An Excerpt from Art Objects

I just finished Art Objects (read ‘objects’ as a verb), which I gave you a quick taste of recently.  First, let me admit – again – that I am so enamored of Jeanette Winterson’s writing that I can’t express the impact is has on me.  I believe everyone should have an author whose work they love so much – or multiple authors – the more, the better, really.  So, while Winterson is considered controversial and there are many out there that do not give her words the prominent place in their soul that I do, I cannot help myself from sharing a bit more from this book.

Art Objects is a collection of essays about art, all kinds of art, and people’s relationship with art.  I come from a place where art, except literature, has always seemed out of reach to me.  It was something I associated with wealthy people – snobby people, even.  The worst course I took in college was History of Modern Art.  My other half is an art and theater lover, and I have softened my position some due to her influence – but, I still struggle with unreasonable feelings of self-consciousness in a museum or at the theater – somewhere in the back of my mind, I still feel I don’t belong in that crowd.

Art Objects addresses many aspects of art, and has given me pause to rethink my attitude.  This book alone is not enough to wipe away years of weird discomfort about certain kinds of art, but it did make me think about my own writing as art, among other things.  That said, here is one of a dozen or so passages I earmarked in the book:

Against daily insignificance art recalls to us possible sublimity. It cannot do this if it is merely a reflection of actual life. Our real lives are elsewhere. Art finds them.

Should people be treated as fictions? The question is an ethical one only if we assume that fiction is a copy of actual life. If we do, then art always is autobiography or biography and the skill of the artist is making it into a pretty toy or perhaps an educational instrument. Art should not drag unwilling actors into its animation. … Instead of art aspiring towards lifelikeness what if life aspires towards art, toward a creative controlled focus of freedom, outside the tyranny of matter? What if the joke about life imitating art were a better joke than we think?

Are real people fictions? We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others. The so-called facts of our individual worlds are highly coloured and arbitrary, facts that fit whatever fiction we have chosen to believe in. It is necessary to have a story, an alibi that gets us through the day, but what happens when thes tory becomes a scripture? When we can no longer recognise anything outside of our own reality? We have to be careful not to live in a state of constant self-censorship, where whatever conflicts with our world-view is dismissed or diluted until it ceases to be a bother. Struggling against the limitations we place upon our minds is our own imaginative capacity, a recognition of an inner life often at odds with the external figurings we spend so much energy supporting. When we let ourselves respond to poetry, to music, to pictures, we are clearing a space where new stories can root, in effect we are clearing a space for new stories about ourselves.


I’ve been noticing for some time that the most-read post on my blog is the one called Parental Secrets.  I wrote it when I found out unexpectedly that I had a half-sister that was adopted into another family when I was a child.  A half-sister I didn’t know existed until six or eight months ago.  It’s curious to me that this is my most-read post.  People seem to Google the term ‘parental secrets’ pretty frequently, which makes me even more curious about just what it is all those people are searching for that they don’t already know about their parents and think they might find on the Internet.

Today, I finished Jeannette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?  A Winterson fan, I ravaged the book daily on the train into the city every day this week, and wrapped it up when I got home tonight. I loved it, but for reasons unexpected.  Her writing is entirely different than that in her novels, which makes sense, considering the whimsy, the fantasy, the intricately woven metaphors in her fiction.  That style is not suited quite so well to the telling of a personal history, though her genius with words is still evident throughout the memoir.

After I graduated from high school, I went to college for exactly one semester.  I happened to take an English Lit course, and one of the assigned readings was T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton, the first poem of his Four Quartets.  Even if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may not know how that poem tore open the meaning of passion for me.  When it was assigned by my professor, he handed out off-center photocopies, made from a book opened and placed face down on the copy machine, odd patches of dark shadow in the corners, text warped in a subtle curve where the center crease of the spine refused to lie flat.  I still have that photocopy, smudged from having been handled so many times, the texture more fuzzy cotton than paper where it has been folded in half for twenty years, tucked away in the box of sacred things I save.

