So you want to write a book? Read this and then consider it

On Books

March 03, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

As book editor and columnist for a major newspaper in a community littered with universities, centered in a metropolis that for a dozen recent years touted itself as "The City That Reads," I am regularly, often passionately, approached by people who have written -- or are writing, or yearn to write -- a book.

The ones who concern me here have not been published. "Successful" writers should already have confidence and counsel. Nor am I concerned with books about self-help, pet training, angel welfare or getting rich tomorrow, or with novels that are sold mainly in airports -- commodity books. Their profligate proliferation does not summon sympathy.

I am, however, sympathetic toward strangers with ambitions to write or publish the sort of books that might be examined on these pages: substantial nonfiction, history, biography, and -- above all -- serious fiction.

Painful as it is, in most cases over the years, I have felt compelled to suggest that those aspirants would be far better off to forget the scribbling urge and turn to something more rewarding and cuddly, say orchid husbandry or paleontological entomology.

There is a great deal of material available to would-be authors. Writers write, and often about themselves. But I have never come across a single book that more elegantly goes to the heart of the craft and its demands than Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing, by Margaret Atwood (Cambridge University, 219 pages, $18).

I have immensely admired the parts of Atwood's work that I have read: four or five of her 25 volumes of poetry, short fiction, nonfiction and novels -- plus bits and pieces. I hoped to gain from this new book fresh insight into the inner mechanics of writers and writing. Anxiety hung over that hope; I find most writers' writing about writers and writing pompous, shallow and self-congratulatory -- dancing awkwardly between narcissism and onanism.

Not Atwood's. This book grew out of her recent Empson Lectures at Cambridge University. It opens with a description of her childhood and development as a writer in the north country of Ontario, where every bit of shelter and furniture was built by her father's hands. There was lots of solitude and little entertainment except for the wilds and books. In her family, there was much making up of stories, little plays.

The book rollicks with wonderful, breezy, confiding stuff -- vivid. But soon, without abandoning her crisp conciseness, Atwood gets intense about what, in her mind, writing and writers are all about

The writer is inevitably split into two entities, she argues. One is the person you might meet at a dinner party, or be married to. Then there is the "other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing."

"Wanting to meet an author because you like his work," declares a cutout on Atwood's bulletin board, "is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pate."

She is immensely well read and unapologetically rich in classic allusions but she is, throughout the book, bold about her severely personal values and their limits: "I am a writer and a reader, and that's about it. I am not a scholar or a literary theoretician, and such notions that have wandered into this book have gotten there by the usual writerly methods, which resemble the ways of the jackdaw: we steal the shiny bits, and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests."

Hooray for Atwood! In general, my own reading lifetime has consistently confirmed the observation of the critical genius who declared that literary theory is to literature what ornithology is to birdsongs.

She is, however, dead serious about the fact that a writer has to write -- and that doing so is more or less a lifetime state of being: "A lot of people 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.' 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."

The central wonderfulness of this book -- of Atwood -- is its, her, clear-eyed, unflinching perspicacity: This brief study is smart, deeply humane, courageous -- and it gives respectful recognition to attitudes and values she clearly finds offensive.

Thus the work is empowered by irony. The high Romantic novelists and poets, for example, Atwood insists, properly would be rejected as pompous, self-sanctifying asses if they were writing today, but in the 19th century they were heaven-sent and now remain vital to understanding both history and the nature of human aspiration.

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