In 2000, Margaret Atwood delivered a series of lectures on writing in Cambridge as part of the Empson lectures. These were later published by Cambridge University Press in a little volume entitled Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing.
I have recently read Strange Things and Payback, which I really enjoyed. I also enjoyed reading Negotiating but found it more difficult to follow as some of the connections she makes can be quite obscure.
In her introduction, Atwood gives her usual disclaimer that she is not a scholar and that her voice is that of a writer. The set topic she had for these lectures was: “Writing, or Being a Writer”. She considers the long list of motives given by writers when asked why they write and, then, tackles the question of “what it feels like to be a writer”. From the answers received, she deduces that it is what her book is most about:
“Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light. This book is about that kind of darkness, and that kind of desire.”
Each chapter focuses on a specific aspect of writing and she poses questions such as: why does the writer write? who does s/he write for? what is the motivation behind the writing? does s/he have a moral responsibility? what relationship does s/he have with the reader? She explores possible answers to these questions and, as always, provides a profusion of literary examples to illustrate her argument. All her considerations are interesting and well-written and she touches on many topics that should enlighten both readers and writers, although some might find them disturbing.
“All writers are double, for the simple reason that you can never actually meet the author of the book you have just read.”
It is a book in which the activity of writing is thought out and explained to an audience. As such, it might destroy the glamorous idea you had of the writer. She also argues that writing is an act of communication and, in the end, it is the reader who receives the work and interprets it. In that sense, writers cannot have any definite control on their books and what they try to transmit.
“. . . the secret is that it isn’t the writer who decides whether or not his work is relevant. Instead it’s the reader”