By Charles Matthews

Sunday, April 25, 2010

1. "Negotiating With the Dead," by Margaret Atwood, pp. i-16

"Introduction: Into the Labyrinth." "Prologue." "1. Orientation: Who do you think you are," through "...We shared many of the same childhood amusements and pursuits, but he gave them up and turned to other forms of amusement, and I did not."
"Writing itself is always bad enough, but writing about writing is surely worse, in the futility department." And yet, isn't literature the most self-conscious of the arts? I mean, painters don't paint paintings about painting, or composers compose music about composing, or dancers dance dances about dancing. But writers are always writing about writing. 

The book grew out of a series of lectures, the Empson Lectures at Cambridge University in 2000. "Let's say it's about the position the writer finds himself in; or herself, which is always a little different."
What has she been up to, and why, and for whom? And what is this writing, anyway, as a human activity or as a vocation, or as a profession, or as a hack job, or perhaps even as an art, and why do so many people feel compelled to do it? 
It seems to be true that people -- readers and writers -- continue to ask such questions. Or specifically, "Who are you writing for? Why do you do it? Where does it come from?" And so she compiles a list of all the justifications for writing that she has encountered. I think the one closest to my own is "To search for understanding of the reader and myself." Although maybe at my age I'm just stretching my few remaining intellectual muscles, which I don't think is one that she included.
Obstruction, obscurity, emptiness, disorientation, twilight, blackout, often combined with a struggle or path or journey -- an inability to see one's way forward, but a feeling that there was a way forward, and that the act of going forward would eventually bring about the conditions for vision -- these were the common elements in many descriptions of the process of writing.... Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light. This book is about that kind of darkness, and that kind of desire.
She begins her first lecture by referring to Kobo Abé's The Woman in the Dunes, in which the trapped writer tries to reassure himself: "There's no need for you to think of writers as something special. If you write, you're a writer, aren't you?" To which the writer responds, "Apparently not." Because there is a "socially acknowledged" role to being a writer, "one that carries some sort of weight or impressive significance -- we hear a capital W on Writer."
No writer emerges from childhood into a pristine environment, free from other people's biases about writers. All of us bump up against a number of preconceptions about what we are or ought to be like, what constitutes good writing, and what social functions writing fulfills, or ought to fulfill.
So she begins with a biographical account, of growing up in Canada, with what the childhoods of writers "often contain...books and solitude." This leads to an "inability to distinguish between the real and the imagined, or rather the attitude that what we consider real is also imagined: every life lived is also an inner life, a life created." She was fortunate to have a family in which "Rational debate was smiled upon, as was curiosity about everything."

For me, having tangled with Peggy Atwood on several occasions in graduate school (or more accurately, having been cowed into submission to an intellect more formidable than mine), it's charming and a little bit of relief to find her saying, "It took me a long time to figure out that the youngest in a family of dragons is still a dragon from the point of view of those who find dragons alarming." She grew up with older brothers and "was more familiar with the mindset of boys," so that "little girls were almost an alien species. I was very curious about them, and remain so."

She's only a year old than I am, so I can easily recognize the era in which she grew up: the 1950s. "There was no sex education at our school -- the gym teacher even spelled the word blood instead of pronouncing it outright, lest girls faint at the sound of it.... The entire culture seemed geared -- as many have been before it -- to ceaseless titillation coupled with a high brick wall."

She became a writer by writing: a poem occurred to her and she wrote it down "and after that writing was the only thing I wanted to do." But as for any decisive causal factor, she's skeptical.
In biographies there is usually some determining moment in early life that predicts the course of the future artist or scientist or politician. The child must be father to the man, and if he isn't, the biographer will do some cut-and-paste and stick on a different head, to make it all come out right.

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