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


Margaret Atwood is a literary goddess. If you haven’t read her most recent collection of short stories, Stone Mattress, move that to your number own spot on your to-reads list (recently reviewed here by Sarah Rito). Since I’d already read it (and reviewed it on WPSU), I went back to a book she wrote that I’d somehow missed: Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. This non-fiction book was exactly what I needed to read right now, although I hadn’t a clue when I began how relevant it would be. I’m going to write a longer review this week, because this book transports me back to graduate school, where I reveled in writing about books in the nerdiest of ways, and because this book also pushes me to think deeply about the practice of reading and writing–and I find writing about reading and writing allows me to come to a better understanding of both. So forgive me, dear reader, for this overly long review/love note to Atwood.

There are six chapters to this, including an Introduction and a Prologue. The Introduction, titled “Into the Labyrinth,” explains how the book came out of a series of lectures for the Empson Lectures at the University of Cambridge in 2000 (the book was published in 2002). In this, she shares the three questions most often posed to writers: “Who are you writing for? Why do you do it? Where does it come from?” The list of the motive of writing following these questions I plan to share with students in both my AP and CP classes–it is a list, to me, that serves as a reason for why we breathe, why we live, as well as why we write.

The Prologue is short and full of thanks to many people, but one thank you in particular is worth noting for me: “And to my teachers, including the inadvertent ones, as always.”

Chapter 1: “Orientation: Who do you think you are? What is ‘a writer,’ and how did I become one?” Like the rest of the chapters, this one begins with quotes by other writers about the topic at hand. Atwood, as usual, makes me feel small and unknowing–I only recognize the author of one of these quotes–Alice Munro. The rest of this chapter, though, allows me to know the young Margaret Atwood. She explains the childhood of writers “often contain…books and solitude, and my own childhood was right on track.” Once again, I identify with her (as I do with every protagonist I read) and she explains “I learned many things about the seedier side of life via the printed page.” However, I am reminded in this chapter that although I may have visions of being a writer, “everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger.”

Chapter 2: “Duplicity: The jekyll hand, the hyde hand, the slipper double: Why there are always two.” In this chapter I totally geeked out with the references to “Childe Roland” and Alice and Grimm brothers and Dickens and….well, let’s just say I felt less unworthy in this chapter because I knew most of the texts Atwood references. In fact, not only did I know them, but my AP kiddos are about to study Dorian Gray, which features prominently in this chapter and the rest of the book. My favorite quote from this chapter, though, is the last few lines: “The act of writing takes place at the moment when Alice passes through the mirror. At this one instant, the glass barrier between the doubles dissolves, and Alice is neither here nor there, neither art nor life, neither the one thing for the other, though at the same time she is allof these at once. At that moment time itself stops, and also stretches out, and both writer and reader have all the time not in the world.”

Chapter 3: “Dedication: The Great God Pen: Apollo vs. Mammon: at whose altar should the writer worship?” In this chapter, Atwood explains the issues with making money as an artist. Can you still be an artist when you make money? She writes:
“’The truth shall make you free,’ said Jesus.
‘Beauty is Truth, Truth, Beauty,”’said John Keats.
By the roots of the syllogism, if truth is beauty and the truth shall make you free, then beauty shall make you free, and since we are in favor of freedom, or have been off and on since it was extolled in the Romantic ago, we should devote ourselves to beauty-worship. And where is beauty–widely interpreted–more manifest than in Art?”

Chapter 4: “Temptation: Prospero, The Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co. Who waves the wand, pulls the strings, or signs the devil’s book? “Again, this chapter seemed to resonate with me since I just taught Dr. Faustus to my students. I read aloud the passage about writer as both Faustus and Mephistopheles. In this chapter, though, Atwood discusses the place where money and power “intersect” –the concept of “moral responsibility” and “social responsibility.” She writes of feminism as a female writer, and of responsibility as an artist and a writer. There’s a lovely little analysis of “Ars Poetica.” There’s also an short consideration of Prospero, from Shakespeare’s Tempest, which particularly intrigued me, as I recently read the ARC of Andrew Smith’s The Alex Crow, where the main character’s name, Ariel, reminded me of Prospero’s enslaved spirit.

Chapter 5: “Communion: Nobody to Nobody: The eternal triangle: the writer, the reader, and the book as go-between.” Here, Atwood talks about books as messengers. She explains: “For every letter and every book, there is an intended reader, a true reader.” There’s a lovely reference/analysis of Bradbury’s “The Martian,” explaining how the reader functions in reference to this story. And the end of this chapter particularly struck me: “the ideal reader may prove to be anyone at all–any one at all–because the act of reading is just as singular–always–as the act of writing.”

Chapter 6: “Descent: Negotiating with the dead: Who makes the trip to the Underwold, and why?” This chapter, like others, references Hamlet, which makes me giddy, for some reason, every time I come across some kind of reference to that angsty young man. One of my favorite parts of this chapter is a plea to reconsider Santa Claus as a sort of visitor from the land of the dead. Atwood leaves us with the words of Ovid “But still, the fates will leave me my voice, and by my voice I shall be known.”

This text is dense with references to other writers and works upon whose shoulders Atwood stands upon. I found myself appreciating this more now than I might have had I read it twelve years ago when it was published, as I am a more mature reader, and a more widely read reader. This text is not for the faint of heart or for the shallow reader. It is, however, a celebration of writing and reading, and I highly recommend it for those other booknerds out there who want to feel as if they’re part of a club of other readers and writers.

Posted by Kate, VP Secondary, PCTELA Board

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

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