I began reading Jeanette Winterson’s books a few years later, I think, though I don’t remember specifically when it was.  As I delved into Sexing the Cherry, Written on the Body, and The Passion, I occasionally felt something familiar about certain phrases, certain lines in her novels.  I couldn’t name it at first – but I slowly began to feel that some of her writing reminded me of Burnt Norton, specifically with reference to the presentation of time.  I shrugged it off, thinking I must be imagining things.  I continued to notice subtle similarities, though, and eventually, I read a sentence that matched word-for-word a line I knew was in Burnt Norton.  I was thrilled in a way that may make sense to no one but me, but there was something about the fact that I’d made this connection through my own observations that seemed profound.  No instructor had pointed me in this direction, and I had no idea what Winterson’s background was.  I just loved the things I was reading, and I stumbled across a connection that had great meaning for me.

I have no idea if it was conscious or not that Winterson wrote what she did.  Perhaps it was pure coincidence, or perhaps I fabricated this connection because I wanted it to be there.  It doesn’t really matter, though.  What mattered was the depth of feeling the experience inspired in me, and still does.   So, by now, you can probably imagine the satisfaction I felt when Winterson spoke of Eliot’s Four Quartets, and even included a direct quote from Burnt Norton in her memoir.  It made that thin thread I thought I saw so many years ago a little thicker in my mind’s eye.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? spoke directly to my soul, in more ways than I can recount here without turning this into a novel itself, which I am perilously close to doing already.  One of the ways it did so was in Winterson’s rich description of her experience as an adopted child.  I haven’t known many people who were adopted.  The only adopted person I’ve known well seemed not to care a whit that she had been separated from her birth parents, but I figure she has to be the exception.  I assume it has to be very difficult to come to terms with not knowing who your parents are, wondering why they gave you away, thinking on bad days that you wish you had the life you were born to, a life you convince yourself you should have had.  Mostly, though, I think it’s one of those things that you just can’t know as an observer.  Winterson’s story peeled back layers for me, though, bringing me perhaps as close as I can come to understanding, from the perspective of an adopted person, the nagging feeling that something in you is missing, always has been, and always will be.

Of course, this brings me back full circle to the beginning of this post.  Over the past months, the subject of adoption has become much more personal to me.  I’ve slowly gotten to know more about the half-sister I never knew I had.  The experience has at different times both satisfied me and left me wanting.  I’m sure my half-sister has felt more extreme versions of those feelings than I have.  At first, we emailed each other frequently, and I poured out stories about myself, searching for the characteristics we might have in common.  Over time, our communication has become very spotty, and it seems we don’t know what to say to each other.  Is blood thicker than water?  If I’m honest, I don’t think so, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting deeper connections. It doesn’t stop me from searching for those places of convergence, where the things that are important to me come together in a way that makes them bigger and bolder than they were when they stood apart.  Perhaps the irony in all of this is that even though I wasn’t adopted, I, too, have always had a nagging feeling that something in me was missing.  When it comes down to it, who doesn’t?  Sometimes it seems the more we look at our differences, the more we realize we’re all the same.

P.S.  If you are so inclined, you can read Burnt Norton here.

Why I am a Jeanette Winterson fan

There are many reasons I am a Jeanette Winterson fan, and I couldn’t possibly share them all here, but I just finished Lighthousekeeping, and I liked it so much I read it almost straight through.  I’ve been a Winterson fan since her first few books came out, and though I still hold her earliest books at the top of my list (Sexing the Cherry, The Passion, Written on the Body), it’s easy to find examples of why she’s brilliant at her craft in any of her books.  Anyway, a quick excerpt that caused me to fold the corner of the page over so I could return to it easily…

In the morning I was awoken early by the chromatic bell of the Orthodox Church.

I unlatched the shutters. The light was as intense as a love affair. I was blinded, delighted, not just because it was warm and wonderful, but because nature measures nothing. Nobody needs this much sunlight.  Nobody needs droughts, volcanoes, monsoons, tornadoes, either, but we get them, because our world is as extravagant as a world can be. We are the ones obsessed by measurement. The world just pours it out.

I went outside, tripping over slabs of sunshine the size of towns. The sun was like a crowd of people, it was a party, it was music. The sun was blaring through the walls of the houses and beating down the steps. The sun was drumming time into the stone. The sun was rhythming the day.

‘Why are you afraid?’ I asked myself, because fear is at the bottom of everything, even love usually rests on fear. ‘Why are you afraid, when whatever you do you will die anyway?’

Among my friends, there are a few that really love her work and a few that really aren’t that into it.  I don’t think I’m capable of defining what it is about her writing that is so captivating to me.  I can only say it refreshes my brain and my senses.  It’s like that moment you realize you had no idea you were so thirsty until the first spill from a tall glass of water runs over your tongue and down your throat.

