AWP Nugget: Margaret Atwood on Art and Craft

AWP, CHICAGO: Margaret Atwood’s books are works of art built though painstaking craft. The same can be said of the remarkable Auditorium Theatre at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, the setting for her keynote address here at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference Thursday night.

The Auditorium Theatre is from another age, a gilded one. The theater opened in 1889, debuting the same year as a newspaper dedicated to wealth, The Wall Street Journal. Margaret Atwood told us she too is from another age. She shared that she was born in 1939, a time when the writing programs that make up the AWP’s membership didn’t exist.

Margaret Atwood, as seen on the jumbo screen high up on the Auditorium Theatre's 95' tall stage.

“I feel a little bit like a voice from the tomb,” Atwood said, after admitting she has reached a point in her life when people ask, “Is she still alive?” She spoke before a packed hall of 3,500 AWP attendees in a red scarf, as if taking back the power of that color that symbolized bondage in The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s cause for reflection on the past was the fact that when she was growing up, “they didn’t teach creative writing.”

While an undergraduate English major at the University of Toronto in the early 1960s, Atwood said, the closest she could come to taking a course on writing was a zero-credit workshop where she was afforded the opportunity to read her poetry aloud to three other non-credit-earning students.

“I am in no way formally prepared to give a lecture on the craft of writing,” she told us. “I’ve never studied the craft of writing.”

But she has practiced the craft.

“I read and wrote, and read and wrote, and read and wrote, and ripped up, and crossed out, and started again,” she said. This simple process of craft—write, revise—has led to the production of magnificent novels and poems, ones whose legacies will outlive her, just as the glory of the Auditorium Theatre has outlasted its creator, Ferdinand Peck.

“Craft has to do with work,” Atwood said. “Art is what you make from craft.”

Creating art requires craftsmanship, and craftsmanship requires tools, she said. Atwood grew up around hand tools in the Canadian woods of her home. “You could make things, fix things, demolish things.” What is demolished can be used again in a new project, she said.

“You can do the same thing with writing,” she said. “Cut when necessary, but don’t throw anything out.” What is cut can find new life elsewhere.

Atwood then shared some tools writers can use:

  • Key signature: “What is the tone of your work? Is it a major key? Is it a minor key?” Think of your key signature as a color, she said.
  • Tempo. Bottom line? Vary it, or it will be monotonous.
  • Voice. As yourself, who is speaking, to whom, and what does this speaker know that the reader does not?
  • Plot vs. Structure. Plot is a linear sequence of events, structure is the order you tell it.

Writer’s blocks, Atwood said, often occur due to struggles with voice and structure. Change the narrator or tense to address voice, she said, and start at a different scene to wrestle with structure.

“If none of this works,” she said, “go to the movies.”

Given Atwood’s prodigious output of award-winning and emotionally stirring poetry and prose, I’m guessing she doesn’t see many movies. But Atwood’s breathtaking success begs a question, however.

AWP reached the 10,000-attendee mark for the first time this year. The organizers had to cut off registration, surprising many used to deciding whether to attend at the last minute. More than 3,300 of those attendees are MFA students. Those students’ attendance are subsidized by the dozens of MFA programs found on the opening pages of the 324-page conference program–the “major sponsors,” “benefactors,” “patrons,” “sponsors” and “contributors.” Are the AWP and its sponsors propagating a myth, that writers need to be taught?

Peck sought to build the Auditorium Theatre in a time of social unrest. A wealthy real estate mogul who demonstrated a soft side by co-founding the Illinois Humane Society, Peck was influenced by the Haymarket Square riots of 1886 to create an opera house that would embrace democratic ideals. He brought on board two men to make that happen.

Peck resisted adding balconies to the Auditorium Theatre, saying they embodied class distinctions. He lost that battle with the building's funders, who were of a certain class.

Louis Sullivan–a Chicago architect who would later become famous for his work designing and building Chicago’s “White City” for its 1893 World’s Fair—focused on ensuring that every one of the opera house’s 3,500 seats would have a magnificent view. Dankmar Adler—a German immigrant who never completed formal schooling—designed an acoustic arrangement for sound distribution that experts have called “perfect.”

Was the audience that was enraptured by Margaret Atwood Thursday night as democratic as Peck would have wished? Not only does AWP tier its MFA donors in categories according to how much they pony up for the conference, Poets & Writers Magazine ranks the programs on their supposed quality. Could you quantify AWP attendees? You could divide those with an MFA from those without. Put those who teach over here, and those who wish they taught over there. Put those affiliated with top-ranked MFA programs ahead of those not as high in the rankings.

And what do you do with someone like me, who at last year’s AWP was a writer who not only had never attended an MFA program, he had never taken a college-level creative writing class?

The seating in the theater was first-come, first-serve. My friend Deborah and I arrived about an hour early, which meant we were only about ten rows from the stage. But Peck’s vision seemed to manifest Thursday night. Every AWP attendee in the hall could see Atwood—aided by a massive video screen over her head, a detail not conceived in the 19th Century. They could also equally hear Atwood—aided not just by acoustic perfection but ceiling-mounted speakers. By that measure, at least, a lie was put to the myth.

