Roosevelt University Auditorium Theatre | March 1, 2012

Episode 37: 2012 Keynote Address by Margaret Atwood

(Margaret Atwood) Keynote Address. Sponsored by Roosevelt University MFA in Creative Writing.

Published Date: May 2, 2012


Speaker 1:

Welcome to the AWP Podcast Series. This event originally occurred at the AWP Conference in Chicago on March 1, 2012. The recording features Margaret Atwood and Scott Blackwood.

Scott Blackwood:

I'm Scott Blackwood. I direct the MFA program at Roosevelt University. Many of us have been fortunate to have writing mentors. My own mentors, Debra Monroe and the late Andre Dubus, could chew on your ear. They could make you pay attention to your talent, forge more sympathy for your characters, and count your blessings. But there are some writers, writers we've read but never met, whose work influences us in less obvious personal ways, but even more powerfully.

Their work seems nearly inevitable, and we might sometimes even mistake their vision for our own because we've begun to see more clearly through it. These writers push us to rethink our assumptions about the stories we tell, about the nature of gender and the self, the purposes of art, and the fate of the environment, which is our own fate in disguise. This is the influence of Margaret Atwood on writers and readers alike. Ms. Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, and grew up in Northern Ontario in Quebec.

She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master's degree from Radcliffe College. Throughout her writing career, she has received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the prestigious Booker Prize and the Governor General's Award twice. She's the author of more than 35 volumes of poetry, children's literature, fiction and nonfiction, and is perhaps best known for her novels which include, The Edible Woman, The Handmaid's Tale, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, and The Blind Assassin.

Her most recent works include Oryx and Crake, The Tent, Moral Disorder, and The Door. Her nonfiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, was part of the Massey Lectures series, and her most recent novel is The Year of the Flood. In her extraordinary series of published talks, Negotiating with the Dead, A Writer on Writing, Ms. Atwood says, "One of my university professors used to say there was only one real question to be asked about any work, and that was, 'Is it alive or dead?'"

I happen to agree, but in what does this aliveness or deadness exist? The biological definition would be that living things grow and change and can have offspring, whereas dead things are inert. In what ways can a text grow and have offspring? Only through interaction with a reader, no matter how far that reader may be from the writer in time and space. Many of us gathered in this theater tonight are offspring from Ms. Atwood's extraordinary aliveness on the page. It's my great honor and privilege to welcome Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood:

It's a thrill to be here. It really is. So I say thank you for inviting me and hello to all my Twitter pals, and hello also to the members of the Margaret Atwood Society. Now, the thing about a society is that you don't usually get one until you're dead. I am one of those people about whom other people are sometimes beginning to wonder. Because if you've taken somebody's work, in particularly high school, you know they're dead.

We had a curious experience at my house a few years ago. We were throwing a party for other writers in our province. A lot of them had come and it was a bit crowded. You know writers, they get overexcited. One younger woman writer got overexcited and she thought she was having a heart attack just from being in my house. She wasn't really having a heart attack. She was having a ball of gas as big as a grapefruit which she discovered later. But at the time she thought she was having a heart attack.

So we took her into the living room and laid her down on the sofa and shooed everybody else out of the room. Graham did deep breathing with her, and I called 911. Very shortly, two huge, strapping, muscly young paramedics came galumphing up the steps. They went in with their machines and shooed everybody out, and the following conversation took place. First paramedic, "Do you know whose house this is?" Second paramedic, "No, whose house is it?" First paramedic, "This is Margaret Atwood's house." Second paramedic, Margaret Atwood? Is she still alive?" Well, some days I wonder.

But the craft of writing, which is what I was asked to speak about. Since I always do what I'm told this is what I will be speaking about. It is a great pleasure to be speaking about it with you today at such a gathering. And such a gathering it is. So many people interested in writing, and so many people teaching it. I feel a little like a voice from the tomb, or at least a voice from the past. Because when I began writing, writing was not taught, or rather what is now called creative writing was not taught.

In high school we were expected to write essays, and we did write them with attention paid to the rules of grammar and half a mark off for each spelling mistake. I was not so good at spelling. I could handle words like Scrophulariaceae no problem, but fouled up regularly on words like weird, which I can only spell to this day by repeating, "They are the three weird sisters. They are not the three wired sisters." It was in high school that I proclaimed my intention of being a writer, causing some parental angst.

