Words and Their Glories - Margaret Atwood's Journey from a Childhood in the Canadian Forests to the Challenges of a Prolific Author

By Simon, Linda | The World and I, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Words and Their Glories - Margaret Atwood's Journey from a Childhood in the Canadian Forests to the Challenges of a Prolific Author


Simon, Linda, The World and I


Linda Simon is professor of English at Skidmore College and a frequent contributor to The World & I. The author of Genuine Reality: A Life of William James (Harcourt Brace, 1998), Of Virtue Rare (1982), Thornton Wilder: His World (1979) and The Biography of Alice B. Toklas (1977), she edited William James Remembered (1996) and Gertrude Stein Remembered (1994).

About ten years ago, Margaret Atwood was asked to respond to a question many writers try to evade: Why do you write? She titled her response "Nine Beginnings" and in it described nine efforts to pin down her motivation, her satisfaction, the meaning of writing in her own life. "There's the blank page," she wrote as her ninth try, "and the thing that obsesses you. There's the story that wants to take you over and there's your resistance to it. There's you longing to get out of this, this servitude, to play hooky, to do anything else: wash the laundry, see a movie. There are words and their inertias, their biases, their insufficiencies, their glories. There are the risks you take and your loss of nerve, and the help that comes when you're least expecting it. There's the laborious revision, the scrawled-over, crumpled-up pages that drift across the floor like spilled litter. There's the one sentence you know you will save.

"Next day there's the blank page. You give yourself up to it like a sleepwalker. Something goes on that you can't remember afterwards. You look at what you've done. It's hopeless.

"You begin again. It never gets any easier."

Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, the second child of Carl Edmund Atwood, a forest entomologist, and Margaret Killam Atwood, whose undergraduate degree in home economics belied her complete lack of interest in housekeeping. Atwood's parents first met in Truro, Nova Scotia, where they were attending normal school, preparing to become teachers. In "Unearthing Suite," one of Atwood's most overtly autobiographical stories, the narrator portrays her mother, tomboyish and energetic, as "much sought after. Possibly men saw her as a challenge: it would be an accomplishment to get her to pause long enough to pay even a fleeting amount of attention to them." Carl Atwood took up the challenge: when he saw nineteen-year-old Margaret Killam sliding down a banister, he decided immediately that she was the woman he would marry.

But times were hard: the Depression, deepening their families' impoverishment, delayed their plans. They finally married after a courtship of eight years and first settled in Montreal, where Carl enrolled in graduate studies, specializing in insects that caused deforestation. After he earned his degree, the family spent much of the year in northern Quebec, in a cabin on a lake, where Margaret grew up in the company of her brother, Harold. "In our little house," she recalled in "Earth Suites," "there was no electricity or running water. We used a hand pump, kerosene lamps, and candles. All the cooking was done on a wood stove." Across the lake, they could see a village--five or six houses, a tiny church, a general store--to which, occasionally, they would paddle in their canoe.

Atwood's parents nurtured her independence, self-reliance, and unconventionality. "My parents do not have houses, like other people," she wrote in "Unearthing Suite." "Instead they have earths. These look like houses but are not thought of as houses, exactly. Instead they are more like stopping places, seasonal dens, watering holes on some caravan route which my nomadic parents are always following, or about to follow, or have just come back from following. Much of my mother's time is spent packing and unpacking." Packing, in any case, was more interesting than housework, which her mother considered a waste of time. "All her favorite recipes begin with the word quick. ... She has never been interested, luckily, in the house beautiful, but she does insist on the house convenient. …

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