An (Imagined) Letter to Myself from Margaret Atwood

Stop trying so hard to become what you already are. You want to be a writer? Good news! You are writing already. Look at you, right this very moment. You are a writer who is writing.

So, you are already a writer. Now it is time to become a story maker.

If you hope to infiltrate a reader’s dreams and help them care in the way that you care, you must carefully inventory the storymaker’s tools. You must practice the craft.

Storymaking is a kind of alchemy. We cannot explain how lustrous lives are conjured from the everyday dross of syllables and sentences, paragraphs and prose. One learns by doing.

I can offer a few things that arise from my own practice. None of which may help you, but, perhaps, you will feel less frustrated and alone.

Stories come from the breaking of patterns, when the thing that usually happens does not happen. Something new must happen. This is the imperative of story. You don’t know what your characters will do until you put them in new situations. There is a threat from within; there is a threat from without. Combine these and see what the characters do.

Use the stories that came before. Everything you read, watch and hear fit like Legos connecting your stories. The Bible and Shakespeare. Greco-Roman myth and Star Wars. The evening news, so-called reality television and the weird old man across the street who no one has seen in weeks.

Stories are particular. Humans possess five senses. Your stories should use all of them.

Novels are always about time. You cannot write a novel that does not involve time and the changes that occur with time. Place your characters in history. Chart their birthdays, important historical dates, life milestones.

Proceed as if there are no ideas in your stories, only characters. You won’t understand the ideas properly anyway. The teller never does. Ideas belong to the readers.

Storymaking is a hopeful act. You are choosing to imagine future readers who will value things tomorrow that you have valued today.

The story you make is your letter to the world. Let this story say whatever this story needs to say and then let it go.

The story will be delivered or it won’t.

The story will be received or it won’t.

The story will be read.

Or it won’t.

You cannot know if your story will be admired.

You cannot know if your story will earn money.

Make your story anyway, send it into the world, and then, make the next one.

Don’t be afraid of revision. Re-vision is the work of learning to see your story in new ways. Keep what fits. Get rid of whatever doesn’t fit. The trash can is your friend. It was made for you by God.

I am glad you are here, doing this weird difficult thing.

You do not need my permission to make your stories. Your stories are your own.

I have given you my stories because it pleases me to do so. Making and sharing your stories should please you. There’s really no other reason to do this. More than pleasing your spouse, your children, your parents. More than pleasing your ninth grade English teacher and that girl who ignored you in high school, your stories should please you. Find and tell those stories which please you. Those are stories only you can can tell.


Note: I recently finished Margaret Atwood’s Masterclass course on creative writing. It is excellent. I wrote this imagined letter to myself as a way to process my notes and insights. The voice is not Atwood’s but I like to think the ideas captured are faithful. Aspiring writers needing inspiration could do worse than subscribe to her course.

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