"Well," said my mother, "if you're going to be a writer, you'd better learn to spell." "Others will do that for me," I replied rather loftily. And so it has proven to be. Whether those others be editors, or Spell Check, or the little red squiggly line that has its own opinions but is not always right. Or that mythical entity of days of yore, Bob the paper clip. I never actually saw Bob the paper clip. He graced the computers of others, though he never manifested himself to me. Instead, I got the little box, the little box that did some results and said, helpfully, "Are you trying to write a letter?"

But I heard about Bob the paper clip, which is how I know he is a mythical entity. The moral of this story, if you want to be a writer spelling is the least of your worries. I was 16 then. Where was the AWP when I needed it? All I had was a lone magazine called Writer's Markets. It was through Writer's Markets that I learned about the typed, self-addressed, stamped envelope, and about putting your name at the top of every page. This was in the days when pages were made of paper and could therefore get lost. And I also learned in Writer's Markets that the things that paid the most per word were stories in True Romance magazines.

There were no workshops on how to write stories for True Romance magazines, but I decided, and I did decide this, briefly, that I would write stories for True Romance magazines in order to make my living, and then in the evenings I would write my works of staggering literary genius. And I felt that it should not be too hard to write stories for True Romance magazines because I bought several of these and read them and the plot seemed to be reducible to a fairly simple set of propositions. Girl falls in love with wrong boy. Right boy is there, but right boy works boringly in a shoe store.

Wrong boy has a motorcycle. You can tell already that this is the flaw of Wuthering Heights. Something then happens on the sofa, which is depicted in the following way. This is the '50s, remember the age of Playtex all-rubber panty girdles. Something happens on the sofa, which is delineated as, "And then we were one ........" So I could do the plots very well, but I could not do the dots. There was some trick to it that I never mastered. So instead of doing that, I went off to study English at university.

When I got to university, creative writing was still not taught, or not formally. In the fourth year of Honors English, you could if so disposed join something called English 40 for which you did not get credit. But you could sit in a circle and read your poems out loud to the four other people in the group, which I did. Extracurricularly, you could join the staff of the college magazine, which published reviews, drawings, stories, and poetry, and you could write all those things plus do the drawings under different names to make the magazine look full, which I also did.

This was 1961, not a high-point year for those interested in writing at the University of Toronto, not noted then for the arts. The writer, Wyndham Lewis, lived in Toronto a decade or so before that time. When he was at a party a society matron asked him where he was living and he told her. She said, "Mr. Lewis, that is not a very fashionable address." To which he replied, "Madam, Toronto is not a very fashionable address." Nor was it then.

Even more extracurricularly, you could put on your scratchy turtleneck sweater and read your poetry at a coffee house called the Bohemian Embassy on poetry nights, which were Tuesdays. Other things went on on other presumably more exciting nights. That was more like the real thing. They had an espresso machine, the first one anybody in Toronto had ever seen, which was worshiped like a God. All of which is to say that I am in no way formally prepared to give a talk called The Craft of Writing because I never studied the craft of writing in any formal way.

I did it the way one did it then. I read and wrote, and read and wrote, and read and wrote, and ripped up, and crossed out, and started again, which is pretty much what still happens. I'm surprised by people who say that they want to write but turn out not to like reading. Those people don't want to write, not really. They want an audience to sit down beside them and hear their sad story, and that's about the end of it. They'd be happier on reality TV because it's much less work. There, I used the W word, and I'm not afraid to use it again, work.

Because craft has to do with work, whereas art is what you may get as a result of the craft. "The life so short, the craft so long to learn," said Chaucer. The Arts and Crafts movement set to the early 20th century, In My Craft and Sullen Art said Dylan Thomas, "Art, craft, not the same it seems, but what's the difference?" Well, one word is fashionable at the moment and the other is not. Words come and go like lipstick colors. Art was doing well around the middle of the 20th century. Craft was not.

If you were interested in art then you might attract a derisive term, artsy-fartsy. But no one spoke of crafty-waxies. I bet certain university faculties would get more funding right now if they renamed themselves the Faculty of Crafts in lieu of the Faculty of Arts. There's an instinctive feeling right now, art implies elitist. Eek. We can't have that. And possibly even dilettante or [inaudible 00:17:40]. Whereas craft, that has a more solid proletarian feel to it. Craft has dirt under its fingernails. Craft isn't something you are, as in artistic genius. It's something you do. You can learn it.

