Negotiating with the Dead
Reviewed: July 4, 2003
By: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
219 Pages, $26.95
Sooner or later, it seems, many of those who write feel the need
to examine why they do it. The urge may come in the middle of life, as it
did with Stephen King, late along the way, as was the case with Pierre Berton,
or somewhere in between, as we have here. In Atwood's case it seems to have
helped to have been asked to deliver a series of lectures at the University
of Cambridge. Those six lectures, on the general topic of what it means
to be a writer, are the core of this book.
Atwood's last foray into this type of book was also a collection
of lectures, those having been given at Oxford University and published under
the title Strange Things -The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature.
She wrote then that the prelude to the experience was terrifying. Apparently.
it was not so terrifying as to prevent her from trying it again some five
The first collection of lectures was focussed on Canadian literature. This
one is both more and less personal at the same time, but it is not especially
limited to the Canadian experience.
What is nice about both books is that they occupy a middle ground
somewhere between popular culture and scholarship. There is enough content
to satisfy the more experienced mind, but not so much as to scare others
Writing, as has been suggested by a number of other writers,
is an inherently unnatural activity. Writers, like other creative people,
lock themselves away from society for lengthy periods of time in order to
indulge in the pastime of getting some of what is inside their heads out
where others can see it, all the while treading a sometimes thin line between
inventiveness and self-revelation.
In her introduction Atwood cites the case of the medical student
who, asked to comment on the interior of the human body, says, 'It's dark
She goes on then, to write "Perhaps, then, writing has something
to do with darkness, and the desire or a compulsion to enter into it, and,
with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light."
In Atwood's case the urge to explore that dark place came after
years of reading, came unexpectedly when she wrote a poem in her head while
walking home from school and then wrote it down when she got home.
"After that writing was the only thing I wanted to do."
This act of self-discovery is revealed to us in the lecture called "Orientation
- Who do you think you are?”, subtitled “What is a writer and why did I become
one?” The lectures are organized somewhat that way, with a theoretical section
and a personal application.
The second lecture deals with the duality inherent in the creative
life. There is the person who creates the imperishable art, who is also the
person whose pants go on one leg at a time. There is also the writer in the
flesh - a person - as opposed to the writer enshrined on the page; not the
same person and yet one and the same. (And you thought the doctrine of the
trinity was tough.)
Lecture three deals with having to serve two masters. The writer
has a muse of some sort, and yet the writer must make a living. What shall
the writer do? What will be his or her level of dedication to the craft?
In the lecture on Temptation, Atwood asks if the writer has any
goal beside entertainment. Is there any relevance to the art, or any redeeming
quality that takes it beyond words on a page, or are writers just as false
as the Great and Powerful Oz, pulling his levers and pushing his buttons
to work the false head of his creation, yelling out “Pay no attention to
the man behind the curtain!” when he is exposed?
Who is the writing for? she asks in a lecture entitlesd“Communion”.
Everyone writes to be read by someone, some ideal reader; perhaps an ideal
of ones self, or a perfect first reader. Could be anyone, actually. Anyone
who comes to a book encounters it, and the author behind it, alone.
“Descent” contains the notion that Atwood raised in her introduction.
The writer has to go “somewhere” to find a story and bring it back alive.
Stephen King, who sometimes uses writers as protagonists, as Atwood has also
done, has called it “falling through the hole in the paper” or entering “the
zone”. Atwood sees it as a journey to the underworld, like Odysseus or Aeneas
seeking forbidden knowledge in order to find their way on their long journeys;
like an aboriginal dreamquest.
“As the best authorities have it, easy to go there, but hard
to come back; and then you must write it all down on a stone. Finally, if
you are lucky and the right reader comes along, the stone will speak. It
alone will remain to tell the story.”