March 30, 2011

Margaret Atwood and the Importance of Voice

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I laughed. I cried. I bit on my lip until it bled, and I had to get stitches. Am I exaggerating? Never. Margaret Atwood’s reading in the Statler Auditorium this Tuesday was literally the best thing that I have ever seen in my entire life.

The reading began with the short story “Our Cat Enters Heaven,” found in her 2007 collection of short fiction, The Tent. “Meow, said our cat. Meow, said God.” Atwood’s steady, dry voice is perfect for the wry humor present in her work. Standing on the stage, with her curling, grey hair, the only indication that she’s almost as old as my grandmother, her lively attitude almost makes me so brave as to call her spunky. “I’m glad you aren’t a dog, said our cat. Do you think I could have my testicles back?” The audience didn’t just chuckle at these lines, it broke out into rapturous laughter.

Unlike some contemporary writers (names have been removed to protect the guilty), Atwood can go from the humorous and quirky into the subtly profound. In his introduction, Prof. J. Robert Lennon, creative writing, pointed out the vast array of works that Atwood has published over the years, from novels, to poetry, to essays, to scripts and more. Her high literary output certainly won her attention. She is the recipient of over 55 international awards, including the Booker prize for her novel The Blind Assassin in 2000. A native Canadian, she is best known for her novels, such as The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), and Oryx and Crake (2003).

When more serious, her reflections take form of plain but meaningful phrases. “The poet has come back to being a poet after decades of being virtuous instead. Can’t you be both? No. Not in public.” While short and not taking efforts to distinguish the lines, in either the writing or the reading, her slow and even voice brought this message with its own power as one seeming so simple yet true. They come very naturally, but the difference in tone prompted Atwood to warn the audience that this piece and the next were not “funny,” which  was itself funny enough to make everyone laugh.

The reading concluded with a question and answer session. Wednesday morning there was another session in the English lounge, though smaller and limited to students. At the reading, audience members of all ages — the young, the old, the very old — approached the microphones to ask their questions, either out of curiosity or for the sake of talking  to Margaret Atwood. One girl didn’t even get as far as that before squirting out “I love you.”

Atwood’s work has been variously classified as dystopian science fiction or speculative fiction. Using George Orwell’s 1984 as an example, she pointed out “a good book in any genre transcends that genre.” Taking on humor and graveness, impressions and reflections, it is difficult to limit Atwood’s oeuvre to one genre or form. When asked Wednesday morning which authors she most enjoyed reading, she answered that she would read anything, and “because I’m a universal reader, I know what the writer has to do: make me turn the page!”

Inevitably, questions came up regarding Atwood’s personal relation to writing. Someone in the audience mentioned that looking at her Wikipedia page, she was impressed by just how long the list of works was. Preoccupied, like many of us are, with the coming onslaught of prelims, one audience member asked her about how she found the time to do all that she did. But showing a seemingly characteristic humor, she replied with a grin that “If you take the actually age I am, and divide those thing into 71 . . . then it’s not so much.”

One student asked Atwood about how to begin a piece. “With a voice,” she said. “If you’re having a problem with a novel, you might want to consider changing the voice.” This could be a change from first person to third person, or vice versa. She referred to one instance where she had to go from third to first because the narrator “knew too much.”

During the reading, Atwood mentioned that regarding question and answer she felt like one of the old, wax fortunetellers in glass boxes that would give a fortune on a tarot card in exchange for money. And so when one student asked the age old question, what advice do you have for young writers, she gave the age old answer: “In general, you should write every day if you can, no matter how awful you think it is.” The real pleasures of the event were in getting to hear Atwood speak. The writer’s perfect prose is suddenly transformed into imperfect speech. Throughout, Atwood emphasized her preference for the imperfect. And so there was something fantastic about Atwood’s last words at the reading, when she reversed roles by asking a student “What else can I tell you?” She answered it herself: “That’s great.”

Original Author: Ian Walker Sperber