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Reminder: the most famous short story in American literature was written in one day.

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December 14, 2021, 11:03am

Among writers, quality is usually conflated with effort, which is usually conflated with time. The work of writers who write quickly is often devalued: how hard could they really have worked? But you don’t have to toil over a piece of writing for however-many years for it to be good—or for it to find its readership. Shirley Jackson’s 1948 story “The Lottery”—arguably the most famous short story in American literature—was written in a single morning.

Yep: Jackson thought up “The Lottery” while grocery shopping, came home, put her two-year-old daughter in her playpen, and wrote the story in just a few hours—by the time her son came home for lunch, she was finished. In Jackson’s posthumously published lecture, “Biography of a Story,” she recounts:

I had the idea fairly clearly in my mind when I put my daughter in her playpen and the vegetables in the refrigerator, and, writing the story, I found that it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause. As a matter of fact, when I read it over later I decided that except for one or two minor corrections, it needed no changes, and the story I finally typed up and sent off to my agent the next day was almost word for word the original draft.

Though this anecdote has been found to be true, Jackson did later exaggerate the ease with which the story was published; in “Biography of a Story,” she said The New Yorker published her story a mere few weeks after she submitted it, and that they only made one change—the date of the lottery. In fact, New Yorker editor Gus Lobrano suggested several changes to the story via phone, including additions to dialogue and action, which Jackson made. But that doesn’t change the fact that Jackson’s morning of work was the foundation for that editing process, and most of that original version of the piece remained. A possible lesson: no need to doubt your good first draft. That task is for everybody else.

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