7 Things I Learned When Margaret Atwood Came to Town

Filed in The Writing Life by on April 14, 2015 • views: 1960

Atwood Painting 2She’s been one of my favorite authors since I was in my early 20s. I couldn’t believe she was coming all the way from Toronto to Idaho.

I’ve attended readings/lectures/signings with several of my writing heroes, including Andre Dubus III, Dennis Lehane, Ann Patchett, and Daniel Woodrell. They were all outstanding, to put it mildly, but in all cases, there were no more than a couple hundred people (at most) in attendance.

Ms. Atwood came to Boise University, so I expected a bit larger crowd, simply because of the students who would be there for class credit.

My friends, let me tell you.

Literary celebrities still exist, and Margaret Atwood is one of them.

All About Words

The room was packed. There were over 1,400 people, and maybe only half of them were students. The coordinator asked us to squeeze together so more attendees could find a seat. By the time Ms. Atwood made her entrance from the side door, there were no chairs left and the walls were lined with admirers.

She is 75 years old, which I never would have guessed at the time. I would have placed her in her early 60s. She wore a black pantsuit with a multi-colored scarf, her trademark curly hair the only thing that wasn’t perfectly in place. She was stooped a little in the shoulders, a “gnome-like elderly person” as she would later describe herself, but when she looked up there was a sharpness in her eye that dared you to underestimate her.

She came out with the dean of the honors school and made a beeline for her seat in the first row, but the audience wouldn’t have it. They spotted her and started clapping. More like thunderous applause. She nodded and continued to her seat.

There was the usual praiseworthy introduction. When the words “icon of literary genius” came out, Margaret chuckled, her small shoulders quivering. Then she rose and climbed the stairs to the podium, her papers in hand, set her book bag on the floor beside her, and started to speak.

I won’t try to regurgitate what she said. What I will do is pull out a few pieces that stayed with me to pass along to you, in case you may glean from them some of the benefits I did.

I can also tell you that within the first five minutes, Ms. Atwood had us all laughing so hard we were crying. This lady is funny! She spoke on the topic of “Expression and the Power of Words,” and in the process, covered a myriad of sub-topics, including the controversial new “Clean Reader” app, the danger of censorship, the history of how humans have evolved using language, the importance of freedom of speech, choosing the right words for one’s novels, and how words and language may continue to evolve into the future.

Trust in a Future Reader

She closed her talk by telling us about the Future Library Project, for which she’s been chosen as the first contributing author. Scottish artist Katie Paterson recently launched the 100-year project, for which the Future Library Trust will invite one “outstanding” author to contribute a new piece to the collection each year. The author can write anything, as long as it’s on the theme of “imagination and time.”

In 2114, the trees that were planted in Nordmarka, Norway to mark the beginning of the project will be cut down to provide the paper on which the texts will be printed, published, and (hopefully!) read by, as Ms. Atwood noted, readers not yet born, out of parents not yet born.

“What a pleasure,” she told The Guardian. “You don’t have to be around for the part when if it’s a good review the publisher takes credit for it and if it’s a bad review it’s all your fault. And why would I believe them anyway?”

She told us that language will have evolved by then, and that she wondered how much of her text would be difficult for future readers to understand.

“Will the meaning of words have changed in that time?” she wondered. “Will anyone be there to read it?” How curious  to imagine her writing voice suddenly awakened long after her own was silenced.

But the project is not so different from what writers do every day, she told us. “Writing is always a vote of confidence in the future, as it presumes a future reader.”

The 7 Things I Learned

At the conclusion of her talk, Ms. Atwood took questions for about 10-15 minutes. Some of the things I list below came from that part of the event. Then she signed books, which ended up taking at least an hour and a half!

The line stretched down the long university hallway and then doubled back on itself, with people standing patiently for over an hour to receive the coveted signature, many of them reading Ms. Atwood’s books while waiting.

I say again—this lady is 75. She traveled all the way from Toronto, Canada, to Boise, Idaho to share her work and her thoughts with us. I’m thrilled beyond measure to have had the chance to meet her.

