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The Apostrophe Blog
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“Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.”
Every one of us has one of those books—assigned in a class, passed along from a friend, found in the bottom of the box you bought for a buck at the annual Friends of the Library book sale in Ithaca, New York, the one where some people waited in line for days, camped even, you’d think it was the second coming of the Fabulous Four. One of those books that, once read, you can’t believe you never read it before, let alone knew it existed because so much of it is the stuff that already belongs (somehow) to you. One of those books that shows up when you need it or want it or both and speaks your peculiar dialect of life and confusion. One that you’ll press into the hands of a friend, lose track of, buy again, loan, repeat.
Surfacing by Margaret Atwood was that book for me.
By all rights, it should have been one that came into my life when it was originally published in 1972, my high school senior year. But I was too preoccupied proving my high-falutin’ literary tastes in A.P. English studying Chaucer, Milton, and Dostoevsky. A contemporary, feminist-leaning novel by an unknown Canadian woman—as you can imagine, my snobby literary nose stayed high in the air, and I missed it completely. So, ironically, this book that rates as one of the ones that changed something about my life didn’t find my way to me until eight years later when it was assigned reading in a Women’s Studies class at Cornell University.
Since then, I’ve read just about everything Atwood has written. After all these years reading novels as wildly diverse as Cat’s Eye, A Handmaid’s Tale, and Oryx and Crake, I finally wanted to know a bit more about how Atwood’soeuvre came to be. Which is why I decided to finally read her 2002 book about writing itself, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing.
Originally written and delivered as a series of lectures at the University of Cambridge, Negotiating with the Dead offers a friendly invitation to peer inside the creative processes that, in part, make Margaret Atwood tick. Like a few other books on the subject of writing by acclaimed authors (Annie Dillard and Stephen King come to mind), she pulls no punches and isn’t concerned with editing her sometimes frank tongue. She asks the Big Questions: Who are you writing for? Why do you write? Where does writing come from? And then offers a list of answers to the question of motives she compiled from a whole host of sources— it’s close to three pages long!
At times it seems as if Atwood wants to warn—maybe even warn off—the unsuspecting young, as she calls them, who seek writing as a life, a career. Even as she realizes that her words may fall on deaf ears, she cautions that “dangers multiply by the hour, you never step into the same river twice, the empty pages of the blank page appall, and everyone walks into the maze blindfolded.”
With chapter headings such as orientation and duplicity, dedication and temptation, communion and descent, Atwood leads us through not only her philosophizing on these somewhat lofty subjects but through her own somewhat peripatetic life’s story of making her way to words as well. She pokes fun at the academy, at the ironies of success when one is finally published and acquires fame, at the ongoing tug-of-war between “the rock of artistry and the hard place of having to pay the rent.” [And note, this volume was written long before The Handmaid’s Tale was filmed into a series and soon became a critically acclaimed cultural phenomenon.]
Atwood explores the notion of the sacrifice required to be an artist—especially for women—and reminds us that, indeed, “the bodies dead at the foot of the altar of art are numerous.” She delves into what if any moral and social responsibilities exist we bear when it comes to making art. Not forgotten, too, is the age-old question, do you have to suffer to be a writer? Atwood’s conclusion? “The suffering will occur whether you like it or not.”
Yeah, that sounds a little more than downbeat. Still, it’s not sufficient reason for you to ignore this book. In my view, it’s rare to get a fresh, intellectually smart, yet downright humble look into the mind, heart, and (dare I say) soul of an accomplished, seasoned writer at the peak of her game.
Margaret Atwood was born in November 1939; she turned seventy the year I originally wrote this post and is now a grand dame pushing eighty-four! You can check out her Wikipedia page  alone to find out how broadly and deeply she’s waded in the many rivers of the literary world.
I mean who doesn’t want to read more from a writer who is willing to put out there that she has come to believe—from reading widely, deeply, and constantly, and writing as well—that “all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated deep-down by a fear of and a fascination with mortality—by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead…The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless treasure unless it can be brought back into the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more—which means to enter the realm of the audience, the realm of the readers, the realm of change.” Admit it: Wouldn’t you, the writer, pretty much willingly follow the author of this statement just about anywhere?