“When? Where? How?” Margaret Atwood Considers the Burning Questions of the Writing Life
“Failed again to find recipe box. Used this as an excuse for not working on overdue bird piece.”
Ah yes. Writing. Life. When? Where? How? That’s the problem. You can have a life or you can do some writing, but not both at once, because although life may be the subject of writing, it is also the enemy. For instance:
MONDAY: My daughter drives us back to Toronto from the small house in the snowy woods acquired, in part, for writing. But we hadn’t done any writing. Instead, we’d colored in the white spots on the walls left by the previous owner’s pictures, using aquarelle crayons. We’d filled the bird feeders, then watched the winter birds— chickadees, nuthatches, hairy woodpeckers, goldfinches—a soporific activity that causes you to drool if you overindulge. We’d gone for a snowshoe, she striding along, me puffing. I did write a dozen long-overdue snail-mail notes. I’d also obsessed about: (1) the editing of the novel that will come out in the fall; (2) my piece on birdwatching; (3) other procrastinations. Obsession is the better part of valor.
TUESDAY: In the early morning, aided by my friend Coleen, we formed a line—along the hall, out the front door, and down to the car—along which we passed the bags of food-bank food collected at our annual maple-syrup baked-bean drop-in—an event that removes three days annually from the writing life. I couldn’t get the new Cuisinart to work—the former one broke last year, causing a dearth of carrot salad. However, that’s backtracking. The obsession of this Tuesday: What happened to my small metal recipe box? Had burning questions someone pinched it and sold it on eBay? It’s full of “writing,” illegible, mine: wheat-germ muffins and the like. Good luck reading it, recipe-box pilferer, I thought. Questioned everyone who might know. Blanks all round.
Started 2009 Journal, a mere two weeks late. Drew nice picture at the beginning, however. Glued in a movie ticket: Frost/Nixon. Or vice versa.
WEDNESDAY: Did do some writing today, on a speech to be delivered at another writer’s birthday party on Saturday. A delicate matter, as this relationship dated from the late 1960s and early 1970s, when I was not the Pillar of Society I am today and we were all somewhat more tempestuous. Speech to be five minutes or so. Wrote it. Showed to Life Partner, who advised me to take out the snider parts. Obsessed more about the recipe box. Phoned daughter: Had she seen it? She said, “You already asked me that.” Decided that recipe-box loss was causing major writer’s block. Started reading a fine book by Joan Acocella, who said that writer’s block was a twentieth-century American concoction. Decided not to have it anymore. This decision did not help.
THURSDAY: Went for bloodletting but standard medical tests. As usual, felt I had failed the test of peeing in the jar. Went to bank. Rewrote birthday party speech. Slightly funnier, less dire. Began to make notes on another deadline project: “Five Predictions,” meant to raise money for a deserving cause—a Canadian magazine called The Walrus. Why The Walrus? Not sure, except that the walrus spirit is supposed to be the strongest one. Stronger than the clam, for instance. Not only that, but you can make a stellar dogsled-team whip out of a walrus penis. Doubt the editors knew that when choosing the name.Failed again to find recipe box. Used this as an excuse for not working on overdue bird piece.
But The Walrus does good investigative articles, and I’m all for it. The predictions conceit is that I am clairvoyant (untrue but supported by the eerie timing of my Payback lectures about debt, which appeared in October of 2008, just as the economy was melting down). The predictions are to be rolled up into a scroll, stuffed into a crystal vase, and auctioned off at a dinner that is now a week away. Today’s obsession: What to predict? This enterprise was not helped by the fact that a Toronto magazine has published a creepy photo of me in yellow TV makeup and purple lipstick that looks—said one mean newspaper commentator—like Edward Scissorhands. Too true.
Failed again to find recipe box. Used this as an excuse for not working on overdue bird piece.
FRIDAY: Snow poured down. Went for usual morning walk despite that. Bought things, including bathmats for small house in snowy woods that is supposed to be for “writing.” Rewrote other writer’s birthday speech again. Made Life Partner read it. He said it was okay. Had my doubts. Answered a lot of emails. Thought about how much writing I could get done if it weren’t for the emails.
SATURDAY: Having rewritten speech yet again, waded through snow to writer’s birthday party. In cloakroom was the familiar Canadian winter scene of boots being removed and indoor shoes stuck on. Many other writers there—we are all looking a bit like Edward Scissorhands, except a few who are looking—in their winter coats—like characters in War and Peace. Life becomes increasingly valedictory. Delivered speech. Not too bad. Conferred with editor of novel—who was at party—about when she might be ready with final comments. Said I was in no rush (a lie). Waded home through snow. Looked on pedometer to see how many steps I’d taken—a new obsession. Still no recipe box. Wondered if the inheriting of my mother’s recipe box (larger, neater, wooden) had caused my own to vaporize. Thought: That way madness lies.Started reading a fine book by Joan Acocella, who said that writer’s block was a twentieth-century American concoction. Decided not to have it anymore. This decision did not help.
SUNDAY: Life Partner drove us up to small house in snowy woods, through appalling sleet and slush. Glad that car has anti-skid mechanism. Got to house just in time to refill the empty bird feeders. Set up table so I could actually write something, somewhere. Failed to access email, a blessing in disguise. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep. Why write?
MONDAY: No water pressure. Fooled with pump, uselessly. Life Partner entered tool room to find steaming hot water gushing from ceiling. He turned off the taps, but we feared frozen and burst pipe. Expert arrived to say, Not frozen—simply a bad soldering job. Pipes fixed.
So pleased by this narrow escape that I actually wrote the predictions, all five pages of them. Worried that they wouldn’t fit into crystal bottle. Went for walk along white-blue snowy road as pink-yellow sun was setting. Very Arthur Lismer (Canadian painter). Looked for deer tracks. None.
TUESDAY: Sister visited with news of where the deer actually were, bringing wheat-germ-muffin articles made from the recipe in missing box. Sister said box was an Heirloom, and understood the significance of its loss.
Returned to city. Printed the predictions in 11 point with big margins, cut off the margins, rolled pages up in orange rice paper, sealed them with sealing wax, added string so they could be got out of bottle without smashing it, stuffed them in. Checked this item off the list.
Looked again for recipe box, discovered it fallen down behind a drawer, along with an elderly Annie’s Organic Oat Bar and some tinned gingko nuts. Very happy to recover this box—I am not yet going mad! Got an email suggesting I write about the Writing Life; and, blockage released by the recipe-box rescue, I sat right down, and here it is: 1,208 words, 120 minutes. Now I can write the bird piece. Maybe.
Excerpted from BURNING QUESTIONS: Essays and Occasional Pieces by Margaret Atwood Copyright © 2022 by O. W. Toad, LTD. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio from BURNING QUESTIONS by Margaret Atwood. Excerpt read by Esi Edugyan; audiobook read by a full cast of 36 narrators.