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Writing the Great Novel

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"Hurray for books!," by Maurice Sendak. 1960. Prints and Photographs Division.
“Hurray for books!,” by Maurice Sendak. 1960. Prints and Photographs Division.

November is National Novel Writing Month. Perhaps you’ve heard of, or even signed up for, the NaNoWriMo movement. Encouraging individuals to write and complete a 50,000-word novel from November 1-30, the nonprofit movement provides support, inspiration and community for budding writers to pick up that pen or open that laptop. To date, more than 9 million people from all over the world have signed up.

The Library’s collections are home to many storied novelists and writers, including Ayn Rand, Vladimir Nabokov, Ralph Ellison, Walt Whitman, John Updike and Zora Neal Hurston. Further, one could argue the Library is a literary salon, of sorts, hosting throughout the year many authors through its Books and Beyond program as well as at the National Book Festival.

While looking through the collections, I discovered that the Library has the papers of Shirley Jackson. I admit I was inspired to write about her not only because of appreciation of her work but also because a former roller derby teammate of mine used to play under the name “Surly Jackson.” While I know she was a popular author during her time, I think she deserves a renewed look in ours.

Jackson (the novelist not the derby player) wrote short stories frequently focused on witchcraft, the occult and abnormal psychology. She is perhaps best known for a macabre story about a community’s yearly ritual of selecting a person to be brutally stoned to death. Drafts of “The Lottery” are among Jackson’s papers, which also contain diaries, letters and files on the vaguely autobiographical works “Life Among the Savages” (1953) and “Raising Demons” (1957), in which she presents a humorous albeit strange account of raising children, cleaning house and cooking meals in a disordered suburban environment.

Jackson’s role as wife, mother and author fit her well, as much of her experiences informed and inspired her writing. Letters in the collection from her trusted friends and associates suggest the deep personal regard they held for Jackson as both a professional writer whose stories were increasingly gaining critical acclaim and popular recognition and as a wife and mother who saw no incompatibility between her dual roles as artist and homemaker.

Bronze tympanum representing writing, located above main entrance doors of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2007. Prints and Photographs Division.
Bronze tympanum representing writing, located above main entrance doors of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2007. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Library also has the papers of Jackson’s husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. He largely took a hands-off approach to rearing the children and participating in domestic life. However, letters in the Shirley Jackson collection between the couple reflect their converging interests and emotional commitment and suggest the passionate elements that would be characteristic of their relationship throughout their lives.

You can read more about the Library’s literature holdings in this illustrated guide  to the collections of the Manuscript Division.

And, if you’re looking for a little inspiration in your writing, you may want to use this web guide on how to find specific novels, poems or short stories or check out the Library exhibition “America Reads” Really, though, the Library is a veritable smorgasbord of resources and ideas to help you with your writing. Simply search for terms like “novel,” “novelists” and “fiction.”

Sources: New York Magazine

Comments (3)

  1. How do I participate? I have seen this NaNoWriMo on smashwords but never try to find out what it means.

  2. At the present I have a children’s story completed. Several topics are initiated in a collection i have registered at the Library of Congress.

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