Margaret Atwood as seen from my seat. Yes, Sullivan ensured a clean sight line for me, but I'll confess to watching her, for the most part, on the jumbo screen.

The design of the Auditorium Theatre required a large team of drafters, from all sorts of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. One of them was Frank Lloyd Wright, a young man a year removed from his parents’ divorce. Wright’s parents, when together, had struggled to make ends meet, and Wright himself, it is believed, never finished high school. Yet he learned the craft of architecture on the job at the Auditorium Theatre, and his career achievements are as well known to us today as those of Atwood.

It would be easy to employ nostalgia here, to say that not only did Atwood not need formal schooling in creative writing, it’s possible her success came as a result of that lack of training. Perhaps her muse was able to fully develop by her time spent reading and writing not being interrupted by pedagogues with their own agendas. AWP donors would push back against this notion, just as I’m sure the many architecture professors who teach courses on Frank Lloyd Wright would on students resisting their instruction.

It’s important to remember that Atwood chose to present the keynote to AWP. She shared her story, namely that she was not afforded the opportunities that exist for those to whom she was speaking. But if we wish to romanticize her experience, we mustt consider this. In the early 1960s, when Atwood was an undergraduate reading her poetry to three other students without earning credit, the Auditorium Theatre was in disrepair.

The decline had begun not too long after the opera house opened. The local symphony moved to a smaller venue in 1904, and the opera company did likewise in 1929. The only thing that spared the theatre from demolition in the 1930s was that the cost of tearing it down was more than the land was worth. During World War II the building in which the auditorium is housed—an aging hotel—became a storehouse for soldiers, and the auditorium stage was converted into a bowling alley. After the war’s end the building sat vacant.

However, through efforts by Roosevelt University and generous donors, the Auditorium Theatre underwent a $3-million renovation. It re-opened in 1967 and has been a part of Chicago’s cultural center ever since. It’s the home of the Joffrey Ballet, and there have been other on-stage delights, from Les Miserables to Bob Dylan.

The past is not necessarily superior to the present, even if some of Dylan’s best songs creatively dwarf some hits of today. Atwood, I believe, sees the merit in the many opportunities writers have to improve themselves through instruction.

“I feel a little bit like a voice from the tomb, or at least from the past,” Atwood had said at the beginning of her speech. But just before that, Atwood had said “Hello to all my Twitter pals.” If that isn’t embracing the now, I don’t know what is.

The tools of any craft used to produce art are there for anyone who wants them. They are not kept locked away in classrooms. The industrious ones—an Atwood or a Wright—can find them, and learn how to make use of them. But we don’t need to be taught to read and write and read and write.

I mentioned Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the draftsmen that worked on the design and construction of the Auditorium Theatre. I didn’t mention any others, because I don’t know any of their names. They’re not revealed on the auditorium’s official web site. To me, that is a reminder that art, ultimately, is an expression of democracy. Each of us is given a voice and a vote, and we do with those what we choose. So it is for any artist.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

33 Responses to “AWP Nugget: Margaret Atwood on Art and Craft”

  1. This is a fantastic article. An art-committed life is one that uses all available opportunities and focuses on what’s important, whether through formal or informal channels. Nicely done. I think I’ll have to read this again.

    • Well, Kathleen, you’ve made my day!

      I also like this: “An art-committed life is one that uses all available opportunities and focuses on what’s important, whether through formal or informal channels.” I’m gonna steal that.🙂

  2. So, so, so jealous, Patrick. Bad enough you are reveling at AWP, but Margaret Atwood! That’s over the top.

    When AWP is done, will you say if you think it’s a good, or necessary, thing to attend, for a poet with some publications. I’m trying to figure out what I should, or want to, attend in the next year, or so.

    Keep reveling. You do it well.

    margo

    • It was over the top, Margo; that’s why I got there an hour early, to make sure I’d get in!

      In my opinion, I feel a bit out of step here as a creative nonfiction writer. AWP is more about poets than prose writers. It seems like half of the book publishers and journals are either exclusively poetry or mostly so. The editors are sitting right there, waiting to talk to you. I’ve been spending most of my time on the bookfair floor for that reason, but there are fewer CNF editors.

      It’s not a MUST, but I’d recommend you figure out a way to get to Boston next year. If so we could meet up!

      • Thanks, Patrick. This is exactly what I need to know. Creative non-fiction has always been a narrower, under-seen genre. My first publications, back in the eighties, were creative non-fiction. I love the genre. But, now that I am a writer of poetry, I shall take your suggestion seriously. There are several people I would like to meet, to include you!

  3. The “Art” vs the “craft” of writing… I hope you find time, Patrick, to examine this question again and more fully in future blog posts. I too will put it on my agenda.

