Normal vs. Happy

Part of a series on truth-telling in life and art. See the first post, Dare to Be Yourself, here.

It’s for anyone interested in what happens at the frontiers of common-sense. Do you stay safe or do you follow your heart?

Jeanette Winterson, taking about her book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Yesterday, I discovered my favourite living author, Jeanette Winterson, has a new memoir out entitled Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?. After a moment of regret that my life no longer provides me advance notice of important developments in art and culture – a truth that has been a way of life for a decade, so I need to just need to get over it – I laughed.

What a perfect title for this series of blog posts on truth-telling in life and art. I wish I had thought of it.

Winterson’s first book, the one that put her on the literary map, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, is a fiction based in the truths of her childhood. Her latest appears to cover much of the same material. I am fascinated by the mere fact that Winterson wrote a memoir dealing with the same material. What needed to be said in a non-fictional form? Or has her life changed so much that she no longer sees the past the same way?

Her writing has always struck me as deeply truthful, cutting to the heart of her experience. Even in her less mature work, she wrestles with questions of identity (at least in what she calls her real books). Having written a fictional work based on her childhood, what made Winterson write the memoir? I am curious and will certainly be reading the book.

However, it is the title itself that I find most compelling, at least today. It sums up a core dilemma facing people who can pass for normal.

As a teenager, I had a denim jacket covered with buttons. One of them asked “Why be Normal?” If you had asked me then, I would have told you conformity sucked, that normal was for drones not individuals. The truth is, I wore it on my jacket because I wanted to believe it. I wanted to think that throwing off the constraint of trying to be normal would be okay. But, I wasn’t sure. I had a vague instinct that trying to be normal was a questionable act, but I believed I would be happy if only I were normal.

It was decades before I would truly see how deeply that wish to be normal had wounded me.

But hey, “Why be happy when you could be normal?”

Coming up in this series: passing, contemporary taboos, sneaky deep truth-telling, and more


About Kate Arms-Roberts

Posted on March 27, 2012, in Daily Life and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Loved hearing about your denim jacket covered in buttons.

    I can feel a journaling session with my fountain pen coming on. And maybe another dream or two featuring the color red. Thanks for the great question.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      I wish I could remember all of the buttons on that jacket. It had such 80s nerdy classics as “Be Alert! Your Country Needs Lerts!”

      And I could use a fountain pen – and a locked cabinet to keep it away from my kids.

      Here’s to your journaling. I would love to hear anything that comes up that you feel like sharing.

      • Kate, I love the one about the Lerts!!

        For the 10K Day yesterday I did a whole bunch of stream-of-consciousness writing. It wasn’t directly related to the question “Why be happy vs. normal?” – or, at least, I didn’t consciously start with that question – but the stuff that came out was definitely in the realms of answering that question for myself as a writer, very deeply and satisfactorily. I’d go so far as to say that – plus the feelings I had while working on a fairy tale yesterday – have changed my writing life drastically.

        For the better. :~)

        The hidden trail I took to trace that fairy tale to where it had gotten buried in my computer files (I started writing it in 2005) definitely had what you wrote about Gingericana as one of its major signposts. You have no idea how glad I am you wrote that post!

  2. I love that title! It does fit very well with your theme and could spin in with Impostor Syndrome or Shame or a number of other topics that would fit nicely with truth telling and being yourself. I may have to put that book on my list of books to read next. Thanks. 🙂

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      Thanks, Tom. I’m adding a couple of those themes to my maybe I’m going to write on them soon list.


  3. Patricia Morris

    I have three comments on normal, each unique and different. One: “Normal is in the eye of the beholder”, two: “Normal is over-rated”, and three (my personal favourite) “I’m normal, the rest of the world is crazy”

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      “I’m normal, the rest of the world is crazy” is just the sort of thing I would have worn on that jacket. I think I did have a “normal is over-rated” button.

  4. I had the same button. I had it on my purse and wore it upside down. I also had a fake “Izod” shirt –the crocodile was dead. Wish I still had it –just found out it’s a collector’s item:
    When people asked about it, I explained it was my Official Fashion Statement.

    But riddle me this: Why be normal when you can be *happy*?? 😀

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      I knew you were awesome!!

      The dead crocodile would probably have been too subtle for my taste. I was pretty in your face during those years – temporary pink hair teased to the sky, safety pins in my ears, chain jewelry, Doc Martens, etc. Except for the days I couldn’t be bothered, on which I wore jeans and t-shirts like everybody else.

      It took me a long to time to deeply accept that fitting in with the massess would never make me happy. The protest years were grounded in defense mechanisms rather than rooted in self-acceptance.

  5. Nice foreshadowing toward future posts at the end of this one!

    The title is intriguing, and I’m looking forward to your exploration. As for your question about following up a novel with a memoir of the same events, I have two reactions. 1) I’m betting the novel was easier for her to write, and thus came first. 2) I’m betting the memoir will be an even more impactful read because we don’t just have to guess at what is true, we know it all is.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      Foreshadowing, yes. Also baiting myself to finish out the month. Plus the series is heading towards post that I am having huge difficulty writing, so I am hoping that having set up the series, the work will demand to be written.

      I agree with you about the likelihood of both points about the memoir. The novel was also published in 1985 and I am sure things have happened in the intervening years.

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