Discover more from Jeanette Winterson: Mind Over Matter
Word and World
What words are in your head, right now?
The days are short. The nights are long. Here is my kitchen table/
I am working in here tonight, at the kitchen table, listening to a classic Joni Mitchell album, Court and Spark. The words are so good - and, if you, like me, listen to lyrics, then it matters that the words are good.
That’s what this post is about: The words we use. The words we hear. The words we read. The words that follow us round. Nagging words or words that set us free.
The modern world is big on soundbites and short hits. Language is information - the headlines, the rolling news, the trailer, the billboard. Language is distraction - the endless interruptions of the day, often irritating, but that can be the most interesting parts of the day too, as we overhear a conversation, or turn on the radio driving home, finding ourselves in someone else’s language, someone else’s story. And there are the times when we should be listening, but we don’t; it might be a partner, a teacher, a friend, whatever it is, our attention is elsewhere. The distraction is in our heads.
The long day of language begins the moment we wake - that first thought as you open your eyes, or the thought that wakes you so that you want to keep your eyes closed - it could be pleasure, it could be fear, but it will set the tone for the rest of the day, even if you think you’ve forgotten it by the time you reach the bus-stop.
The moment we wake is significant. What is that thought? What are those words? Am I still in a dream? What is the dream? Where is my mind as it returns to consciousness? Give yourself a few seconds to hear your words as you wake. Are you cursing the alarm clock, or the kids, or the cat? Does the day feel too heavy for you to pick up? Do you turn on the TV? Do you reach for your phone?
I have taken to greeting myself in the mirror in the morning - just a friendly hello and a smile, as I inevitably look out of the bathroom window, cleaning my teeth in a daze, and responding to the weather. I try to keep things positive and simple first thing. My brain isn’t awake but my body is, and so I have to bring us into the same place - with love, or at least good humour. And if I am worried, I promise myself to address that as soon as I reasonably can during the morning. Just as I would if a friend called me early, needing some help. I might have to say, “I’ll call you in an hour”, but I would call, and so would you. Yet we put ourselves at the back of the queue so often.
It is important to treat yourself as you would treat a good friend.
I am a writer, so if I didn’t have time for books I wouldn’t be doing my job. I am aware that it is easier for me than for most people to make sure there’s a paragraph, or a poem, in my the day before too much of it passes. When I was a kid, growing up in a deeply religious home, we read a chapter of the Bible before the day was allowed to start. That was before breakfast but after washing and dressing. It’s a habit I haven’t lost and it helps me. I’m generally not reading the Bible, but I put some high quality language in my day as soon as I can - and that’s not whatever is on my phone trying to get my attention. Reading in the morning - and I mean 5 mins, if that is what you’ve got - resets your mind.
Listening to an audiobook as you travel, or as you make breakfast, can work just as well. And those who love music might find that Mozart is what they need. My friend, who is a classical musician, comes downstairs and plays herself some Mozart on the piano - and really, she says, it’s such a short time, and her little children are running around, but they know that’s what Mummy does, and of course, it works on their young brains too - and it literally sets the tempo and tone of the day.
The distractions outside and inside our heads need some taming. Some folks manage this through meditation, or prayer. Meditation is beyond language, prayer is language with intent. Both methods throw a rope around the chaos and keep it at bay. For me, the power of the word is exactly that; a safe space to be inside, where randomness is excluded. I find that my own personal narratives are calmer and more reflective when I have handed myself over to the high quality narratives of real writers for a while.
And I say real writers, because what I want is language worked to a high order - not airplane bookstore sensationalism, where it’s just about dopamine hits to keep you turning the page. I want the language itself to be at work - and that is above and beyond whatever is the story or the information - just as the best music is more than the tune or the melody.
I love poetry because nobody expects it to be ‘about’ anything. And yet it suggests universes to us - or meets the universes we are, the lonely unexplored vastness of inner being. Fiction can be much more than the sum of its story. Often it is not. I like a good thriller or a scary story, but I am uninterested in the life-as-lived type of fiction. I am living my life. That’s quite enough. It’s my mind I must manage. Train it away from distraction. That’s a daily task. It’s a task that gets harder and harder, because capitalism depends on distraction; when we are distracted we are easy to manipulate. You go online to read about Einstein and you’re shown adverts for holidays in Zurich.
Distraction is a form of emptiness. It is best handled by words that act like a charm or a spell - by the words you need, both to hear and to speak. Reading trains your mind to concentrate, but it also expands your ability to hear what is actually being said to you, and to respond with nuance. You will find the words you need because you have read the words you need. Your own language develops into so much more than short, sharp, informational exchanges that miss the mark of anything deeper. We learn to speak before we can read, but we learn about language through reading. Books take us away from the same dreary street - the same words used in the same way over and over again - and open us up to woods, rivers, mountains, cities, made of language.
When it comes to nightfall, many of us read in bed - and if we don’t, we should. We are opening the route to our dreams. Late-night TV, or fiddling with the phone, don’t help us to sleep well or to dream well. When I am reading, I will find the right image from the page, or even a sentence I like, sometimes one single word, and turn out the light, literally with that in mind. Yes, some people do this with the light out and a podcast. There’s more than one way - as with the rest of life.
I know we can’t always settle our minds like this at night. We get home too late, the kids aren’t sleeping, there’s work that must be done. We are too darn tired. Habits though, need regularity, that’s why they are habits. Body and mind need a few good habits. The words that say your goodnights and good mornings to you, should be part of your good habits.