The acclaimed Canadian novelist and poet headlined the 18th Daniel Klagsbrun Symposium on Creative Arts and Moral Vision.
Margaret Atwood has written novels, collections of poetry, graphic novels and even reimagined the works of Homer and Shakespeare. How has the award-winning author been able to float seamlessly between genres, themes and styles for more than 50 years?
“I’m really, really old,” Atwood joked, while speaking to a packed crowd of faculty, students, staff and community members at the College’s Blaustein Humanities Center.
Actually, Atwood crosses genres so effortlessly because nobody told her she “had to specialize and do one thing.” To emphasize this point, the writer invoked a fable from the Ancient Greek fabulist Aesop.
“I say there are two types of writers: foxes and cats,” Atwood said. “The fox has 100 tricks and the cat only has one—it climbs a tree. Well, I’m a fox.”
Atwood headlined the 18th Daniel Klagsbrun Symposium on Creative Arts and Moral Vision. The symposium was established in 1989 to create a positive, living memorial to Daniel Klagsbrun ’86. Through the generosity and commitment of Daniel’s parents, Emilie and Herbert Klagsbrun, the symposium has brought to the College an amazing array of authors, including: Dorothy Allison, Saul Bellow, Sandra Cisneros, Michael Cunningham, Adrienne Rich, David Sedaris and Elie Wiesel.
Atwood’s visit included a discussion with Blanche Boyd, Weller Professor of English and the College’s writer-in-residence. The free-wheeling conversation with Boyd, dubbed “The Courage to Imagine,” focused on the craft of writing and Atwood’s writing process, which has produced more than 40 books and 14 collections of poetry, plus numerous literary awards, including the prestigious Booker Prize for “The Blind Assassin.”
Andrew Dowds ’17 looks forward to the Klagsbrun Symposium every year and read much of Atwood’s work prior to her campus visit.
“She speaks with the same bite you feel in her stories, Dowds said. “You get the impression that she writes like she is effortlessly transcribing exactly what pops in her head.”
Despite attending Comic Con and scanning Reddit and Wattpad to learn what younger people are reading, the 76-year-old Canadian bard stills writes longhand. She said that she doesn’t start a project with an idea of how it will end. Instead, she approaches the process like entering a hallway.
“The hallway has a lot of doors. You try the different doors—is this the right door to go in? Sometimes you have to start over again until you find the right door. And you may never find the right door; you put it into a folder and put it in a drawer, because you might use it later.”
That was the case, Atwood said, with her 1988 novel Cat’s Eye which took her 20 years to “find the right door.” When writing Alias Grace in 1996, she had to throw out the first 100 pages because they were in the wrong voice.
“You can’t lie in the third person like you can in the first person,” she said. “So, I changed it.”
In her voluminous collection of work, Atwood has touched upon a number of themes, in particular feminism, Canadian society and what she calls “speculative fiction”—events that could happen but have not. However, Atwood said she doesn’t have the intention of writing about a particular moral issue.
“Literature cannot help but have moral views because it is made of language, and language is arranged that way. We divide things that way: good for me, bad for me; will hurt me, will not hurt me. I once asked a writer friend of mine, ‘Do novels have moral views?’ She said, ‘Well, the reader will supply them anyway.’ The reader ultimately decides what the moral of the book is.”
In addition to “The Courage to Imagine,” Atwood held an evening lecture in the 1941 Room in the College Center at Crozier-Williams where she read from her latest book, Hag-Seed, a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The book has received critical acclaim from The Boston Globe and The New York Times.