The Genesis of a Writer

You don’t have to have a catastrophic childhood to become a writer, but one might be forgiven for thinking that it helps. In Jeanette Winterson’s brilliant memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, she recounts her excellent credentials in this respect, a child adopted into a working class family, the failed dream of a depressive religious fanatic who stayed up all night smoking and waiting for Armageddon, at least in part to avoid any possibility of marital relations. Mrs Winterson, as Jeanette refers to her throughout the book, was ‘out of scale, larger than life’. A big woman, heavy and tall, she was an oppressive character and a harsh one, with what must have been a borderline personality disorder sharpened by the extreme power that mothers in that age exercised over the domestic sphere. Jeanette was not well loved, being herself a rebellious child who learned an ugly lesson in domineering human relations from her mother. She regularly found herself locked out on the doorstep overnight, or confined to the coal celler. Books were forbidden: ‘The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until too late.’ And when in her early teens, Jeanette’s stash of books hidden under her bed were discovered, her mother burned them in the yard. The next morning Jeanette went out and picked up what burnt fragments remained.

‘This is probably why I write as I do – collecting the scraps, uncertain of continuous narrative,’ she writes. Because as much as this is a book about an outlandish upbringing, it is an act of redemption in tracing the way that trauma and misery can be converted to passion and genius through creativity. Jeanette Winterson is perfectly clear that books saved her. She worked her way through English Literature A-Z in her local library and was taken in by an English teacher when she was finally thrown out of her house at 16 for the unforgivable crime of being romantically involved with another girl. The first time Mrs Winterson had caught her out in an alliance, she had arranged an exorcism. When that didn’t work, there was evidently nothing more to be done than banishment, but by that time, it was understood by Jeanette to be escape. For a while she lived in a Mini, but once given a room of her own by her teacher, she settled down to serious study and made it to Oxford University.

I remember reading her first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which she wrote at the prodigious age of 25, and being blown away by the voice in that narrative, so direct and funny whilst it recounted dreadful things. The first half of the memoir will be very familiar to readers of that novel, whose autobiographical basis was never hidden. Mrs Winterson is even more monstrous in reality than she was in fiction, but Jeanette manages the extraordinary feat of recounting her behaviour with the sort of affectionate disengagement that makes her almost amusing. There’s a mixture of qualities working in harmony here, the fierce fighting spirit that Jeanette was born with, the understanding she has clearly had to work hard for, and a novelist’s eye for the deliciously eccentric detail. To a writer, Mrs Winterson is a gift, even if to a child, she was a life sentence.

The first half sucks you in so completely that the second part punches you right between the eyes when you least expect it. Winterson skips forward 25 years to what you might call the real day of reckoning. A long-term relationship has just ended and left her completely devastated. Her father dies, and she finds amongst his belongings her birth certificate. This combination of events sends Jeanette spiralling downwards into a breakdown and a suicide attempt. She realises that what she has to deal with here is the original wound of abandonment, created when she was given away for adoption and then left to fester in the unhealthy family she joined. Now begins a fraught odyssey for her as she attempts to locate her birth mother. I can’t really comment on how this section of the narrative was written as I was too busy guzzling it down to notice. It is, however, deeply, deeply moving. The humour of the first half, and the narrative veneer that Jeanette paints so skilfully over it, skewering her vignettes from the early days with insight and compassion and exquisite style mitigates the damage that her childhood caused. That damage returns with interest in the second part, as is inevitable. No one survives that sort of childhood without paying a heavy price. But never fear, as there is a happy ending in sight, and an extremely intriguing one, too. I won’t give it away, so suffice to say that what happens offers Jeanette another, even more surprising, perspective on her relationship to the mad, bad, and ultimately very sad Mrs Winterson. This is an excellent book, powerful, extremely well written and hypnotically engaging. Warmly recommended.

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37 thoughts on “The Genesis of a Writer

  1. I’m very interested in this but at the same time a bit scared it might sound too familiar in parts.
    I can’t remember whether I read “Oranges… ” or another one. These must have been very traumatizing experiences indeed. I know I will read it but anyway, it’s too interesting.

    • I was worried about that, but in fact it never bothered me in the slightest. She tells a somewhat different story to Oranges, and in any case, what she is saying is so fascinating – I honestly think you’ll really like it, Caroline. It’s right up our street as far as memoirs go.

