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.”

 

 

Hard truths about writing…

This is really such a great post by Chuck Wendig that every aspiring writer should read: 25 More Hard Truths About Writing And Publishing. Pursuing writing as a career is so full of contradictions. It’s an art, it’s a craft, it’s sales and marketing. You’re venerated, you’re reviled. You probably make crapola, even if you’re relatively successful, yet people think you’re rolling in dough. Everybody wants to be a writer, but weirdly, there aren’t that many readers. And readers are fickle and can turn on you for the weirdest reasons. I think the only really good reason to be a writer is that you like telling stories. If you sell and find an audience and maybe even get rich, that’s all gravy, but it should not be the reason you write.

All Play And No Work…

This is a great piece by Neal Pollack about writing and The Shining (book and movie), and it also touches on the “calm the fuck down” parenting method, which we have adopted in our household as well: All Play And No Work: Neal Pollack Watches ‘The Shining’ On Netflix With His 13-Year-Old Son 

True story. When The Shining first came out, I saw a commercial for it on TV, and I was terrified that my parents would make me go see it. If you knew my parents, you’d know that this was not such a far-fetched fear. I was 9 when it came out.

It’s one of my favorite movies now, by the way.

On Pandering: How to Write Like a Man

What an amazing essay by Claire Vaye Watkins. Her novel Gold Fame Citrus is on my “I need to read this soon” list.

A taste:

Let us embrace a do-it-yourself canon, wherein we each make our own canon filled with what we love to read, what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up, wherein we can each determine our artistic lineages for ourselves, with curiosity and vigor, rather than trying to shoehorn ourselves into a canon ready made and gifted us by some white fucks at Oxford.

Read: On Pandering | Tin House

Margaret Atwood walks around in a state of wonder…

More great stuff from Margaret Atwood! Brain Pickings shares a short animation that accompanies Atwood’s meditation on how technology shapes storytelling. Worth watching.

A few recent links about writing and similar creative pursuits…

Stephen King asks: Can a novelist be too productive?

We are all artists now, though.

But if you don’t click on this story, the writer doesn’t get paid.

A caution against self-publishing, with links…

I have a side job right now where I review “indie” books, which mostly means self-published books, although some small-press books are also thrown into the mix. Reading on average one self-published book a week for the past several months has made me very pessimistic about the quality of self-published books in general. In fact, it’s pretty insulting to readers, some of the dreck that’s being sold to us in these days of instant self-publication. A book may be a piece of art, it may be your baby, but it’s also a product that is being sold, and readers deserve a professional product. I view my little reviews as something of a public service, either a message to the author that the book was not nearly ready for publication, or if that’s not something the author wants to hear, then a message to the reader to beware.

It’s not all bad news. Self-published nonfiction tends to be better quality than fiction, I think because nonfiction is more likely written by a professional in his or her field. When it comes to fiction, though, I have a hard time recommending any of it. Of all the books I’ve reviewed, I’ve only given an unqualified recommendation to books published by a small press, which had obviously received the attention of an editor, a copyeditor, a designer, and a cover artist.

Based on my forays into the world of self-published books as a reviewer, I’ve developed a prejudice against them as a reader. Whether that’s fair or not, it’s the natural result of being exposed to so much amateurish self-published writing. I can assure you that I’m not the only reader who is rapidly learning never to touch a self-published book. I would caution any new writer to think long and hard before choosing to self-publish. For a small subset of writers, self-publishing may be a good way to build a readership and maximize profits. However, most writers won’t be able to distinguish themselves in the rapidly expanding ocean of self-published books out there, and they may be putting their work out for judgment before it’s mature enough.

For further reading, here’s a small collection of links about deciding whether to self-publish:

Finally, if you decide to go the self-publishing route, make sure that your command of spelling and grammar is impeccable. Readers should not have to read your book with a red pencil in their hands. And please, I’m begging you, learn the difference between passed and past.