On Wednesday I went to a fascinating talk about the process of turning personal experience into memoir between authors Jeanette Winterson and Helen McDonald. Both were clear, as long as you can “take the reader with you” that personal experience can be generalized into prose and language that has clear resonance with others. I can relate to this within the process of making and viewing art; interesting, good art for me always has some kind of space for the viewer. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s clear when it’s there.
Exploring how writing works for her Winterson spoke about how she can often “grasp something complex as a whole” at the beginning of the process that needs to be explored and “then having to spend time bringing it back to focus – the thing that is most real to us and finding it again”. “As a writer the process is dynamic – things are happening to you as you go along. I have a feeling when something is right – I trust myself”.
Helen McDonald, who was as engaging and witty as the hugely compelling Winterson, talked of writing a book that would be likely to be between genres, part memoir, part nature writing. Writing in the aftermath of her father’s death she commented that her prose about grief turned out to be more objective, more like nature writing, than she'd imagined and passages about working with the Goshawk were much more subjective and unconscious in comparison. “As an author you listen to what the book is telling you, sometimes say things you don’t want to say” she reported and also said at the time she was “trying to live in the moment, in my case with perilous identification”. She talked how after completing the book she saw more clearly the hawk as a proxy self – an inhabited role. This is a really interesting thought process and something I’ll think about when reading the book.
Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? By Jeanette Winterson and H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald are now both out in paperback published by Vintage.