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.