Moving Targets: Writing with Intent 1982-2004
Reviewed: May 18, 2005
By: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: House of Anansi Press
422 pages, $39.95
While you might expect that most writers have some purpose
behind putting pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard), you might also
imagine that one as busy as Margaret Atwood, with novels, books of poetry,
plays and children’s books to her credit, might draw the line somewhere.
Apparently not. While getting her to write little essays,
book introductions and lectures might be a tad more difficult than she makes it
out to be, the introduction to this 22 year retrospective collection makes it
seem that all you have to do is ask.
“Occasionally these essays have been in-aid-of: they’re been
fundraisers, they’ve been worth-cause bandages, they’ve been dragon-slayings or
Blue Fairy wand-wavings. having had my character ruined by the Brownies and the
Girls Guides in my youth, I have a difficult time resisting some lend-a-hand
So here we have an assemblage 51 articles of various
lengths: introductions to other peoples’ books, book reviews, words in honour
of several people (Dennis Lee, for instance), a eulogy or three (Carol Shields,
Timothy Findlay, and others), reflections on the place of women in fiction, on
the art of writing the historical novel, appreciations of the work of several
other creative people, and some personal thoughts about some of her own work.
Ever wonder what it’s like to be one of the judges in a
literary contest. Atwood will tell you in “Reading Blind.”
Curious about how an eventually famous writer is viewed by
her family at various points in her career, read “Great Aunts”. Part of the
answer, which should be no surprise, involves amusement, toleration and
occasional bouts of trepidation.
Wondering why anyone would chose to chain themselves to the
needs of what Steven King calls the “wordy-gurdy” in the mind? Read “Nine
Beginnings.” There you will find nine attempts to try answering the question
‘Why do you write?”
“I hate writing about my writing because I nothing to say
about it. I have nothing to say about it because I can’t remember what goes on
when I’m doing it. That time is like little pieces cut out of my brain. It’s
not time I have lived. I can remember the details of the rooms and places where
I’ve written, the circumstances, the other things I did before and after, but
not the process itself. Writing about writing requires self-consciousness;
writing itself requires the abdication of it.”
Or, as science fiction writer William Gibson has written:
“"I sit down at the keyboard and then I wait for the guy who writes the
books to show up."
For “books” I think maybe you could substitute any other
word involving writing, and maybe a few from other art forms.
Of particular interest to me were several articles dealing
with the thinking behind several of her novels: The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias
Grace and Oryx and Crake. In the case of the latter novel, her latest, there
was an essay about it, but also several pieces on themes that related to it. As
when I read the collected letters of George Orwell (who also gets an essay in
this book) I could see her building up a head of steam which was bound to drive
her writing in a certain direction. By the time she was triggered to write
about the end of the world as we know it, she had already written smaller
pieces about the ideas she would use to develop the doomsday scenario in the
As Neil Gaiman would put it, she had a beginning and and
ending, all she needed was the “middling”; of course, the journey between here
and there is often the hardest part of anything.
In “Nine Beginnings” Atwood wonders what it would be like to
be an archeologist, working her way through “the layers of old paper that mark
the eras of my life as a writer.” In some ways, this kind of a book is like
that sort of excavation, providing a fascinating insight into the continuing
development of one of our best know literary figures.