    • It is an excellent distinction, isn’t it, PJ. She actually went into an interesting discourse on the etymology of the words “art” and “craft.” I think I’ll take you up on that challenge at some point, and would love to see your thoughts as well.

  4. Such a thought-provoking, well-written piece here, Patrick. When I was 19, I wrote an award winning essay using a few books written by my literary idol, Margaret Atwood, as reference material for a literature class I was taking at the time. Too bad it was destroyed in a fire in 1986 or I would have pulled it out today to see what my perspective on her work was back then. All I know is my young, earnest self longed to follow in her writing footsteps.

    I really like how you included the history of the building and renovations of the auditorium because I received it as a symbolic comparison of the enduring Atwood herself and the amazing legacy of literature she has given us already, who has continued to keep up and stay current and relevant over all these years (and as you so eloquently put it, ’embracing the now’).

    • Hi Carole Jane,

      How cool to be honored for your writing at such a young age; I’m jealous!

      You know, as she was talking I was looking around the room, thinking about the legacy of the building and her literary legacy. I’m glad you like the weaving, but I was trying to make sure I didn’t compare her to an aging building!🙂

  5. Excellent post, Patrick. I love the weaving of the history of the building into the reading and the writing message of this essay. Lots to chew on here.

  6. Oh, I just love that bulleted list, Patrick, and all the great quotes from Atwood. That must have been brilliant to get to see her and hear her speak! She was one of my idols as a girl.

    Interesting to learn she never had any classes in writing. I think it was probably difficult to get any attention as a young woman wanting to be a writer back in the 60’s. Despite how we think of those times as progressive, I believe them to have also been pretty academically repressive for women.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks, Cynthia. I obviously liked the list because I included it! She really didn’t share much in the way of craft tips; that was about it. But I thought it was very interesting how she said most blocks come from those two elements.

      She obviously carved a place for herself in a publishing world dominated by men, and in a genre–dystopian fiction–that has a lot of female writers now but was, I’m guessing, almost exclusively men when she broke in. There’s a lot to admire about her.

  7. Great post, Patrick. I was once lucky enough to see Margaret Atwood speak over here in London, and found her incredibly inspirational. Her message, in the end, seems to be that you need to do the work, as well as the dreaming and the reading, to get somewhere. Like little kids, we can learn by doing (I was watching my son learning to put his shoes on today – it was highly instructional. And not about putting shoes on.).

    Anyway, AWP looks like an amazing place to be!

    yours, Jealous in London.

    • Hi Joanne, thanks for the feedback! Cool you got to see Margaret, and cool (from my perspective) to be in London. Her repeated repetition last night of “read and write and read and write” would suggest she’s still on message regarding doing, not dreaming.

      It is quite a show. I’ll suggest they do one in London sometime!

  8. What an amazing article Patrick! Thank you for giving us the feeling of being there. I can’t even imagine the thrill of being so close to Atwood and hearing her speak about her distinguished career and writing itself.

    She is indeed an inspiration, but then, so are you!

  9. Very nicely written, thoughtful post. I find the tensions between art & craft and self-directed & apprenticeship paths fascinating and thought you touched nicely on the interplay each has with the other.

    • Thank you, Wendy. The interplay of self-directed and apprenticeship is one that really speaks to me, as I’ve lived both and drift back and forth. I appreciate your kind words.

  10. wonderful article—loved the comparison of the auditorium to Atwood. In fact, I’m among those that didn’t know if she was alive and I’m glad she can laugh about it.

    This is also inspiring for those who haven’t been educated in writing—it can be done without the classes, though those certainly have their benefits as well.

    • I left out the best part of how she made the crack about still being alive. She talked about how a friend of hers fell ill in her home and two young paramedics came. One realized where he was and told the other they were in the home of Margaret Atwood. The other, clearly in earshot of Ms. Atwood, said “Margaret Atwood is still alive?”🙂

      As someone who has spent most of his life learning to write by, yes, reading and writing and reading and writing, it was most inspiring. I obviously embrace instruction as well, but writing isn’t like practicing medicine–some of the best writers, like Ms. Atwood, are self-taught, but I don’t want a self-taught neurosurgeon!

      • Margaret Atwood’s paramedic story is what I keep recounting to folks who ask, “So, how was she?” I thought Atwood was hilarious, particularly with the big, black purse that she carried onto the stage with her. What an endearing woman. You’ve done an excellent job here of recounting her short, yet engaging, talk. Glad to have shared that literary moment with you!

  11. A fascinating post, Patrick. Atwood’s points about craft are very useful. Key signature, tempo, voice, and plot vs. structure: all are great things to think about when revising. Thank you.

    • You bet, Sara! I thought it fascinating that she said she gets writer’s block frequently on voice, and then the very next day (as I blogged about Sunday) Sue William Silverman said the same thing.

      It’s funny: I think Atwood threw in that section because she had been asked to speak about “craft,” but as was clear in the rest of her talk, to her it’s pretty simple: read and write, read and write.

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