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.”



Great writing for weekend reading…

Here’s a roundup of great writing found on the Internet in recent days…

Procrastination may be good for creativity…

Adam Grant explains why putting things off may lead to more creative work (as long as you don’t leave it till the last minute).

100-day writing challenge + zombie invasion…

Qwiklit has a 100-day writing challenge going on, 100 prompts for short pieces hidden until you click to help clear out the cobwebs and get you started writing. I’m giving it a go. Here’s my short piece for day 2, “Zombie Invasion.”

Prompt: At this moment, the area you’re in is suddenly ravaged by zombies. With the internet and phone lines cut off, all you have at your disposal are things in your room.

I’m sitting in my office, surfing Tumblr, when I hear them outside. I look out the window and groan. Not zombies again! They’re everywhere you look these days. On TV, at the movies, even in YA romance novels. Aren’t they a little played out by now? Sure, zombies have overwhelming numbers and they keep on coming and they’re disgustingly gross, but other than that, they aren’t all that scary or even interesting. There’s only so much you can do with the premise. Uh oh, it’s the end of the world, everybody grab a gun, try to rape a random woman, and turn on your fellow human beings. Oh, and make sure a couple of you guys turn to cannibalism so we can do this bit about how we’re not much better than the zombies. I like The Walking Dead as much as anybody, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s the last I want to see of zombies for a lifetime. I want something new, something dynamic, something twenty-first century. And no, I’m not talking about something old all dressed up as new, like sparkly vampires. What is that even? Vampires are not sexy. They suck blood out of people’s bodies. They are very pale. They seem to brood a lot. Not sexy at all. Who would even want to hang around with someone like that for an evening, much less forever? Werewolves are so dead end, they’ve been reduced to supporting parts. Ghosts are always a fan favorite, but now we have to treat them like people, with sad back stories and mopey dialogue. That kind of takes the scare out of them. We need new monsters!

Guess I wouldn’t be much good in a zombie invasion.

Recommended Reading: Men Explain Things to Me

41r8yICXM-L._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_You may think Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit’s short collection of essays (including the one that helped spawn the term “man-splaining”), is necessary reading for women, and you’d be right. But it’s also a great read for all creative types.

When I first started reading these essays, I felt angry. That’s okay; I’m used to feeling angry. What I liked about this collection is that she goes beyond anger, which can lead all too easily to feelings of despair and hopelessness, and   provides hope for a brighter future, as well as an impetus that we all keep doing our small part because everyone’s work toward equality is important. “Woolf’s Darkness” was the essay I most highlighted, because it talks about how creative work gets done and ties that into the limitations placed on women, and also because it introduces the idea that the future is dark. We cannot know what will happen in the future or how our actions now might make a difference. We are all spinners in a web, and how those threads come together, we just don’t know, but those threads are all necessary, so we cannot stop our work, whatever it may be. We all make a difference.

Solnit says in this essay:

“To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable.”

“Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future, in Gonzalez’s resonant phrase. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans…”

While this essay spoke volumes to me, my favorite essay was “Grandmother Spider,” which begins by showing how women have been erased from family lines and thus from history, and ends by honoring the work of women, all of it, and how it taken together weaves an intricate and beautiful web:

“Every woman who appears wrestles with the forces that would have her disappear. She struggles with the forces that would tell her story for her, or write her out of the story, the genealogy, the rights of man, the rule of law. The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.”

An inspiring collection for all people really.

Everyone is creative…

It really bothers me when people say they aren’t creative. Everyone is, in some fashion. I am just as guilty every time I say I am tone deaf or that I have two left feet and that no one could ever possibly teach me how to sing or dance. I wish, more than anything, that we would all learn how to let go of limiting beliefs, stop comparing ourselves to others, cease worrying about what others think, and just let ourselves go and be free to experiment and play.

Source: Strengthening Your Creativity Muscles: Q&A with Bonnie Neubauer | Jane Friedman

Notes on Writing Down the Bones

Like the advice in pretty much all writing books, Natalie Goldberg’s advice in Writing Down the Bones boils down to the same core principles: write every day; don’t edit while you write; use detail; don’t worry about being perfect. Goldberg offers some useful tips for keeping a daily writing practice, but she also admits that you have to keep changing up your routine just to keep yourself interested. In other words, no one piece of advice is the magic bullet for all would-be writers, or will even work for one writer for the entirety of a writing life.

There are some useful nuggets to be mined here, and repetition helps the basic advice get heard. What I like about Goldberg’s approach to writing as a “practice” is that it takes the focus off the end product and puts it on the process of writing (or creating) just for its own sake. I think in American culture especially, we become too obsessed with productivity and sales and getting famous. We forget to do things for no other reason than our own enjoyment, and the spark gets lost that way.

Here are some key ideas from Writing Down the Bones that are worth remembering:

  • Composting: It takes time for our experiences to sift through our consciousness so we can write coherently about it. In other words, you’re not going to write well about something you’re going through right now. That’s why so many writers start with their childhood, I guess.
  • When you practice writing, it’s a good idea to separate the editor/internal censor  from the creator, but that’s very difficult to do for many of us!
  • It is the process of writing that teaches us how to write.
  • Writers write about their obsessions. List your obsessions and you have a list of things to write about.
  • Use original detail in your writing, but don’t be rigid about it. Fiction doesn’t have to absolutely mirror reality.
  • To be a good writer, you must read a lot of good books and write a lot. (This is what everyone says, but I find it so dismaying to run into writers who don’t read.)
  • “Show, don’t tell” actually means: Don’t tell readers what to feel; show them the situation and the feeling will awaken in them.
  • Be specific. Use the names of things.
  • Even if you aren’t sure of something, express it as if you know yourself.
  • If you have a big topic you want to write about, break it down into its aspects. Write small to get big.

Some interesting exercises I gleaned from the book:

  1. List 10 nouns on one side of a piece of paper. Cover them and list 15 verbs on the other side that are associated with a profession. Try to match nouns with verbs in unusual combinations to make sentences. Think about actions–they have power.
  2. If you can’t think of anything else to write about, write about food. We all love to eat.
  3. Keep a box or envelope or file of topic ideas. Pull one out and just start writing when you get stuck.
  4. If you are unsure of a piece, put it away for a while. Reread it as a reader, not as the writer. Underline the good parts and throw away the rest.