  1. No matter the success you’ve achieved, be gracious and humble. Ms. Atwood wielded her intellect like a gleaming sword during the Q&A session. She talked current politics, social media, WWII, Mein Kampf, censorship, novel writing, poetry, fan fiction (which she says is “as old as the hills”) and more, never missing a step regardless of how far out the question might have been. Clearly she has a gifted mind, say nothing of her literary prowess. Yet she was gracious, humble, and non-assuming, and treated everyone with respect. She also took the time to sign hundreds of books long after her talk was over. Lesson learned: No matter who you are, or how successful you are, it’s lovely when your head remains a normal size.
  2. You can read it—and it helps if you’re funny. Many of us just getting started in our writing/publishing careers are concerned about public speaking. We ask questions, buy books, and take classes to get it just right. Ms. Atwood did what she does best—she wrote her talk, and then read it to us. She went up to the podium with a small stack of regular sized papers that she’d printed out, and she read each one straight down. But don’t get me wrong. She didn’t sound like she was reading. She clearly communicated to us, using different tones of voice, acting out characters when required, looking up with a lifted eyebrow in just the right places. It was hilarious, and it was extremely effective. Lesson learned: Don’t sweat public speaking. Use your strength as a writer to create the presentation, and then give it in whatever way makes you most comfortable. The important thing is communicating with your audience.
  3. Know how to connect with your readers. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’ve seen a number of top tier writers, but they didn’t necessarily pull the crowd that Ms. Atwood did. One thing she knows how to do is connect with readers. How many 75-year-old writers do you know who have over 760,000 Twitter followers (@MargaretAtwood), or recommend WattPad to new writers? Unlike some older writers who pooh-pooh social media, she uses it to effectively communicate with the younger crowd, and you could clearly see the results. Lesson learned: Be open to new ways to connect with your readers of all ages.
  4. Every word counts! This was probably the main literary lesson I gleaned from Ms. Atwood’s visit. Of course, we all know word choice matters, but I do find sometimes as I’m in the middle of a chapter and just trying to get things down, I can get lazy. Ms. Atwood talked about how time and place influence word choice, and about the extensive research she did for just one term she uses in her Oryx and Crake series. We’re talking hours of research—for one term. All you have to do is read a passage from any of her books and you’ll see what a craftswoman she is. Lesson learned: Always be conscious of word choice, and be willing to go the extra mile to find the right ones.
  5. The masters are masters for a reason. Whenever I meet a master writer, I’m always amazed. Number one, they’re just awesome. Truly outstanding people. Number two, they are extremely intelligent and could go toe-to-toe in a battle of the brains with just about anyone and win. Number three, when hearing their life stories, you realize that they worked really hard to get where they are. Lesson learned: The masters are where they are because they worked extremely hard to get there, and none of us should expect to have to do any less if we want the same sort of success.
  6. There is no secret to success—it’s just hard work. There were people in the audience looking for the golden goose—that one secret that would propel them from their current level to one closer to Ms. Atwood’s. There is no secret. There are only years and years of practice and focused attention. In the end, that’s good news, because it leaves the choice up to us. Lesson learned: Anytime you get discouraged you’re not as far along as you’d like to be, recommit your time and energy to the work.
  7. No one can tell you how to do it. Most writers experience long and hard journeys. There were a couple young writers who asked Ms. Atwood for encouragement. “What would you say to someone who was facing a lot of self-doubt, and did you ever face that?” was a general example. Ms. Atwood agreed to tell us her “poor writer” story about how her first manuscript of poems was accepted and then later rejected by the same publisher, and how humiliating that was. She was later glad the poems were never published as “they weren’t very good” according to her. There tends to be a silver lining to these things. She told the young writers to go online and find websites that encourage writers, like “TerribleMinds.com” (again, showing how current she is!), and to never give up. She was very kind and gracious, but she moved quickly to the next question—I believe (if you read the quote below) because she may have felt a little inadequate to the task of telling other writers how to overcome self-doubt or discouragement or any of the other dark emotions we may encounter on our journeys. Lesson learned: No one can tell you how to face the challenges you’re going to face. You have to learn how to do it your own way.

In closing, I’d like to share a passage from Ms. Atwood’s book on writing, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. A master may not be able to tell us how to defeat our demons on the way up the mountain, but her footsteps mark a path to the top, where she shields her eyes from the bright sun and scans the area below, hoping to see us coming along after her, bearing with strength the packs on our backs and regularly renewing our courage  to carry on.

“Perhaps I have written about the subjects in this book not only because they were things about which I was anxious at the outset of my own writing life, but because many people—judging from the questions they ask—continue to be anxious about them today. 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 may be relevant to others. Perhaps I wish to say: Look behind you. You are not alone. Don’t permit yourself to be ambushed. Watch out for snakes. Watch out for the Zeitgeist—it is not always your friend. Keats was not killed by a bad review. Get back on the horse that threw you. Advice for the innocent pilgrim, worthy enough, no doubt, but no doubt useless: dangers multiply by the hour, you never step into the same river twice, the vast empty spaces of the blank page appall, and everyone walks into the maze blindfolded.”

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Comments (15)

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  1. andrea says:

    This is brilliant, thanks for sharing! Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite novelists so its great to get an insight into the sort of person she is, and, of course, take on board some of her great advice!

  2. Chere Hagopian says:

    What a great post! I almost feel like I was there too. Sounds like she is more current than I am! I’ll have to stop hating social media and start working with it. If Margaret is willing to put up with Twitter, I should be too!

    I love that she said there is no secret to success besides really hard work and lots of it. Skipping the work actually takes away from the sweetness of success, which is so much greater when you put blood, sweat and tears into getting there.

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Chere! Ha ha. Yes, the rest of us have no excuses, that’s for sure. And I’m with you–the harder you work, the sweeter the success. :O)

  3. Your happiness is contagious, Colleen. Thank you for giving me a wonderful portrait of Margaret Atwood and of you. I’m so glad you got to do this.

    • Colleen says:

      Thank you, Elaine! It’s so nice to be able to share the experience with other writers who “get it!” :>)

  4. Great post, Colleen! Both informative and inspiring. Margaret Atwood is also one of my favorite authors. It must have been a real treat to hear her in person. The only speaker who ever made me laugh that hard was the cartoonist, Gary Larson.

    Your comment about spending hours finding the right word reminded me of Barbara Tuchman, the author of The Guns of August. I heard she spent eight hours forging the first paragraph.

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Ann! She’s awesome, isn’t she? Even more so in person. Ha ha. Yes, I can imagine Gary Larson would be a riot. Ah, I haven’t read that one. Will have to put it on my list. 🙂

  5. Kate says:

    What an awesome experience for you Colleen! Margaret Atwood has an amazing imagination – unfortunately her genre is not one I gravitate to naturally. Her speech, however, would have been such a joy to listen to. I’ll look out for her if she ever comes out west again. Thanks for sharing her insights – I was able to learn from them.

  6. What a cool experience! I’m an Atwood fan, though I still have quite a few of her books left to read. She’s got a unique mind.

  7. Sarah says:

    How lovely that you got to have this experience Colleen! I so enjoyed reading your recap.

  8. Thanks MUCH for posting this. It’s hard to find advice that is both practical and inspiring, but you’ve been able to capture both here. And, of course, who doesn’t love Margaret Atwood?

    • Colleen says:

      Thank you, Kristin! She was wonderful. Such a joy to meet her after being a fan for years! Thanks for stopping by. 🙂