"It's impossible for me to give general advice to young writers," Margaret Atwood said to a small group of undergraduate English majors on the morning of March 30. However, she did offer one piece of advice to all writers: "Write every day if you can, no matter how awful you think it is. Just keep doing it."
Atwood, who has written several acclaimed novels, poetry, short fiction and prose, read selections from her work to a packed Statler Auditorium March 29. The next morning, she held two small discussion sessions for students in Goldwin Smith Hall. Moderated by associate professors of English J. Robert Lennon and Jenny Mann, the discussions allowed students to ask Atwood about advice, her experiences as a female author and the nuances of her work.
Born in Ottawa, Canada, in 1939, Atwood grew up in northern Ontario. Faced with the challenge of limited academic and career tracks for women, Atwood studied home economics and biology before she decided to pursue writing.
"We did not study any form of communicating," she said. "I just started writing, and that was more fun than anything."
Although she has been writing since age 16, it took some time for Atwood to formulate her passion into a salient career.
"I had to try to figure out how to make a living while doing my deathless masterpieces," she explained, with the same wry humor that pervades much of her written work. After an unsuccessful attempt at romance stories and a brief consideration of journalism, Atwood finally began what would become a prolific and successful career as a novelist.
Many of her widely read novels, such as "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Oryx and Crake," are completely fictional, but the dystopian and oppressive societies they predict are based on actual historical examples. Atwood wrote the first half of "The Handmaid's Tale" while living in East Germany, and noted that the idea of utopia has proven to be dangerous throughout history. "[Dystopias] all start as utopias," she said.
When asked about the recent trend toward dystopia in young adult literature, Atwood said, "Kids are worried, what can I tell you?" and noted that young readers' fascination with dystopia may be a reflection of recent history and current existence of dystopian societies and social groups. Literature on these topics is "cheering" to young people, she said, because it gives them an opportunity to remove themselves from the difficulties of their own lives and ask themselves, "What would I do?"
She suggested that the novel itself is the relatively modern product of the human tradition of storytelling.
"The novel is very new, but storytelling is very old," Atwood said.
How does one even begin to create a story? Atwood said that the beginnings of a piece can be arrived at in "any number of ways," but for her, "it's more likely to be a voice," the one that will tell the story throughout the work.
"Unless you have a voice, you can't go on," she said.
Michelle Spektor '12 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.