Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Margaret Atwood on Writing

I've been in love with Margaret Atwood's writing for years. The first book of hers I read was The Robber Bride and I still remember how real the characters felt. I'm currently reading The Blind Assassin and wish I could spend more time in that world.

Margaret Atwood's book Negotiating With the Dead is not about her own writing process. It's a higher view of writing—why we write, the relationship between the writer and reader, and where does it all come from anyway?

Contemplating what a writer with forty-plus years experience might say on such broad topics, she wrote:

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 for the innocent pilgrim, worthy enough, no doubt, but no doubt useless: dangers multiply by the hour, you never step into the same river twice, the vast empty spaces of the blank page appall, and everyone walks into the maze blindfolded.

Negotiating With the Dead is a compilation of the six Empson lectures she gave at the University of Cambridge in the year 2000. She says that any notions of literary theory and being a scholar that may have crept into the book got there in the usual writer's way: like the jackdaw, "we steal the shiny bits, and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests."

Writing—A Blind Endeavor

Because I often can't figure out where I'm going with a story, I connected with her idea of writing as a journey into a labyrinth.

I just need to plunge in. I don't always see the plot and direction clearly. Some writers do and they make me feel inadequate. I feel them looking at me out of the corner of their eye and thinking, "Who gave you permission to be a writer? If you're a writer, then you're the creator of your story and characters, you decide what happens, you're in control." Then why don't I feel that way? Why do I feel like I spend most of my time groping around in the dark?

I was relieved when Margaret suggested that the writing process is often

an inability to see one's way forward, but a feeling that there is a way forward, and that the act of going forward would eventually bring about the conditions for vision...Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.

The website Brainpickings has a list of Margaret Atwood's 10 rules of writing. I'd like to close with one of them:

You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

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