Possible Endings

Last night we went to see Jeanette Winterson.

It was a last minute decision.  I’d just started reading her latest book and checked her website only to see she was here, right up the road, on her 10 city U.S. tour.  Right up the road!

(okay, an hour and a half up the road, but still …)

What a treat she was.  One of the most entertaining writers I’ve had the privilege to see in person.  Brilliant, confident, opinionated, eloquent, and funny as hell.  I was so entertained I failed to take notes, so before they escape me here are a few gems for the writers among us:

*  Our memories are not clearly defined, nor are they linear.  As Margaret Atwood says, we reach down as if through the water for them and they are in perpetual motion, shifting and reflecting, surfacing and diving, reordering themselves — one day a memory comes clear and within reach, and then might disappear, for days or years, beneath the surface.  Trust your memories as they come to you.  Trust their fluidity.

*  New writers make the mistake of trying too hard to write a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  The dreaded “arc.”  Our best stories are rarely told in perfect order; don’t limit your natural storytelling skills this way.

*  There are only three possible endings to your story:  Revenge, Tragedy, or Forgiveness —- but only forgiveness allows you to move forward.

*  She doesn’t check her email or take calls or meet with anyone until after four o’clock, a rule she put in place to protect her creative space.  People give her loads of trouble about it, but she holds firm.  She knows that once she allows anything outside to puncture this space, she’s finished for the day and can’t get back to it.  Do whatever you need to do to protect your space.


This was an ordinary day that became extraordinary.  We woke up with zero Saturday plans; it was dark and raining and we figured it best to hole up at home, watch sports on TV, and read a good book.  As it happened, I was reading this book.  The next thing we knew we were taking a road trip in the afternoon sunshine — where had this blue sky come from? — heading north across our Golden Gate bridge, enjoying a great dinner of fennel and sausage pizza at The Brick and Bottle, discovering an independent bookstore we hadn’t even heard of, and hearing this great writer, all the way from England, entertain us with her words.


33 thoughts on “Possible Endings

  1. jesslahey

    I met her back in 1990, when I was at Oxford, and was in awe. I adored The Passion, and when I found out that my Modern Women’s Fiction teacher was a friend of hers, I was nearly apoplectic. I was 20.

    I have been less impressed by her recent works, but I hear this most recent book is a quasi-follow up to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, so I will most certainly check it out.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Teri

      She described exactly what I feel when I’m working. The zone. The puncturing of said zone.

      I’m not one of those people who can write for 10 minutes in the dentist’s waiting room, and then 30 minutes here or there, etc… I need to enter my space and stay there — otherwise, I lose it. Whatever “it” is. Once my focus is gone, it’s just gone. Sometimes when it’s interrupted it’s so upsetting I could scream. Or bawl. It’s always bothered me that I work this way, but there it is.

      1. schietree

        I’m pretty much the same – even if it’s only expecting a phone call at some point in time, I absolutely cannot work until that phone call has been dealt with.

  2. CJ

    Her memior is a non fiction retelling of ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT. When I heard she’d done that I began to blog, retelling the non fiction core of my novel RAMBLER. Her language slays me.

    1. Teri

      It’s a retelling, and then some. She finds her birth mother in this one, and sheds off what she calls “the cushioned wall” of fiction that she built in order to protect her, the first time around, from the real story.

  3. Downith

    I haven’t read anything of hers, although Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was in our bookcase for ages – no idea how it got there – maybe my mother left it after a visit – and now it’s in a box somewhere.

    But I read many articles about her and/or reviews of Why Be Normal when it came out here last year. It still slays me that the title is a direct quote of something her adoptive mother said to her.

    1. Teri

      My favorite quote of her mother’s, and believe me it’s hard to choose one, but here goes:

      “The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.”

  4. CJ

    The Passion was my introduction to her prose, spare and evocative and yes profoundly poetic. Given to me by an Aussie screenwriter I met in a now defunct coffee shop on Robertson Blvd here in LA. Didn’t know the guy very long but fell in love with the book.

  5. Sarah W

    This is priceless Teri! I’m so glad you went—and doubly glad you share her wisdom with us.

    I really need to defend my space (but mostly from myself).

    1. Teri

      I needed the space commentary, but also the reminders about the fluidity of memory. I don’t know about other memoir writers, but I sometimes get stuck trying make sure I’m telling it right. When of course there is no “right.” My perfectionist tendencies are like giant trees falling across the road — I just need to shove them aside and keep going, and understand I’m doing the best I can.

    1. Teri

      She was speaking especially of memoir — which, to be clear, she does not see as a separate genre. It is a story, even if a true one, and what is a “true” story anyway but the writer’s version of the story.

