14 Margaret Atwood Quotes Every Writer Must Read

by Mariam Tareen Sethi

Ever wondered what a writer has in common with a grave-digger? Margaret Atwood has. The author of more than 40 works including fiction, poetry and critical essays (including one particular book she finished earlier this year that no one can read for 100 years, thank you very much), Atwood stands out as a unique voice in today’s ocean of contemporary literature.

I didn’t read Margaret Atwood until I was well into my 20s (that's last month, if you're counting). How could I have waited so long? What was I thinking? The minute I cracked a spine, I knew I'd been seriously missing out. But then again, maybe this was the right time to read her, when I feel I have had my fair share of experience — both of other books and of life. You know how they say timing is everything? I have a feeling that applies to reading, too.

I started with Cat’s Eye, a novel about memory, childhood, and the power plays between little girls. I was stunned by her writing, and not just by her fine-tuned word choice and seamless sentences. I was blown away by the precision of her insights. Her books shine a light on our deepest emotions, and this is the kind of sharp intuition that makes her writing luminous.

Most of the quotes listed below are from Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. The book began as a series of lectures at the University of Cambridge that have here been reworked into chapters in which Atwood explores the role of the writer. Aspiring writers of the world: this is one writer you must listen to.

On What Writing Is

  • “Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.”

—Negotiating With the Dead: a Writer on Writing

On The Difference Between "Writing" And "Being A Writer"

  • “As for writing, most people secretly believe they themselves have a book in them, which they would write if they could only find the time. And there’s some truth to this notion. A lot of people do have a book in them – that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But that is not the same as ‘being a writer.’
  • "Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. The latter takes a good deal more stamina and persistence. It is also, because of the nature of the activity, a deeply symbolic role. As a grave-digger, you are not just a person who excavates. You carry upon your shoulders the weight of other people’s projections, of their fears and fantasies and anxieties and superstitions.”

—Negotiating With the Dead: a Writer on Writing

On The Difference Between Writing Fiction And Poetry

  • “My theory is that they involve two different areas of the brain, with some overlap. When I am writing fiction, I believe I am much better organized, more methodical — one has to be when writing a novel. Writing poetry is a state of free float.”

The Art of Fiction No. 121, The Paris Review, 1990

Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

On Writing Novels

  • “When I’m writing a novel, what comes first is an image, scene, or voice. Something fairly small. Sometimes that seed is contained in a poem I’ve already written. The structure or design gets worked out in the course of the writing. I couldn’t write the other way round, with structure first. It would be too much like paint-by-numbers.”

The Art of Fiction No. 121, The Paris Review, 1990

On How Her Childhood Prepared Her To Become A Writer

  • “There were no films or theatres in the North, and the radio didn’t work very well. But there were always books. I learned to read early, was an avid reader and read everything I could get my hands on — no one ever told me I couldn’t read a book. My mother liked quietness in children, and a child who is reading is very quiet.
  • "Because none of my relatives were people I could actually see, my own grandmothers were no more and no less mythological than Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, and perhaps this had something to do with my eventual writing life – the inability to distinguish between the real and the imagined, or rather the attitude that what we consider real is also imagined: every life lived is also an inner life, a life created.”

—Negotiating With the Dead: a Writer on Writing

On The Moment She Became A Writer

  • “Nobody talked about writing as a process or a profession – something real people actually did. Given such conditions, how is it that I became a writer? … It simply happened, suddenly, in 1956, while I was crossing the football field on the way home from school. I wrote a poem in my head and then I wrote it down, and after that writing was the only thing I wanted to do. I didn’t know that this poem of mine wasn’t at all good, and if I had known, I probably wouldn’t have cared. It wasn’t the result but the experience that had hooked me: it was the electricity. My transition from not being a writer to being one was instantaneous, like the change from docile bank clerk to fanged monster in ‘B’ movies.”

—Negotiating With the Dead: a Writer on Writing


On When She Was First Asked To Read Her Poems Aloud

  • “It was, I found, quite different from acting. Other people’s words were a screen, a disguise, but to get up and read my own words — such an exposed position, such possibilities for making an idiot of yourself — this made me sick.”

—Negotiating With the Dead: a Writer on Writing

On How Writers Have Double Lives

  • “All writers are double, for the simple reason that you can never actually meet the author of the book you have just read. Too much time has elapsed between composition and publication, and the person who wrote the book is now a different person.”
  • “What is the relationship between the two entities we lump under one name, that of ‘the writer’? The particular writer. By two, I mean the person who exists when no writing is going forward — the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed, and so forth — and that other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing.”

—Negotiating With the Dead: a Writer on Writing

Why To Write Is To Negotiate With The Dead

  • “All writers learn from the dead. As long as you continue to write, you continue to explore the work of writers who have preceded you; you also feel judged and held to account by them. But you don’t learn only from writers — you can learn from ancestors in all their forms. Because the dead control the past, they control the stories, and also certain kinds of truths — what Wilfred Owen, in his descent-to-the-Underworld poem, ‘Strange Meeting,’ calls the ‘truth untold’ — so if you are going to indulge in narration, you’ll have to deal, sooner or later, with those from previous layers of time. Even if that time is only yesterday, it isn’t now. It isn’t the now in which you are writing.”

—Negotiating With the Dead: a Writer on Writing

Her Advice To Writers

  • "I think the main thing is: Just do it. Plunge in! Being Canadian, I go swimming in icy cold lakes, and there is always that dithering moment. 'Am I really going to do this? Won’t it hurt?' And at some point you just have to flop in there and scream. Once you’re in, keep going. You may have to crumple and toss, but we all do that. Courage! I think that is what’s most required."

Reddit, 2014

On How To Conduct Yourself When You Publish

“If invited to read at a festival, try not to get drunk, hit people, throw up onstage, smite the sound technician, etc. Such incidents make colourful gossip, and it’s a small world…. It’s tough out there in Bookworld. Tread carefully. Don’t speak so softly that you can’t be heard, nor so loudly that you’re deafening. Carry a medium-sized shtick. And avoid wearing mini-skirts up on stage unless you have very good legs. Zip your lower front apertures. What happens in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas. People have cameras.”