Margaret Atwood & Hope

…if you don’t value people you don’t wish to communicate with them. And any writing is a form of communication, just as any writing is a form of hope.

Because think of what you’re hoping for: you’re hoping, number one, that you’ll finish whatever it is you’re writing; number two, that it will be comprehensible; number three, that your message will somehow reach another human being; number four, that they will open that bottle that’s washed up on the shore, and they will take out the message, and they will be able to read it; and number five, that they will be able to comprehend it and derive meaning from it. And that’s a pretty long list of hopes.

This quote comes from the end of an interview Margaret Atwood gave with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s show, BOOKWORM. For most of the interview, they talked about her latest book, Maddaddam, the third of a trilogy.

If you are a writer and unfamiliar with this show, I highly recommend you start downloading the podcasts. You can listen to the whole interview here.

Some thoughts:

Atwood’s words remind me of what I’ve started to call the “Stevie Wonder Principle:” It’s not a religion, people. It’s a relationship.  Writing can become, quite fast, a religion.  We have our ceremonies (prizes, readings, book signings), and rituals (turning off the internet, staring at a blank page and staying put until something comes, listening to podcasts of author interviews), and there are several denominations (or genres and poetry schools). We have our leaders whose approval we might, if we’re not careful, depend on too much.

Nonetheless, like what Atwood says here, it’s important to go back to the very core of why we do what we do: to communicate with people.  Once we start to sacrifice the “relationship” for “religion,” our writing becomes self-indulgent, mean, without any sort of redemption, hard to stomach, and, you know, corrupted by the same thing that corrupts all religions: greed.

All of that aside, it was nice to hear that Margaret Atwood express a need for hope in order to write what she writes, despite the fact that in the hierarchy of writers, she’s probably pretty close to the Vatican. Writing is always a process, no matter who we are or what we’ve written.

Thought for Day 12: No Self Pity

The Miracle Worker, which I understand is the brunt of lots of our (US American) culture’s jokes, is one of the most important plays/movies for me.   The two protagonists, Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, inspire me with their resilience.  Helen Keller’s thread is about her journey to discovering language.  Language, for her, is the door to God and freedom from the prison of her impairments.  After this deaf and blind kid made the connection that water is called water, she went on to write books and preach and have a whole public life of inspiring people.

It’s Annie Sullivan’s story, though, that is inspiring me today, particularly with a line she says in the play/movie, the best line, in my opinion: “No, no self pity. I won’t have it.”  This has got to be a mantra for us writers. We have a lot of reasons to pity ourselves but we must resist them all in order to write.

Watch this scene and see it as a metaphor for certain days of the writing life:

You, the writer, are Annie Sullivan.  If you’re going to be a writer, you have to have that kind of resilience.   You are not allowed to give up when you get your fifth rejection letter in one week.  You are not allowed to give up when somebody breaks your heart and you don’t feel like writing. You have to write when you’re tired.  You have to finish your current writing project, even when it seems like your writing project is scrambling up the chimney to get out of the room. You have to chase after your writing and sit your writing down to eat, even if it’s darting towards the door and collapsing beneath the dining room table kicking and grunting.  Sometimes writing feels like force-feeding a spoonful of eggs to a deaf and blind girl who is just about to spit the eggs in your face.   Writing, no matter what the form, is going to feel like this on some days. Be like Anne Sullivan. Deal with it.  And no self pity.

Thought for Day 7 of Revise the Novel Month: Selfless Ambition.

One of the most haunting quotes of all time for me is one Thom Yorke (of Radiohead) sings in “Paranoid Android”: Ambition makes you look pretty ugly.  Haunting and scary.  I don’t want to be ugly. I want to be pretty all the time. I also want to be ambitious. Actually, I can’t help but be ambitious.  I have a drive and I hate feeling like I’m in a lull.  A good friend used to tell me all the time that I have a motor. It’s true: I have a motor.  I suspect that if you call yourself a writer, part of that is because you have a motor, too.

Today I spent an hour doing an exercise in Julia Cameron’s THE RIGHT TO WRITE, where she recommends that you put on music that makes you feel adventurous (for me this was the Soundtrack to Amelie and a bunch of Elmore James, who makes me wiggle in a good way–I’m wiggling as I write this…).  Then you take ten minutes dreaming on the page about six areas of your life: Spirituality, Friendships, Living Space, Traveling/Adventure, Work Life, and Creative Projects.  All of this writing helped me come up to today’s thought:

There are two kinds of ambition: selfish ambition and selfless ambition.

Ambition is good.  It can’t be helped for some of us.  Some of us just have motors (and we remain ever envious of those who are content with simple lives).  I recognize my motor and I embrace it.  It’s what’s going to get me through this novel.  But I must make a choice as I go to work, as I let the motor propel my writing: I must choose selfless, over selfish ambition.

Selfish ambition means I want to be number one and I get pissed off when others pass me in the race to success. I shun the friends who are rewarded for their hard work.  I am angry because I deserved whatever reward they received–I am entitled to whatever they got.  I am bitter and I am depressed because everyone is passing me by.  I am stuck in despair over other people’s achievements.

Selfless ambition means I want my success to inspire people to strive for their own successes.  This means I live in constant congratulatory mode.  When my friends make achievements, I congratulate them.  I celebrate their success.  We are all on a team to make the world better.  We want our friends to produce the kind of work that delights and satisfies, that inspires readers/listeners/audience members to appreciate their lives, to stay curious.  We want our friends to put good writing out there and for that good writing to be recognized and appreciated.  We want our friends to be rewarded for their hard work.

Selfish ambition means I write only to satisfy myself.  I write for paychecks. I write for recognition. I write for revenge–everyone who overlooked my work will feel like the jackass they are when they see how fabulous my work has been all along.  I write to make people suffer while I work my way up the ladder.  I write with a hunger that will never be satisfied, though I convince myself that if I just have a book published, if I just get a tenure track job, then I will be satisfied.  I crush everyone along the way to these goals.

Selfless ambition means that I write in order to enlighten the world to whatever topics, people, and phenomenons that I discover during my writing process.  Ultimately, our creative projects are good for us and they are good for everyone else.  When people overlook my work, I work harder and do not despair.

I choose selfless ambition over selfish ambition because, I believe, it’s an answer to Thom Yorke’s observation in this here quote:

Recommended Reading: The Right to Write by Julia Cameron, Penguin: 1998