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Jeanette Winterson: making journeys out of stories and stories out of journeys

Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson

“It’s a beautiful day, you could be swimming but you’re here. Thank you,” said British writer, broadcaster and activist, Jeanette Winterson as she started her keynote address at Byron Bay Writers’ Festival 2014.

And before long we were immersed, in Winterson’s stories of storytelling.

“When we meet, we meet on the steps of a story,” and Winterson, whose first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was published in 1985, went on to list the ways stories start. “Have you heard the one about?”

And she reminds us that stories were around long before books. Stories are not only for readers, “We meet on the street and the smallest exchange becomes a narrative.”

“Humans didn’t create language to say, “Honey can you pass me the spear?”

“If you think about language beginning in the mouth rather than before it hits the page, because speech is far older than writing, language itself becomes a memory system, a way of passing on and preserving what is essential to remember, the history of a tribe, clan, a people, enchantment, celebrations, warnings heroism, doomed lovers, loss. In that sense storytelling allows history to happen.”

Competing narratives allow us to see the world in layers rather than one-dimensional. Those jostling narratives are close to how humans understood the past.

They help us understand the emotions behind the fact, said Winterson. “Yes there are facts but when we come to interpret to interpret the facts, nothing is objective. Nothing.”

“We make journeys out of stories and stories out of journeys.”

Kids who are told stories develop faster; their language needs to be developed consciously, said Winterson.

“If the only language a child hears is a command-based grunt in front of fast-moving visual foreground then language will be compromised.”

Language learned at school that is basic and functional may not provide the resources to frame a serious or complex thought or question, she said.

“We need a vivid language. What if your first language is so limited that you don’t even know there is a way to express yourself?
Winterson has the answer to thoughts we can’t quite reach.
“As a writer I have noticed that when I can’t get at a thought, it’s not because the thought is vague but that the language is vague.”

Being able to tell new stories is just as important as handing down stories, she said, although conceding that many new stories are just cover versions. Winterson spoke at another session about her new book, The Daylight Gate and in a session with her partner, the pscyhotherapist Susie Orbach.

Reading is important to Winterson and for writers, she said. “Reading is good for my mind, for my heart. Reading puts us at a difference pace to the rest of life. It takes your hand off the panic button.

“The 90 min version (of a movie) can’t handle the complexity.”

And neither can we handle it all at once. We need time to really read a story, she said. “I often put the thing down to dwell on it, for days.”

“A lot of people say they don’t have time to read any more,” she said. “That should be a warning sign, not a fact of life.”

“We are so busy. It is a mental illness.”

Storytelling is an ancient hardwired way of telling stories, reading is fairly new. But now new technologies are rewiring our brains. Winterson doesn’t want her mind filled with facebook statuses and Internet porn.

“I want my brain wired the way I want it.. Literature is a powerful tool for self-determination.”

Writing a novel need not be about covering contemporary issues. “Jane Austen lived through the Napoleonic wars and never mentioned it in her novels.

“In our private lives nothing is written in some divine hand… The stories we are tell to ourselves and about ourselves are very powerful… Life has an inside as well as an outside.”

“The world we live in doesn’t have time for a soul. … Where in all this are our dreams? So what you can do if you want to protect your soul if want to keep your imagination as wide as whole world sky?”

“Read a book.”

Winterson left us with a thought from the late Mrs Winterson – “I am so glad she’s not here” who said “The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it till it’s too late.”

Marian Edmunds is a writer and journalist.



  1. gabrielle moore says

    Very engaging address. Jeanette took us on a beautiful, reflective literary holiday. I only hope she has another deeper look at a yoga journey. I can only imagine what heights it would take her writing. Kind Regards.

  2. I do adore good writing, such as Ms. Winterson’s. But I am reminded too that there are still whole societies that don’t use the written word. Rather, they rely on their memories to convey stories and poetry, even long ones, word for word from one generation to the next. Many parts of Africa have unwritten languages. I was privileged to work there for two years and I do vividly recall the campfires and stories. It was expected that the story teller would remember each and every word, just as it was originally conveyed to him. Children are told these tales from a very young age and develop a strong sense of history and community. We in the “civilized” world need a lot more of this kind of story.

  3. Pingback: Creativity and Craziness: Discovering your inner creature with Jeanette Winterson and Susie Orbach | BYRON BAY WRITERS' FESTIVAL

  4. Pingback: Jeanette Winterson: on life before death and her ‘nasty little book’ | BYRON BAY WRITERS' FESTIVAL

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