Negotiating with the Dead | Goodreads Review

Negotiating with the DeadNegotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am reader who writes. I am on a journey to becoming a writer who reads. As such, I adore books about reading and writing. Most disappoint. Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing does not disappoint.

Adapted from a series of lectures, Atwood offers a philosophical exploration of writing that is both insightful and practical. There are no tricks or gimmicks. Atwood reflects on what is happening when writer is writing without getting cute or wandering into the weeds.

Negotiating with the Dead looks at a writer’s sense of self; the divided nature of writer as both observer and participant; the question of writing as commerce or art; the artifice of the author’s persona; the weird relationship between writer, reader and book; and finally, the work of going down into the dark to bring up useful insights.

My borrowed copy of this book is a porcupine of tape flags — so many vibrant, useful quotes to capture and keep. This is my favorite:

“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 this 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.”

I’ve been digging holes in the cemetery for more than 35 years. This book helps me understand what it takes to become a grave-digger.

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The Courage of Process

We make too much of genius. Geniuses are fascinating in the way that marathon winners and astronauts are fascinating. I know they exist but there is no point in pretending I will ever be one.

Geniuses aren’t the problem. The stories we tell ourselves about geniuses are a big problem. We make totems from stories of sudden insight and inspiration. We venerate anecdotes of quick leaps but ignore the long run that always came just before.

We admire the astronauts floating proud and confidant in zero g. The thousand hour simulations spent mastering crucial motions are unseen. No one wants to watch astronaut trainees puke into their helmets.

The first man and woman to cross the marathon line are celebrated as heroes. If we care a lot, we might also celebrate the oldest and youngest to cross. We only allow ourselves time for a few heroes but a marathon is made of hundreds of heroes. People who have shaped their lives around the effort of accomplishing unlikely things.

We can’t all be marathon winners, but we can all be like those other people. Marathon runners.

As a writer, I read exceptional writers. I read them to understand their craft and try to apply some of that craft in my own. After the first flash of admiration, fear and discouragement often set in. I see the bright flash of brilliance and wonder why I can’t achieve that same flash. Why won’t the same lightning strike for me? I don’t see the dozens of bad early drafts, the tedious mulch of revision built on notes and critiques of brutally honest friends.

When we talk to ourselves about our own success, we think too often of genius. Our stories convince us success is an outcome of mysterious, unknowable forces, genetics or divine intervention. We imagine ourselves standing at the peak without imagining what it will take to get there. We try to teleport ourselves to the top of Mount Everest. We can’t.

Success requires the courage of sustained effort. There are no shortcuts. There is no escape. Success comes from developing a process and building the courage to stay committed to that process. It takes courage to stay focused when things aren’t going well. It takes humility to hone incremental improvements based on constant, ego-bruising feedback.

Geniuses are geniuses because they committed themselves to their process early. Geniuses have found their focus and shaped their lives to feed and support their own development.

No one sees the work, but the work is there. We should stop disabling ourselves with praise of the quick moments of clarified insight and encourage each other instead to start sorting through the confusion and uncertainty to develop and commit to a brave process of our own. That is a useful story. The courage of process.

What I Learned: Week of September 16 – 22, 2018

A rundown of things I read, saw or heard this week that stuck with me. This week happens to be all podcasts.

Worth a listen

Post No Evil. Radiolab. 2018aug17.

Early in the rise of Facebook, the company realized they needed a rulebook of acceptable behaviors to deal with the occasional appalling, depraved, and possibly illegal content created and shared by users. This was a difficult problem in 2008 when Facebook had a few hundred thousand American users. Now, the platform hosts 2.2 billion users across the entire globe.

