Friday, 31 January 2014

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, by Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Rebecca Johnson

Negotiating with the Dead is not a self-help book for writers – not even one about trying to pick a new way among the myriads of brilliant plots, characters and sentences written by people who have gone before you. There is no advice on how to construct a story arc, how to find inspiration or whether or not to kill your darlings. Atwood’s explanation of the task she set herself when she was asked to write this book or, rather, to perform the lectures that the book is based on, is to ‘examine the various self-images – the job descriptions if you like – that writers have constructed for themselves over the years.’ She then goes on to say how hard she found this task and lists the many things that she was not sure that she could offer. No literary theories, declarations, manifestos or the like. She ends up with a definition that is vague, even perhaps coy, but seems to cover it all. The book is about ‘the position the writer finds himself in; or herself, which is always a little different.’ It’s about what it is that writers get up to when they write.

I should say now that I think Atwood is being a little disingenuous here. Because this is, in many ways, a book about the politics of writing (and of reading, though there is less of that). Specifically and severally, it is about the politics of writing as a woman, and as a writer growing up in a marginal culture, from a post-colonial position. So although she doesn’t talk about how she devised her marvellous stories, or how she learnt her craft, she makes it very clear, without ever being boring or seeming to lecture, that writing is always a political act, and is always from the experience of being who you are and where you are from.

In six chapters, based on the six Empson Lectures* she gave at the University of Cambridge in 2000, she looks at this occupation, or vocation, or art from various perspectives. How does one become a writer, she asks. What is a writer? Who do writers think writers are? Who does society think writers are? Who do writers write for? And who readers think writers are? She progresses from the raw material of a writer and how this might differ from anything or anyone else, through the conflict between ‘art’ and money, or ‘art for art’s sake’ versus the moral and social imperatives of writing, to the mythic and magical status writers are accorded at the borders of shamanism and religion as representatives of the knowledge of the dead. To do this she uses writers’ own words, stories and myths from an eclectic range of sources woven together in witty, down to earth, erudite and ingenious ways to illustrate her points. Is writing just showing off? Or is it the heart and soul of our societies?

Margaret Atwood’s book is a fascinating read for anyone wishing to write, or ‘be a writer’. Not only because she says, modestly, that she is a fairly ordinary person from an unprepossessing background who made it because she kept on going (unlike her brother, who wrote poems as a young man but then stopped). But because it is a heady myth in itself, woven together in part from the words of others, casting the writer as a genie who, like Prospero in The Tempest, pulls the strings of power from behind the scenes. ‘All writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality…to bring something or someone back from the dead,’ she argues. If this sounds a little morbid or peculiar, she says, that’s because it is. ‘Writing itself is a little peculiar.’

So now we know why we’re all just slightly odd.

*In honour of William Empson, poet and literary critic, author of Seven Types of Ambiguity among many other works.

(Virago, 2003, £8.99 pbk).

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