    • The first part isn’t harrowing at all. The second is moving – very sad in places. But not harrowing like some books I’ve read where you really feel the author has been through desperate events. Plus, in the second part, JW is in a very steady relationship with a woman who sounds absolutely wonderful, very supportive. So you don’t ever feel she’s alone in getting through her troubles, which is oddly comforting. I’d love to know what you think of it!

  2. I’ve been hearing so much about this memoir in the press. I have been shying away from memoirs because it seems that each contains more sensational and salacious details than the one before. In this case it sounds like the author has been brutally honest about her childhood and her life. I am very interested to read this one.

    • Oh I do know what you mean – we have this category of books in the UK called ‘misery memoirs’, all about abused children and the like. They seem to bring out about two a week and they are quite unredeemed by literary merit. I think you’d like this novel because it is very well written and also about writing and literature as much as the trials of a difficult childhood.

  3. I added this to my list when Stefanie wrote about it and have been watching for a library copy. Now you go and make me want to go out and buy a copy! In the interim maybe I should read Oranges. I’ve only read Sexing the Cherry, which I liked despite not usually getting on with experimental fiction. She seems quite a talented writer. I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work!

    • If you’ve got Oranges, then do read it. I like it probably the best of all her novels (and the ones she wrote after about 1993 I’ve been less keen on altogether), and it’s really funny. I’d almost say it’s an excellent introduction to the memoir! You’d have to let a few months pass before reading the memoir – but that may well fit in with the library copies! :) I’d love to know what you think of it!

  4. Winterson has been on my list and shelf and I can see I will have to finally get to her. I just posted about how the forbidden activity of reading at the dinner table saved me from my own family life and propelled me into wanting to be a writer, though I have not yet published a book, just stories in journals. It led me to always allow my own kids to read at the table. I did think of you, being British and such a voracious reader, whether you followed the rules of etiquette and abstained from table reading, or, followed in the tradition of the family of Stephen Hawkings and just dove in regardless of who was around. Just curious, because it’s a funny rule to me and I am always astonished at the number of books you manage to read and review.

    • Oh you are sweet. Honestly, I just plug away at the reading, an hour here, an hour there, and it’s amazing what you get through when you do that! I loved your account of all your family reading at the table together and sharing snippets with one another. That sounded very companionable to me. I don’t actually read at table, wasn’t brought up to do it, and don’t do it now. But then, I do get my hours in other ways. I am all for people finding routines and habits that make them feel happy and comfortable and safe. Whatever works is good, I think!

    • It’s a direct quote from Mrs Winterson, who says it to 16-year-old Jeanette when she’s rumbled with a girlfriend for the second time. It’s a perfect quote for Mrs W who really is exactly as you say – simultaneously funny and awful.

  5. I heard parts of this read on Radio 4 and have been meaning to get hold of a copy ever since. The trouble is I have a pile of books that I really do have to read for three teaching commitments and what is even worse, I want to read them. Still, I’m a firm believer that if there is a book you really want to read you will find time to read it whatever else has to be done. No housework again this week, I foresee.

    • Oh I know!! If only I could fit in all the books I want to read – and believe me, I do put my back into reading all that I can! I’m so curious as to what you are reading for teaching purposes… maybe you’ll post about that? I love knowing what other people are teaching in the lit department. And after all, the housework can always wait for another day….. :)

  6. I suspected you would like this one quite a lot. Wasn’t the part with the suicide attempt surprising and gut-wrenching? I admire her greatly for her ability to have survived it all and thrived in spite of it all.

    • I came back to read your review again once I’d finished it (and what a fine review it was!). I just could NOT stop reading when I got into that second part – I so felt for her. She’s a genuine survivor – that part about not being broken if you insist to yourself that you won’t be was very moving I felt. Anyway, you know my taste in books perfectly! :)

  7. I loved this book, read it straight through twice. The distilled, fragmented style lends itself to this. What a powerful text it is! What a real life story. A grotesquely exaggerated version of a family dynamic that many can painfully identify with.

    I’ve always felt that Jeanette Winterson was an interesting, prodigious, clearly brilliant writer, but not very much to my taste – too baroque, perhaps. Maybe it’s time to try one of her novels again, since what I like has been changing a lot.

