Jeanette Winterson is…
Poetic. Thoughtful. Sly.
I’ve been trying to come up with words for her, this author so unlike any other I’ve read. She’s brutally honest. That’s one thing. She says without hesitation, “There are people who could never commit a murder. I am not one of those people. It is better to know it. Better to know who you are and what lies in you, what you could do, might do, under extreme provocation.”
Just says it. In nonfiction.
Most of us cover up our ugly parts with the slightest gauze of fiction. We tiptoe around ourselves and our realities. Not Jeanette.
She also doesn’t follow any form. She talks about how she doesn’t outline or try for conventional structures in her writing. That doesn’t work for her. She just writes as she writes, whatever that may be. Sometimes that leads to long stretches where I can’t remember who she’s talking about and if it’s worth reading, and then sometimes BOOM. 10 pages of poetry all at once. I’m struggling to take it all in, write it all down, wondering what just happened.
Jeanette is unpredictable. Striving. Yearning? Are those the same? She had such a twisted childhood that she’s spent the majority of her life trying to untangle it all. Trying to figure out what happiness might mean in general, what happiness might mean to her.
I suppose therein lies her relatability. Most of us didn’t grow up with the mother from Carrie, but all of us have scars and triumphs and hopes and dreams and good and bad from our childhoods. All of us continue to be affected by our pasts, shaped and molded and stronger.
Jeanette had THE past. She grew up with an unstable, cruel, fanatical mother. She writes about it with honesty and clarity and a lot of hurt, still. A lot of wondering.
Jeanette couldn’t help the cards she was dealt. She couldn’t help the mother who adopted her or the circumstances of her childhood. She could help her future. She could help what she did with it.
And what she did with it was write.
I’ve now read several things but Jeanette, but Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is her best. It’s not hiding behind that gauze, it’s simply telling the truth.
Some quotes for you.
A whole honey bunches of oats quotes for you:
Love. The difficult word. Where everything starts, where we always return. Love. Love’s lack. The possibility of love.
Listen, we are human beings. Listen, we are inclined to love. Love is there, but we need to be taught how. We want to stand upright, we want to walk, but someone needs to hold our hand and balance us a bit and guide us a bit, and scoop us up when we fall.Listen, we fall. Love is there but we have to learn it–and its shapes and its possibilities. I taught myself to stand on my own two feet, but I could not teach myself how to love.We have a capacity for language. We have a capacity for love. We need other people to release those capacities.
It is never too late to learn to love. But it is frightening.
Why is the measure for love loss?
On life and living
Living with life is very hard. Mostly we do our best to stifle life–to be tame or to be wanton. To be tranquilized or raging. Extremes have the same effect; they insulate us from the intensity of life. And extremes–whether of dullness or fury–successfully prevent feeling. It takes courage to feel the feeling–and not trade it on the feelings-exchange, or even transfer it altogether to another person. I understood that feelings were difficult for me although I was overwhelmed by them.
On doing/not doing the sensible thing
I have noticed that doing the sensible thing is only a good idea when the decision is quite small. For the life-changing things, you must risk it. And here is the shock–when you risk it, when you do the right thing, when you arrive at the borders of common sense and cross into unknown territory, leaving behind you all the familiar smells and lights, then you do not experience great joy and huge energy. You are unhappy. Things get worse. It is a time of mourning. Loss. Fear. We bullet ourselves through with questions. And then we feel shot and wounded. And then all the cowards come out and say, “See, I told you so.” In fact, they told you nothing.
Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on imagination. I had been damaged and a very important part of me had been destroyed–that was my reality, the facts of my life; but on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel, and as long as I had words for that, images for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost.
When people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that if shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language–and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers–a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.
On second, and third, and fourth chances
I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.
I am short, so I like the little guy/underdog stories, but they are not straightforwardly about one size versus another. Think about, say, Jack and the Beanstalk, which is basically a big ugly stupid giant and a smart little Jack who is fast on his feet. OK, but the unstable element is the beanstalk, which starts as a bean and grows into a huge tree-like thing that Jack climbs to reach the castle. This bridge between two worlds is unpredictable and very surprising. And later, when the giant tries to climb after Jack, the beanstalk has to be chopped down pronto. This suggests to me that the pursuit of happiness, which we may as well call life, is full of surprising temporary elements–we get somewhere we couldn’t go otherwise and we profit from the trip, but we can’t stay there, it isn’t our world, and we shouldn’t let that world come crashing down into the one we can inhabit. The beanstalk has to be chopped down. But the large-scale riches from the ‘other world’ can be brought into ours, just as Jack makes off with the singing harp and the golden hen. Whatever we ‘win’ will accommodate itself to our size and form–just as the miniature princesses and the frog princes all assume the true form necessary for their coming life, and ours. Size does matter.
As I try and understand how life works–and why some people cope better than others with adversity– I come back to something to do with saying yes to life, which is love of life, however inadequate and love for the self, however found. Not in the me-first way that is the opposite of life and love, but with a salmon-like determination to swim upstream, however choppy upstream is, because this is your stream…Which brings me back to happiness, and a quick look at the word. Our primary meaning now is the feeling of pleasure and contentment; a buzz, a destinies, the tummy upwards feel of good and right and relaxed and alive…you know…But earlier meanings build in the hap–in Middle English, that is ‘happy’, in Old English, ‘gehapp’–the chance or fortune, good or bad, that falls to you. Hap is your lot in life, the hand you are given to play. How you meet your ‘hap’ will determine whether or not you can be ‘happy.’ What the Americans, in their constitution, call ‘the right to the pursuit of happiness’ (please note, not ‘the right to happiness’), is the right to swim upstream, salmon-wise.
Pursuing happiness, and I did, and I still do, is not at all the same as being happy–which I think is fleeting, dependent on circumstances, and a bit bovine.
If the sun is shining, stand in it– yes, yes, yes. Happy times are great, but happy times pass–they have to–because time passes.
What you are pursuing is meaning–a meaningful life. There’s the hap–the fate, the draw that is yours, and it isn’t fixed, but changing the course of the stream, or dealing new cards, whatever metaphor you want to use–that’s going to take a lot of energy. There are times when it will go so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realize being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms.
The pursuit isn’t all or nothing –it’s all AND nothing. Like all Quest Stories.