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Negotiating With The Dead – Margaret Atwood

I still do not know what impels anyone sound of mind to leave dry land and spend a lifetime describing people who do not exist. If it is child’s play, an extension of make believe – something one is frequently assured by people who write about writing – how to account for the overriding wish to do that, just that, only that, and consider it as rational an occupation as riding a bicycle over the Alps? (Mavis Gallant, Preface, Selected Stories)

Negotiating with the Dead (2002) is a result of Margaret Atwood’s William Empson lectures, and attempts an enquiry into the ‘problems and myths of the writer’s role.’ (The Independent) She deals with a lot of different issues; about being a writer, what a ‘writer’ is, the duplicity of a writer’s persona, the connection between the writer, the reader and the text, the relationship between writers and their audience and money, and links this with personal anecdotes, experiences, myths and other literature.


According to Atwood, writing, ‘the setting down of words,’ is a rather ordinary and mundane activity, with no mystery attached. She reiterates the general view that anyone who writes is a writer by stating that anyone literate can ‘take an implement in their hand and make marks on a flat surface’. However ‘being a writer’ is a ‘socially acknowledged role’ considered completely different to the ‘normal act of writing’. This piece will try to analyse how Atwood succinctly relates the metaphor behind the book’s title to writing and writers. The content is mainly for fiction novelists, but the general advice is applicable to all other forms of writing and writers.

Negotiating with the Dead is an unusual name for a book about writing. Atwood attempts an explanation at the very start of the book by saying that ‘writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.’ She arrives at this assumption by making use of two literary examples – Dante, at the beginning of the Divine Comedy, writes an account of finding himself in a ‘dark tangled wood at night, having lost his way, after which the sun begins to rise,’ while Virginia Woolf has famously 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.’

Atwood links this to similar answers given by other writers about how it feels to ‘go into a novel’ – ‘It’s dark. It’s like a dark room. It’s like a dark room full of furniture I can’t see. It’s like a tunnel. It’s like a cave. It’s like going downstairs into a dark place. It’s like wading through a river. It’s like entering a labyrinth.’ The main thing all these examples have in common is the darkness, the feeling of not knowing where one is and having to find one’s way out mostly unaided.

‘It was like being in an empty room which was nevertheless filled with unspoken, with a sort of whispering.’ (Atwood, 2002: xxii)

The above quotation is very relevant to Atwood’s Underworld metaphor as it voices a lot of the beliefs that we have, not only about what the place is like, (empty, desolate, with the invisible souls of the dead that we can only feel but cannot see), but also about spirits and ghosts of the dead, and the whispers and unspoken thoughts, voices and words that are thought to be present on earth and in the mythological ideal of the Underworld. Atwood says that Negotiating with the Dead is about ‘that kind of darkness, and that kind of desire.’

It is true that there exist very few societies in the world, and throughout history, who believe that their departed vanish completely. ‘The dead persist in the minds of the living,’ and as readers, we immediately link this to the reason why the title refers to ‘negotiating with the dead,’ little knowing that Atwood has a far deeper reason in mind. For us it is simple enough. Writers cannot avoid the process of learning and becoming inspired by the writers and texts who have preceded them. It is not only through past writers that we learn, but also through our ancestors, and the history of the world. Hence, as writers dealing with narration and plot, (both governed by time), we cannot avoid dealing with the ‘previous layers of time’. We must make the journey from ‘now to once upon a time’ in order to bring back the stories from the past to present-day memory. Hence writers do have to ‘negotiate with the dead’ on a fairly regular basis.

‘You can’t hold a mirror up to Nature and have it be a story unless there’s a metronome ricking somewhere.’ (Atwood, 2002: 158-9)

However, Atwood has a slightly different metaphor in mind when she speaks of ‘negotiating with the dead.’ This is partially inspired by Dudley Young’s Origins of the Sacred where he speculates that the reason the Minoan civilization from Crete left behind remarkably few written texts, was possibly because they weren’t ‘overly afraid of mortality – writing itself being, above all, a reaction to the fear of death.’ Atwood uses the example of mythic hero, Gilgamesh as a metaphor for the job of a writer – ‘you go, you get the story, you’re whacked out, you come back and write it all down on a stone. Or it feels like a stone by the sixth draft.’ The only thing that Gilgamesh has got are two stories (not immortality), and so the only thing he really brings back with him are a couple of stories. Then he’s really, really tired, and then he writes the whole thing down on stone. All of this links to what Atwood has written about darkness and desire.

