Friday, April 1, 2011

Margaret at the Symposium

I discovered Margaret Atwood during a poetry seminar about twelve years ago. Our assignment was to choose any poet from our assigned reading material and for the rest of the semester research their background and explore the way they expressed themselves through the craft of poetry. I must have read a poem or two of hers for a different writing course, because I was just familiar enough with her work to be greatly intimidated by it. As I wrote in the end-of-term paper, she is “beyond my league.” I craved the challenge, I suppose, so I paired up with Atwood. What a rewarding treat that exploration turned out to be. By the end of the semester I was able to report, “I am no longer afraid of her” and “I feel intimate with much of her poetry.” To this day, she remains one of my favorite writers.

Though she is known best for her novels, I’ve had trouble thinking of her as a novelist as well as a poet. I hope to break that mental block soon as I begin reading The Blind Assassin.

That I would have the opportunity to hear her speak on the same college campus more than a decade later is fitting and satisfying. When my husband and I arrived at the auditorium, a big screen was scrolling through a slideshow of photographs taken over the course of Atwood’s life, from illustrations of stories she and her brother wrote when they were children, to Atwood’s meeting with Queen Elizabeth II.

Shortly after 7:30, Atwood took the stage and thanked us for having her so she could “play hooky” from writing. Then in her dry alto voice, she captivated her audience with tales of her early life in isolated rural Canada and her early writing career. I was pleased that her speech reflected the style of her poetry, passages of descriptive storytelling undercut by sarcasm, satire, or witty humor. The tale about teaching grammar to engineers by having them read Kafka was especially pleasing to her literate audience.

Early in the evening she stated that she was pleased to be speaking to us because “starting a novel is so hard.” Then why do it? she asked. “Why write? Why expose oneself to “the cannibalistic ordeal of publication?” Her descriptions of the revision process elaborated on the difficult task writers face. “After bouts of despair and soul-searching” and wondering if it were too late to take up another profession, she tossed out a particular novel, not once, but twice, and at last changed the narrative from third person to first and “was able to proceed.” No small task as anyone who has attempted the same knows. “If you get it wrong,” she added, “someone is bound to send you a snippy letter.”

So why write? Her answer was this: “to joyously create a world whose door someone will wish to enter.”

That works for me.

After her speech, a microphone was set up to receive questions from the audience. Atwood’s replies were practical and encouraging. One woman asked what advice Atwood might have for those of us who may have novels lurking unfinished in drawers somewhere. Atwood replied, “Take it out of the drawer…. Go at it day by day, page by page, hour by hour. Unless the words go down on the page, there is no book.”

In response to whether Atwood values literary poetry over performance poetry, she said, “It’s not a question of what you do, but whether you do it well.” There are good examples of both and lousy examples of both.

Concerning her speculative novels like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Year of the Flood, she emphasized the distinction that “a cautionary tale is not a prediction. … It’s like a blueprint. Do you want to live in this house? If not, design another house.”

About a writer’s audience she stated, “You can never predict who will read your book. … Your job as a writer is to make your book the best example of itself it can be. … Your duty is to the book, and then it goes off and has a life of its own.”

But my favorite quote of the evening was in response to a question I can’t recall. She said, “[Writing is] work. It’s not like having stuff pour out of you like automatic toothpaste.” That is a quote for the ages. On those days when the words simply won’t come, I’ll recall this tidbit of wisdom and remind myself, “It’s okay. You're not incompetent. Keep plugging away.”

Of course, my husband and I were inspired. We came home, made some fancy floral tea, the kind that blooms in a clear teapot, and talked poetry until it was time to get some sleep. An evening well spent.

P.S. Yes, she signed both my new copy of The Blind Assassin and my prized beat-up copy of her poems.


Milo James Fowler said...

Very cool AND inspirational. "To joyously create a world whose door someone will wish to enter" is a great reason to write.

CL-Meister said...

I think it is awesome that you go to see her. She sounds quite the speaker and I wish I could have been there. Lucky you!