In my first creative writing class, three books on writing were recommended to the students: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (click to read my review of it); Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood; and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Having read and loved The Handmaid’s Tale, I figured I absolutely needed to read Margaret Atwood’s non-fiction book on writing.
Negotiating with the Dead is unlike any other books on writing that I have read in the past. I couldn’t describe it better than Atwood herself:
. . . what I had in mind was a grand scheme in which I would examine the various self-images – the job descriptions, if you like – that writers have constructed for themselves over the years.
It reads like a university-level book assigned for a literature course, which isn’t really surprising since it derives from lectures she gave at the University of Cambridge. The tone is rather formal (though sometimes witty), the language is recherché (sometimes even obscure for a speaker of English as a second language), the subjects explored are highly philosophical and of very little concrete use. However, the lack of concrete use does not equate with the lack of value. I enjoyed the autobiographical bits which, though interesting on their own, also explained Margaret Atwood’s style and her choices of subjects and themes as a bonus.
Born in 1939, Atwood has grown up in a Canada that’s very different from the one I know. As a result, some of the matters she explored felt outdated (e.g., I’ve never felt any less likely to succeed or be respected as a writer because I’m a woman – the prospects seemed equally bleak for both sexes). Most matters, however, remain true: I especially resonated with her chapters on the duplicity of the writer (how the writer seems to be a different entity than its human host… hello, persona), the Great God Pen (how easy it is to neglect oneself in favour of one’s art) and temptation (the correlation – or lack thereof – between the artistic value of a work, it’s popular success, and whether its author “did it for the money”).
The author supports her exploration of “being a writer” with a multitude of extracts from classic works, which contributed to that feeling of it being assigned for a literature course; it also resulted in my despairing at the sudden explosion of my want-to-read list.
At first sight, there is no recognizable structure. I kept on waiting for “the point” of the book, but after I finished it I realized the musings were it. Where Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, felt like a mentor giving her good friend the reader advice on how to deal with “the condition of being a writer” and how not to bang their head against the wall or commit suicide, Margaret Atwood feels like a university professor philosophizing about said condition, observing that it does bring its share of pain:
The suffering will come whether you like it or not. Suffering is a result of writing, rather than a cause. Publishing is like being put on trial.
She asks a lot of questions, most of which remain unanswered like all philosophical matters.
Who would I recommend this to? Writers, especially older, more experienced ones. If you love history and philosophy, that’s a plus. I’d recommend staying away from it if, as a general rule, you dislike the way philosophers talk or if you’re looking for a book that will be useful to you as a writer.