Margaret Atwood essays

Margaret Atwood
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Prose: Essays

Negotiating with the dead: a writer on writing (essays) (2002)

Six stimulating and delightful essays adapted from her delivery of the Empson Lectures. Her Introduction includes [p. xvii]:

This book ... is about writing ... it's about the position the writer finds himself in; or herself, which is always a little different. It's the sort of book a person who's been laboring in the word-mines for, say forty years ... might think of beginning, the day after he or she wakes up in the middle of the night and wonders what she's been up to all this time.

What has she been up to, and why, and for whom?

... Perhaps I have reached the age at which those who have been through the wash-and-spin cycle a few times become seized by the notion that their own experience in the suds may be relevant to others. Perhaps I wish to say: Look behind you. You are not alone. Don't permit yourself to be ambushed. Watch out for the snakes. Watch out for the Zeitgeist— it is not always your friend. Keats was not killed by a bad review. Get back on the horse that threw you. ... advice no doubt useless.

... These are the three questions most often posed to writers, both by readers and by themselves: Who are you writing for? Why do you do it? Where does it come from?

She gives two dense pages of phrases paraphrased from other fiction writers she concludes [p. xxii]:

Evidently any search for common motives would prove fruitless.

She then asks novelists what it feels to begin a novel. This is a little more successful leading to her tentative comment [p. xxiv]:

Possibly, then, writing has something to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it and bring something back out to the light. That book is about that kind of darkness, and that kind of desire.

After a Prologue that is orientation to the "not tightly sequential" organization of the chapters we have:

  1. Orientation: Who do you think you are?
    Subtitled: "What is a 'writer' and how did I become one?"
    A quote from [p. 9]:

    My own view of myself was that I was small and innocuous, a marshmallow compared to the others [in her family]. ... It took me a long time to figure out that the youngest in a family of dragons is still a dragon from the point of view of those who find dragons alarming.

    and from [p. 14]:

    In 1956 ... I wrote a poem in my head and then I wrote it down, and after that writing was the only thing that I wanted to do.

  2. Duplicity: The jekyll hand, the hyde hand, and the slippery double
    Subtitled: "Why there are always two"
    So, who do you find if you meet the author? Probably not what you hoped for, as in this quote from [p. 35]:

    There's an epigram tacked to my office bulletin board pinched from a magazine — "Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté."

    A quote from [p. 57]:

    Here is my best guess, about writers and their elusive doubles, and the question of who does what as far as the actual writing goes. The act of writing takes place at the moment when Alice passes through the mirror. ... At this one instant, ... Alice is neither here nor there, neither art nor life, neither the one thing nor the other, though at the same time she is all of these at once. At that moment time itself stops, and also stretches out, and both writer and reader have all the time not in the world.

  3. Dedication: The Great God Pen [a pun not a typo]
    Subtitled: "Apollo vs. Mammon: at whose altar should the writer worship?"
    A quote from [p. 64]:

    The money factor is often underplayed in biographies of writers, the biographer being as a rule much more fascinated by love affairs, neuroses, addictions, influences, diseases, and bad habits generally. Yet money is often definitive, not just in what a writer eats but in what he or she writes.

    and from [p. 68]:

    I can still hear the sneer in the tone of the Parisian intellectual who asked me, "Is it true that you write the bestsellers?" "Not on purpose," I replied somewhat coyly. Also somewhat defensively, for I knew these equations as well as he did, and was thoroughly acquainted with both kinds of snobbery: that which ascribes value to a book because it makes lots of money, and that which ascribes value to a book because it doesn't.

  4. Temptation: Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co.
    Subtitled: "Who waves the wand, pulls the strings, or signs the Devil's book?"
    A quote from [p. 104]:

    Can everything and everyone be used by you — viewed as material, as they are by Hugo, the writer whose wife calls him a "filthy moral idiot" in the Alice Munro short story called "Material"? ... The lovely tricks, the magic. The art. It doesn't compensate — or not in the wife's mind — for the filthy moral idiocy of Hugo.

    and from [p. 122]:

    The secret is that it isn't the writer who decides whether or not his work is relevant. Instead, it's the reader.

  5. Communion: Nobody to Nobody
    Subtitled: "The eternal triangle: the writer, the reader, and the book as go-between"
    A quote from [p. 151]:

    That is who the writer writes for: for the reader. For the reader who is not Them, but You. For the Dear Reader. For the ideal reader, who exists on a continuum somewhere between Brown Owl and God. And this ideal reader my prove to be anyone at all — any one at all — because the act of reading is just as singular — always — as the act of writing.

  6. Descent: Negotiating with the dead
    Subtitled: "Who makes the trip to the Underworld, and why?"
    A quote from [p. 157]:

    The Minoan civilization which once flourished on Crete left remarkably few written texts, and this was possibly because the Minoans weren't overly afraid of mortality — writing being, above all, a reaction to the fear of death. [referencing Dudley Young's Origins of the Sacred. Atwood then goes on to list considerable supporting data.]

    But here in the world of writers [p. 178]:

    All writers learn from the dead. ... Because the dead control the past, they control the stories, and also certain kinds of truth ... so if you are going to indulge in narration, you'll have to deal, sooner or later, with those from previous layers of time. ... The dead may guard the treasure, but it's useless treasure unless it can be brought back to the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more — which means to enter the realm of the audience, the realm of the readers, the realm of change.

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