June 16, 2013 § 3 Comments
The title of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson’s recent memoir, refers to a comment her mother made shortly before Jeanette left home for good. They lived in working class Manchester, England. Her harsh, adoptive mother was a Pentecostal, obsessive-compulsive, abusive woman who hated life so much she hoped the Apocalypse would arrive soon. Mrs. Winterson never slept in order to avoid sleeping with her husband. She was in denial of her physical self. She often locked Jeanette outside or in the coal cellar overnight on freezing cold nights.
“She hated being a nobody, and like all children, adopted or not, I have had to live out some of her unlived life. We do that for our parents – we don’t really have a choice (Winterson, 1).”
To escape, Jeanette turned to books, and then she fell in love with a girl. When Mrs. Winterson found out, a brutal exorcism ensued, including three days of starvation, and an over-zealous minister who tried to convince Jeanette (in a perverse fashion) that men were more suited to her needs than women. Of course, they failed at making her play the game of pretend. If Mrs. Winterson taught Jeanette anything, it was to be stubborn. And after living in that house all her young life, nothing could break her.
Jeanette soon had to leave home, though she was only sixteen. Her passion for literature brought her to Oxford where she was left to herself with three other women to study on their own. Shortly after college, her first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, became an international bestseller and she has won numerous awards since.
I feel a strong bond with Jeanette, as though we’ve met up a few times and swapped stories. Each time after, she hurried back to her intensely private life, while I was left wanting more. Strong women have that effect on me.
I could write here about my family, about how I grew up in a Pentecostal home, but I’ve written about that dozens of times, not to mention in my memoir No End Of The Bed. I’m at that point right now, where Jeanette was with the release of Oranges, except that I was not published by a major, and I only sold twenty copies in the first month.
I had this idea in my head that people would go buy the book right away, and word would spread extremely fast, like an internet video going viral. But in this case, word spreads slowly, and finding an audience is a process that builds on itself through time, energy, and creativity. The hero’s journey of the struggling writer continues, and I am still faced with a giant uphill battle to win the narrative in my head. In other words, my dream still feels crazy, and a little out of reach.
I am often working ten-hour days on writing, marketing, and publishing. No one is looking over my shoulder, I’m not punching a clock, and I haven’t made a dime. In fact, I’ve spent every cent that I made in the last three months and more to make this a reality. I sent the book out to reviewers who probably won’t give it a second glance. Whether they write about it or not, it’s important that they see it and know that it exists, and that quality books will keep coming from Knotted Tree Press in the future.
Without writing, I become an unbearable human being. When I stop, my obsessions go into strange territories. So I wonder, what would pre-feminist Lauren look like? Would I look like Mrs. Winterson? Would I have made everyone around me miserable? And without the benefit of knowledge, would I have been a religious extremist? Would I have remained in an adolescent state – lacking in awareness of others, narcissistic, self-absorbed.
“I suddenly realised that I would always have been in this bar that night. If I hadn’t found books, if I hadn’t turned my oddness into poetry and the anger into prose, well, I wasn’t ever going to be a nobody with no money… I’d have gone into property and made a fortune. I’d have a boob job by now, and be on my second or third husband, and live in a ranch-style house with a Range Rover on the gravel and a hot tub in the garden, and my kids wouldn’t be speaking to me (Winterson, 208).”
We all have the capacity to find our sweet spot from the work we love. Sometimes, it takes a lot of bravery to lay claim to the work that you love. Quite possibly, most people hate their jobs. The only way to get through it is to do something you love after or before work. At an art studio last week, I overheard a man say that he wished he studied art instead of nursing. But the nursing affords him the time and financial stability to do the art. He’d just come off a night shift, and would be in class all day. In fact, most of the really dedicated artists are older and retired. They gave up their passion for thirty years, and now go to studios five days a week, working tirelessly.
Without writing, I don’t think I would have grown as I have, or become as aware of my life and the lives around me. It’s a system of processing information and coming to more questions, and even some conclusions.
In my head, just like Jeanette, I have another life, a Plan B that I’ll probably never fall back on. I think a lot about real estate. I imagine myself negotiating and making deals (things that in real life I utterly failed at as a Literary Agent). I pass by expensive historic homes when I walk to work. I watch when they come up for sale, I look to see who’s selling them. I wonder what the stories are of the people who live there, and long to solve all the mysteries of domestic life. See? I begin in sales, and end up literary. But in the real estate dream-life, there are returns for all of my hard work. I am rewarded for knowing my own value. It eases the reality of the life I am living.
“I know now, … 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 (Winterson, 38).”
What matters most is that the people who have read No End Of The Bed came back to me with rave reviews with such comments as “mesmerizing,” “brave,” “painted pictures with words,” “couldn’t put it down,” “loved the dialogue,” “has the power to help people.” Everyone finished it within two weeks (surprising to me for how busy they all are, especially the new moms). I went from feeling horribly exposed, to feeling wonderfully connected. Friends I hadn’t seen in a long time met up with me to share their own stories. People I’ve known since college looked at me with greater understanding. They questioned their choices in comparison to my own. Everyone talked about different scenes in the book. And no one seemed shocked or turned-off by some of the extremely sexual content. Neither were they offended by the feelings I expressed against the church. The rush has since died down, and now it’s up to the people I’ve never met to read the book and come to their own conclusions.