‘There is something down there and you want it told.’ (Gwendolyn MacEwen, as cited in Atwood, 2002: 158)

All writers will attest to this bottomless, urgent need to seek stories, to go the extra distance just for the sake of their art, for the sake of making it so that it means something, anything in the vastness of the rest of existence with its thousands of great books and great writers. You repeatedly wonder if you have anything of value to add and it is because of this danger of being consumed with the desire of risking this darkness again and again, that Atwood likens the process of writing a narrative to a trip down to the Underworld. This journey is not unlike the ‘The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers’ outlined by Christopher Voegler (2007) which is itself based on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (1949). It refers to the traditional journey the archetypal ‘hero’ encounters throughout world mythology before he emerges victorious, albeit through considerable trauma, danger and darkness. This can be linked to Atwood’s metaphor of the writer journeying through the darkness of the Underworld before emerging into ‘the light’ with the story they seek.

Based on Atwood’s metaphor, we can also say that the writers first physically experience the journey that their characters will undertake in the narrative. This means that writers undergo a similar, if not the same transformation as their characters by the time they reach the end of their journey. It is said that when a writer goes through the entire process of writing any text, in whatever form, and of whatever length, he or she completely disintegrates their self and build it back up again. So it goes without saying that you can never actually meet the author of a particular book because of all the inherent changes and transience of the writing or any creative process. Hence, by the end, as characters, as writers and as readers, things will have changed, there is some new understanding, a new perception, a life-truth or realisation.

‘Even if that time (that you are writing about) is only yesterday, it isn’t now. It isn’t the now in which you are writing.’ (Atwood, 2002: 160)

If we are to continue Atwood’s Underworld metaphor, we have to ask the question of why. Why do writers risk going back into the darkness repeatedly? A potential answer lies in Atwood’s recollection of the time when she knew that ‘writing was the only thing she wanted to do.’ In 1956, she was crossing the football field on the way home from school when she composed a poem in her head. In retrospect, Atwood admits that the poem was rubbish, but that it was the ‘electricity of the experience which hooked her, not the result’.

Another potential answer lies in what Atwood claims is our fascination and fear of mortality. It is said that the fleetingness and fragility of life and time gives rise to our desires to leave something of us behind, make a mark, leave an imprint, however small it is. And writing, in a way, fulfills more of those needs than a lot of the other arts. It is a ‘process of thought that leaves a trail, like a series of fossilised footprints,’ and unlike painting, sculpture, music, which also last, writing ‘survives as voice.’ There is a physical solidity, immutability and permanence of something being etched in stone. Mortality also means that we constantly feel the need to preserve and treasure people, memories and events from our pasts as a record of our lives, a record that we were here, and like Isis kept Osiris alive by remembering him (Dudley Young, as cited in Atwood, 2002: 134) we keep our dead and our past alive by undertaking the journey into the Underworld to tell the tale that remembers them.

‘Jorge Luis Borges in his Nine Dantesque Essays expounds the theory that the entire Divine Comedy (all three sections – the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso) was composed by Dante mainly so he could get a glimpse of the dead Beatrice, and bring her back to life in his poem. It is only because he is writing about her, and only because he is writing about her, that Beatrice is able to exist again, in the mind of the writer and reader.’ (Atwood, 2002: 154)

We are however forgetting to ask one more question in this metaphor – who exactly makes the trip? The writer is an obvious answer, but the premise gets complicated when we take into account the much discussed and argued duality of a writer. Atwood is no different in her opinion. For her, there is the writer, ‘the more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing,’ and then there is the real person who ‘exists when no writing is going forward’. Atwood states many examples of such duality present in literature, myth, fairytales and legends (in keeping with the book’s theme) – Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dorian Gray, tales about the Doppelgaenger and Alice in Wonderland among others – but the one that is most relevant to this discussion is the quotation by Jorge Luis Borges. He splits himself into two – there is ‘I’, and the other one, the one called Borges, is the one ‘things happen to’. It is commonly accepted that both share the same body and cannot survive or function without the other, and are parts of the whole that make up the person.

However the transition between the two is very hard to determine for obvious reasons and hence we can never really been sure of finding any conclusive answers to our questions. It is near impossible for us to focus on ourselves while we write since we need to be fully focused on the act of writing. Is it the writer who makes the journey down to the Underworld? Or is it his non-writer, normal self? Or is it both and the writer and/or the regular self take over the other at one point? Whatever the answer to that, it is the process that Atwood is more concerned with, the journey to the Underworld and back. In the book’s conclusion, Atwood writes that it is easier to go there, but a lot harder to return. And her analysis of what happens after the end of the journey also includes a somewhat poignantly reference to the apparent permanence of writing, of texts, of the written word.

‘Then you must write it all down on a stone. Finally if you are lucky and if the right reader comes along, the stone will speak. It alone will remain in the world to tell the story.’ (Atwood, 2002: 161)

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