“For most of my life I’ve been a bare-knuckle fighter.” – Jeanette Winterson

This piece by Jeanette Winterson, a writer I have written about ad nauseum, is extraordinary. You never know, with Winterson, what is real or what is not. Her first novel, Oranges are not the only fruit tells the story of an angry lesbian child raised by Pentecostal Christians. It seemed autobiographical. But there were always fantastical elements (there always are with her), and her author bio mentions running away to join the circus or something like that. Winterson really worked that mystery factor early on, one of her author photos was her lying across a bed nude. Lady was a STAR.

And so everyone wants to know what is real. The obsession with memoir and truthfulness is just a symptom of our self-obsessed society. Who cares what she made up?

Winterson, in the Guardian piece, discusses her childhood in a clear way that makes me wish she would write a straight-up memoir (although she is, I think, better served by fiction). The portrait she paints of her mother (and the photograph! After imagining this woman for so long, there she is!) is somewhat haunting, and sad, albeit vicious and truthful. The image of young Jeanette reading T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” at the local library and starting to cry is shattering.

Her thoughts on autobiography/life/narrative dovetail with the things I’ve been working on in my own writing (well, not with Elvis, but other writing, and the play I’ve written): how the raw material of life can be translated into something else, something redemptive (no matter how painful) or weird – when poured into something “fictional”. People can tell me, “Oh, I recognize you in your script”, and I take their words seriously, although it wasn’t something I was conscious of when I wrote it. Had something to say, so I said it. In looking at it now with a bit more distance, I have a bit of a cringe at times with just how MUCH it reveals about me, but that is the name of the game.

Narrative. We choose our own narratives. Or, to put it more plainly, we choose how to interpret whatever narrative we find ourselves in.

Jeanette Winterson, even with her lurking bad-habits as a writer, has always struck me as being someone obsessed with her own narrative. (In the piece I link to, she talks about the effect of being adopted, the sense that whatever your story is, it started before you arrived, leaving you wondering where you fit in.) Winterson was successful early. She has already had a long career.

I haven’t liked all of her books, but I will read whatever this woman writes. You write one book like The Passion and I am a fan for life. I also love her words here about how ambitious she was, early on, in a way many found obnoxious, to not classify herself as a “woman writer”. She scorned the thought that women needed to write about domestic life, relationships, interior worlds. She wanted to write about the whole wide world.

Go check it out. What an amazing piece.

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14 Responses to “For most of my life I’ve been a bare-knuckle fighter.” – Jeanette Winterson

  1. Jennchez says:

    I will never forget when I read “Written on the Body”. That book haunted me for a long time, though I was never able to figure out why. It was at least a decade ago when I read it, I may have to pick it up again and see what emotions it brings out this time. To me that is a sign of an author that just sucks you in and doesn’t let you go. Whether you want to be or not :)

  2. sheila says:

    Jennchez – For me it was the one-two punch of Sexing the Cherry and The Passion. The Passion is very high up on my list of all-time favorite books. I know people who feel the same way you do about Written on the Body – that book really seems to have meant a lot to a lot of people – I didn’t quite feel the same way, I missed the historical/fantastical worlds she created in Sexing the Cherry and The Passion – but that very well may have been an incorrect impression. I should read it again.

    Then, in my opinion, with Art and Lies, her talent went off the rails. I still read everything though, but it all felt the SAME to me. But with her book about the lighthouse keeper – and her modern-day version of the Atlas myth – I felt that telltale excitement again. She’s such an exciting writer.

  3. Paul H. says:

    When Winterson writes about poetry she captures the breathlessness, the real physical grip that a great poem inflicts on its readers – something that even poets rarely attain when writing about their art. “Exciting” is exactly the right word. For her, poetry is not an academic exercise – it’s as vital as daily bread. Fascinating to see that it started with Murder in the Cathedral. In that poem was exactly what Winterson needed. Its a sort of magic, really. A spell.

    Also, I have been in love with Villanelle since about 1990.

  4. sheila says:

    Paul – Villanelle is SUCH an inspired character. I think I’m in love with her too. Way back when I was first obsessed with the book, I actually contacted the publisher – inquiring as to the rights. I wanted to adapt it, turn it into a play, a screenplay, something – only to find that Winterson will not release the rights. She STILL hasn’t. That book screams to be made into a film, but I kind of love her for sticking to her guns (whatever they are).

    // In that poem was exactly what Winterson needed. //

    Exactly – and how she remembers the exact line. Really moving to me.

  5. Kerry says:

    Is it just me, or is the link to the Guardian story not working?

  6. april says:

    //If I was locked out overnight I sat on the doorstep till the milkman came, drank both pints, left the empty bottles to enrage my mother, and walked to school. . . .I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself. . . .And I suppose that the saddest thing for me, thinking about Oranges, is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.//

    OMG… what a stunning, heartbreaking, glorious piece of writing this is! I think maybe she *has* written a memoir, but only needed three sentences to do it. Having grown up with (or in spite of) a figure much like her mother, I’m pretty sure the rest is exposition. And like all exposition, it has a double edge: providing others a way in, but distracting from the raw, ineffable truth that you must face alone. She is an amazing woman.

  7. sheila says:

    Kerry – hmmm. It’s working for me!

  8. allison says:

    when i saw a reading of your play i was struck by how brave you were to expose yourself in such a raw way. even though it’s not, strictly-speaking, autobiographical, *you* are all over it. your essence, your complexitiy seeps out at every turn, with every word. but then how could it not with such an intimate piece? and how could i not recoginize you when i know you so well? it’s interesting to think of fiction as a scrim through which reality can fuzzily be made out.

  9. sheila says:

    allison – it totally is, especially when so much of it is unconscious.

    Miss you – it’s been way too long. I am really not around at all until after the 15th. Let’s get back in gear, go to the gym, watch some movies.

  10. Kerry says:

    Okay, the first link is broken, the very first one you post. The last one is working. Woot there!

  11. sheila says:

    Oops – yes, that first link is bad. Fixed now!

  12. Kerry says:

    That article is amazing.

  13. Sheila says:

    Have you read her novels, Kerry? Read The Passion!!!

  14. Pingback: Link Round Up « The Lesbrary

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