Margaret Atwood on writers’ motives

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I am reading Margaret Atwood‘s book On Writers and Writing (originally Negotiating with the Dead). She has so many pertinent things to say, I find myself copying out pages from the book. Also making lists of authors and works she quotes to add to my list of “must reads”.

The following is from the Introduction, pages xix-xxi. (Exact quotes are in quotation marks. The subtitles and the numbered lists are my additions. I thought they might make it easier to refer back if anyone wants to comment. What motivates you? What is it like for you, going into a novel?)


“These are three questions most often posed to writers, both by readers and by themselves: Who are you writing for? Why do you do it? Where does it come from?

“While I was writing these pages I began compiling a list of answers to one of these questions – the question about motive. Some of these answers may appear to you to be more serious than others, but they are all real, and there is nothing to prevent a writer from being propelled by several of them at once, or indeed by all. They are taken from the words of writers themselves – retrieved from such dubious sources as newspaper interviews and autobiographies, but also recorded live from conversations in the backs of bookstores before the dreaded group signing, or between bites in cut-rate hamburger joints and tapas bars and other such writerly haunts, or in the obscure corners of receptions given to honour other, more prominent writers; but also from the words of fiction writers – all written of course by writers – though these are sometimes disguised in the works of fiction as painters or composers or other artistic folk.”

A list of reasons: Why do you do it?

  1. To record the world as it is.
  2. To set down the past before it is all forgotten.
  3. To excavate the past because it has been forgotten.
  4. To satisfy my desire for revenge.
  5. Because I knew I had to keep writing or else I would die.
  6. Because to write is to take risks, and it is only by taking risks that we know we are alive.
  7. To produce order out of chaos.
  8. To delight and instruct (not often found after the early twentieth century, or not in that form).
  9. To please myself.
  10. To express myself.
  11. To express myself beautifully.
  12. To create a perfect work of art.
  13. To reward the virtuous and punish the guilty; or – the Marquis de Sade defence, used by ironists – vice versa.
  14. To hold a mirror up to Nature.
  15. To hold a mirror up to the reader.
  16. To paint a portrait of society and its ills.
  17. To express the unexpressed life of the masses.
  18. To name the hitherto unnamed.
  19. To defend the human spirit, and human integrity and honour.
  20. To thumb my nose at Death.
  21. To make money so my children could have shoes.
  22. To make money so I could sneer at those who formerly sneered at me.
  23. To show the bastards.
  24. Because to create is human.
  25. Because to create is like Godlike.
  26. Because I hated the idea of having a job.
  27. To say a new word.
  28. To make a new thing.
  29. To create a national consciousness or a national conscience.
  30. To justify my failures in school.
  31. To justify my own view of myself and my life.
  32. Because I couldn’t be “a writer” unless I actually did some writing.
  33. To make myself appear more interesting than I actually was.
  34. To attract the love of a beautiful woman.
  35. To attract the love of any woman.
  36. To attract the love of a beautiful man.
  37. To rectify the imperfections of a miserable childhood.
  38. To support my parents.
  39. To spin a fascinating tale.
  40. To amuse and please the reader.
  41. To amuse and please myself.
  42. To pass the time, even though it would have passed anyway.
  43. Graphomania.
  44. Compulsive logorrea.
  45. Because I was driven to it by some force outside my control.
  46. Because I was possessed.
  47. Because an angel dictated to me.
  48. Because I fell into the embrace of the Muse.
  49. Because I got pregnant by the Muse and needed to give birth to a book (an interesting piece of cross-dressing, indulged in by male writers of the seventeenth century).
  50. Because I had books instead of children (several 20th-century women).
  51. To serve Art.
  52. To serve the Collective Unconscious.
  53. To serve History.
  54. To justify the ways of God toward man.
  55. To act out antisocial behaviour for which I would have been punished in real life.
  56. To master a craft so I can generate texts (a recent entry).
  57. To subvert the Establishment.
  58. To demonstrate that whatever is, is right.
  59. To experiment with new forms of perception.
  60. To create a recreational boudoir so the reader could go into it and have fun (translated from a Czech newspaper).
  61. Because the story took hold of me and wouldn’t let me go (the Ancient Mariner defence).
  62. To search for understanding of the reader and myself.
  63. To cope with my depression.
  64. For my children.
  65. To make a name that would survive death.
  66. To defend a minority group or oppressed class.
  67. To speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
  68. To expose appalling wrongs or atrocities.
  69. To recall the times through which I have lived.
  70. To bear witness to horrifying events that I have survived.
  71. To speak for the dead.
  72. To celebrate life in all its complexity.
  73. To praise the universe.
  74. To allow for the possibility of hope and redemption.
  75. To give back something of what has been given to me.

What is it like?

“Having failed on the subject of motives, I took a different approach: instead of asking other writers why they did it, I asked them what it felt like. Specifically, I asked novelists, and I asked them what it felt like when they went into a novel.

“None of them wanted to know what I meant by into.

Going into a novel is…

  1. Like walking into a labyrinth, without knowing what monster might be inside
  2. Like groping through a tunnel
  3. Like being in a cave – you can see daylight through the opening, but you yourself are in darkness
  4. Like being underwater, in a lake or ocean
  5. Like being in a completely dark room, feeling your way, rearranging the furniture in the dark and then when it is all rearranged the light comes on
  6. Like wading through a deep river in twilight
  7. Like being in an empty room which is nevertheless filled with unspoken words, with a sort of whispering
  8. Like grappling with a unseen being or entity
  9. Like sitting in an empty theatre before any play or film has started, waiting for the characters to appear
  10. “Dante begins The Divine Comedy – which is both a poem and a record of the composition of that poem – with an account of finding himself in a dark tangled wood as at night having lost his way, after which the sun begins to rise.”
  11. “Virginia Woolf said that writing a novel is like walking through a dark room, holding a lantern which lights up what is already in the room anyway.”
  12. “Margaret Lawrence and others have said that is like Jacob wrestling with his angel during the night – an act in which wounding, naming, and blessing all take place at once.”

It’s dark in there

“Obstruction, obscurity, emptiness, disorientation, twilight, blackout, often combined with a struggle or path or journey – an inability to see one’s way forward, but a feeling that there was a way forward, and that the act of going forward would eventually bring about the conditions for a vision – these were the common elements in many descriptions of the process of writing. I was reminded of something a medical student said to me about being interior of the human body, forty years ago: ‘It’s dark in there.'”

Margaret Atwood: Old typewriter close-up

I wrote this article – stole most of it to tell the truth – for the #Blogg52 challenge.

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4 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood on writers’ motives”

  1. Varför jag skriver? Bli läst, tjäna pengar, kunna jobba mindre i skolan och bli lite berömd. Varför inte?
    Jag gillade alla förslag på hur det känns att börja skriva. 😀 Min favorit är nummer tre tror jag. I alla fall just där jag befinner mig i min skrivprocess. Lite tungt, men jag ser ljuset i alla fall.
    Ett passande blogginlägg för mig.
    Pust! Varför skriver jag egentligen? Hade det inte varit lättare att bara titta på teveserier och lyfta skrot? Eller nåt.

  2. Jag skriver för att orden finns inom mig och kräver att få komma ut. Efter att du berättade att du läste boken har jag beställt den och den är på väg hem till mig just nu.
    Kram Kim 🙂


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