[Zetta’s Reference Desk] – Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood

nego with the deadTitle: Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

Author(s): Margaret Atwood

Published: 2003

Pages: 256


This week’s reference is recommended by L B Gschwandtner. She is the author of The Naked Gardener. Her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies and she has received awards from the Writer’s Digest and the Lorian Hemingway short fiction competitions. Visit her website www.lbgschwandtner.com.


Negotiating The Writer Within


Books on writing take many forms. Some cover the generally accepted rules of grammar and style … think Strunk & White. Others deal with such genre issues as how to write cozy mysteries, romance novels, or (gasp) steamy erotica – E. L. what’s her name of Fifty Shades fame is purportedly penning one of those. Oh, my.


Writing about writing is almost a side gig for authors. Seems like in every author’s career there comes a time when he or she is compelled to tell other writers and, maybe readers, just what this writing thing is really all about. The lowdown. The skinny. The inside story. They may not be the only people writing about how to write, but at least when you read a successful writer on the craft of writing, you know it’s written by someone who’s lived in the trenches.


I like to read authors whose books have given me, not so much rules for writing, but a way to think about the long history of the written word. Of the many books on writing by writers whose work I admire, here’s just one you might consider picking up.


Margaret Atwood is not only prolific in both prose and nonfiction, she’s also a daring writer who tackles uncomfortable subjects. As she’s said many times, her unflinching apocalyptic novels don’t make anything up but rely on events that have occurred in this, the real world. Many years ago, she wrote Negotiating With The Dead, A Writer On Writing, an exploration of writing from so many aspects, writers’ works, points of view, and styles that it’s like a kaleidoscope of the written word. Of course, Atwood’s well read – stunningly so. But she also brings a self deprecating humor to this book about books and writers thereof.


Negotiating came about when Atwood was asked to give a series of six lectures at The University of Cambridge on the subject of writing. Piece of cake, she thought, but, as the time drew near, she describes a panic setting in. Well, what do you know? Even the great ones sweat it out when it comes to sitting in front of the blank page. In other words, now how in hell am I gonna fill that?


If there was a way to sum up this book with all its wisdom, historical perspective, and simply wonderful overview of the craft of writing, I would certainly give it to you. However, I can’t. What I can do is tell you what this book on writing is not.


It’s not a blueprint for writing a book. As Atwood points out in many ways, writing is inherently about the writer – about the internal workings and struggles of each writer’s mind and heart. Of course craft is basic to being able to put those workings into a coherent and cohesive form. But that form is peculiar to each writer. And for every “rule” of writing, there is a writer who breaks it. But always for a purpose, and that’s what makes Atwood’s book so interesting and inspiring. She’s a rule breaker.


A good book on writing is like peeking behind the curtain at what goes on behind stage while the play is being performed. As readers we only see the final draft, the polished, approved, cleansed prose. But as writers we want to know what really went on during the process of writing. At least I do. Atwood allows us a glimpse inside not only her writing world but of many others. And what makes this a great book about writing is that it inspires the writer to write.


That brings me back to why we writers read about writing. Is it because:

a) we want to improve our own writing,

b) we are curious about what other writers have gone through,

c) we’re craft voyeurs,

d) we want to discover why we write, or,

e) all of these reasons and maybe a few more I haven’t considered?


The first part of Atwood’s Negotiating deals with d) or why she writes. More precisely, why and how she started writing. And then how it got the best of her and she never stopped. Prolific as any writer, her prose is as much a joy for the mind’s eye as a walk through a garden in full bloom is to the actual eye. So there’s that. The pleasure of reading a good writer, no matter what the genre or theme.


The second part of Negotiating covers other writers and their relationship to the history of the written world but also to their relationships with readers. It is this conjoined quality of writer to reader that Atwood makes so clear. Yes, she says, we are writing for ourselves, but we are also read (or hope to be) and the reading brings to the writer’s work an unanticipated dimension and life.


After all, you don’t have to take my word for what a wonderful, rewarding, and yes, inspiring read is Negotiating With The Dead. Pick up your own copy and read it for yourself.



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