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on 5 August 2016
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on 1 August 2017
A real gem of a book! Atwood's writing is immersive and her view of writing is both thoughtful and founded on an extensive knowledge on writing through the ages.
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on 9 September 2012
Enjoy Margaret Atwood and just starting out on life writing myself so jumped at the title, but only one chapter focuses on this - the last. However, lots of gems along the way as MA generously shares her wisdom and humour - introduced me too to other interesting writers - full of easy unpretentious scholarship.
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on 1 December 2014
A collection of six essays that gives as much insight into the author as much as it does the strange trade of creative writing. For example, Atwood has at various junctures in her prolific and enduring career resisted the feminist writer label, claiming instead she is merely a woman writer writing about the experiences of women. The reader gets a sense of where she is coming from when Atwood recounts her early childhood isolation from other girls, which may have impacted her view of women and their portrayal in her writing. Other little girls were a revelation to her only when she was eight and they moved to a postwar bungalow near the center of Toronto, when before she had as a playmate and role model her older brother:
"I was now faced with real life, in the form of other little girls – their prudery and snobbery, their Byzantine social life based on whispering and vicious gossip, and an inability to pick up earthworms without wriggling all over and making mewing noises like a kitten. I was more familiar with the forthright mindset of boys… little girls were almost an alien species. I was very curious about them, and remain so" (10) .

Here is apparent that not only was she beguiled by other little girls in her childhood, she has maintained a certain separateness rather than camaraderie with the female sex. This distinguishes her work from those of other women writers of women’s fiction, if that is a valid categorisation in the first place. It stems not from a position of self-identification but rather a position of one beholding the Other – with feelings of equal parts awe and fear.

Atwood also discusses her identity as a Canadian writer, postulating how it began to surface when she interrogated the landscape of living authors. She is insightful when she observes the distinguishing characteristic of writing that separates it from other arts, with “its apparent democracy… its availability to almost everyone as a medium of expression” (25). However, she cautions that the apparent easiness of it and the fact that no special training is needed, unlike an opera singer or a dancer, does not mean everyone is a writer, as much as they might feel that they have a book in them, and could write it if only they had the time. She likens being a writer to that of being a grave-digger, who does more than excavate:

You carry upon your shoulders the weight of other people’s projections, of their fears and fantasies and anxieties and superstitions. You represent mortality, whether you like it or not. And so it is with any public role, including that of the Writer, capital W; but also as with any public role, the significance of that role – its emotional and symbolic content – varies over time (26).

In Chapter 2, Atwood examines the duplicitous identities of the author-self and asks:
“Can an ‘author’ exist, apart from the work and the name attached to it? .... And who is the writing ‘I’?” (45).
Atwood identifies the double nature of writers as consisting of two halves, “one half does the living, the other half the writing” (37). The two halves can be seen as having a “parasitic” relationship, or it can be “symbiotic…. The double may be shadowy, but it is also indispensable” (37).

Besides the notion of doubles, Atwood goes on in Chapter 3 to argue about the motive behind a writer’s writing and the notion that “to write for money, or even to be thought to have done so, put you in the prostitute category” (68). Her comeback to the question “Is it true you write the bestsellers?” is “Not on purpose”. She exposes the hypocrisy and feels that “both kinds of snobbery: that which ascribes value to a book because it makes lots of money, and that which ascribes value to a book because it doesn’t” (69) are equally damning.

So what makes a work Art? Atwood details for us the battle over the proper function of art in the 19th century, the sense of martyrdom and sacrifice in the notion of the artist, who is not only self-effacing, but is also priest in service of an implied God of Art, who is “a cruel and selfish god", but also how that view changed so that by Kafka’s time, art for art’s sake was “falling out of widespread favor – and the fasting-artist ends up in a neglected corner of a circus menagerie” (81).

In the second half the book, Atwood addresses the the place of the author, the reader and the text, and the various relationships at play in the process of writing and reading. All serious stuff, but Atwood (as always) with her trademark wit and candour, and through interesting parallels and comparisons, invites the reader to examine these issues, and ruminate over them long after the last page is turned.
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on 4 April 2016
Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing’ is of course an international bestseller despite not having anything to do with how to write. It’s as near to an autobiography as we’re likely to get and it’s a fascinating insight into the mind of a writer but you’ll be none the wiser about how he goes about preparing his novels. He gave up teaching creative writing course because he got rather intimidated by the eager eyes of the students in the theatre waiting for those all important writing tips that were going to make them millions. They never came. His advice is always the same: A Writer Writes. That’s about it.

Maeve Binchy was interviewed for Irish TV about her writing techniques. She took out an A4 piece of paper and showed how she would draw pictures of the plot as it unfolded. Another disappointed interviewer. Another famous writer – I forget which one – was asked about his approach to writing. ‘I put my bottom on a seat and stay there’. Seems to be a common approach. All this is just a rather long winded introduction to a review of this book by Margaret Atwood: A Writer on Writing. If you’re looking for a ‘how-to’ book on writing that international bestseller then you won’t find it here. I notice some reviewers, particularly those down the one star end of the scale, are ‘outraged’ or at best ‘disappointed’ that the book leaves them cold and doesn’t explain to them how to write a million seller novel.

