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Literary wisdom: The writing lessons from the celebrated Margaret Atwood

What better way to celebrate Margaret Atwood’s birthday than by sharing some of her writing advice and knowledge?

Eighty two years ago, the city of Ottawa witnessed the birth of a child who would become an acclaimed and talented author of literary fiction and poetry. Named Margaret Eleanor Atwood, the Canadian writer would be known to the world as Margaret Atwood. 

With a spirited passion for storytelling, Margaret began to write at the age of five. As the years went by, Atwood would develop her own style with a feminine perspective. Thanks to this, Margaret Atwood has been able to establish her literary legacy, with works such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, The Circle Game, and many more. 

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Throughout her life, Atwood has been a role model for many aspiring writers across the world. So, what better way to celebrate Margaret Atwood’s birthday than by sharing some of her writing advice and knowledge?

Margaret Atwood, an online teacher

Through MasterClass, the popular online education platform, Margaret Atwood taught some lessons about how to catch your readers’ attention as well as the crafting of striking prose. Here are some of the advice of Atwood’s MasterClass: 

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  • “Human beings are creative storytelling beings. They make art because that's what human beings do. As a writer, your goal is to keep your reader believing in your story even though both of you know it's fiction. When I wrote The Handmaid's Tale, nothing went into it that had not happened in real life somewhere at some time”.
  • “If you really do want to write and you're struggling to get started, you're afraid of something. Remember, it's only you and the page. The waste paper basket is your friend”.
  • “People are always coming up with new theories of the novel, but the main rule is to hold my attention. Any form of human creativity is a process of doing it and getting better at it. You become a writer by writing. There is no other way. So do it, do it more. Do it better. Fail. Fail better”.
  • “You can’t suddenly play a Beethoven sonata until you’ve first learned to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. 
  • “If you look at the early works of a lot of famous writers it's usually pretty bad and it's a lucky thing about writing they don't usually peak in their 20s it's usually quite a lot later on. Why is that? Because writing is about people and stories about people, and you know more about people and their stories as you get older”.
  • “It’s very useful to read your text out loud to see how it sounds because a text is a score for the voice”. 
  • [Image: Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación/Mauro Rico]

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    Encouraging the young people

    In 2018, the National Center for Writing interviewed Margaret Atwood about her career. Throughout the conversation, Emily Webb and Grace Murray, the young ambassadors of NCW, asked the Canadian author about the beginning of her career, the subjects that her works had to challenge, and some writing tips for new authors:

  • “In 1956, in Canada, nobody was going to be a writer, so there were no creative writing classes; we didn't learn it. When we wrote things in school, it was essays. But I think I just started doing it, and it was more fun than anything. So I changed career paths. I switched from science to writing, and everybody thought I was mad”.
  • “You can get the idea for a novel in quite a short period of time, but then you have to sit down and work at it. So what they say is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. The rest of it is working it out. And, while you're working it out, you often get more and different and new ideas because the idea that you may have originally started with isn’t working out quite the way you thought it might”. 
  • “You throw the things that aren't working unless you think there's something you might use later. In which case, you save it, and that could be a long process. It can take a year or two to work out an idea that you might have had in five minutes. We don't know where ideas come from. They can come from anywhere”.
  • “A story isn't just 'this and that, and this and that'. Something has to happen, and the ‘something’ that has to happen should be a surprise to the person reading the book. And often, to you, the person writing the book. Of course, some of those things are going to be emotionally draining scenes. Because, if it was just one happy event after another, people are going to be thinking ‘is anything else going to happen?’. I think we have emotionally draining things in books because it allows us, in a way, to wonder how we, the reader, would deal with that”.
  • “If there are no young writers, there will be no future readers. Every group of young writers that are coming along is continuing the tradition of reading and writing. They’re part of a very long history. But, if all of a sudden there weren't any young writers, that tradition would stop. That's why it's a good idea to encourage young writers on the idea of books and reading. More young readers and writers need to come along, or else, it will all come to an end”. 
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    [Image: Penn State]

    Atwood's writing rules

    Inspired by The New York Time’s article about Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, The Guardian published their 2010’s piece of celebrated authors’ personal advice. Among them, Margaret Atwood contributed with her ten writing rules, which are: 

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  • Take a pencil to write with on airplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  •  If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  • Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  • If you're using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  • Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  • Hold the reader's attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don't know who the reader is, so it's like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  • You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you're on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.
  • You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book because you wrote the thing. You've been backstage. You've seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship unless you want to break up.
  • Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  • Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visualization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.
  • Cover photo: Bart Teeuwisse

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