With a gift of fudge, my teenager and I stopped by the new neighbors’ house yesterday. The boys and their father had disappeared outside, while the mother was reading a slender book on feminism she had given her husband for a Christmas present. She had determined the book was required reading for her high school student, while the 10-year-old was given a temporary pass.

Owned by a large Connecticut family, the house has been vacant for years. One night this fall, another friend was sorely in need of acorns for a photo shoot (these are the kinds of friends I have), and the girls and I drove down in the dark and searched under that property’s oak trees with flashlights for what my children once called “oak nuts.”

Now, the house is literally spewing belongings: mismatched ski boots, a basketball stand on its side in the snow, Christmas lights on a hedge so haphazard my older daughter laughingly said the lights appeared to have been tossed out a bedroom window. Family life in all its raging clutter. Coincidentally reading Shirley Jackson’s phenomenally useful and entertaining essays on writing fiction and craft, I realize how interested I am in their half-opened door, the painting already hung in the entry hall, and I wonder how our own messy family appears.

 It seems to me that in our present great drive—fiction-wise—toward the spare, clean, direct kind of story, we are somehow leaving behind the most useful tools of the writer, the small devices that separate fiction from reporting, the work of the imagination from the everyday account.

Shirley Jackson, “Garlic In Fiction”