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Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing
Margaret Atwood
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
£13.50, 219 pages, ISBN 0-521-66260-5.

Millard Dunn
Indiana University Southeast


The first section of the title poem of Margaret Atwood’s 1981 collection of poems True Stories reads:

Don’t ask for the true story;
why do you need it?

It’s not what I set out with
or what I carry.

What I’m sailing with,
a knife, blue fire,

luck, a few good words
that still work, and the tide.

In Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, six essays that are revisions of the Empson lectures she delivered at Cambridge University in 2000, as well as an introduction and prologue, Margaret Atwood offers us the knife, the blue fire, better luck than we deserve, and more than a few good words that still work. She also offers us the true story, or at least part of it, that every writer experiences throughout her or his lifetime of work.

Do not be misled. This is not an autobiography, though Ms. Atwood does use examples from her own life where they apply to the question she asks or the point she makes. Furthermore, she does not quote from her own writing, though she does quote from the works of others across a very broad reach of time and talent (the writer of Gilgamesh, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, Emily Dickinson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Poe, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, Sylvia Plath, Isak Dinesen, Anna Akhmatova, Michael Ondaatje, Elmore Leonard, and Don DeLillo, to name only a few).

Asked to speak on “Writing, or Being a Writer” [xvi], she ends up with a book that examines the nature of writing and reading through a series of questions and her richly complex, well-informed, and, ultimately, personal answers to those questions. As a kind of warm-up, she presents in her introduction [xix], “the three questions most often posed to writers, both by readers and by themselves: Who are you writing for? Why do you do it? Where does it come from?” She follows this with a two-page list of answers to the Why? question that come from different writers, a list that is eye-opening and exhilarating to read. Who’d have thought there were so many different answers to such a simple question? A practicing writer, that’s who.

Her first chapter ("Orientation: Who do you think you are?") begins with the question "What is 'a writer,' and how did I become one?" This is the most autobiographical chapter in the book. Ms. Atwood writes about growing up in Canada in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, about discovering Northrop Frye (“a professor at the very college in which I was enrolled”). Frye’s work divided the poets into “pro-myth and anti-myth factions.” But more important to a young Canadian writer who thought of herself as hopelessly provincial,

It was Frye who made a revolutionary statement—revolutionary not just for Canada but for any society, especially any colonial society: “[…]the center of reality is wherever one happens to be, and its circumference is whatever one’s imagination can make sense of.” (So you didn’t have to be from London or Paris or New York after all!) [23]

She ends her first chapter with another brief, pointed question: “Is such a person [the writer] special, and if so, how?” [28] The rest of the book tries to answer that question.

In her second chapter ("Duplicity: The Jekyll hand, the Hyde hand, and the slippery double / Why there are always two"), she begins with the double characters of her childhood (Superman/Clark Kent, et al). She moves from these to doubles in literature, and then to the double life of the writer. Because of the distance between writer and audience, “To be a writer came to be seen as running the risk of being the invisible half of a doubles act, and possibly also a copy for which no authentic original existed. The writer might be not only a forger, like the hand in ‘The Beast with Five Fingers,’ [by William Fryer Harvey] but also a forgery. An imposter. A fake.” [51] But then this might not be all bad, because if one bought what Atwood calls the “Romantic-genius package,” then

It was self expression—the expression of the self, of a man’s whole being—and if a man wrote works of genius, then he had to be a genius himself, all the time. A genius while shaving, a genius while eating his lunch, a genius in poverty and in affluence, in sickness and in health—this is heavy luggage to cart around. No man is a hero to his own body, nor no woman neither. [52-53]

And so at times a writer might feel “a pressing need for a double: someone to play the more exalted part while you were snoring with your mouth open.” [53]

In her third chapter ("Dedication: The Great God Pen / Apollo vs. Mammon: at whose altar should the writer worship?"), Atwood addresses the conflict between writers and money, and then she moves on to the larger and more important conflict (war?) between art and moral purpose. She deals with the paradox of not wanting to write for money but, of course, having to

[…] write for money, or even to be thought to have done so, put[s] you in the prostitute category […] I can still hear the sneer in the tone of the Parisian intellectual who asked me, “Is it true you write the bestsellers?” “Not on purpose,” I replied somewhat coyly. Also somewhat defensively, for I knew these equations as well as he did, and was thoroughly acquainted with both kinds of snobbery: that which ascribes value to a book because it makes lots of money, and that which ascribes value to a book because it doesn’t. [68-69]

In the war between art and moral purpose, she points out that “the poet’s soul has to go where the human action is.” [74] She reminds us that “In Art, you don’t get aesthetic points for good intentions.” [80]

The fourth chapter ("Temptation: Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co. / Who waves the wand, pulls the strings, or signs the Devil’s book?") continues this line of thought by discussing some of the images adopted by or forced on the artist/writer and the consequences of those images:

“Oh, no, my dear,” says the Wizard [of Oz]. “I’m really a very good man; but I’m a very bad Wizard […]” [So] If you’re an artist, being a good man—or a good woman—is pretty much beside the point when it comes to your actual accomplishments. Moral perfection won’t compensate for your badness as an artist: not being able to hit high C is not redeemed by being kind to dogs. However, whether you are a good man or a bad man is not beside the point if you happen to be a good wizard […] because if you are good at being a wizard in this sense, then power of various sorts may well come your way—power in relation to society—and then your goodness or badness as a human being will have a part in determining what you do with this power. [113]

In her fifth chapter ("Communion: Nobody to Nobody / The eternal triangle: the writer; the reader; and the book as go-between"), Atwood poses three questions, not the same three she started with, but questions related to them:

First: for whom does the writer write? And, secondly: what is the book’s function—or duty, if you like—in its position between writer and reader? What ought it to be doing, in the opinion of its writer? And finally, a third question arising from the other two: where is the writer when the reader is reading? [126]

Her search for answers to these questions draws the reader into contemplating answers that have been posed by, among others, George Orwell, Emily Dickinson, Stephen King, Edmond Rostand, Graham Greene, and Ray Bradbury. Reading this chapter is its own kind of double reward: delving again into the works of these writers and watching Atwood as she takes from each one what she needs to answer the questions for herself.

The sixth chapter is called "Descent: Negotiating with the dead / Who makes the trip to the Underworld, and why?" It is based on the “hypothesis […] that not just some, but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality—by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.” [156] In this chapter she reaches for the essence of writing, of the writing experience and of the finished product. She takes the dead, what they know, their power, and how we deal with them very seriously. She invites us to do so as well, and in this chapter shows us how.

Atwood takes the title of her book from this chapter. As I read Negotiating with the Dead, I thought the title was unfortunate. The book is about life, not death. But after reading this last chapter, I can see that the title is perfect.

This is not a book about how to write. There are no exercises or directions. It will not tell you how to write a bestseller. But it will help you connect to the writer you are or hope to be. And to the larger world that includes every writer, every poem, every novel, every book. Negotiating with the Dead is not a textbook. It is an intellectual and emotional journey. And it is a treat.

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