Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
A few pages in to Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, I started highlighting quote-worthy passages (that’s one thing I like about eBooks – you can highlight without feeling guilty about defacing a page). I finished by highlighting a quarter of the book.
I went through a Jeanette Winterson phase ten years or more ago. So it had been a while, and I was happy to return to her spare prose, her short (many even one-line) paragraphs. Her style is so readable, with such an easy rhythm to it, and maybe this makes the disturbing subject matter easier to read.
She takes us through her very difficult early years, revisiting some of the material that appeared in her semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Considering her adoptive mother’s reaction to that novel, she touches on the nature of truth in writing: “I told my version – faithful and invented, accurate and misremembered, shuffled in time.” Because, as she writes, “Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story. I wrote my way out.”
It seems that, for her, writing is a way to try to make sense of and gain some measure of control on the messiness of life, while still leaving space for interpretation:
When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold.
When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.
The first half of the books feels rather chaotic in structure, and you may start wondering where she’s going with all this. This is part of her style, as she explains “Life is layers, fluid, unfixed, fragments. I never could write a story with a beginning, a middle and an end in the usual way because it felt untrue to me.” The focus shifts and tightens with the second half of the book. She skips twenty-five years, and dives into an honest account of a very dark period in her life, describing her depression and suicide attempt. She recovers, and begins the search for her birth mother that carries us through the rest of the book.
Literature is what gets her through all these difficult times. When her mother burned her books, she started memorizing lines of poetry. She says that “Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.”
Her conclusions certainly aren’t always entirely uplifting, but they are honest:
Pursuing happiness, and I did, and I still do, is not at all the same as being happy – which I think is fleeting, dependent on circumstances, and a bit bovine.
If the sun is shining, stand in it – yes, yes, yes. Happy times are great, but happy times pass – they have to – because time passes.
The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is lifelong, and it is not goal-centred.
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. There are times when it will go so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realise that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms.
It was a very emotional read. And I will end here before I quote half the book…
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