Experiment! It's the only way to be free

As her new play opens at the National Theatre, Jeanette Winterson delivers her manifesto on art
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People talk about realism – but what do they mean? They usually mean the everyday world of clocks and jobs and houses. People talk about personal experience – but what do they mean? They mean autobiography. The rise in soap opera drama and confessional chat shows is part of this insistence on realism.

People talk about realism – but what do they mean? They usually mean the everyday world of clocks and jobs and houses. People talk about personal experience – but what do they mean? They mean autobiography. The rise in soap opera drama and confessional chat shows is part of this insistence on realism.

But how real is it? I am interested in total reality – that includes the inner world as well as the outer world. It includes what we dream as well as what happens to us.

For me, personal experience is much more than autobiography; personal experience is also imaginative questing.

Everything I have written is a quest – a quest for self, a quest for understanding, a quest for emotional integrity. When I am asked about my books I have to say that they are ways of seeking, as well as ways of seeing.

I am telling a story, yes. I am handling the world we know, yes. But I have to go farther than that, because art does not simply describe the world, it transforms it.

How?

Take a Cézanne apple. The painted apple is and is not the one in the fruit bowl, the one you will eat tomorrow morning. A Cézanne apple is not a representation of an apple; it is a way of re-presenting the apple to us so that we can actually see it. We see it as if for the first time. As if it is the only apple in the world. We see it as Eve must have done, all those years ago in the Garden.

It is very difficult for us to look at things. Life passes in a blur. We don't know how to see the object in itself as it really is, because our own subjective reality is always intruding, and we are not in command of ourselves enough, to know how subject and object are always coming together and forming new wholes. Our experience is fragmented and partial.

Art brings together our disparate realities and gives us a coherent experience. The emotional satisfaction of art is the satisfaction of wholeness.

All my life I have been working to find ways of revealing the heart. We may be sophisticated, but our feelings are not. We may be in control of our lives, but still we fall in love.

We know everything about love and nothing at all.

My work sits better in the European tradition of Borges and Calvino, than it does in the Anglo-American tradition of realism and narrative. I like to use invented worlds. I cross continents of history and geographies of time to arrive in a wooded valley and dig up a story. There are always stories – endless stories – but not locked in to time and place.

Art is about freedom. I want huge freedom in my work. I want to give that freedom to my readers, my audience.

Formally, I am concerned to weld together the narrative possibilities of fiction with the iconic densities of poetry. Language is more than meaning – it is rhythm and richness and transformation. Find the right words and you don't just find the meaning, you can go beyond meaning into being. That is what the best poetry does. That is the challenge I want to work with.

This is a multi-media, cross-platform age. The old forms are collapsing.

Categories of fiction and non-fiction, poetry and the novel, stage and text, hardly serve us anymore. The interesting work is being done among the rubble of this collapse. We have to be building new forms, finding new ways of working.

When Deborah Warner approached me for the dramatic rights to The PowerBook, she said she wanted to make a new kind of theatre. I was relieved. The old territory of adapting for stage or screen is short of water now. We need new wells; new places to drink. There are risks involved here, but what you risk reveals what you value.

The PowerBook experiment is to take text – much as Deborah and Fiona [Shaw, a co-collaborator on the project] did with The Wasteland – and let the drama happen through it. The text becomes a prism through which light can be passed. As the light passes through it (invention, direction, acting, music and set can be called the light here), shapes and shadows and colours appear, and some things are enlarged and others shrink away. The development of the form is organic – only at the last possible second do we fix it. Above all, we trust the text, and that is where we differ from a workshop or devised piece. There are formal boundaries and we agreed at the start that if The PowerBook itself collapsed under the pressure, we would abandon the project.

I am passionate about experiment – it is the only way forward, and it is odd that while we acknowledge experiment in science, we dislike it in art.

Our instincts are conservative, we prefer to go with what we know. Yet art must renew itself. Only by renewing itself does it remain connected with what has gone before. The art of the past and the art of the present are made out of the unbreakable chain of human creativity, and we need to be tolerant of that. We might even encourage it.

At the same time, I am passionate about form. Formlessness is chaos. I stretch the rules, and I break them when I can, but I know what the rules are.

In theatre, the rules are very visible – for actors, directors, and writers. Stick to the rules and you can make a good, entertaining piece of work. Break them, and you might do something amazing, or you might close your show. Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw have consistently broken the rules of theatre. Their genius has been to make it work – both constructionally, and as an emotional journey. It is a great privilege for me to work with them.

Years ago, when I first came to London, I got a job with Thelma Holt at the Roundhouse. She was a fantastic mentor, and although I went by a different route and chose fiction, I hoped that one of life's circles would bring me back – to know the place where I started from, beginning again, as we all must sometimes.

To avoid discovery, I stay on the run. To discover things for myself, I stay on the run.

© Jeanette Winterson 2002

This is an extract from the programme notes to 'The PowerBook', the first show at the National's new Lyttelton space, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), now previewing, opens Sat to 4 June. Jeanette Winterson's website: www.jeanettewinterson.com

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