This morning I read about the publishing trajectory of the trilogy Fifty Shades Of Grey. I haven’t read the books, and couldn’t even get through the first page, but there are some comparisons to be made with No End Of The Bed as far as S&M content. E.L. James was first published by a small indie publisher in Australia with an e-book and print-on-demand in May 2011. The books gained momentum on blogs and social media, gaining a deal with Random House for somewhere around a million dollars in March 2012. The books sold 25 million copies in the first four months. So even in this case of the fastest selling books, success did not come overnight. It took time and persistence.
In Winterson’s novel, Sexing The Cherry, she explores time. Her mother looms in the character of a giantess. The narrative flips from the medieval to the present. We are asked to consider time and the dangers of puritanical thinking. Time is the story, and with it, the domino effect of lives from past to present. Earth seems like a magical place, except that it isn’t, if you inspect it close enough. We are not the result of miracles. Life occurs from hard work and persistence, from the smallest organism, to the most complex.
January 14, 2012 § Leave a comment
It’s always strange when the topic of one book I read leads right into the next. Jeanette Winterson’s novel, Sexing the Cherry surprised me in many ways. To begin with, I never got around to reading the back cover, so on the basis of the title I expected an erotic romp rather than a one-sentence reference to gardening terminology.
Then the book begins with a gruesome female giant and a boy she finds in the Thames set in 17th Century England – my least favorite time period. I cringed. Six pages in I wanted to toss the book in the giveaway pile because I struggled to connect with the voice of the giant. But then Winterson’s magical gift overtook me, and I was lost in a beautiful and poetic story.
The giant suffers abuse by the Puritans, and witnesses the execution of the King. “The Puritans who wanted a rule of saints on earth and no king but Jesus, forgot that we are born into flesh and in flesh must remain (Winterson, 70).” She goes on a murdering spree – the best method of attack being in a brothel where the Puritans purge their fetishes in secret.
“I have met a great many Pilgrims on their way towards God and I wonder why they have chosen to look for him rather than themselves… if the other life, the secret life, could be found and brought home, then a person might live in peace and have no need for God. After all, He has no need for us, being complete (Winterson, 116).”
The boy Jordan loves the giant, though as he grows realizes it’s not right to feel so tiny next to your mother. He dreams of becoming a hero, and eventually sails to exotic places, both in the world and in his mind – beyond time, place, existence. He finds more mysteries than answers.
“The inward life tells us that we are multiple not single, and that our one existence is really countless existences holding hands like those cut-out paper dolls, but unlike the dolls never coming to an end. When we say, ‘I have been here before,’ perhaps we mean, ‘I am here now,’ but in another life, another time, doing something else. Our lives could be stacked together like plates on a waiter’s hand. Only the top one is showing, but the rest are there and by mistake we discover them (Winterson, 100).”
I once had a professor who always said, “We lead one life, but we have many lives within it.” This is very true of Jeanette Winterson. She was adopted and grew up near Manchester, England. Her parents were working class and Pentecostal. They intended her for the missionary field and by age six, she was evangelizing and writing sermons. At sixteen she realized she was a lesbian and left home. Her mother told her, “Why be happy when you could be normal?” She took several odd jobs and eventually supported herself through an English degree at Oxford. Her first book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruitcame out in 1985 and since then she has had a very successful literary career.
Winterson’s novel, Sexing the Cherry reminds us that we are all explorers of existence. It is in the distance between who we are now and who we will be by the end of our lives. Catching up to a mind and body filled with the knowledge of experience – aware that we are finite in the layers of the earth – but connected to all things in consciousness.
A friend once told me that I give her the creeps because I’m like a ghost from the 1920’s. It might have helped that at the time we were working in a Circus tent that was one hundred years old. But she was right. I have always felt more akin to a life lived in 1920’s Paris – busting at the seams with artists and writers. I keep searching to find that place wherever I go.
It’s like the feeling you get when you listen to a song that was written before you were born. You are certain you were there. You feel everything that was felt at that exact moment of time. Nostalgia overwhelms you. You almost want to go back, but were you ever there to begin with? Is it a common shared memory passed down – or do we live through other lives?
And what has really changed between the 17th century and the present? Our needs are the same – food, shelter, companionship, sex, and the need to record and understand the human experience. All that has changed is the scenery.
Everyday at my writing table I have the gift of an amazing view of Seattle. Buildings stretch out from downtown past Lake Union. The space needle looms to the right and the Puget Sound and Olympic Mountains stand behind it. I watch hundreds of cars passing everyday. And all day long people walk up and down the bridge. I see the same people over and over, but most I’ve never seen before. They are walking the dog, buying the groceries, going to work or the gym.
One old man never has a destination. He is Native American and mentally ill. He walks in circles everyday, wearing the same clothes and the same cane, yelling obscenities to keep people away. He lets life happen to him. He finds interesting things left by those who leave the past behind.
Perhaps I love the city for its endless layers. The energy is invigorating. People keep circulating within hundreds of overlapping stories. Their footsteps mark the passage of time.
the view from my window