Strictly speaking this is not a book but a series of 6 lectures delivered at the request of the BBC. She had 2 years to think about her topics and prepare them. They were edited for book form. She took out some of the more topical quotes or references which could be dismissed in a speech but would not go down so well in a book. The lectures were pitched at a relatively cultured, well-read audience as one would expect. I am not an English literature graduate so a lot of the references to historical novels or authors were lost on me and required a Google search. You don’t need to be an English Major to follow the topics but they do require the ability to follow a reasoned argument or an abstract concept. The reader may need to re-read particular paragraphs to follow the line of thought especially if the examples in support of the argument or observation are unknown to you.
The writer also discusses the difference between the writer and the storyteller and their relationship to the reader or listener. She maintains that to say that a writer is a good storyteller is missing the point entirely. An oral delivery exists is a very distinct context whereas the written word occupies a very different space as it is something made concrete to millions. Books are not one to one experiences but one to millions. Every reader interacts with the book and may take from the writing something which was never put there.

The lectures cover quite a wide subject base and the topics are not obvious from the titles: Orientation. Duplicity. Dedication. Temptation. Communion. Descent : negotiating with the Dead. The reader may get more from one chapter than the other. I particularly found the last one interesting. It discusses the intriguing idea that the dead make demands on the writer’s time and resources in that they may not have ever told their story to posterity. No one knows of their plight. The writer can bring them back again from then to now and make their story new. This may be of relevance to gay writers who have very little historical personal stories to go on. Statistics of service personnel dismissed from the service or flogged for immoral behaviour really don’t bring anyone to life outside the numbers on the page. How many promising lives were destroyed for one act of weakness on a ship? By writing, you are like a magician that brings back the dead to life.

She discusses in some detail the ‘doubleness’ of the writer using the analogy of the superhero – not someone you would probably have anything to do with in their day job – think Clark Kent and Superman. Often times readers go away very disappointed on meeting their favourite author finding them no different from a relative or an old school teacher. ‘Meeting an author you like is like wanting to meet the duck that gave you pate’. Atwood uses the literary devices of the werewolf or Jekyll & Hyde as comparisons for what writers are really like. Dorian Gray gets a lot of page space too.

I could go on and on. The book is more to be mined than read once. You will pick up a lot of references to books you didn’t know existed or had only heard of. I had heard of The Martian Chronicles but never understood the significance of it. I do now!
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on 14 April 2007
If you love Margaret Atwood's novels then please buy this book. It has the same qualities you will have treasured before - every paragraph has a shaft of humour, an original insight, and a poetic use of language.

I've hesitated before to move from Margaret Atwood's novels into the short stories and poetry - a mistake i'll be rectifying soon. The writing and the level of intelligence in this set of reflections on the artist's life and motivations are as one with the rest of her captivating work.
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on 21 May 2008
What makes someone a writer? What's the role of the writer in the world today? Should she write just for Art's sake or does she have a social responsibility? Is there a third way? And is there an underlying (and universal) psychological reason behind every writer's desire to put words to paper? Margaret Atwood answers all these questions, and more, in six essays which were originally lectures given at Cambridge University.

The great thing about Atwood is that she doesn't place herself, or anyone else, on a pedestal. Her tone is warm, familiar, self-deprecating and very witty. She weaves quotes and poems into her explanations which give you a better understanding of those original works and even make you wish to go out and buy some of them (I've added Carol Shield's "Mary Swann" to my wish list.) This is the second time I read this book and I feel that I've gained new insight into what happens inside my head when I write. If you are a writer, this book is a must
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on 9 October 2013
What is the role of a the writer? Prophet? High Priest of art? Court Jester? Don't expect to find out here! Even the writer admits she doesn't have a clue, and hopes you won't notice when its buried under the mound of long pretentious litery allusions and quotations that don't really go anywhere or explain anything, or anecdotes that do like wise.

Buried underneath that is very basic writing advice like how its ok to write outside the lines, you can learn from dead people, and money isn't bad. Apparently the way these obvious tidbits are hidden makes people feel smart for finding them, even though other writing books will explain them far more plainly and in-depth.
You'll notice the negative reviews of this book are mass downvoted and the comments never explain why, while the positive reviews never actually illustrate what hey got out of the book, aside from vaguely feeling like they might have read something smart.

And if this review is wrong, I challenge anyone to call me on it and explain just what this book offers a read. I will amend or even delete it if someone can do a good job of it, otherwise this is one of those badly written books that people like for its pseudo intellectual value.
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on 22 September 2007
The amount of drivel written on writing has to be experienced to be believed. It is significant that many of the authors of this tripe are not to be found on any best seller list. They're hacks. Their words are tired. Their advice inane. Why any publisher produces their unhelpful prose is a mystery this writer cannot understand. What joy then to read Margaret Atwood's book. It will not give you 36 points on how to become a best selling novelist/poet/non-fiction writer/grafitti artist. It may not help you to write a single line at all. What it will display is great writing, sly wit, it will open a little, the door into the lives of writers and writing. It should inspire you. It should encourage you. It will definitely cause the occasional chuckle, among my favourites: "Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pate." And, "all writers are double, for the simple reason you cannot meet the author of the book you just read. Too much time has elapsed between composition and publication, and the person who wrote the book is now a different person." It's worth being a different person. Read this book.
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on 29 December 2011
Based on a lecture series given by Margaret Attwood, this book tackles the philosophical questions of why write? does a writer have to suffer for his or her art? who is the reader? where does writing come from? Margaret Attwood has an astonishing knowledge of her subject and an all-encompassing source of quotations ranging from Gilgamesh to Flaubert. Her background as a poet is also much in evidence with some very thought-provoking examples that illustrate the debates she analyses.

The book's weaknesses are in its strengths. The debating style leads to weak conclusions and rather protracted analysis which makes parts of the book dry. I wasn't surprised to find the Brown Owl example quoted in other reviews as this is one of the relatively few personal experiences that provide a depth of feeling and inspiration, the book could have done with more of these. Nevertheless, well worth the read.
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