APRIL 20, 2016
IN 2013, when I was suicidal, I saw Jeanette Winterson speak at the AWP conference in Boston. A snowstorm had shut down most of the city, and the conference was a smaller one than expected. Boston’s old buildings lay covered in pillows of snow. Inside the Hynes Convention Center, floor-to-ceiling windows let in cold white light. I was supposed to be working on a novel. I stared at my blank notebook between panel sessions, trying to will the words onto the page.
Winterson delivered her keynote address in a giant auditorium that, despite the snow, was filled with thousands of writers. I’d spent most of the conference staving off anxiety attacks, keeping my heart rate steady, clenching and unclenching my fists like my therapist had taught me to do. My partner and I had split up a few months prior. I had quit my job and moved across the country to live in my parents’ basement as their unemployed prodigal daughter. For months I’d been carrying around quicksand at the bottom of my stomach. My therapist had diagnosed me with depression. And as I sat there in the crowded auditorium, swallowing my need to run out into the cold, at that very minute my parents were on the phone with relatives all over the world, trying to arrange my marriage.
The problem was that I was trapped. I had no money, no income, no experience in any job that was hiring in a tanked market. And as nice as my parents were for letting me live with them, I had also put myself in a cage. They had many rules: no shorts or tank tops; no coming home later than 9 p.m.; no dating; no closing my room door. They forbade privacy and independence. I was suffocating, and the quicksand in my stomach became heavier and heavier.
My plan was to book a flight on my credit card. I would take a cab to the airport, arrive in a Midwestern town, rent a car, and drive to a gun shop. I already had a firearm license from going to the shooting range in college. I’d buy a gun — a small, reliable pistol — and drive out into a cornfield. I’d walk through the stalks until I couldn’t walk anymore, and there I would put the pistol in my mouth. The plan was solid. No one would find me until I was already gone. Little chance of being stopped, little chance of survival. When I described this plan to my therapist, years later, she said it sounded peaceful, that she could tell I was a writer by the way I narrated the scene.
At AWP, when I sat in the auditorium waiting to hear Winterson speak, I hadn’t ever read her work. One of her books, Written on the Body, was on my bookshelf in my parents’ basement, untouched. I hadn’t read or written anything in six months. All around me, youngish writers in tight pants and undercuts laughed together in little groups. I had friends at the conference — good, close friends — but their presence made me lonelier.
Winterson took the stage looking delightfully queer in jeans, an untucked white button-front shirt, a black blazer, and her signature haircut — short bristly curls that stood defiantly from her head. Her appearance and English accent helped me push my self-centeredness aside. I paid close attention. She read passages from her then-new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? I kept thinking of my mother, of how she had asked me why I insist on my queerness when I also like men, when I could get married and have kids and be normal.
Some six months after AWP, my parents would take me to New York City to meet a man they wanted me to marry. They would then force me to date this man for the next five months, and whenever I tried to explain that I didn’t like him and why, they would tell me I was crazy and weird and wrong. It would take me another year to move away from them, to make money and get an apartment and move south to the other end of the East Coast. It would take another year after that for the anxiety to fade, for my mind to stop thinking about cornfields and guns.
Winterson’s speech at AWP was remarkable for its spirit — it dipped and soared, took corners fast enough to defy gravity, left a trail of images in its wake that took hours to fade — and all of it delivered from memory. The speech was remarkable, but I remember it as transformative. In my memory, once Winterson started speaking, I was the only person in the auditorium.
I went home and started reading Written on the Body. I checked out more of her books from the library. I consumed her work and let it fill me up. It wasn’t just that I saw myself in her stories. It wasn’t just that her characters were queer. It wasn’t just that they were hemmed in by religion and ideology. It was that her writing transcends all of these details. The aesthetics of her voice are somehow unique and, at the same time, adaptable. She breaks the boundaries of form, twists and shapes the conventions of genre into art. Her cadence, her rhythm — they pulled me outside of my skin so that I was yet again more than the quicksand in my stomach.
In a scene in Winterson’s The Stone Gods, an unnamed character on a subway train finds the novel The Stone Gods and reads about themselves reading about themselves reading about themselves. What the canon needs is not just beauty, or craftsmanship, or simply content that mirrors marginalized lives. The canon needs aesthetics that can call someone back from a cornfield in a voice they want to answer. Winterson’s work offered me a safe house in my war with my own body. Her voice mesmerized me and lulled me into aesthetic bliss at a time when I was considering something far more permanent. Call it a crutch. Call it a 12-step plan. Call it love. Whatever you name it, dialogue with Winterson saved me. By conversing with her words, I could project into the future, plot my escape, see myself happy, and see the writer I wanted to be.