      Imagine the story is that of an adopted child going in search of her birth mother. Happy Disney endings are rare, and not exactly believable for real life. So how will this story end? Is the child looking for revenge, for the birth mother to suffer for having given her away? Will there be tragedy, maybe she searches and find the mother has died and there can be no meeting? Or is there forgiveness in the end, with all its complexities?

    2. Teri

      Also, keep in mind this is her opinion. And she was nothing if not opinionated. When someone in the audience asked if she believed in God, she said, “I don’t know if there’s a god and neither do you” etc…. You could feel some bristling in the room, but she carried on. I thought she was awesome, and awe inspiring.

  6. CJ

    Well there is always the Hollywood ending–in which we discover there was never a dilemma to begin with.

    1. Teri

      Imagine. Imagine!

      This, from the girl (woman) who sees last week that her birth father has a Facebook page…. She finds it with this headline: “You might be friends with…”


    1. Teri

      I love the complexity of her new “relationship” with her birth mother. I feel so much less freakish for “Hi, I’m your dad, here’s my business card, come stay with us.”

      Who’s “us”????

      1. CJ

        To read what you know to be true but have never had confirmed is to me a reason to read and a responsibility when writing– to be as honest as we can.

  7. lizisilver

    Teri, I heard Winterson on Thursday or Friday on NPR- she was in So Cal for a reading- and she absolutely wooed me. I’ve never read any of her books, but now I definitely will. So glad you were able to meet her, so glad your day went from ordinary to extraordinary.

  8. Lyra

    Jeanette Winterson. It has been so long since I read her, but immediately upon seeing her name I remember the lyrical quality of her writing, like a poet going long. I checked my shelves just now and sure enough there are four books of hers on them.

    And the 4 o’clock rule is brilliant. It has the feel of someone taking back their life, to accomplish what they need to, to not allow their kindness get in the way of getting those ideas on paper, ahem…
    If I was at home, I would do something like that I think. But for me, the working day is the perfect time for catch up. Can’t let a thing like a job interfere with my social life.
    But if I could be writing then, oh yes, I’d milk it for every thought I had.

    1. Teri Post author

      It is EXACTLY like a poet going long, and confirming my theory yet again that poets write the best memoirs.

      And yes, I like the concept of her 4 o’clock rule — however you implement it, I see exactly what she means.

  9. jpon

    These are gems indeed. I’m going to pass these along to the students in my writers’ class.

    She’s so right about creative space. It’s very difficult to do, and work and the digital revolution make it almost impossible, but we have to it, even if it’s only for an hour or two each day.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Teri Post author

      She talked at length about how our digital revolution is playing with our brains, how it’s making it unnecessary for us to remember anything, much less spend any length of time thinking (and creating) for ourselves. That our technology is making us more disconnected and less human, and we’re all gladly allowing it to happen.

  10. macdougalstreetbaby

    The first time I heard her name was the other day in the comments section at Betsy’s. I’m definitely going to keep my ears and eyes out for her. Thank you.

    I also love that you just get up and go. I can’t wait to just get up and go.

    1. Teri Post author

      I don’t always just get up and go, but I sure am glad we did it this time!

      Your comment, MSB, reminds me of a friend who’s husband is paraplegic —- she and I traveled together once and she was so excited to be able to just get up and leave the hotel and “Go!” without making any plans. In her life they, for obvious reasons, couldn’t do anything spontaneously. Ever. It was a good lesson for me.

  11. LauraMaylene

    Love, love, love her 4pm rule. And I’m adding WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL to my book list, which has many Teri recommendations, by the way. So thanks!

    1. Teri

      I am a bad, bad influence!

      I admit, I’m not in love with the book’s title. But it’s something her mother said to her, and I understand it better now that I’m reading the book. I hope it’s not a title to keep someone from reading it.

      Kind of like Flynn’s ANOTHER BULLSHIT NIGHT IN SUCK CITY — I hated the title so much I never picked it up. Now, with it’s new movie title BEING FLYNN, I ate it right up.

      There. I’m not proud of it. But it’s the truth.

  12. Catherine

    You are so lucky! I remember reading Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and finding it a life-changing book. Such rich language, such liberty with words. I would love to hear her speak.

    And that tip about not answering or connecting until four – as soon as my book comes out that will be my mantra!

    1. Teri Post author

      You’re right about the language, Cat. She talked about her writing process and said her work is as much about the language as the story itself. She writes so you can’t skim, and she never writes things in the order they happened.

      She was such a treat. My husband and I both fell in love with her.

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