Author Atwood Discusses Writing
The prize-winning novelist, poet and critic delivered a speech entitled, “How I Became A Writer” as part of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Dean’s Lecture Series.
Eager crowds formed lines around the Congregational First Church up to an hour before Atwood was scheduled to speak, thumbing through copies of Harry Potter novels along with Atwood’s best-sellers—The Edible Woman, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin among them—as they waited.
Beginning with a playful, “Here’s my story, and I’m sticking to it,” Atwood shared amusing anecdotes and serious analysis of her development as a writer.
From an early age, she said, the written word played a major role in her life.
“I read everything I could get my hands on,” she said. “I learned many things about the seedier side of life from the printed page.”
In her introduction of Atwood, Radcliffe Dean Drew Gilpin Faust described the author as “a powerful, evolving yet continuous voice that has for me and many other women of our generation defined our adult lives” and praised her portrayal of the “power of the misbehaving woman” in her work.
Atwood described growing up during the post-war era where “women had been herded back into the home and the baby boom had begun.”
Atwood said that deciding to be a writer was an obvious choice for her, despite her parents’ objections.
“It simply happened in 1956 while I was crossing the football field on the way home from school,” she said. “From that point on there was nothing else I wanted to do.”
As a student at the University of Toronto, Atwood continued to write, first for campus literary magazines and then for Canadian literary journals. But still, she said, writing professionally remained a struggle.
“Nobody talked about writing as a process or a profession or as something that real people actually did,” she said.
Soon after publishing her first stories, though, she discovered a “small, but relatively welcoming” community of writers which she described as “real bohemia.”
Atwood shared anecdotes from her experience as a graduate student at Radcliffe and Harvard, and as a grammar teacher at the University of British Columbia, where she wrote one of her novels “on leftover blue-lined exam notebooks.”
Her jokes about her “threatening image” elicited laughter from the standing-room-only audience.
“If you don’t want to get a bad reputation like me, wear fuzzy pink angora sweaters and dye your hair blonde,” she said. “It does wonders.”
After her speech, Atwood answered questions from the audience about her writing style and specific works.
She declined to respond to a questions about her narrative voice, comparing writing to skiing.
“If you think too much about it while you’re doing it, you fall down,” she said.
She also pointed out the Harvard parallels in her 1998 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, citing the presence of Widener Library and the Brattle Square Theatre.
“You can find every single building,” she said. “Harvard was not amused when I published this book.”
A reception and book-signing in the Cronkhite Graduate Center Living Room followed the speech.
The next Radcliffe Dean’s Lecture will feature University of California at Berkeley Professor of Computer Science Susan L. Graham on Nov. 29.
—Staff writer Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at email@example.com.