In May of last year, I went to hear Margaret Atwood speak at a literary festival in Tallinn. As I stood in a line stretching far into the streets of Old Town and watched her settle into the spotlight via an outdoor screen set up for those who wouldn’t fit into the building, I clutched the book I’d brought for her to sign and waited, barely daring to hope I’d be fortunate enough to make the cut. Each time they opened the door, a few lucky ones managed to creep past the door wardens — and each time, I would count the people in front of me.
In the end, I was one of the lucky ones. I rushed up the steps with another girl and entered the room, my heart pounding, and though I was stationed somewhere in the back and could hardly see her, I could at least say I was there, in the same room. Probably the only time in my life I’ve been starstruck.
This past weekend I checked out an unauthorized biography on Margaret Atwood (the biographer had communicated with Atwood a couple times in the process of writing it, so it wasn’t necessarily unapproved). The biography humanized her, brought her down to the writer level I’m familiar with — an author who had to start somewhere, trying to balance the academic and creative writing life, confronting the challenges of taking an unconventional career path. An author who never gave up.
Ultimately, we can learn a lot by listening to successful writers. Or by watching them at work. So what I gleaned from my brief encounter with Margaret Atwood and her writing wisdom was this:
Place is powerful
One of the things that stood out to me — in both the talk she gave and the biography — was the discussion of place. And though I feel this is perhaps a topic for another day, I started thinking about why we write what we write and how place, being such an integral part of our identities — whether consciously or otherwise — constructs our narrative identities. And not just place as space, but place as culture and society and home. Margaret Atwood began writing and studying literature at a time when Canada didn’t have a national literature. She was pivotal in the movement to establish the Canadian literary landscape. It was and still is intrinsic to her writer identity, and you can feel it in her novels and the characters and their movement through these literary places. What, then, can we say about how places affect our own work and identities?
Writing what you know is good advice
From her biography, I learned that Atwood has based many of her stories on places she’s worked and people she’s known and, ultimately, on herself: her emotions and fears, her interpretation of social issues, her surroundings. Though characters inevitably take on their own lives and personalities and stories move in their own directions, Atwood’s literature is born from personal experience. For instance, her arguably feminist literary stance sprouted from difficulties she faced in a much more narrow-minded, sexist era. The places she has written about are places she has lived. (She herself has said it is essential to her that she know the setting.) Her own interests also prevail, time and time again: biology, environmentalism, bugs. Margaret Atwood has lived her experiences and written about them, and people pay her to read about them.
Having a good network of friends is essential
Atwood faced very different circumstances than I do now, but much of her success and creative drive was influenced, in part, by surrounding herself with creative people and maintaining her relationships with them. Many of her unique projects (which sell for quite the money these days) were collaborations with other creative types, and she went on to exercise her own creativity through the experiences — literary and otherwise — she shared with them. Additionally, she corresponded via letters with several friends who went on to give her genuine and fantastic feedback (detailed, honest, and ultimately essential to her work). I read some of the reviews she received regarding her novel drafts, and I was astounded by the intelligent attention they paid her work. It’s something we should all aim for in our writing groups.
In the end . . .
“If I waited for perfection… I would never write a word.”
After her talk, which focused on a range of topics from her latest work to modern feminism to the story she’s hidden away in Norway for the next 100 years, we got in line for the book signing. As I waited my turn, I wondered what I should say to her, if anything. What can you say to someone who has influenced you profoundly in a few mere seconds?
Writers meeting our favorite authors is often a dream come true. They have written words that have touched us, signed their names upon books that have spoken our own. Sometimes, we get lucky enough to listen to the exceptionally talented, as they sit gracefully in front of a huge crowd, and talk about their process, their ideas, their writing.
So when I did finally reach the small table and met her (very blue) gaze, I decided that perhaps my presence there spoke for itself. That her work, which I’ve read at various times in my life and for various reasons, had already spoken.
It still speaks to me.
And through me, even now, it’s reaching you.
Which authors have taught you something valuable or inspired your writing life? Let me know in the comments below!