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with the Dead: A Writer on Writing
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
£13.50, 219 pages, ISBN 0-521-66260-5.
Indiana University Southeast
The first section of the title poem of Margaret Atwoods 1981
collection of poems True Stories reads:
Dont ask for the true story;
why do you need it?
Its not what I set out with
or what I carry.
What Im 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. Whod have thought there were so many
different answers to such a simple question? A practicing writer,
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). Fryes 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 statementrevolutionary
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 ones imagination can make
sense of. (So you didnt have to be from London or Paris
or New York after all!) 
She ends her first chapter with another brief, pointed question: Is
such a person [the writer] special, and if so, how?  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.  But then this might not
be all bad, because if one bought what Atwood calls the Romantic-genius
It was self expressionthe expression of the self, of a mans
whole beingand 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 healththis 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. 
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 doesnt. [68-69]
In the war between art and moral purpose, she points out that the
poets soul has to go where the human action is.  She
reminds us that In Art, you dont get aesthetic points
for good intentions. 
The fourth chapter ("Temptation: Prospero, the Wizard of Oz,
Mephisto & Co. / Who waves the wand, pulls the strings, or signs
the Devils 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]. Im
really a very good man; but Im a very bad Wizard [
[So] If youre an artist, being a good manor a good
womanis pretty much beside the point when it comes to your actual
accomplishments. Moral perfection wont 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 waypower in relation
to societyand then your goodness or badness as a human being
will have a part in determining what you do with this power. 
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
books functionor duty, if you likein 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? 
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 mortalityby a desire
to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or
someone back from the dead.  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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