This podcast explores the struggle to define and systematize rules of behavior that impact 2.2 billion people everyday with sometime hilarious, sometimes harrowing effect. The challenge of boiling human intent down into discreet, algorithmic if/then rules creates absurd situations where white men are protected against derogatory speech but black children are not. This happened as a result of linguistic nesting of modifiers. White men were protected because the concept of white men belongs to two categories of protected modifiers: race and gender. Black children were not protected because the concept of black children only belongs to one category of protected modifier: race. Children was not a protected category. Hilarity ensues.

Worse still, the discovery that most of the work of monitoring and removing objectionable content happens by low pay, human operators working 8 hours shifts reviewing and removing flagged content at a decision rate of something like one image every 8 to 10 seconds. The workers, mostly Irish and Asian, often turn up with PTSD. I think of them as the Call Centers of Despair.

Divided, Part 1: How Family Separations Started. The Daily. 2018aug21. and Divided, Part 2: The Chaos of Reunification. 2018aug24.

A clear, concise step-by-step roadmap of how the American government implemented a policy of separating immigrant families at the southern border well before admitting that such a policy existed. These stories reveal a situation far more complex than simply the President and his cabinet are evil. Its worse. They are incompetent, too. The metadata in place for tracking parents and children was lost when detainee’s status changed. A few keystrokes made it possible for the government to lose track of which kids belonged to which parents. The kids were secreted, sometimes in the middle of the night, to detention centers across America. The parents sometimes found themselves on opposite sides of the continent or deported.

Listen for a useful summary to make sense of the disparate reports over the past few months. Listen to remind ourselves that the crisis isn’t over even through our attention has moved away.

Shun the Non-Believers. Akimbo. 2018aug22.

Seth Godin reflects on the power of product reviews. Reviews help us find products and services that matter to us, but reviews can wreck the creative process of building those same products and services. This is required listening for anyone who aspires to creative work.

My quick take: when you make something, make it for someone specific. Make it unique. Let it be weird. Making a product to satisfy the reviews results in average content, which soon disappears.

Things made for everybody are actually made for nobody. These things are called commodities.

Things made specifically for someone are called art. These things endure.

The Thing About Writing

Some nights the words absolutely pour out, and you are drowning with things to say.

Some nights you write calmly, evenly, almost absent. You surprise yourself days later reading a thing you didn’t realize you had written.

And then some nights you write 277 words about a man watching television with Death and wonder how you ever manage to talk to people at all since words are so fickle and finicky and tiresome.

But the thing about writing, the trick of it, is realizing that each of these nights is the same. The writing is the writing. The dreaming is dreaming. The telling is telling.

Who are you tonight to know what’s good or bad, dishonest or true?

Saturday night poem.

This is a night I wish to write poetry — loud, brash, unrhyming poems that stick sideways inside your head and make you walk around shaking like a dog, trying to jar loose that cockeyed idea that did not start with you but lodged in and got dressed up in your own life, became your own words.

A poem like home invasion — sudden, brutal, unflinching — arriving like a stranger in the dark unlocked hallway of your home. Unsmiling. Dishonest. Up to no good.

A poem could be that one saving shove back away from the subway tracks where you had stood contemplating. Your reverie interrupted by the rude press of unseen hands and then gone, leaving you there to wonder how close you might actually have come to stepping down while the night’s last train goes barreling by.

Poems like coffee taken black too late at night, a sinister brew of dreams which you will imbibe and quickly forget, except for one phrase that reaches out and scalds your gullet, scorching as you swallow, all the way down.

Poems dumped like a box of cockroaches, scurry and scatter everywhere, finding the cracks, the crannies, all the tiny, secret places of your life you pretend are not there. Places even the finest brushes cannot reach. Places inside yourself which you can never get clean.

Ah. Here comes a poem, approaching like the evening’s last shopper casually strolling the aisles in a grocery store about to close. The cashier has made her last announcement. The lights are half off. The grocers have other places to be, but the poem makes its way, perusing the shelves, making its maddening slow inventory, a list of things it does not need and will not buy. They cannot lock the doors until it pushes its empty cart through the checkout line.

