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Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on…

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002)

by Margaret Atwood

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The short book, Negotiating with the Dead, is a collection of six lectures Margaret Atwood gave on writing. This is not a typical writing handbook, dispensing now-cliched advice like "write what you know" and "show, don't tell." Rather, Atwood tackles the question of what does it mean to "be a writer." What is the writer, anyway, and why are writers compelled to write? She ends up posing more questions than she answers.

The six lectures each address a different aspect of the Writer. Using examples from literature, poetry, and mythology, Atwood positions the writer as six archetypes. Atwood's insights are unusual but will ring true to anyone who has felt the urge to write, or indeed, to any creator, I suspect.

Additional notes on each lecture are on my blog. ( )
  sturlington | Mar 13, 2016 |
I started this book before, and had trouble getting into it. All I can say about that is, the timing must have been wrong. I loved every word of it this time. Margaret Atwood writes about writing. How could it NOT be wonderful? (The only Atwood novel I have read---or even been tempted to read---is Alias Grace. I admired it, enjoyed it, and wished the subject matter of Atwood's other fiction was more to my taste, because her writing was exquisite.) This book grew out of a series of lectures Ms. Atwood gave at Cambridge in 2000. There were six lectures, so there are six chapters in the book, each dealing with a different aspect of the writerly existence. Roughly translated and conflated a bit, the topics are "what is a writer, anyway?", "the duplicity of being a writer", "who or what are you writing for", and "the writer's quest for immortality". Or, as Atwood says, with a wit that delighted me throughout the book, "Perhaps I have reached the age at which those who have been through the wash-and-spin cycle a few times become seized by the notion that their own experience in the suds maybe relevant to others." Despite her disclaimer that she is "not a scholar or a literary theoretician", she knows an awful lot, and dispenses a good bit of that knowledge in Negotiating With the Dead, in a manner both enlightening and entertaining. I expect I will return again and again to this collection, and that I will, notwithstanding my general aversion to dystopian fiction, read another Atwood novel before too long.

Review written January 2015 ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Oct 11, 2015 |
Negotiating With the Dead is a series of six essays based upon the Empson Lectures Margaret Atwood delivered at the University of Cambridge in 2000. These lectures/essays discuss big questions like: "What is art?", "What is Writing?," "Why do Writers Write?", and "What is the relationship between Writer and Reader?"

To each of these questions, Margaret Atwood applies her prodigious thoughtfulness, knowledge and wit. And, while not entirely useless for another creative soul looking for company, there is far too much navel gazing going on.

I usually enjoy reading/talking to other artists about their creative processes and their thoughts on creativity. Stephen King's On Writing is an excellent example of discussing the craft. Negotiating With the Dead, on the other hand, is LitCrit theory, vague and ethereal with only questions to circle around.

The biggest question I walked away with is, "Does it really matter?" If the muse calls, one answers regardless of theories about why. I'm much more interested in knowing Atwood's process and her thoughts on craftsmanship. ( )
1 vote AuntieClio | Apr 29, 2014 |
Atwood was asked to give a series of lectures at Cambridge and this book is the outcome. In six essays she covers some of the issues or challenges that all writers must confront or engage with. In the Intro she introduces the three questions 'posed to writers, both by readers and by themselves, Who are you writing for? Why do you do it? Where does it come from?" The essays attempt to shed some light on those questions, taking different approaches. In the first essay Atwood gives her own account of becoming a writer - specifics matter, but they can also ring true in a wider way and I think that was her intention - that all writers have a specific story. Next she addresses the 'split' that happens between the writer as a person just living a life and a person who steps back or out and observes and records - although I would say this pertains mostly to fiction and poetry. The third essay never quite came into focus for me, but in it I think Atwood is examining how artists/writers have been perceived 'over the ages' - in particular how women who devote their lives to the arts have only recently been allowed to break free of being seen as either 'a nun or orgiastic priestess' - (men broke free centuries ago). In the next essay Atwood examines the writer as a manipulator, a maker of effects, like the Wizard of Oz. She also talks about moral and social responsibilities and returns again to the fact that women writers are still judged quite differently from men. The fifth essay looks at the relationship between the reader and writer - it's not an essay that is going much of anywhere, more an exploration of the territory - the essential point being that the communication in a novel is One-on-one. The final essay, the best one, is about the writer's relationship to the 'underworld' the 'other' - it relates back to the second essay, I think, of the divided self. Atwood examines in literature the near universal theme of visiting the underworld to bring back wisdom, to bring back stories - that it is the dead who want their stories told - the presence of the essay rather than anything she explicitly states makes the point that writing is for that reason 'dangerous work' - you enter a tunnel, a dark road, not knowing where you will end up and you make this trip voluntarily (although in the first essay she is making a case that writers can't help themselves!). Who knows what my long-term take-away will be. As a writer, I am drawn to books about why writers write and this one gave me plenty to think about. But truthfully - Atwood is a bit of a heavy essay writer, her fiction is much better! **** ( )
  sibyx | Dec 22, 2013 |
I love Margaret Atwood���s pondering and phrases. Discussing an impersonal society, she says ���it���s a cog eat cog world.���
  ljhliesl | May 21, 2013 |
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As they were all sitting at table, one guest suggested that each of them should relate a tale. Then the bridegroom said to the bride: "Come, my dear, do you know nothing? Relate something to us, like the others." She said: "Then I will relate a dream." -- "The Robber Bridegroom," collected by the Brothers Grimm
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0521662605, Hardcover)

After having been through the "wash-and-spin cycle" a few times, Margaret Atwood realized that her "own experience in the suds may be relevant to others." Thus was born Negotiating with the Dead, six essays about what it means to be a writer, particularly a female writer. Each essay explores one aspect of writerly contemplation: art vs. commerce; the ideal reader; the separation between the part of a person that writes and the part that lives; and, as the title suggests, the constant presence of those who came before (both writers and other ancestors). Atwood relates her own experiences as a female poet (to be taken seriously, it would have helped to commit suicide) and as a bestselling novelist (whether your books are good or bad, sell well or don't, people will look down at you for it). These are intriguing meditations, with references to works by Virgil, Isak Dinesen, Robertson Davies, and countless others (Atwood's own dead, no doubt). --Jane Steinberg

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:44 -0400)

"Margaret Atwood examines the metaphors which writers of fiction and poetry have used to explain their activities, looking at what costumes they have seen fit to assume, what roles they have chosen to play. In her final chapter she takes up the challenge of the book's title: if a writer is to be seen as 'gifted', who is doing the giving and what are the terms of the gift?" "Margaret Atwood's wide and eclectic reference to other writers, living and dead, is balanced by anecdotes from her own experiences as a writer, both in Canada and on the international scene. The lightness of her touch is underlined by a seriousness about the purpose and the pleasures of writing, and by a deep familiarity with the myths and traditions of western literature."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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