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Margaret Atwood on Marriage

“Marriage is not a house or even a tent…”

Margaret Atwood on Marriage

“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other,” Rilke wrote in his meditation on freedom, togetherness, and the secret to a good marriage. But how do two people protect this sacred necessity of the bond from the daily proximity of cohabitation, which now presses their closely neighboring solitudes into inevitable frictions, now pushes them apart into neighboring lonelinesses?

That is what Margaret Atwood explores in a short, stunning poem originally published in her 1970 collection Procedures for Underground, later included in her altogether wondrous Selected Poems: 1965–1975 (public library), and read here by musician, poetry-lover, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer to the serendipitous sound of church bells in the winter-quieted streets of Portugal.

by Margaret Atwood

Marriage is not

a house or even a tent
it is before that, and colder:
the edge of the forest, the edge

of the desert

                the unpainted stairs

at the back where we squat

outside, eating popcorn
the edge of the receding glacier
where painfully and with wonder

at having survived even

this far
we are learning to make fire

Complement with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage and Virginia Woolf on what makes love last, then revisit other soulful and stirring readings by Amanda (who supports her music and life-poetry, like I do my writing and life-poetry, via donations): “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, “Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry, “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, “The Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, “Having It Out With Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, and “Possibilities” by Wisława Szymborska.


A State of Wonder: Margaret Atwood on How Technology Shapes Storytelling While Obeying Its Eternal Constants

“Everybody is telling a ‘Story of My Life’ to themselves all the time.”

At the 2014 Future of Storytelling Summit, I collaborated with animator Drew Christie on a short film about wisdom in the age of information. For the 2015 edition, Christie was tasked with animating Margaret Atwood’s meditation on how technology both shapes storytelling and obeys the eternal constants undergirding it.

Please enjoy:

The way you move content from here to there does influence what gets written and how it gets written.


Storytelling is part of being human — you can’t separate it from being a human being. Whether you call it “professional storytelling” or not, everybody is telling a Story of My Life to themselves all the time. So how you tell a story, how many pieces you tell the story in … all of these things are old — it’s just that we think of new ways to distribute them.

I walk around in a state of wonder every day. Everything’s exciting.

Complement with Neil Gaiman on how stories last, then revisit Atwood’s ten rules of writing and Christie’s animated short film about Mark Twain and the myth of originality.


Margaret Atwood on Literature’s Women Problem

“No male writer is likely to be asked to sit on a panel addressing itself to the special problems of a male writer.”

The recent sexism cries over Wikipedia’s segregation of American women novelists into a separate category removed from American novelists, and the subsequent debate, reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s remarkably prescient words on the subject in the introduction to the 1998 anthology Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (public library), a gender-ghettoization of The Paris Review’s Writers at Work series.

Atwood recounts an all-too-familiar anecdote:

Some years ago I was on a panel — that polygonal form of discourse so beloved of the democratic twentieth century — consisting entirely of women, including Jan Morris, who used to be James Morris, and Nayantara Sahgal of India. From the audience came the question “How do you feel about being on a panel of women?” We all prevaricated. Some of us protested that we had been on lots of panels that included men; others said that most panels were male, with a woman dotted here and there for decorative effect, like parsley. Jan Morris said that she was in the process of transcending gender and was aiming at becoming a horse, to which Nayantara Sahgal replied that she hoped it was an English horse, since in some other, poorer countries, horses were not treated very well. Which underlined, for all of us, that there are categories other than male or female worth considering.

I suppose all should have said, “Why not?” Still, I was intrigued by our collective uneasiness. No woman writer wants to be overlooked and undervalued for being a woman; but few, it seems, wish to be defined solely by gender, or constrained by loyalties to it alone — an attitude that may puzzle, hurt, or enrage those whose political priorities cause them to view writing as a tool, a means to an end, rather than as a vocation subject to a Muse who will desert you if you break trust with your calling.

Atwood cites the first interview in the collection, in which Dorothy Parker, witty and wise as ever, nails the subject to its cultural cross:

I’m a feminist, and God knows I’m loyal to my sex, and you must remember that from my very early days, when this city was scarcely safe from buffaloes, I was in the struggle for equal rights for women. But when we paraded through the catcalls of men and when we chained ourselves to lampposts to try to get our equality — dear child, we didn’t foresee those female writers.

Impeccable humor aside, Atwood strikes at the heart of the issue:

Male writers may suffer strains on their single-minded dedication to their art for reasons of class or race or nationality, but so far no male writer is likely to be asked to sit on a panel addressing itself to the special problems of a male writer, or be expected to support another writer simply because he happens to be a man. Such things are asked of women writers all the time, and it makes them jumpy.

Joyce Carol Oates, who voiced her indignation over the recent Wikipedia controversy in a tweet and whose interview closes the anthology, quips to the interviewer upon being asked to name “the advantages of being a woman writer”:

Advantages! Too many to enumerate, probably. Since, being a woman, I can’t be taken altogether seriously by the sort of male critics who rank writers 1, 2, 3 in the public press, I am free, I suppose, to do as I like.

Atwood’s solution, seemingly simple, is as poignant today — in part because it’s so simple yet so evidently difficult to indoctrinate — as it was fifteen years ago:

Despite the title of this book, the label should probably read, “WWAWW,” Writers Who Are Also Women.

(But this, I suppose, does’t quite roll off the tongue as a Wikipedia category title.)

Complement with Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules of writing and Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, then wash down with some timeless wisdom on the craft from some excellent Writers Who Are Also Women: Susan Orlean, Mary Gordon, Susan Sontag, Zadie Smith, Mary Karr, Joan Didion, Helen Dunmore, Isabel Allende, and Joy Williams.

Photograph via Random House


Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules of Writing

“­Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.”

In the winter of 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing originally published in The New York Times nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian asked some of today’s most celebrated authors to each produce a list of personal writing commandments. After 10 from Zadie Smith and 8 from Neil Gaiman, here comes Margaret Atwood with her denary decree:

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. 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.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, see this evolving compendium of notable advice, including Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Photograph courtesy of Random House


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