Here it is. At last. A poem about poetry, which is the writer’s main retreat. When you do not know what to write, you write about writing. You post it for others, inject it into their Saturday night. They read it with a shrug, except for that one other writer who feels the same inexorable urge and pours herself another heavy draught.

Kinship with Losers

I love the Olympics, even if they are an economic, social and political nightmare.

When I was younger, I used to marvel at the sheer and shining brilliance of the three athletes on the medal stand. Whichever three athletes; whichever three medals. The sport didn’t matter. Mastery mattered. Those three athletes who triumphed above all others through preposterous trials of competence to be crowned the best. All hail the winners. Cue anthem.

Only now, I begin the recognize the actual beauty on display. The opening Olympic ceremony is a parade of people who have dedicated themselves to improbable, ridiculous dreams. Most of these people will not be winners. Most won’t get medals. Most won’t be interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel or Katie Couric. Most won’t appear anywhere in the four hours of nightly prime time coverage. They will go home battered and bruised, some of them broken. Some will get a hero’s welcome but then are quickly forgotten. They’ll take jobs they may or may not enjoy. They’ll have kids and grandkids. Maybe their kids and grandkids will care. Maybe they won’t.

It doesn’t matter. These people burn with weird, impossible, potentially useless urges. They want to push a stone across the ice, 126 feet from hack to tee. Or they want to hurl themselves together in crowded circles at breakneck speeds on millimeter thin blades in races where victories and defeats are defined in hundredths of a second. Or they need to send themselves head first down perilous tubes at interstate traffic speeds with only a helmet and a St. Christopher’s medal. Who sells these kinds of people life insurance?

And then there’s me – this 44 year old person who has spent the last 34 years trying to write a beautiful sentence in hopes that a beautiful sentence might somehow lead to a beautiful paragraph and then a beautiful page and, perhaps, most ridiculous of all, a beautiful story.

There’s no parade for this weird desire. No procession to show the world. No anthem. No medal. No primetime coverage.

I feel tremendous kinship with these Olympic losers, these ridiculous dreamers. We are always working, seldom winning, dreaming our ridiculous, improbable, wonderful dreams.

This Tree. Specific.

I became friends with a tree this weekend.

Campbell Folk School is a very community-centered place, so I arrived fully expecting to make new friends. I met many fine people from all walks of life and from all over the country. I did not expect the closest of those friends to be the tree outside our Orchard House writing room. I spent a fair amount of my weekend admiring that tree and writing underneath its branches.

Throughout the three day workshop, our instructor admonished us to be specific. Don’t say tree. Say white pine or birch or cedar. The work of revision is always moving toward greater specificity. Not just any tree. This tree. Specific.

The problem was we had no idea what kind of tree my friend was. We didn’t know how to name it. One of the workshop participants teaches biology. She used a tree taxonomy guide to move through the criteria toward a name. Deciduous. Broad. Flat. Asymmetrical. Ragged edges. My biology teacher friend suggested our new friend might be an elm. This made sense. My tree friend was both incredibly familiar (an exemplar of treeness) and otherwordly. It is possible that I had never before seen a fully grown elm. Most elms in my part of the country were killed off by Dutch Elm disease before I was born.

“This Tree. Specific.” is the poem I wrote about my new friend. I was able to read this piece at Sunday Morning Song. Reading this poem on that last morning felt like an appropriate offering to show gratitude to my classmates, to our instructor, to the Folk School and, most of all, to my friend the tree.

“This Tree. Specific.”

We are friends now, you and I. I sit

beneath your branches, waiting to know your name.

Don’t bother me with binomial nomenclature. It is your stature I most admire,

and the welcoming way you spread your branches to embrace new friends.

And your tremendous, unwavering patience as you press careful roots into dirt.

Ever mindful of the bustling, burrowing communities teeming below.

So many questions you might answer.

Did you know John Campbell? Did he sit here where I do listening for your secrets?