    I remember meeting her once. It was many years ago, after she wrote Oranges are not the Only Fruit, but before it was published. I had no idea where or what she came from, was so incurious when young…

    • I couldn’t agree with your comment more – you say it exactly right. And do try her again – I like her earlier novels better than the later ones, but Oranges is always worth a read (I think it’s quite different in style to all the others). How interesting to think that you met her! And clearly not through the usual publishing promo route… that’s a story I’d love to hear one of these days.

      • Jeannette was working with one of my housemates on the organisation of a lesbian cultural event funded by the Greater London Council (those were the days – a very, very long time ago!). She came to our house for dinner.

    • Your picture shows up on my dashboard against your comment but not here. The link ought to come through, don’t know why that didn’t work. I find that sometimes when I reply to comments, I seem to be commenting not as the owner of the blog but some other random Litlove, which is disconcerting. Ever since wordpress changed the way we comment things have been odd. If I can do anything to help (and you know what it is!!) please do say.

  8. This is on my Wish List – like you, I can remember being knocked out by Oranges and that clear, strong, highly distinctive narrative voice describing a childhood so different to my own, which was filled with love, books and talk, It is interesting to see how her experiences shaped her as a writer, not only providing material for some of her work, but also influencing the way she writes.

    • Christine – it’s always lovely to hear from someone else who had that same experience with Winterson’s books. She instantly became a favourite writer of mine after reading Oranges, and the life/literature parts were amongst my favourites in this memoir. She really nails that link in a satisfying way.

  9. What a fabulous review! I haven’t read anything by her, though I have of course heard of her books. This memoir sounds interesting and fascinating. Thanks so much :-)

    • Susan, I’d love to know what you think of it if you read it, or indeed anything by her. I think Oranges is her most accessible novel, and it’s one of my all-time favourites. Or else the memoir is a good place to start I think – it really is a good one. Thank you for your lovely comment!

  10. This was an excellent post, Litlove. I had heard of this writer but haven’t read anything by her. Hopefully, one of the libraries around here has a copy. So far, everything I’ve read because it received a thumbs up from you has been excellent. So, I suspect I’ll like this one as well.

    • Oh Grad, that makes me so happy! I am never more delighted than when one of my recommendations comes good. I’d love to know what you make of this one – she is a real survivor, and I think you’d like that about her. She’s the furthest away from being a moaner it’s possible to be, if you see what I mean!

  11. Thank you for a wonderful review. I’m in line holding for this one with the public library. Reading your description makes me think of another memoir The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls… maybe it’s the crazy childhood, or just the name. Reading about all these great talents makes me think… what can one do to compensate for an uneventful childhood? ;)

    • Arti, I read The Glass Castle a few years back and thoroughly enjoyed it (I think I called it the most enjoyable memoir of child abuse I’d ever read…). You’re right, there are definitely similarities. Ha your comment about childhood made me laugh. I’m sure there must be all sorts of ways to compensate! Actually, JW herself says in this book that creativity comes from a healthy place, and it’s just that people with bad childhoods often have this creative part of their mind trying its hardest to help them back into stability and harmony again. I thought that was very nice.

  12. I didn’t read the whole review because I was hooked halfway through and didn’t want to find out what she discovered in the birth certificate! I read a bit online where she’d written about her upbringing. I can’t wait to read the memoir! Thank you for bringing it to my attention. (And I am way behind in reading blogs but for good reason. i’m writing.)

    • Lilian, that is the best reason ever to be behind in blog reading – you have my permission to continue being behind if necessary! :) And I would love to know what you think of this book. I am quite sure it would be very interesting to you.

  13. I’m really curious to read this because Winterson is such an interesting writer. Was it “Sexing the Cherry” where she wrote about that mother who was so violent (but also loving)? Thanks for alerting me to this one. A must-read I think.

    • Oh Pete, yes, you must definitely read this one. I think you’d find it very interesting. Sexing The Cherry has the female Gargantua as the mother, and yes she is a violent sort of woman, inadvertently in part because she’s so enormous. But she’s also funny and tender too. In the memoir, JW says that Mrs Winterson was her inspiration for that mother figure (although Mrs W has no tender parts as far as I can tell! That’s poetic licence). I’d love to know what you think of this book.

  14. I loved this review, Litlove – I guzzled it down, as you say, and am intrigued to read the memoir; perhaps there is something to this idea that writers emerge from painful childhoods!

  15. Pingback: Best Books of 2012 | Tales from the Reading Room

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