Negotiating with the Dead: Atwood on Writing

I’m not a scholar or a literary theoretician, and any such notions that have wandered into this book have got there by the usual writerly methods, which resemble the ways o the jackdaw: we steal the shiny bits, and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests.

–Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead

Margaret Atwood is not an easy writer to categorize. Her work often spans the space between genres; her voice is both distinct and singular. So it’s not especially surprising that her book on writing is equally unique. It’s more a philosophical look at the life of the writer than it is a discussion of craft or a dispensation of advice. The result is much as she describes it in the quote from the introduction shown above, an intriguing amalgamation of literary criticism with Atwood’s own first-hand experiences as both poet and prose writer, and how her gender, era, and nationality shaped her path.

I’ve been doing research on ancient myths of late, so the references Atwood uses in Chapter 6 (“Descent: Negotiating with the dead”) held a particular interest for me. She describes Gilgamesh as the original writer: he travels into the underworld on a quest for everlasting life and returns instead with two stories, which he immediately inscribes in stone—a fitting metaphor for the process of writing. The idea of storytelling as a form of immortality is something she explores elsewhere in the book, as well. You could argue the question “Why do writers write?” is the book’s main motivation, and though she’s not interested in providing a concrete answer, the options she presents are all intriguing.

Chapter 4 (“Temptation: Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co.”) also spoke to a debate I’ve been having with myself of late, namely the writer’s responsibility to their society and culture. Does being a feminist oblige the writer to address issues of inequality in her work? The question here is whether art should exist for art’s sake or whether it should have a purpose a higher aim. As with the question of a writer’s motivation, Atwood doesn’t come down firmly on either side of this debate, more laying out the popular arguments of each and letting the reader do with them as they will.

Negotiating with the Dead encourages writers to think about the broader picture of their writing life. Who is your writer self? Why does she write? Who does she write for? They’re questions it’s worth taking time out to ask every now and then, no matter what point you’re at in your own writing career.

A couple quotes to finish. One from Chapter 1 (“Orientation: Who do you think you are?”):

It took me a long time to figure out that the youngest in a family of dragons is still a dragon from the point of view of those who find dragons alarming.

…which isn’t writing advice so much as life advice, really. For a line that I think sums up fairly well the overall message of this book, I turn to the aforementioned Chapter 4, on “Temptation”:

An art of any kind is a discipline; not only a craft—that too—but a discipline in the religious sense, in which the vigil of waiting, the creation of a receptive spiritual emptiness, and the denial of self all play their part.

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