So in respect to writing, what can you learn? What can be learned and thus taught? Art comes from an old Greek root meaning joint. This is not this kind. The kind you can't inhale. Something with a hinge. Something therefore with several parts. Related to this word are arthritis, a disease of the joints, arthropod, joint and foot, arm, armor, articulate, artisan, and many others. Art is something man makes or puts together as opposed to nature which grows of itself. However, it may be true also that art is human nature, that it too grows by itself in a way. Art or the templates upon which art is based comes built in.

Every young child picks up language, can understand narratives at a very early age, sings and dances, and makes images if given the wherewithal. Then there's craft. Craft comes fairly directly from the Old English word craeft, meaning primarily physical strength, but by extension, skill, knowledge, and the like. It's related to the German word kraft, with a K, meaning strength, which puts a whole new spin on Kraft dinner. To have a craft is to have a strength and also a know-how to understand how a thing is done and to have the energy to carry it through.

Even if you have talent, a gift, something that comes to you as an extra without work, even if you are gifted, you will not develop that gift unless you get down and dirty. What with the blacksmith's hammer and awl. For your craft knowledge is your toolkit. It gives you the tools to put something together from its parts so that it becomes articulate, so that it's many footed, so that it might turn into art. A word about tools. I grew up with tools, surrounded by tools. These were hand tools. We lived in the woods. There was no electricity, and besides, electric drills, and screwdrivers, and the like, had not yet been invented.

We needed the tools in order to make things, fix things, and demolish things. A demolished thing could be used for parts to be incorporated into different things. And you can do the same with your writing. Cut when necessary, but don't throw out. Maybe you can use those parts later. There is nothing so satisfying as the right tool for the right job. There is nothing so frustrating as the wrong tool, or worse, a tool in bad repair. Tools are kept shiny by use. If you want to slit a throat effectively in art as well as in life, first sharpen the knife. Here are some writing tools that are good to have handy in your toolkit.

The key signature. The key signature is the tone of your work. Is this work written in a major key or in a minor key? Is it light, or is it dark, or is it sort of beige? If so, is that the tone you intended? Tempo, how fast are we moving? Vary the tempo, otherwise things can get monotonous. Voice, who is speaking and to whom? Where does the speaker stand in relation to the listener, namely the reader? Does the speaker know more than we do, to reveal it little by little? Does the speaker know less than we do, the poor fool, in which case we can see it coming.

"Don't open that door." But she can't. How much would the speaker be able to know given her situation? The difference between plot and structure. The plot is the sequence of events viewed linearly. This happened, and then this, and then this. The structure is the order in which you tell that story. The sequence of events leading to and through the Trojan War is the plot of The Iliad. The structure begins in the middle with Achilles sulking in his tent and goes both backwards and forwards from there.

A word about writers' blocks. Most blocks in the writing of novels are either blocks of voice or blocks of structure. For voice blocks, change the narrator or the tense. See if that works. For structure blocks, change the first scene, the point of insertion. See if that works. If none of this works, go to the movies. And remember Charles Dickens who said, "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait."

Finally, a word on another word. That word is crafty. This word once meant skilled. But even by the 12th century, it was taking on its modern meaning of cunning, or sly, or devious, or too clever by half. How does this fit in with your tool kit? Well, sometimes a bag of tools is also a bag of tricks like a magician's tricks. And sometimes those tools are used for devious purposes such as deception. Writers are, among everything else, illusionists. And some of the tools of craft are tools of illusion.

For instance, we talk about the writer's voice, but it isn't the writer's voice the reader actually hears. It's his or her own voice tricked into doing an impersonation. Writers, if they've been at it long enough, come to know this about themselves and what they do. They are not always nice people. They know too much, but they are on some level crafty people. They hide things. They stage ambushes. They keep one hand in their pocket. They carry concealed weapons. They plan surprises.

They have a certain orneriness, a stubbornness. If they fall off the horse, they get back on. They know the story is endless. They know the story is human and defines that word human. They know the story they are telling is part of that ancient human threat. It leads way back. With their help it will also lead forward. So spin those yarns all you skillful tale tellers of the world with all the art and all the craft you may command. Alive or dead, we'll be listening.

Speaker 1:

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