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The Power of the Pen: Margaret Atwood

With Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Nuruddin Farah, Jonathan Franzen, and Antonio Muñoz Molina. This talk was presented, in slightly different form, at the 2005 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Does writing change anything? I took this question literally, and I’m reading two pieces. One is about our feeling as writers—probably not, we think sometimes. And the second is the opposite answer. The first piece is called “The Tent.”

You’re in a tent. It’s vast and cold outside; very vast, very cold. It’s a howling wilderness. There are rocks in it, and sand, and deep boggy pits you can sink into without a trace. There are ruins as well, many ruins. In and around the ruins there are broken musical instruments, old bathtubs, bones of extinct land mammals, shoes minus their feet, auto parts. There are thorny shrubs, gnarled trees, high winds, but you have a small candle in your tent. You can keep warm. Many things are howling out there, in the howling wilderness. Many people are howling, some howling grief because those they love have died or been killed. Others howl in triumph because they have caused the loved ones of their enemies to die or be killed. Some howl to summon help, some howl for revenge, others howl for blood. The noise is deafening. It’s also frightening. Some of the howling is coming close to you, in your tent, where you crouch in silence hoping you won’t be seen. You’re frightened for yourself, but especially for those you love. You want to protect them. You want to gather them inside your tent for protection.

The trouble is your tent is made of paper. Paper won’t keep anything out. You know you must write on the walls, on the paper walls on the inside of your tent. You must write upside down and backwards. You must cover every available space on the paper with writing. Some of the writing has to describe the howling that’s going on outside, night and day among the sand dunes and the ice chunks and the ruins and bones and so forth. It has to tell the truth about the howling. But this is difficult to do because you can’t see through the paper walls, and so you can’t be exact about the truth, and you don’t want to go out there, out into the howling wilderness, to see exactly for yourself.

Some of the writing has to be about your loved ones, and the need you feel to protect them. And this is difficult as well because not all of them can hear the howling in the same way you do. Some of them think it sounds like a picnic out there in the wilderness, like a big band, like a hot beach party. They resent being cooped up in such a cramped space with you and your small candle and your fearfulness and your annoying obsession with calligraphy, an obsession that makes no sense to them. And they keep trying to scramble out under the walls of the tent. This doesn’t stop you from your writing. You write as if your life depended on it. Your life and theirs. You inscribe in shorthand their natures, their features, their habits, their histories. You change the names of course because you don’t want to create evidence. You don’t want to attract the wrong sort of attention to these loved ones of yours, some of whom, you’re now discovering, are not people at all, but cities and landscapes, towns and lakes, and clothing you used to wear, and neighborhood cafés and long-lost dogs.

You don’t want to attract the howlers, but they’re attracted anyway, as if by a scent. The walls of the paper tent are so thin, but they can see the light of your candle. They can see your outline, and naturally they’re curious because you might be prey. You might be something they can kill, and then howl over in celebration, and then eat one way or another. You’re too conspicuous. You’ve made yourself conspicuous. You’ve given yourself away. They’re coming closer, gathering together. They’re taking time off from their howling to peer, to sniff around. Why do you think this writing of yours, this graphomania in a flimsy cave, this scribbling back and forth and up and down over the walls of what is beginning to seem like a prison, is capable of protecting anyone at all, yourself included? It’s an illusion—the belief that your doodling is a kind of armor, a kind of charm—because no one knows better than you do how fragile your tent really is. Already there’s a clomping of leather-covered feet, there’s a scratching, there’s a scrabbling, there’s a sound of rasping breath. Wind comes in. Your candle tips over and flares up and a loose tent flap catches fire, and through the widening black-edged gap, you can see the eyes of the howlers, red and shining, and the light from your burning paper shelter. But you keep writing anyway, because what else can you do?

When we say “Does writing change anything?” we usually speak from the point of view of the writer. But if you take the question a couple of levels back and realize that a lot of people in the world can’t write at all, just the ability to change from being somebody who can’t write to being somebody who can makes a huge difference in that person’s life and then in the life of their family, and then in the life of their community. This poem is called “A Poor Woman Learns to Write.”

She squats, bare feet
splayed out, not
graceful; skirt tucked around ankles.

Her face is lined and cracked.
She looks old,
older than anything.

She’s probably thirty.
Her hands also are lined and cracked
and awkward. Her hair concealed.

She prints with a stick, laboriously
in the wet grey dirt,
frowning with anxiety.

Great big letters.
There. It’s finished.
Her first word so far.

She never thought she could do this,
Not her.
This was for others,

She looks up, smiles
as if apologizing,
but she’s not. Not this time. She did it right.

What does the mud say?
Her name. We can’t read it.
But we can guess. Look at her face:
Joyful Flower? A Radiant One? Sun On Water?