And more first lines

I’ve looked at first lines a couple times in the past, here and here.   Below are some others from books on my shelves…

The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson.
This new world weighs a yatto-gram. But everything is trial-size; tread-on-me tiny or blurred-out-of-focus huge.

I like this opening because it evokes senses, but not quite images.  That makes me want to read further.  After looking through my notes and finding this blurb, though, I realize I’ve been unconsciously copying the hyphenated phrase style she uses here.  I am a big fan of Jeanette Winterson, so it doesn’t surprise me a ton.  What I like about this approach is that it alters the pace of the sentence itself.  Often, writers talk about pace in the context of a whole work, zooming into a scene and providing lots of detail and dialogue, slowing down the pace versus summarizing larger chunks of time passing with narrative.  I thought it was worth looking at pace within a sentence based on the use of language and punctuation itself, though.  The other thing I like about this style is that it’s a way of creating a new word when the right word doesn’t quite exist.

The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy.
My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.

I think these two lines work because they immediately introduce paradox.  When I think anchorage, I think home.  Comfort, familiarity.  When I think wound, pain and discomfort come immediately to mind.  I think this is a great introduction that at the very least, explains to the reader that place will be important, and the narrator’s association to that place will be complicated.

From My Father’s House, by Sylvia Fraser.
My father’s house was a three-story, frame building on a shady street in Hamilton, Ontario

I don’t like this first line that much.  It gives a bit of information, but it doesn’t hook me, beg me to read more.  Having read the book, I can say it is very well written, and a worthwhile read, and with the benefit of retrospect, the important element of this first line may be in its references to a large house – that can evoke a spooky feeling, especially from the perspective of a child.  The use of the word shady introduces a dark element, too.  When I read this the first time, though, those things didn’t mean anything to me yet.  To me, this is an example of how a great book can live without a great hook, though.

Middlesex, by Jeffery Eugenides.
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

This opening line tells the reader exactly what the story will be about, and the subject itself is unusual and promises to be intense.  References to place and time help set the stage for the inherent struggle the narrator will have in dealing with gender identity.  Most of the language is straightforward, unadorned, though the first four words imply the significance of the subject matter.  I like the combination of the gravity of the first phrase, and the almost boring everyday description of the remainder of the line.

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen.
Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook.

“Only three people were left,” – this part of the sentence implies that we’re joining the narrator at some later point in the story – I expect to hear what led up to there being only three people left.  The terms “grease joint,” and “fry cook,” both make me think of lower class characters – people that don’t have much money.  The line isn’t earth-shattering, but it sets the stage a little bit, and the opening words make me want to read more.

More First Lines

I wrote a post recently on the first lines that open books. Below are five more first lines and my thoughts about them…  I did cheat a bit in two cases, and I included the first few lines because despite the punctuation, I felt they were meant to be read together.

Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris.
We were fractious and overpaid.

I recently shared an excerpt of this novel, Joshua Ferris’ debut.  I loved the book, and identified with the humor of the ad agency world contained within it.  This first line is incredibly short and simple, but I think it grabs the reader very effectively.  The line clearly indicates the story will be about a group of people and have something to do with jobs.  The reason I love the line, though, is because of the use of the word “fractious.”  What an awesome word, and one I doubt I’ve seen in print anywhere! gives two great examples of the meaning and use of the adjective:

1. refractory or unruly: a fractious animal that would not submit to the harness.

2. readily angered; peevish; irritable; quarrelsome: an incorrigibly fractious young man.

Looking at this first line after having read the book, I couldn’t possibly pick a more appropriate opening line, and I think that also underscores it’s effectiveness.

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss.
When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.

I absolutely love this first line, and I loved the novel.  The reader is introduced to Leo Gursky, the main character, and knows the story will be narrated by him.  It also immediately introduces sarcasm and humor, both of which are big pluses in my book.  The narrator’s name to me reads “quirky,” and I know that Leo is old or doesn’t expect to live long for some other reason.  If you’ve never read this book, go get it.  It’s brilliant.

The Sunflower, by Simon Wiesenthal.
What was it Arthur said last night?

