In On Writers and Writing, Margaret Atwood, a famous writer herself, talks about many of the existential questions that writers and readers face. Atwood was asked to give six lectures on the subject for the Empson Lectures at the University of Cambridge; this book is a product of the lectures and so is very conversational in style, occasionally chatty and peppered with literary references that a more academic bunch of students could connect with.
I read the book in no particular order and found the book engaging and illuminating. Every reader is curious about how a famous writer becomes a writer at all and Atwood fulfils this reader’s craving in the first lecture. She talks about her unusual childhood growing up with her parents in rural areas and then moving to suburbia after the World War. Her childhood was an isolated one and suitable to ruminating and reading.
“My transition from not being a writer to being one was instantaneous, like the change from docile bank clerk to fanged monster in ‘B’ movies.”
Atwood talks about the writer and audience. The writer communicates with the page, not the reader. If she is a diarist, she is the reader and the writer. If she writes to Dear Reader, she has an audience of one or many. The situations the author deals with are many pronged- the writer as nobody, the writer as somebody famous. Which situation is desirable?
She also speaks of writing as a reaction to death and transience. The connection that writers have with death is overwhelming. Many writers have experiences similar to that of going to the underworld. Dante’s attempt was to bring the living alive by visiting the dead.
“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.”
More about this lovely book in Part 2 of the review.