Margaret Atwood on Writers: “We’re duplicitous!”

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You sit and you slog, trying to write something brilliant for posterity.

You dig deep to pull out the gems from the inner mines of your very heart and soul, your very being. Gems that you believe are there. Out of sight but waiting to be discovered, like a treasure hunt in an Indiana Jones movie.

To be released. To be set free.

Most of the time though, you emerge tired, dishevelled, empty or at best short-changed.

And so you try to “wing it”.

You “pretend” that you got something to say that would make it worth someone else’s time and attention. You cross your fingers and hope that you have successfully “deceive” that person.

That could be what the award-winning and prolific novelist Margaret Atwood meant last evening during her presentation at the annual Singapore Writer’s Festival (see also my previous piece on another festival guest, author Zadie Smith). For additional reporting on last night’s illuminating dialogue session with this literary icon, click here.

Duality & Duplicity

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When asked by moderator Balli Kaur Jaswal about her thoughts on writing, Ms Atwood opined that writers can’t help but be “duplicitous”. I can understand where she’s coming from, though clearly my breadth and depth of experience is far removed from the likes of this giant in the modern literary world.

Still it’s comforting to know I’m not alone.

The feeling of loss and confusion captured in the rhetoric that kicked off this blog is real, and comes to me more often than I care to admit.

Certainly no true-blue writer worth his/her salt starts with the intent to deceive. At least I don’t believe so. And in speaking about duplicity, Ms Atwood isn’t claiming that all writers are frauds, including herself! But it does mean that there’s often a duality in the way our writing reflects what’s happening around us.

Duplicity, which comes from the Latin word “duplicitas“, carries a ‘two-fold’ meaning that has more to do with instances of doubling rather than deceiving. In essence, something can have more than one interpretation.

Ms Atwood’s contention is that while writers have influence and visibility, their works have very little in the way of power. In fact, they are nearly always vulnerable to attacks and disagreements, precisely because the work writers do carries this duality, this duplicity element.

No Straight Answers

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Another giant of a writer, Henry James, was regarded as a master in duplicity. This was according to a Cambridge Scholars publication called Henry James and the Poetics of Duplicity.

In it, editors Tredy, Duperray and Harding pull from many of Mr James’ works to showcase this whole duality element. Be it his characters, the plot or the dialogue, much of his large body of works make liberal use of duplicity to force the players in the stories, and thus the readers also, to confront situations from multiple perspectives. With no guaranteed straight answers!

Again, I’m not saying, and certainly am not daring to compare myself to the genius of Mr James. Rather, I too am never sure after I’ve written my piece, if what I started off wanting to say, will end up being something else altogether!

The Conventions of Our Time

brown wooden desk
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Yet as writers, we are never able to stay the same with each completed piece of work. It’s like the person who wrote it has left the room, and someone new has taken his/her place.

It’s how I feel each time I finish my writing. I honestly don’t know if I’ve brought more or less clarity to a matter. However, I do know that I am no longer the same person. In completing that piece, I’ve either added to or subtracted from my original self. Looked at from another angle, I’ve either become more versed or more vexed after my writings!

Whichever the case, Ms Atwood’s challenge last evening did bring me up short and made me ponder.

She asked if we as writers know what are the conventions of our time? The climate as it were.

Because to be effective and influential, we have to speak from a place of keen observation of trends and turmoils now underway in and around us.

It’s only in that space that we can contribute to ongoing narratives, and in effect persuade and advocate for change, even if we may not have the actual power to effect that change.

And so encouraged, I shall continue to observe the world and to write well. With just a pinch of duality and duplicity.

Perhaps then I will be, with each word/sentence/paragraph I type, as successful as Indiana was in finding hidden treasures; hidden gems.

But, hopefully, without his penchant for getting into near-death experiences each time!

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