Edna O’Brien [EO] and Margaret Atwood [MA] are so different in the books they write that it’s hard to convey how alike they are, in their professional approach to writing that is. Each spoke of the struggle to find the right form to tell their stories and each conveyed something of the magic of writing through the little golden nuggets they dropped into their talks. Both were gracious too about other writers and were generous in sharing a life-time experience of writing.
- On writing memoir – it’s crucial that you place the memory in a place, its correct setting, you need to ‘ground it, give it physicality’ (Proustian qualities).
- On setting the scene – don’t write a catalogue of description – ‘unless it has emotional relevance it’s no good’: writing is about detail
- Ignore inane clichés like post modern etc. – don’t pigeonhole your book
- On story: stories are essential to any book – hook the reader into what will happen next; stories are about how to live, how to be – about the characters’ inner lives
- Baudelaire changed the way she writes
- She is annoyed by the current vogue for limiting writing into genre and category.
An anecdote Edna O’Brien shared reveals the hunger that exists for writing and character, for setting and descriptive writing as well as the story. She told us how her village had few books, the Bible was most prominent. But someone had a copy of Rebecca and its pages were shared around from house to house and hand to hand, but out of sequence, out of order.
EO also spoke about feminism during the Q&A in response to a question about how she saw herself in the trajectory of modern feminism and whether she saw herself as a role model.
[in summary – not verbatim]
In some ways, every woman must thank the movement and recognise their work and question why it took so long. She was lucky enough to be living through the time when it emerged. She is grateful and proud. She’s wary of ‘isms’. ‘Most importantly, we must remember that the root and intent of feminism is about freedom of intellect, not about being superhuman or trivialising it’. She’s wary of those who reduce the seriousness of it – ‘it’s so important’ –‘ we mustn’t allow it to be reduced to being about being audacious but about being deep, which is much harder’. She’s drawn to women because of their psyche and the tragedy of women’s lives; pregnancy and marriage and losing the self; feminism is about being a person and deep rootedness. Above all, she doesn’t write under the banner of feminism but writes what most affects her about the condition of women.
[On writing The Blind Assassin]
- The story preceded the form in which it unfolds.
- MA had several false starts before she found the right form – starting with death of central character and a found cache of letters; started again with an elderly relative and two journalists; finally found the form to tell her story. The newspapers contradict the story; the story contradicts the story
- a framing narrative structure is hard to sustain. MA wrote as far as she could in one section and then took up another section but she wrote in sequence
- Research, research, research – go to the places in your book to add authenticity and realism
- Part of the struggle to find the right form was resolved when she asked ‘who is Iris’s reader – who is reading the story?’
- When asked during the Q&A about writing, she said: Plunge in, write what you need to write, then go back and fix it – and
- Write 200 words a day, whether good or bad, matters less than getting into the mindset of being a writer
- Get ‘the look of an age’ from old newspapers and ads in old magazines, such as, Good Housekeeping
MA commented on how to write, mostly, these were summarised from her excellent [and highly recommended] book about writing, Negotiating with the Dead. Here’s what she has to say on being a writer:
There’s one characteristic that sets writing apart from most of the other arts – its apparent democracy, by which I mean its availability to almost everyone as a medium of expression. As a recurring newspaper advertisement puts it, “Why Not Be A Writer?…No previous experience or special education required.” […]
To be an opera singer you not only have to have a voice, you have to
train for years; to be a composer you have to have an ear, to be a dancer you have to have a fit body, to act on the stage you have to be able to remember your lines, and so on. Being a visual artist now approaches writing, as regards its apparent easiness – when you hear remarks like “My four-year-old could do better,” you know that envy and contempt are setting in, of the kind that stem from the belief that the artist in question is not really talented, only lucky or a slick operator, and probably a fraud as well. This is likely to happen when people can no longer see what gift or unusual ability sets an artist apart.
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 thing 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. – /