Negotiating with the dead: Margaret Atwood on what it means to be a writer

The short book, Negotiating with the Dead, is a collection of six lectures Margaret Atwood gave on writing. This is not a typical writing handbook, dispensing now-cliched advice like “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell.” Rather, Atwood tackles the question of what does it mean to “be a writer?” What is the writer, anyway, and why are writers compelled to write? She ends up posing more questions than she answers.

The six lectures each address a different aspect of the Writer. Using examples from literature, poetry, and mythology, Atwood positions the writer as six archetypes. Indeed, each of her lectures could describe types of story as well as facets of the storyteller (more on that in a later post). Atwood’s insights are unusual but will ring true to anyone who has felt the urge to write, or indeed, to any creator, I suspect.

The following are my notes on each lecture. However, to gain full understanding of Atwood’s insights, you should read the book; it won’t take you long, and if you are interested in writing or literature, it is worth it.

(1) Orientation: Who do you think you are? What is “a writer,” and how did I become one?

“Who do you think you are?” is the question every writer gets asked, and every writer asks him/herself. Is the writer special? Society seems to accord the writer a certain respect. The writer cannot distinguish between the real and imagined: “Every life lived is also an inner life, a life created.”

(2) Duplicity: The jekyll hand, the hyde hand, and the slippery double. Why there are always two.

Every writer is a double: one-half does the living, one-half does the writing. “The writer is obscured by the image he himself has created.” The author is “the name without any body except a body of work.”

The printed text is like a musical score. New readers make the text new by finding fresh meaning in it. The “act of reading is like playing music and listening to it at the same time and the reader becomes his own interpreter.”

(3) Dedication: The great god pen. Apollo vs. Mammon: at whose altar should the writer worship?

The writer as priest/ess, serving “the potentially destructive cult of art for art’s sake.” The writer sacrifices him/herself for art and forfeits the “human ability to feel.”

In the question of money versus art, Atwood reaches no real conclusion except that women have it harder (always).

(4) Temptation: Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co. Who waves the wand, pulls the strings, or signs the Devil’s book?

Writers are haunted by their own inconsequence. “Nobody hates writers more than writers do. Nobody loves them more either.”

When money and power intersect art, they control what the writer may produce. This is the outside world’s influence. In other words, how much for your soul?

Where the writer influences the outside world, this is the writer’s social responsibility. What is the writer’s duty?

“The suffering will occur whether you like it or not.” Suffering is a result of writing, rather than a cause. Publishing is like being put on trial.

Trying for power is unethical, but not engaging with the world risks irrelevance. Is there a self-identity for the writer that combines responsibility with artistic integrity? Possibly the witness.

Can anything and everything be viewed as material? Not only does the writer lose the soul, but also the heart. The cold-eyed artist observes and records.

It isn’t the writer who decides whether his/her work is relevant–it’s the reader.

(5) Communion: Nobody to Nobody. The eternal triangle: the writer, the reader, and the book as go-between.

The common writerly dilemma is the question: Who is going to read this?

For whom does the writer write? Where is the writer when the reader is reading? (Not in the same room). The writer is the invisible man–not there but also solidly there at the same time.

The reader is a spy who overhears or trespasses. The reader is “nobody” (you, dear reader, constant reader). But the reader is also the reading public (the “admiring Bog”).

Books must travel from reader to reader to stay alive.

(6) Descent: Negotiating with the dead. Who makes the trip to the Underworld, and why? (This is the key chapter.)

All writing is motivated by a fear of and fascination with mortality. Writing is linked closely to anxiety about one’s own personal extinction. It is desire for (grasping at) immortality. Writing has apparent permanence; it survives its own performance.

Storytelling is the relation of events unfolding through time, and time runs out for everyone. The dead are situated outside of time but persist in the minds of the living. They know the past and the future. We can gain knowledge (stories) from them.

The dead can talk if you know how to listen, and they want to talk. Give the dead what they want to get what we want (knowledge, luck, protection, riches, glory, lost love). They want blood (life, sacrifice, revenge, food). However, they will retaliate if the deal is broken.

All writers learn from the dead. The dead control the past, so they also control the stories, and the truth. The writer makes the journey from “now” to “once upon a time.”

The writer goes to the Underworld (any “other world” outside of time) and brings back stories. The story is in the dark. The writer is of both worlds (double-natured).

It’s easy to go there but hard to come back. Then you must write it all down. Then the right reader must come along so it can speak.

A book is another country. You enter it, but then you must leave. You can’t live there. Even if someone is briefly brought to life in the writing, they are always lost again.

“By my voice I shall be known.”

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Negotiating with the dead: Margaret Atwood on what it means to be a writer

  1. Thanks so much for this recap. I really related to: “The author is ‘the name without any body except a body of work.'” That’s so me, the persona that gets to exist away from the “real world.” Is it just me or is the way Margaret Atwood discusses writing super spooky?

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