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Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

by Margaret Atwood

Like the set of lectures that Margaret Atwood gave at Oxford University and reformatted into Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature, the six chapters that comprise Negotiating with the Dead started life as the Empson Lectures at Cambridge University. The general theme of these essays is writing, not in the sense of “literary theories, or abstract plans, or declarations, or manifestos,” but what a writer like Atwood, busy in the “wordmines” for 40 years, thinks about the activity of putting words onto paper. Is writing a job, a vocation, or a necessity? Why represent things with language at all? For whom? To what social or personal end?

Using her own experiences as a poet in 1950s Toronto, Atwood humorously advises young writers that they are not alone in their daunting task, and that they should get back on the horse that throws them. But she also claims that no advice will do. This is not a how-to book. In lieu of the sort of coaching that happens at creative writing seminars, she surveys theories of writing by Plato, Oscar Wilde, John Milton, and assorted others.

For instance, Atwood finds that people write to record the world as it is, to attract the love of a beautiful man or woman, to honour the dead, to get revenge, to serve Art, to serve the Collective Unconscious, to justify the ways of God to man, and so on. In short, no two writers write for the same reasons.

The most persuasive image of writing for Atwood is that of maneuvering in the dark and bringing to light some knowledge not previously beheld. For this reason, the last essay in this series, about descent into the underworld, is the most sweeping in its implications. From her poems in Double Persephone through to the sci-fi fantasies of bondage and imprisonment in The Blind Assassin, Atwood has long been gripped by the idea of death and its secrets. She extrapolates from this mythic conception of darkness a notion of books as encounters with death: “A book is another country. You enter it, but then you must leave: like the Underworld, you can’t live there.”

Taken together, these six essays could be read as introductions to Atwood’s poetry and novels. She lays out issues like Tarot cards, each one mesmerically suggestive. Aside from a few corny jokes – these were lectures intended to be heard, not read – Atwood’s style glistens with sharp details and sly wit. Her asides on Santa Claus and the Bohemian Embassy coffee-house in Toronto – two examples among many – make this book both an interpretive exercise and a cultural history.

The essays also cover a vast range of readings, as if they comprised an undergraduate survey of the best that has been thought and said in English, Canadian, and (sometimes) European literature. Each chapter has splashy epigraphs, usually five or six, in case one was not enough. Scotch-tape, rather than intrinsic connections, hold these examples together. Titles of poems and novels multiply. Certain favourite authors, such as Cyril Connolly, Isak Dinesen, and Henry James, take several star turns apiece. A pack of Canadian poets materializes for local colour, though they all tend to be the mid-century kind: Jay MacPherson, Al Purdy, Milton Acorn, Gwendolyn MacEwen.

The range of reference is deliciously eclectic, if heavily weighted towards 1950s culture: Moira Shearer, Peyton Place, Martian narratives. This is not a book for slackers. Much is explained, but much more is implied. We could call this “classroom Atwood.” The pose is that of a professor manqué in the biscuits-and-sherry manner of an Oxford don – Empson himself, perhaps, or mousy little Walter Pater nibbling a cracker and talking about the Renaissance.

When Atwood tells personal anecdotes and draws lessons from experience, her text quickens with life. Wondering about audiences, Atwood tells a hair-raising story about writing books as a Brownie in her girlhood and sewing them together with sock-darning yarn. She gave these handmade books to Brown Owl, her “wise and fair” group leader. Fifty years later, Atwood included a version of Brown Owl in her novel Cat’s Eye. Through a chain of circumstances, she was reintroduced to her old Brownie leader who, for unknown reasons, had kept Atwood’s darned books and handed them back to the author.

Brown Owl died three days after remeeting Atwood, not, we assume, because she no longer owned an original Margaret
Atwood manuscript, handmade like one of Emily Dickinson’s fascicules, but because she was wise and fair and old as a Sybilline prophet. From this anecdote, Atwood concludes that the writer writes for a specific person, a Brown Owl who listens and approves and never forgets. One could draw another conclusion: the writer writes for her future self. The ambitious Brownie merely inherits the words that she sent into the world 50 years earlier.