Shirley Jackson as Muse: Interview with Lauren Davis
by Writing Workshops Staff
3 months ago
With a forthcoming short story collection titled The Milk of Dead Mothers (YesYes Books) and a background that includes an MFA from the Bennington College Writing Seminars, Lauren Davis has established herself in the literary community both as a talented writer and instructor.
Today, Lauren is giving us a sneak peek into her upcoming 8-week generative fiction workshop, Shirley Jackson as Muse.
By tapping into Shirley Jackson's unique style and themes, Lauren will help writers learn how to infuse their work with depth and complexity.
Through reading, analysis, and generative writing exercises, students will gain a deeper appreciation for Shirley Jackson's writing and develop practical skills for crafting narratives that grip readers' attention.
So, let's dive into the world of Shirley Jackson, creativity, and inspiration with Lauren as our guide.
WW: As an instructor, you've chosen "The Lottery and Other Stories" as the focal point of your workshop. What aspects of Shirley Jackson's storytelling do you believe make this collection particularly rich and instructive for emerging writers?
LD: I believe short stories in general ask a lot of a reader, because there's often an entire physical and emotional landscape contained in a small space. Jackson's work has an undercurrent of unease in everything she writes. She's an expert fiction writer, yet this is the only short-story collection she published during her lifetime. So if we want to understand how to make our readers claustrophobic and unsettled, she is the master guide, and this is master text.
WW: Shirley Jackson's writing often blurs the line between the ordinary and the unsettling. How will your workshop help writers navigate this delicate balance in their own work, and what advice do you have for writers looking to infuse a sense of unease into their narratives?
LD: I think restraint is one of the most effective tools for creating unease, and Jackson is an authority on it.
Don't show the monster. Hint at the monster. Don't tell your reader that your main character is unstable. Let them wonder if it's really all in the character's mind, or if the character's environment is actually compromised in some way. In this workshop, we'll define restraint, and we'll push ourselves to exercise it.
WW: Jackson's legacy encompasses a wide range of genres beyond horror, including psychological drama and social commentary. How will your workshop encourage writers to experiment with these diverse elements while staying true to their own voices?
LD: Absolutely. In this workshop, Jackson is our muse, but we're not gathering to impersonate her. I've always believed writing prompts are just a jumping off place, and that the writing will take us where it wants to go if we get out of the way. At the same time, though, I do encourage writers to work closely with texts like The Lottery. Study it, maybe imitate it and play with it in the short-term, and then move forward with our own voice.
WW: In your class, participants will generate their own short story drafts. Could you share some of the most exciting or unexpected outcomes you've witnessed in previous workshops where students engaged with challenging source material like Shirley Jackson's?
LD: Working closely with the work of Jackson allows us to tap into complicated emotional landscapes that otherwise we might steer clear of. I always find it beautiful when I teach the writing of someone like Sylvia Plath or Jason Shinder and students turn towards their own grief unflinchingly. They're not writing explicitly about their grief (or rage or joy or what have you). That's not the goal. But they are channeling the depth of the human condition fearlessly.
WW: Shirley Jackson's impact on literature and popular culture endures, as seen in adaptations and references in contemporary media. How do you envision her work continuing to shape the landscape of storytelling, and what role do you hope your workshop will play in fostering this influence?
LD: Jackson left us a huge body of work, especially considering she died young at the age of forty-eight. There's a treasure trove for artists working in other media to explore, even though as a society we seem fixated on just few of her works. Because Jackson's work is often psychological and domestic, it will forever be relatable, and therefore will be forever adaptable. I hope this workshop fosters a greater appreciation for her lesser-known works.
WW: Shirley Jackson's writing often raises questions about the human psyche and societal norms. In your workshop, how do you plan to guide participants in exploring these complex themes within their own narratives, and what benefits can writers gain from engaging with such thought-provoking subject matter?
LD: I use prompts that are meant to get writers out of their comfort zones. I like to push. I talk about resistance, and how normal it is, and how in the space we've created for our workshop, we acknowledge the resistance and move forward with experimentation, even if we don't understand why we're using a certain prompt.
Writing habits are natural and good, and most writers have pretty ingrained ones. I don't mean schedules. I mean they produce work by a similar set of actions each time they sit down to write or edit. So I ask student to do things differently enough that they are sufficiently stretched.
When we shake things up while engaging with the work of someone like Jackson, I believe those questions about the human psyche and societal norms will naturally show themselves in our writing. We don't have to go after it. We just have to let the magic of hard work and experimentation take place.
Lauren's Shirley Jackson as Muse 8-Week Generative Workshop starts soon!
Instructor Lauren Davis is the author of the forthcoming short story collection The Milk of Dead Mothers (YesYes Books) and the poetry collections Home Beneath the Church (Fernwood Press) and When I Drowned (Aldrich Press), and the chapbooks Each Wild Thing’s Consent (Poetry Wolf Press), and The Missing Ones (Winter Texts). She holds an MFA from the Bennington College Writing Seminars. She is a former Editor in Residence at The Puritan’s Town Crier, and she is the winner of the Landing Zone Magazine’s Flash Fiction Contest. Her work has appeared in numerous literary publications and anthologies including Prairie Schooner, Spillway, Poet Lore, Ibbetson Street, Ninth Letter and elsewhere. She reads for the Maine Review. Davis lives with her husband and two black cats on the Olympic Peninsula in a Victorian seaport community.