Negotiationg With the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood

If you pick this up expecting Atwood to teach you how to be a good writer, you will be disappointed (of course, if you expect to become a good writer simply from reading books about being a writer you have already lost the battle). This is not a manual on writing. Rather, it’s Atwood writing about how she became a writer, what it means to be a writer, and why writers do what they do.

If, in the course of my life,  I manage to become even half as talented as Margaret Atwood, that will be enough. That’s really all I can think of to say, so I’ll just share some of my favorite parts of the book (warning – I had a lot of favorite parts):

“Around the age of seven I wrote a play. The protagonist was a giant; the theme was crime and punishment; the crime was lying, as befits a future novelist; the punishment was being squashed to death by the moon.
…This play was not a raging success. As I recall, my brother and his pals came in and laughed at it, thus giving me an early experience of literary criticism.”

“All writers are double, for the simple reason that you can never actually meet the author of the book you have just read. Too much time has elapsed between composition and publication, and the person who wrote the book is now a different person. Or so goes the alibi. On the one hand, this is a convenient way for a writer to wriggle out of responsibility, and you should pay no attention to it. Yet on the other hand, it is quite true.”

“…Alice [of Wonderland:] is not the writer of the story about her. Nevertheless, 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, the glass barrier between the doubles dissolves, and 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.”

[talking about growing up in the 50s:] “You could not advertise sanitary products for women and call them what they were, which gave rise to a degree of surrealism unmatched in advertising since. I remember in particular a woman in a white Grecian-style evening gown standing on a marble staircase and gazing out over the sea, with a caption under her that said, ‘Modess…Because.’ Because what? I wondered as a child. This is a question that still recurs in dreams.”

“The title of this chapter is ‘Negotiating with the Dead,’ and its hypothesis is that not just some, but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality – by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.
You may find the subject a little peculiar. It is a little peculiar. Writing itself is a little peculiar.”

Verdict: five out of five stars


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