At times a glimpse into the writing life of the author of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin, On Writers and Writing by Margaret Atwood is a curious mixture of literary study of what it means to be a writer, and funny personal recollections. If you want a glimpse into how Atwood writes, this is not the book. If you want to understand more about the role of being a writer, the responsibility, the tricks, the two faces, the ego, then read on.
This book evolved from a series of six Empson Lectures given at the University of Cambridge in 2000, aimed at scholars, students and the general reading public. That explains, I think, the eclectic subject mix which fluctuates between laugh-out-loud anecdotes and literary analysis.
She is good on the state of the writer. “All writers are double, for the simple reason that you can never actually meet the author of the book you have just read. Too much time has elapsed between composition and publication, and the person who wrote the book is now a different person. Or so goes the alibi. On the other hand, this is a convenient way for a writer to wriggle out of responsibility, and you should pay no attention to it. Yet on the other hand, it is quite true.” How can a nice cosy person who makes cookies and knits sweaters, also write a dysfunctional novel? This is a conundrum familiar to all writers, particularly perhaps to thriller and crime writers.
Atwood is fascinating, if at times a little dry. She raises questions that made me stop and think about my own writing practice. Who do I write for? As Winston Smith says in 1984, “For whom, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder, was he writing this diary? For the future, for the unborn… For the first time the magnitude of what he had undertaken came home to him.”
A side effect of reading On Writers and Writing is a renewed desire to re-read authors quoted by Atwood: Orwell, Le Carré, Byatt, Shields, Graves, Wilde.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
ON WRITERS AND WRITING by @MargaretAtwood #bookreview #amwriting https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3BO via @SandraDanby