Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Media adaptations of Margaret Atwood’s literary works are currently taking the watching world by storm. The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace are the vivid literary allegories behind these popular shows, and mark just a tiny margin of Atwood’s prolific and immensely popular bibliography, which ranges from television and radio scripts to children’s stories, from novels and poetry to nonfiction, and includes a recent foray into the world of graphic novels. Atwood has received more than 100 awards and honorary degrees, and her social influence is inestimable. Supporting that reputation and impact is an exceptional talent, probably both gifted and honed. So let’s take a look at what makes her such a powerful communicator and see what we can learn.
1. Begin outside
In the idyllic Bluebeard’s Egg, Atwood includes this delectable little adage:
In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.
It’s a powerful statement, and it works so well because it draws on feeling rather than raw fact. Nobody casts a vivid image of a sunset by recalling to the reader’s mind that sunsets are typically pink and orange and purple – and you definitely don’t win friends and influence people just by hauling out synonyms (‘the sunset was scarlet, ochre, and violet’ isn’t going to cut it).Use sensory moments you’ve earned in real life to elevate your writing.Click To Tweet
To experience the sunset, the reader must see it through your eyes (and other senses) and therefore your eyes had better be looking at real sunsets. See where they glint and what shadows they cast. Watch them light up the underbellies of seabirds or flatten entire forests into thin, gray silhouettes. When you’ve seen a hundred sunsets, smelled the spring dirt of a dozen gardens, dug your heart into the gut-wrench of a failed romance, then you’re equipped to take one resplendent detail and tuck it into your story. That detail will release a flood of images and do all your descriptive work for you.
Robert Frost probably said it best:
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.
2. Find something worth saying
People love to quote Atwood on this one:
A word after a word after a word is power.
But if people can agree with Nietzsche about anything, it’s probably this: power has a direction.
For instance, a book (word after word after word) might possess the power to put me to sleep (I’m lookin’ at you, Western Civ textbook), or to start a war (The Seven Who Were Hanged is often charged with helping to kick-start World War I), or to push the social tide (thank you, Black Like Me and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale).
‘The Year of the Flood’ catches how the motivation behind power influences its effect:
Oh, if Revenge did move the stars
Instead of Love, they would not shine.
Both revenge and love can be the power behind a book – anything can be – but consider the difference between the lust for vengeance that drives The Count of Monte Cristo forward and the rest and contentment that finally feel satisfying at the end of a long and arduous quest for satisfaction. These come not by vengeance but by love.The reason you’re telling a story influences how it reads.Click To Tweet
Margaret Atwood’s advice to writers is often about storytelling, but it should not escape our attention that all of her stories have something really important to say.
3. Read constantly
We know, we know. If you want to be a writer, read. William Faulkner’s famous admonition reminds us:
Read, read, read. Trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just as a carpenter works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.
Insightful as this is, I like Margaret Atwood’s spin on this important part of a writer’s life.
I read for pleasure and that is the moment I learn the most.
When you’re reading for pleasure, you’re not conducting research, you’re living life. It’s like burying your toes in the sand or taking a long bike ride or having a cup of tea with a friend. Sometimes read to ‘see how they do it,’ yes; but sometimes forget about how the story is technically being accomplished and get lost in how good it is.
4. Write like no-one’s watching
Self-editing is an important tool, but one that ought to be used late in the process, when the words have traveled from brain to fingers to keys to page and lost as little vulnerability along the way as possible.
The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.
What does this mean for revision? You may choose to obscure the truth, white it out or cover it in gauze. You may lie. You may tailor certain words to a certain audience. But if you try to do all of this in advance, the story will be manipulated and obscured before it ever has the chance to be actualized.
5. Don’t cut your characters’ feet off
I think Ms. Atwood is generous to assume that we all remember this myth, but her tie-in is a great piece of advice:
You know the myth: Everybody had to fit into Procrustes’ bed and if they didn’t, he either stretched them or cut off their feet. I’m not interested in cutting the feet off my characters or stretching them to make them fit my certain point of view.
While it’s totally okay to write an autobiographical character, be aware of trying to sneak your personal beliefs into characters that simply wouldn’t hold them (or more precisely, don’t do it). I remember reading a novel once by a religious author who could not bring himself to put any foul language into his supposedly edgy protagonist’s mouth, nor allow him to drink anything more provocative than 7-up. The result was unbearably fake.Writing authentic characters sometimes means putting your own feelings aside.Click To Tweet
While it’s admirable to remain true to a personal ethical code, it’s important to be aware that forcing characters to adhere to that code will likely detract from their authenticity and, therefore, the authenticity of the story. If you can’t shelf your own politics, religion, personal tastes, etc. in order to generate an authentic character, maybe don’t write that character.
6. Sit in the chair
We know perfectionism is the enemy, and it’s comforting to have permission to write terrible first drafts, but often we don’t even get as far as that. We sit in the chair and then decide the chair would be more conducive to writing if it came with a cup of tea… and a Danish… and maybe an episode or two of The Good Doctor. Here’s Margaret Atwood on diving right in:
I think the main thing is: Just do it. Plunge in! Being Canadian, I go swimming in icy cold lakes, and there is always that dithering moment. “Am I really going to do this? Won’t it hurt?” And at some point you just have to flop in there and scream. Once you’re in, keep going. You may have to crumple and toss, but we all do that. Courage! I think that is what’s most required.
So stop what you are doing. Don’t even think about creating the ideal work environment or grabbing a latte. Sit down. Open the computer. Type some words. Type some more words. Repeat for 15 minutes/one hour/whatever you’ve got every day for the next month. This is the way to write – by writing, not by being good at it (yet).
The wisdom of Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has been writing amazing work for a long time, and while her advice often has a ‘stop and smell the roses’ feel, don’t mistake it for anything less than an expert’s tried-and-true advice.
If there’s a theme that pervades all the advice above, it’s the authenticity of the author, expressed as strongly in truth of experience as it is in dedication to craft. It’s the kind of principle most authors revere, and Atwood’s advice offers a proven path to reaching it.
How have you been inspired by Margaret Atwood? When you learn something new from an author, how do you make sure you put it into practice instead of forgetting about it by next Tuesday? Let me know in the comments. Or, for Atwood’s specific advice on writing science fiction, check out The 3 Golden Rules Of Writing A Science Fiction Book. On the other hand, if Faulkner’s advice caught your eye, try 7 Ways William Faulkner Can Help You Improve Your Writing.