Shirley, Madness, and the Writing Life

Josephine Decker’s Shirley is a movie I want to show to all of my creative writing classes and then discuss its portrayal of the writing process. Elisabeth Moss is brillant as the famed horror writer, but beyond her spellbinding performance, there are a lot of layers to discuss.

First, the film plays with the perceptions of Jackson, that she was a witch, that she was sick in the head. It also depicts her as an outsider in the small college town, where her husband teaches literature at Bennington. Perhaps most importantly, when thinking about writing students, the film shows that writing is hard work. There is no illusion in that regard. Jackson becomes obsessed with her second novel, Hangsaman, about a missing college girl. In a fevered state of mind, Jackson works on new pages literally from morning until night, through dinner. There is no muse that just shows up. She goes to the desk.

Additionally, Decker is focused on portraying the struggles women faced in the 1950s to be heard, even someone with Jackson’s success. There is a fictitious subplot about a young couple that feeds this larger narrative. In the context of the film, it works.

I have a lot more to say about Shirley, which I shared in this review for Signal Horizon. Shirley is currently streaming on Hulu. Give it a watch and let me know what you think.

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