worlds? And can we ever truly understand some other person’s world of art?
To the first, I say yes. In fact, I think some people live in more than two worlds. And again, this is perfectly ok, pretty much because it is the way it is. To the second, I think the answer is a big fat juicy NO that we should embrace. We will never truly understand how and why someone pursues their world of art, but that’s perfectly ok too. For art to thrive, for the person to make it the best way they can, we shouldn’t understand someone else’s art worldview. It would kill the magic, the uniqueness of their art. An argument could be made that the closer we get to another person’s process of how they make their art, the less their art becomes special to us. And the beauty, of course, is that even when we don’t understand, as we truly never can, when someone’s art touches us, it is that much more special because it comes from the individual whose world, we don’t understand but have somehow connected with us in some way.
There’s no surprise twist here as Shirley Jackson left us at the end of her most famous story. Just the world, or more precisely, the worlds as they are. Which is perfectly ok.