Write on: Atwood's secrets open to public

BY
BY NIKKI AVENIA
for the Daily
Published November 19, 2003

Undoubtedly, it is a task in itself for a writer to write a book
about writing.

Kate Green

Above all, the writer must be successful enough (to the public
and in academia) to be seen as a credible source on the method of
writing. Second, the writer must be comfortable enough in saying
that she is indeed a “writer” and that she knows enough
to advise others. Therefore, the writer has to try particularly
hard to come across as a modest genius rather than a conceited
ego-maniac with all the answers.

Margaret Atwood succeeds beautifully as this modest genius in
her most recent book, “Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on
Writing.” Atwood weaves together her own personal experiences
of being a female writer in the mid-20th century seamlessly with
the inspiration that literary giants such as D.H. Lawrence, Dante
and Rainer Maria Rilke have had on her.

“Negotiating with the Dead” is a rich narrative
which further illustrates Atwood’s talents and skills as a
celebrated writer. Its title refers obviously to Atwood’s
admiration for the writers who came before her, as well as her
desire to credit some of her success to their teachings. She writes
about topics vast in scope and tries to find resolutions for the
deepest literary mysteries. For example, in the first chapter,
Atwood poses an elusive question, “What is a
‘writer?’” and she coherently answers it. In
essence, this novel is worth reading for aspiring writers if only
to discover her answer to this question.

The novel goes on to deal with her inferiority complex as a
writer, the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde duality of artistry and the
writer’s relationship with the reader.

In one of the most personally revealing chapters, Atwood
describes her first “real” reader: Brown Owl, the
leader of her Brownie troop. She remembers and eloquently relates
how, at age nine, she composed books as part of the Brownie program
and gave them to the “wise and fair” Brown Owl. The
story concludes with Atwood writing, “So that is who the
writer writes for … for the ideal reader who exists on a
continuum somewhere between Brown Owl and God ... This ideal reader
may prove to be anyone at all ... because the act of reading is
just as singular — always — as the act of
writing.”

After more than 30 books, numerous literary prizes and academic
fame, Margaret Atwood proves that she knows what it takes to be a
writer. “Negotiating with the Dead” is smart and
profound, Atwood’s style honest and humble. Though its
subject matter and diction may distance the average Dean Koontz
reader, it is obviously a book for writers, and perhaps this was
her intention. Like the great writers who preceded her
(particularly those who are mentioned in her novel), Atwood’s
radical work was not widely read. She succeeds, however, in
captivating and intellectual and finely focused audience, who will
most surely benefit from her insight.

Rating: 4 stars