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 appeals.”
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 book.
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.