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Margaret Atwood’s Writing Quips and Tips

Canadian author Margaret Atwood shares her writing quips and tips, advice and thoughts in Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing. Here, she describes the process of writing, becoming a writer, selling stories, and more.

First, of course, a writing quip from this famous published author:

“All writers must go from now to once a upon a time; all must go from here to there; all must descend to where the stories are kept; all must take care not to be captured and held immobile by the past,” writes Atwood in Negotiating With the Dead (click on the cover for more info).

It takes effort to move from “now” to “once upon a time” – to break free of the past, and shake off your fears, insecurities, hang-ups. But, to be a freelance writer, published novelist, or happy blogger, you need to take Atwood’s writing advice and go from here to there.

Margaret Atwood’s Writing Quips and Tips

On the Process of Writing

Writing Quip: “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 – those were the common elements in many descriptions of the process of writing,” writes Atwood.

  • Writing Tip: You, as a freelancer, novelist, or poet, are not alone if you feel lost in your writing. Published authors describe the writing process as wading through deep rivers, being in empty rooms, grappling with unseen entities, and walking through labyrinths. There is no one right road to being a freelance writer or bestselling author…there’s only your own experience and the knowledge that all writers struggle with disorientation and emptiness sometimes.

On Writers’ Childhoods

Writing Quip: “The childhoods of writers are thought to have something to do with their vocation, but when you look at these childhoods they are in fact very different,” writes Atwood in Negotiating With the Dead. “What they often contain, however, are books and solitude, and my own childhood was right on track.”

  • Writing Tip: How does your childhood shape your life as a freelance writer or struggling novelist? Think about it…because I’m willing to bet that the way you handle rejection, perseverance, motivation, discipline, success, and other writing challenges is affected in some way by your childhood. For instance, my writing goal is to earn several thousand dollars per month. Perhaps that’s because I grew up poor – and for me, writing success is defined by my salary, not my words per day or number of books published. How does your childhood affect your writing career? 

On Becoming a Writer

Writing Quip: “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,” writes Atwood. 

  • Writing Tip: At what point do you call yourself a “real” writer? It’s important to figure that out for yourself – and everyone has a different definition of a “real” writer. The sooner you pinpoint what that means to you, the sooner you can get busy and be a real writer! 

On Selling a Story to a Literary Magazine

Writing Quip: “When I received my first literary-magazine acceptance letter, I walked around in a daze for a week. It was a shock, really,” writes Atwood in Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing. “All that effort directed toward what even I had, in my heart of hearts, considered to be an unreal goal, and it was not unreal after all. Everything was about to come true, as in some vaguely threatening dream or wish-granting fairy-tale. 

  • Writing Tip: If you’ve been published, you know that writer’s high! Remember that when you’re struggling to earn a living as a freelance writer, or receiving rejection after rejection from your book proposal. If you haven’t been published, keep working towards your writing goals. Atwood considered her goals unrealistic and unachievable – and yet she exceeded her writing expectations. You can do the same…with “all that effort” that Atwood mentioned.

On Being a Writer

Writing Quip: “As for writing, most people secretly believe they themselves have a book in them, which they would write if they could only find the time. And there’s some truth to this notion. A lot of people do have a book in them – that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same as “being a writer,”” writes Atwood. “Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. The latter takes a good deal more stamina and persistence.” 

  • Writing Tip: When you’re deciding what it means to you to be a “real” writer, consider Atwood’s distinction between playing with words versus zeroing in on your writing goals until – in your own estimation – you’ve made it. Stop wanting to be a writer, and start being a writer. 

Writing Quip: “…when I look back over the life I led until I began writing, I can find nothing in it that would account for the bizarre direction I took; or nothing than couldn’t be found in the lives of many people who did not become writers,” writes Atwood in Negotiating With the Dead

  • Writing Tip: You don’t have to be special in any way to be a writer, fellow scribes. You need only be determined, fearless, and hopeful. 

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3 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood’s Writing Quips and Tips”

  1. Hi Laurie,

    I loved this post. This book will be on my to-get-to-read list. 🙂 I believe that my childhood influenced me because I was teased so much and hurt by it that I wanted to be set apart from everyone. I wanted to shine. So I shine in different ways now, not just in my writing. But, my hope is to shine in a way that helps others in the process. Great post!

  2. I especially like knowing that she struggled with writing – that she thought being published was an “unrealistic goal.” Look at her now!

    Maybe that proves that the Secret or the Law of Attraction doesn’t always work (it holds that if you think something, it comes true).

  3. This is so interesting- I love Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s tale was brilliant from the first sentence to the appendix. Thanks for this!