Adventures in reading

Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson

I have been doing a bit of traveling recently, and the older I get the less I like it.  I think it’s because so many things have gone wrong over the years that I haven’t got that supreme blase confidence that I am invincible that I had when I wandered round Europe on trains on my own in my early twenties.  I have now had to cope with lost passports, missed connections, lost luggage, missed trains, dashes across vast airport terminals and so on.  Anyway, one of the remaining joys of travel for me is that it is one of the very few opportunities that I get to read for pleasure.  I have to read a lot for my day job, and I don’t very often want to start again in the evening, but airports, planes, hotel rooms and reading go together for me.  No-one can get to you to do something.  You can’t really work because of interruptions and all the stuff going on in your peripheral vision and you get whole hours of undisturbed reading space.  I really look forward to it.  So, on this latest trip I decided to read Jeanette Winterson’s new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal.  I had heard it serialised on the radio before Christmas and I wanted to read the unabridged version because I was interested to read more about what she thought about depression.  In the event, it was a fascinating book because Winterson and I are almost exact contemporaries, and her evocation of growing up in the North of England was both familiar and utterly strange to me, but it was that fascinating feeling of ‘I was alive while the things she is describing were happening.’  I would recommend the book which is another version of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit which a lot of us saw serialised on television, and still remember vividly.

The reason I wanted to blog about the book is that a large part of it is about writing and therefore about creativity.  I was particularly struck by one passage in which she talks about a certain powerlessness that can come with creation:

It took me a long time to realise that there are two kinds of writing: the one you write and the one that writes you.  The one that writes you is dangerous.  You go where you don’t want to go.  You look where you don’t want to look. (p. 54)

Clearly, Winterson with her extraordinary upbringing of rejection and cruelty, is going to be taken to very difficult and disturbing places with her writing which may not be the case with those of us who work with visual things.  But there have certainly been moments when I have made things that I would not want to share with anyone.  I think, however, that even if we don’t end up doing memory work or retrieving parts of our identities and psyches that are pained and damaged, the act of creating does cause us to change and develop.  There are two kinds of quilts: the ones you make and the ones that make you.  I have made plenty of quilts where there was very little investment of me in them.  These have tended to be pieces in which I have followed patterns, or made blocks for a larger sometimes group piece.  I have chosen fabric and placement but haven’t made huge investments in them.  But there are others, like the monumental Body Shop quilt and the Starbucks quilt and the Marks and Spencer quilt where I felt taken over by the whole creative process and unable to stop.  The death quilt is another example.  The Laura Ashley/For the Love of Cloth quilt is likely to be another.  These are the pieces where I feel that I just turn up and provide the hands: the quilts make themselves, and by externalising some part of me and my psyche/identity/mind/biography they make me.  They are reflective practice, to use a term which is still in vogue in my academic area. They are autobiographical, and they act like a mirror to show me parts of myself that I didn’t necessarily know about.

Winterson thinks this is almost always a good and healing thing.  She challenges the stereotype of the dangerous, unhinged, fragile artist.  Art is reparative.  She borrows from psychology.  According to Melanie Klein, for example, our minds want to be whole.  Our personalities want to be integrated. We do not want to feel mental anguish.  We want to be fully functioning.  Winterson, writing with Freud and Jung in the shadows, says:

Creativity is on the side of health – it isn’t the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness. (p. 171)

I have spent nearly a fortnight solidly passing judgement: marking, reviewing academic papers, commenting on proposals for conference papers, and as fast as I finish one task another seems to present itself, like the waves coming in on a beach.  I have been feeling very stressed at the prospect of deadlines, and by the responsibility of sorting the wheat from the chaff: it is only my opinion but it has repercussions in people’s lives.  And I have noticed that I find myself yearning for next week when I will have worked my way through the bulk of this and will have time to do something creative.  And, when I sat down and quietly and rhythmically slip-stitched the binding on a panel for the Laura Ashley quilt, it did feel like a respite from madness.  Again, I don’t think that there is as much at stake for me as for Winterson, but I recognise the therapeutic impulse behind making.

I think that lots of people feel guilty about spending time on their creative work because it doesn’t feel like real work, but, I think I can infer from Winterson’s book that if you don’t do the creative work that you are drawn to, you will never be happy.  Here is quite a substantial bit of the text on happiness:

…earlier meanings build in the hap – in Middle English, that is ‘happ’, in Old English, ‘gehapp’ – the chance or fortune, good or bad, that falls to you.  Hap is your lot in life, the hand that you are given to play.

How you meet your ‘hap’ will determine whether or not you can be ‘happy’.

… 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.  (p. 24)

So pursuing a creative life will take a lot of investment, as so many textile artists know, but so will refusing the ‘hap’ and always putting the sensible stuff first.

I recommend the book.  I read it in a single day in transit.  It had sentences that caught a raw spot in me and made me flinch or want to weep.  I think I might try something a little bit lighter on the return leg…

Jeanette Winterson (2011) Why be happy when you can be normal?, London: Jonathan Cape.

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