This simple first line doesn’t tell the reader a whole lot, but it does instantly convey that he is not in top mental shape.  It sets the mood, though, as I quickly pictured myself with eyebrows scrunched, searching my memory for something I couldn’t quite remember.  I love that readers do that – fill in details themselves as they read, whether its’ picturing themselves or another person with an expression that’s well-described, or painting a picture in their heads of a character, even though only certain details are provided by a story.

Fool’s Crow, by James Welch.
Now that the weather had changed, the moon of the falling leaves turned white in the blackening sky and White Man’s Dog was restless.

This sentence primarily sets a scene, though it also introduces the main character and illustrates his general state of mind.  The language is descriptively rich, and continues that way throughout the book.  As a tale of Native American life, this type of description runs throughout the entire novel.  I don’t believe it is the type of first line that completely grabs the reader, but the question of why White Man’s Dog is restless is compelling, and the many references to nature, weather, and season do set a certain ambiance.

Lighthousekeeping, by Jeanette Winterson.
My mother called my Silver. I was born part precious metal part pirate.

Again, these statements are classic Winterson.  You know instantly that you’ll be reading a tale that has some fantasy in it.  Punctuation is missing, which subtly reinforces the concept that this character is  truly a combination of precious metal and pirate – there is nothing to separate the two elements of the character.  The unique and odd combination itself begs for more information, so I think these lines do their job.

 What are some of your favorite first lines?  Or, if you don’t have any off the top of your head, open up a couple books and jot them down – what do they do for you?

The Stone Gods

I finished The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson, yesterday. I have been working on making my way through the last half dozen or so things she’s published, and one of the things I love most about her writing is her ability to capture darkness, loneliness, sorrow, wonder, loss. The darkness that is inside all of us, the weighty parts of our souls, our inability to comprehend our place in the universe, or define the why’s of our experience, our existence. This is just a short passage from the book, but it spoke to me.

Far out, too far to see with the human eye or to hear with the human ear, is everything we have lost. We add to that loss feelings that are unbearable. Send them out into deep space, where we hope they will never touch us. Sometimes, in our dreams, we see the boxed-up miseries and fears, orbiting two miles up, outside our little world, never could rocket them away far enough, never could get rid of them forever.
Sometimes there’s a signal, and we don’t want to hear it: we keep the receiving equipment disused, we never updated the analogue computer. Shut off, shut down, what does it matter what happens if we can’t hear it?
But there it is – a repeating code bouncing off the surface of the moon. Another language, not one we speak – but it is our own.
I don’t want to recognize what I can’t manage. I want to leave it remote and star-guarded. I want it weightless, because it is too heavy for me to bear.

First Lines

One of the exercises in Writing Life Stories, by Bill Roorbach, is to write down the first lines of a ton of books so you can analyze them, and look at why they work. Below are some first lines from some of my books that are within arm’s reach of my desk.

Gut Symmetries, by Jeanette Winterson.
First there is the forest and inside the forest the clearing and inside the clearing the cabin and inside the cabin the mother and inside the mother the child and inside the child the mountain.

This sentence reads to me like classic Winterson.  The lack of punctuation and repetitious phrasing creates a rushing, falling forward, feeling of things growing smaller and smaller until you reach the smallest thing and inside it is something larger than everything that led up to it.  The sense of spiraling motion and paradox startled and hooked me.  I have yet to read this book, but after doing this exercise, it will jump high up on my list.

Typical American, by Gish Jen.
It’s an American story: Before he was a thinker, or a doer, or an engineer, much less an imagineer like his self-made-millionaire friend Grover Ding, Ralph Chang was just a small boy in China, struggling to grow up his father’s son.

While this sentence contains little drama, it tells me the story has the global theme of son-trying-to-live-up-to-dad’s-expectations.  It also sets the stage for the journey of Ralph Chang, and introduces a character that seems quirky simply based on his name – Grover Ding.  Hard to take seriously anyone with the surname of Ding.

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.
I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.

This simple first line instantly frames the story as a remembrance, possibly a dark remembrance based on the description of the weather.  It also makes clear the narrator will experience something very significant at the age of twelve, and as a reader, I want to know what that is.

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova.
Alice sat at her desk in their bedroom distracted by the sounds of John racing through each of the rooms on the first floor.

This sentence simply sets a scene, and although I did continue to read this book and enjoyed it in the end, this first line had no big impact on me at all.  I can visualize the scene, so it is effective in achieving that and introducing two main characters, but it doesn’t scream, “Keep on reading!”

