Margaret Atwood's Letter to Writers

“In literature, the true prodigy is not the one who begins but the one who perseveres,” wrote the Quebec writer Michèle Mailhot in her book Le passé composé (1990).

While every writer must persevere, story-telling endures over time. This idea is at the core of what Margaret Atwood tells to writers willing to learn the craft; this is what I'm sharing today, her inspiring, meaningful letter addressed to trainees joining her online MasterClass, which is also sent as a promotional email. Atwood starts her welcoming message talking about tradition:
Hello writers: Welcome to my MasterClass. By writing, you are following a very long tradition – setting spoken words down on a surface that allows other people to “read” them, thus translating them back into spoken words. But you are also part of a very much longer tradition – that of story-telling.

Born in 1939 in Ottawa and grown up in Quebec, Ontario and Toronto, Margaret Atwood received her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto's Victoria College and her master's degree from Radcliffe College. Deeply familiarized with the traditions and myths of western literature, and having a big respect for the great stories, at the same time, according to author Nathalie Cooke, she seeks to "undermine them because of her search for new stories and new ways of telling stories".

Her stories are of universal concern, they help us understand the world and connect to each other. With regard to the way she tells them, as we can see in her novel The Handmaid's Tale, we writers have a lot to learn from Atwood: the narrator sets questions, delays answers, gives faint clues, keeps the mystery, and lets every answer arise more curiosity. In her letter, she takes us back to the beginnings:
Story-telling may be one of the oldest human things we do. We do it all the time, in so many ways – even the answers to “How was your day?” and “When did you first notice the symptoms?” are stories.

From here, she provides a definition of novel writing, and novel itself, that is both precise and stimulating. A true example of finely worked plainness:
A novel is simply a long story told in a way that – we hope – inspires the desire in the reader, or listener, to hear the rest. More about the characters. More about the secret. More about how it comes out.

But before getting to "the finished, published version of your resplendent book", as we could read from her in a previous article on writing a novel, there is a lot to do for a writer. She proves to have a thorough understanding of this:
Your desire to write probably began with reading; usually writers start that way. Now you have a novel you want to write – a story you want to tell. What’s stopping you? What are your fears? You’ll never know what you might say until you try, and to try you have to begin. Fear not: every “famous” novelist has been on the same path. We all began with that first blank page, that first challenge on the obstacle course; that first sentence made of words.
Your words are your voice, and your voice is like your fingerprints. Everyone’s fingerprints are human, but no two sets of fingerprints are identical. No one else has a voice that is exactly like yours.
She ends up by echoing her own advice to novelists, according to which the only way we can write the truth is to assume that what we set down will never be read:
Tell the page your story. Set your voice down on it. The page is very discreet: it won’t pass your story on until you allow it to, so you can tell it anything, without fear.

Margaret Atwood is a prolific author of more than fifty novels, books of poetry, and critical essays. Her novels have been nominated for numerous Booker Prizes, and she won the Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin in 2000. It has been announced a follow up of The Handmade's Tale, to be entitled The Testaments and published on September 10, 2019.

If you are interested in her online course, here you have some info:

  • Name: Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing (MasterClass)
  • It costs $90 for the single class, or $180 per year for the unlimited access to all classes. There's a 30-day money back guarantee. Look out for discounts and deals they offer from time to time. 
  • The course consists in 23 online video lessons, approximately 10 minutes long each, that you can watch anytime, as many times you like. 
  • Who is this course for? All levels.

I have yet to start this course, as I already took another one not a long time ago. I enrolled David Mamet's course on drama and script writing, and my personal experience with MasterClass was good. I found especially useful and entertaining the videos in which Mamet teaches the subjects of the course: introduction, characters, structure, and so; I can't wait to write about it. I am quite sure Atwood's course is as enjoyable and productive. They provide you with a workbook, which consists in downloadable summaries of each of the video lessons, and in the community you can connect with your classmates, share your thoughts on the class, and give critiques or ask for feedback on the homework that every student is free to do and post there.

Still not sure if this course fills your needs? Check out the official MasterClass trailer:

For any question related to this post or my blog, feel free to contact me in the comments section below. You can read my related articles: writing a novel using a free productivity app, and Virginia Woolf's reflections on writing in her essay A Sketch of the Past. Stay tuned for more articles by following Blogged Pages on Instagram, or subscribing to the newsletter:


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