Can you teach me to make a meal of sunlight and rain?

Never mind. I’m pestering you now. I do that to my friends.

It is enough for now to sit beneath your branches, to appreciate the way you exert yourself in the world. Patient. Dignified.

I do not need to know your name. You are this tree. Specific. Friendly. My friend.

 

Note to Self: Keep Writing

Once you step off the path, it is difficult to step back on. There are ten thousand satisfyingly specific reasons not to write. You are tired. You are busy. You are distracted by the events of the earlier day. Or maybe you are worried. Or you don’t have the right ideas. Or you are confused a little bit and waiting to figure things out.

This is what I have come to know about writing. Don’t stop. Not for earthquakes. Not for hurricanes. Not for the fiery wrath of God. Your life will always be busy. You are always going to be tired. People are going to continue disappointing you. Keep writing.

You are going to have to let yourself become weird. It cannot be helped. You are already weird. This urge you have to write things is not a normal condition. You are going to have to let yourself get even weirder. You are going to have to allow yourself to believe in things you know are not true. You will need to converse with people who are not there. You are going to cry about things that did not happen and fall out of touch with the things that are happening all around.

One day soon, you will listen to the news or read it or watch it on TV and you will wonder what strange creatures inhabit this planet. And then you will realize it is no real matter to you because you have work to do. Your home is not your home. You are unfit for the life people think you lead. You have made yourself strange and you are swallowed up entirely by the beauty and the wonder and the sheer, brilliant futility of it all.

You are meant to keep yourself writing. Do not step off the path. Don’t waste this delicious weirdness, these delightful quirks which have accumulated over some many minutes, hours and days.

Go down deeper. Get weirder. Stranger. More ferocious. More fierce.

And then, one day, look up and show the world this thing you have made. And give it to them and let them do with it whatever they will. And get back to work. Do it all again.

The True Work of Writing

Only now, I am beginning to recognize the true work of writing. It isn’t only the words. The words are the craft. The words are the practice. The words are the instrument.

The true work of writing is learning how to dream on command. It is finding that dark, vast ocean inside of you and tapping in so you can drink or drown at a moment’s notice.

The work of writing is meeting people who do not exist and learning to listen to their stories. You will know you are hearing them when you begin to fall in love. And they will follow you into your waking life, the non-dreaming part and they will begin to whisper at the most inconvenient times. And you will have a thousand other things you are meant to be doing. Things that are more important. Things that are more practical. But these people that you now love are speaking with such urgency. Their whispers so lovely, so personal.

And you will live a kind of divided life. A waking life of here and now; a writing life of lovely whispers. And you will carry forward in both worlds, often simultaneous. But your attention is not divided. You are not living two halves of two lives. Your whole life gets richer. You are living a two-fold life. You have made yourself bigger. The characters live in you and you live in them.

A Writerly Person

My daughter is a writerly person. Which is to say, she has a facility with words. She can take several completely unrelated ideas and smash them together. She can take one really big idea and bust it up into tiny little pieces.

I love to see her at work. Sometimes organizing a movie script. Sometimes drawing out a comic book. Sometimes just sitting on the floor with her whiteboard and writing until she runs out of room. Then, erase and continue.

Tonight she was drafting her letter to the 4th grade teachers, explaining why, as a rising 4th grader, she would make a kick-ass safety patrol officer. Those are my words. Not hers.

Raising a writerly person is great fun. I get to see her worry over the proper word choice and puzzle over the clarity of this idea or that. She’s on a good track. I expect she will write her books before I do.

I am being careful not to praise her ability too greatly. People often make too much of talent. Fun to see her sit down and write a well-made paragraph easily and with joy. Better to see her save that draft, set it aside until tomorrow, reread, then change a few words. Kill a sentence or three. I encourage the writing but praise the rewriting. Better that she know now what it is taking me a lifetime to figure out. A thing isn’t written until it is completed, and a thing isn’t completed until it is rewritten.