Margaret Atwood Teaching an Online Class on Creative Writing

FYI: If you sign up for a Mas­ter­Class course by click­ing on the affil­i­ate links in this post, Open Cul­ture will receive a small fee that helps sup­port our oper­a­tion.

The prob­lem of dystopi­an fic­tion is this: quite often the worst future cre­ative writ­ers can imag­ine is exact­ly the kind of present that has already been inflict­ed on others—by colo­nial­ism, dic­ta­tor­ship, geno­ci­dal war, slav­ery, theoc­ra­cy, abject pover­ty, envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, etc. Mil­lions all over the world have suf­fered under these con­di­tions, but many read­ers fail to rec­og­nize dystopi­an nov­els as depict­ing exist­ing evils because they hap­pen, or have hap­pened, to peo­ple far away in space and time. Of course, Mar­garet Atwood under­stands this prin­ci­ple. The night­mares she has writ­ten about in nov­els like The Handmaid’s Tale have all already come to pass, she tells us.

In the pro­mo video above for her Mas­ter­class on Cre­ative Writ­ing start­ing this fall (it’s now open), Atwood says, “when I wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, noth­ing went into it that had not hap­pened in real life some­where at some time. The rea­son I made that rule is that I didn’t want any­body say­ing, ‘You cer­tain­ly have an evil imag­i­na­tion, you made up all these bad things.’” And yet, she says, “I didn’t make them up.” In a Swift­ian way, she implies, we did—“we” being human­i­ty writ large, or, per­haps more accu­rate­ly, the destruc­tive, greedy, pow­er-mad indi­vid­u­als who wreak hav­oc on the lives of those they deem infe­ri­ors or right­ful prop­er­ty.

“As a writer,” she says above, “your goal is to keep your read­er believ­ing, even though both of you know it’s fic­tion.” Atwood’s trick to achiev­ing this is a devi­ous one in what we might call sci-fi or dark fan­ta­sy (though she spurns these des­ig­na­tions): she writes not only what she knows to be true, in some sense, but also what we know to be true, though we would rather it not be, as in Vir­ginia Woolf’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of fic­tion as “as spider’s web, attached ever so light­ly per­haps, but still attached to life at all four cor­ners.”

Atwood says that writ­ers turn away from the blank page because they fear some­thing. She has made it her busi­ness, instead, to turn toward fear, to see dark visions like those of her Mad­dAd­dam Tril­o­gy, an extrap­o­la­tion of hor­rors already hap­pen­ing, in some form, some­where in the world (and soon to be a fun-filled TV series). What she feared in 1984, the year she began writ­ing The Handmaid’s Tale, seems just as chill­ing­ly pre­scient to many readers—and view­ers of the TV adaptation—thirty-four years lat­er, a tes­ta­ment to Atwood’s spec­u­la­tive real­ism, and to the awful, stub­born resis­tance real­i­ty puts up to improve­ment.

As she put it in an essay about the novel’s ori­gins, “Nations nev­er build appar­ent­ly rad­i­cal forms of gov­ern­ment on foun­da­tions that aren’t there already.” The same, per­haps, might be said of nov­el­ists. Do you have some truths to tell in fic­tion­al form? Maybe Atwood is the per­fect guide to help you write them.

You can take this class by sign­ing up for a Mas­ter­Class’ All Access Pass. The All Access Pass will give you instant access to this course and 85 oth­ers for a 12-month peri­od.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Mar­garet Atwood Explains How Sto­ries Change with Tech­nol­o­gy

Ursu­la Le Guin Gives Insight­ful Writ­ing Advice in Her Free Online Work­shop

100 Great Sci-Fi Sto­ries by Women Writ­ers (Read 20 for Free Online)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Rae says:

    Sounds like a great oppor­tu­ni­ty. I may con­sid­er this myself though i do not write in this par­tic­u­lar area. Writ­ing is writ­ing. Its art and its expres­sion. I may find new ideas to express.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.