Margaret Atwood

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

“The mere act of writing splits the self into two.”

A few streets from our home in London lived one of the most prolific murderers in history. No, not the Krays, not Jack the Ripper…

Dame Agatha Christie!

This sweet little gem typing away – a bit of strychnine here, some mild garroting there – she heads to afternoon tea, bodies prostrate in her wake.1

There is a duality inherent in the writing profession: we aim to spread humanity and consciousness, and yet, there is a cognitive distance required to stomach writing’s ruthlessness.2

“You will never meet the person who wrote this” promised Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood (born November 18, 1939) in Negotiating with the Dead, a book based on her Cambridge University Empson Lectures.

What is the relationship between the two entities we lump under one name, that of ‘the writer’?

By two, I mean the person who exists when no writing is going forward – the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed, and so forth – and that other, the more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing.

We will never meet Margaret Atwood who wrote these words, because she does not exist to us. Atwood stands apart, removed. With this cool distance she considers her writing life.

How is it that I became a writer? It wasn’t a likely thing for me to have done, nor was it something I chose, as you might choose to be a lawyer or dentist. It simply happened, suddenly, in 1956, while I was crossing the football field on the way home from school. I wrote a poem in my head and then I wrote it down, and after that writing was the only thing I wanted to do.

Illustration by Maira Kalman featured in "The Elements of Style (Illustrated)" in The Examined Life Library.
“A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing.” Illustration by Maira Kalman for The Elements of Style.
It was with the help of others that Atwood opened the door to what being a writer could be.

Through the literary magazines, and also through some of my professors…I discovered a concealed door. It was like a door in a bare hill – a tumulus in winter, or an anthill. Outside, to the uninformed observer, there was no life to be seen; but if you’d found the door and managed to make your way inside, all was furious motion. There was a whole microcosm of literary activity going on, as it were, right under my nose.

But, as Atwood learned – and reinforces repeatedly – writing and being a writer are distinctive things. Negotiating with the Dead is an autobiography of both person and persona.

Everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. The latter takes a good deal more stamina and persistence. It is also, because of the nature of the activity, a deeply symbolic role… You carry upon your shoulders the weight of other people’s projections, of their fears and fantasies and anxieties and superstitions.

You represent mortality, whether you like it or not. And so it is with any public role, including that of the Writer, capital W: but also as with any public role, the significance of that role – its emotional and symbolic content – varies over time.

In order to maintain this duty – given to writers without request – there is a someone else, the one who writes. Atwood ruminates on the resulting anxiety of balancing the double:

That the writer and audience may be unknown to each other because the act of creation is separated in time from the act of receiving it, and the infinite replicability of the book—these two factors contributed greatly to the modern writer’s equivocal view of himself. To be a writer came to be seen as running the risk of being an invisible half of a doubles act, and possibly also a copy for which no authentic original existed.

It is lonely, isolating, and deteriorating to hold part of a self apart from the world.

And yet the duality must exist. “Art is cold” Atwood reminds us, echoing T.S. Eliot who considered poetry as “the abandonment of emotion.”

Atwood continues: “The artistic insights of one age become the cliches of the next.” A writer sees both simultaneously.3

Photo of the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Featured in Margaret Atwood's "Negotiating with the Dead" in The Examined Life Library.
The entrance to the Royal Academy of Arts, London. “You represent mortality…” wrote Atwood. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Accompany this blessing of a book with Annie Dillard’s or Rollo May’s broad, honest advice for the fragile creatives. Or read more from Dani Shapiro or Ernest Hemingway on being a writer – both used physical movement to transition from the person who eats cereal for breakfast to the writer person who throws a mirror to humanity.

And of course, there is Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges. Borges was mesmerised with the lore of the duplicitous “double” in modern fiction and ancient mythology. Borges, before he went permanently blind, was also afraid of mirrors – for mirrors is where the “double” is most clearly seen.4