The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson.
It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock.

This sentence sets the historical period of the book, while introducing a quirk the reader doesn’t expect to be associated with a figure like Napoleon.  The image of Napoleon having people working around the clock to serve him fits, but the reference to chicken passion adds a unique twist and generates curiosity for the reader – at least when that reader is me.

I wrote down (or typed, to be more accurate) many more first lines than these today, but in the interest of NOT writing an overwhelming amount of information on this subject, I started with five.  I’ll post more another time.  What are some of your favorite first lines?  Or, if you don’t have any off the top of your head, open up a couple books and jot them down – what do they do for you?

What I’m reading lately

I’m reading a very odd combination of books at the moment (see Panel at right).  I have a couple courses coming up at the end of the month – part of my Master’s degree program in Organizational Leadership at Gonzaga University.  One course is called Leadership, Justice, and Forgiveness, and many of the books we are to read are memoirs or non-fiction by people that have suffered greatly, but have learned to forgive, or by people that have been part of the forgiveness process.  I’ve also been trying to catch up on the many books Jeanette Winterson has published in the past ten years.  I loved her early books – The Passion, Written on the Body, and Sexing the Cherry, in particular.  Last, since I’m writing my own memoir, I’m reading many, many memoirs, trying to analyze what makes them hum and what I don’t like.  I recently read Shania Twain’s From This Moment On, and though I found the story itself interesting, I didn’t like the writing very much.  I’d love to hear from readers what your favorite memoirs are, and why they captivated you.  How much of it was the story, and how much of it was the writing itself?

Written on the Body

Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body is one of my favorite books.  Winterson has an ability to mold language in a way that excites me and leaves me in awe.  It inspires in me an appreciation for language and writing that is deep beyond my ability to describe.  The word to describe how her words make me feel is ineffable – too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.  I love the irony of that word – ineffable.  Written on the Body opens with an exploration of love.

Why is the measure of love loss? … Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear?  ‘I love you’ is always a quotation. You did not say it first and neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them. I did worship them but now I am alone on a rock hewn out of my own body. … Love demands expression. It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no. It will break out in tongues of praise, the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid.  It is no conservationist love. It is a big game hunter and you are the game. A curse on this game. How can you stick at a game when the rules keep changing? I shall call myself Alice and play croquet with the flamingoes. In Wonderland everyone cheats and love is wonderland isn’t it? Love makes the world go round. Love is blind. All you need is love. Nobody ever died of a broken heart. You’ll get over it. It’ll be different when we’re married. Think of the children. Time’s a great healer. Still waiting for Mr Right? Miss Right? and maybe all the little Rights?

It’s the cliches that cause trouble. A precise emotion seeks a precise expression. If what I feel is not precise than should I call it love? It is so terrifying, love, that all I can do is shove it under a dump bin of pink cuddly toys and send myself a greetings card saying ‘Congratulations on your Engagement’. But I am not engaged I am deeply distracted. I am desperately looking the other way so that love won’t see me. I want the diluted version, the sloppy language, the insignificant gestures. The saggy armchair of cliches. It’s all right, millions of bottoms have sat here before me. The springs are well worn, the fabric smelly and familiar. I don’t have to be frightened, look, my grandma and grandad did it, he in a stiff collar and club tie, she in white muslin straining a little at the life beneath. They did it, my parents did it, now I will do it won’t I, arms outstretched, not to hold you, just to keep my balance, sleepwalking to that armchair. How happy we will be. how happy everyone will be. And they all lived happily ever after.

I enjoy the way Winterson captures the frustration of love, the way we all want to give up when love doesn’t work out or comes with more difficulty than we imagine.  Then the single phrase within the narrator’s attempt to choose the mundane and safe existence that subtly gives away the fact that the mundane is not what the narrator wants at all – “she in white muslin straining a little at the life beneath.”  The two things I love most about Winterson’s writing are her use of language and the multiple layers that are woven together in her storytelling.  She invokes brilliant images with her words, though this passage is not the best example of that – I’ll post something else later that illustrates her imagery better.  She masters paradox and contradiction in much of her writing, which I love because it’s such a good representation of what it’s really like to be human, and even when she writes of completely fantastical things, I can still connect with the humanity in it all.