Nothing intimidates a writer more than a blank page. Yet, the tranquillity in the white space is what stimulates thinking. As a communicator and storyteller, isn’t creativity all about contemplating filling up those white spaces with words?
Margaret Atwood is an award-winning author whose work has been published in more than forty-five countries in multiple forms of creative expression, including graphic novels, TV series and films. Her latest novel, The Testaments, sequel to her award-winning bestseller The Handmaid’s Tale, won the 2019 Booker Prize. She is the recipient of numerous other awards, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Franz Kadka International Literary Prize, the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award.
In this discussion, Margaret answers questions about how to unleash the potential of the blank page, turn the idea of a character or a theme into a novel, and retell your story through a different creative medium. Margaret also explores storytelling in exquisite detail, drawing from her love for history to explain its origination and historical significance.
A novel is not a box you get to store things into; it’s an art you sculpt. You decide what to make out of it. And as Margaret explains, it doesn’t always turn right. It could take several misspellings and failures before landing the perfect draft.
Here are the top takeaways from the conversation:
- People Love Stories [05:14] Humankind’s love for stories dates back to the Pleistocene epoch when they invented the spoken language. Small children pick up the language before they understand numbers. Storytelling even predates writing. Whether it’s the idea of cause and effect, or the narrative thread or sequence that causes the same, remains a question.
- Every Blank Page Is A New Opportunity [13:11] No doubt, blank pages are a writer’s forever companion. But they shouldn’t be depressing. Think of every blank page as an opportunity to say something different – anything can go on that page.
- Using Index Cards To Structure Your Writing [19:37] The desire to be organized pushes many writers into using filing cards, as Margaret explains. It helps writers figure out where they’re going with the writing. Not that it always works. Margaret shares how she worked her way through the scheme only to land an incomplete set of pages. “Plunging into the blob of mud without knowing where it was going” is her way of working and could be yours too.
- Writing Stories Connected With Human History [27:55] How do you verify your facts when writing historical pieces? Margaret explains that though she doesn’t invent things and works with historical references in thought, she lets her character take the lead and write the story first and then checks historical facts.
Listen to the Podcast
[00:15] Meet legendary novelist and poet Margaret Atwood –
Margaret’s work has been published across 50 countries. She’s written more than 18 books of poetry, 18 novels, 11 books of nonfiction, 9 collections of short fiction, 8 children’s books 2 graphic novels, and a number of small presentations. Her work has also been remade into movies and TV series.
[02:15] The blank page as a tool to unleash our true potential
Margaret explains that every blank page is a new opportunity for a writer. You can choose what to make out of it.
[05:14] Why people love stories
Margaret explains that humankind’s love for stories dates back to the Pleistocene epoch when they invented the spoken language. Small children pick up the language before they understand numbers. Storytelling even predates writing. Whether it’s the idea of cause and effect, or the narrative thread or sequence that causes the same, remains a question.
[06:39] The most inspiring storytellers in Margaret’s life growing up
Margaret’s mother and elder brother have inspired her in her journey to writing and storytelling.
[08:38] Margaret’s first story
Margaret started by writing comic books in the late 40s. Her first novel at the age of six or seven was about an ant.
[11:39] Margaret’s first graphic novel
Margaret’s first graphic novel series was called Angel Catbird, for which she’d used the help of an illustrator.
[13:11] Why blank pages needn’t be depressing
No doubt, blank pages are a writer’s forever companion. But they shouldn’t be depressing. Think of every blank page as an opportunity to say something different – anything can go on that page.
[15:54] Discussion on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s long narrative poems
[17:21] Why Margaret finds the first three pages of a novel easier to write than the rest
[18:07] How does Margaret decide if an idea could yield a story, essay, or novel?
She explains that she doesn’t begin with a theme. It’s always a character, a scene or a voice, and the theme comes later.
[18:29] A novel is not like a box; it’s a blob you’re working with.
[19:37] Is using filing cards the right way to go with writing your novel?
Margaret explains that though the method adds organization and structure to your writing, it might not help writers like herself who have to plunge into the blob of mud to create a masterpiece.
[22:24] Margaret’s not-so-good rapport with punctuations
[24:36] How to distract and give your mind space between writing novels and repurposing them into films
[26:34] Why people love to experiment with retelling a story
Sometimes, another form of creative expression is more recognizable, like a film. A piece of writing depicted through a movie could be etched in memories forever.
[27:55] The questions you need to consider when writing historical pieces
[29:09] How do you fact-check historical writing?
Margaret explains that she writes the story first and then checks the fact and how it helps.
[31:25] The last story that made Margaret cry – Alias Grace (referencing the TV series here)
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