“Is it true that artists have to suffer to be creative?” To many, the answer would be yes. To artists of the 1960s, it would be an adamant yes. But to Margaret Atwood? You would get a resounding no, that artists are not victims without choice but rather capable of choosing their own price to pay. Her belief that artist’s should strike their own path eventually led to her belief that her role was not just to be a writer; it was to be a Canadian writer. Over the course of her studies at the University of Toronto and Radcliffe College, Atwood forged a decision that would impact not only her life but the lives and values of her fellow Canadians. Her journey, filled with social struggle and turmoils, laid the seeds of Canadian literature and identity. For Margaret Atwood, staying true to her culture despite flak, criticism, and a dominant American literature empire is what it means to be a Canadian.
Margaret Atwood’s incredible journey is outlined in Natalie Cook’s Margaret Atwood, A Biography. Starting from her time between schools in the US and Canada, Atwood learned an important fact; compared to Canada, the United States was “too familiar to be exotic, too unfamiliar to be comfortable,” and was dominated by American literature. In fact, the sheer amount of American writing compared to Canadian literature was a major factor in Atwood’s decision to become a Canadian writer. Atwood realized that if one can study American literature in a university, then why not Canadian literature? Prompted by a lack of awareness of Canada evident in those around her, “Atwood developed a sense of her place of origin. The Americans she met thought of Canada as “the blank area north of the map where the bad weather comes from.” Seeking out differences between America, a place that in climate and landscape is very similar to Canada, and her native land, Atwood starting seeing Canada as having a shape and culture of its own”. This search would ultimately result in her first book of nonfiction, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, a landmark in the development of Canadian writing and culture. “Survival was both a result of the rising tide of Canadian nationalism and a catalyst for it, helping fuel an explosion of interest in Canadian literature and culture during the 1970s, a time that has been called the New Age of Canadian literature.”
However, Atwood’s Canadian writing did not just start with Survival. Her earliest works such as The Edible Woman “reflect a number of concerns that have remained central to her beliefs: a profound respect for the natural world, a commitment to Canadian culture, and a firm belief in the rights of an individual. In her work, such concerns can be traced back in the themes of nature’s triumph over civilization, Canadian nationalism, and feminism.” These themes came together into a course Atwood taught in the 1970s called Canadian Women Writers. “This was the first time she had ever actually taught ‘Canlit’, and it reflected both the growing impact of Canadian nationalism on university curriculum and Atwood’s own role in that reform.” Atwood initiated a project designed to determine whether Canadian reviewers betrayed a gender bias. “The project spoke not only to the times but also to Atwood’s own perspective on gender bias in the profession.” It was not well received by reviewers, but Atwood didn’t let that stop her. Flak was not an unusual occurrence for her; her early works, Canlit, and later Survival generated a lot of criticism. Instead, it was Atwood’s reactions that make her truly inspirational as a Canadian; she continued with her belief on identity and didn’t let the views of others stop her. In her words, “Refusing to acknowledge where you come from… is an act of amputation: you may become free-floating, a citizen of the world (…), but only at the cost of arms, legs or heart. By discovering your place you discover yourself.” Embracing Canadian identity and striving to put a bit of one’s culture into your work is at the core of Atwood’s beliefs. It’s a belief that is carried into Canadian literature and a belief at the root of Canada. By embracing your identity instead of shying away to fit social norms is how one discovers and connects to being a Canadian.
So where do you go from here, now that you’ve discovered your identity? “Ever onward.”
The lens through which we look at history affects our view of the values of different times. We may look at our past using a historical lens, or we might look at it through a shielded bias. Nevertheless, it’s the opinions and debate on our values and how they have changed over time that affect and drive the most change in our community. In the case of Canada, a debate has been sparked since 2017 on whether or not John A. Macdonald should be in the public sphere, statues, or building names. On one hand, there are various movements that say that Macdonald should be removed because of his involvement in residential schools and his actions against Chinese Canadians. On the other hand, there are groups that say that Macdonald is an important part of Canadian history because of his work with the Canadian Pacific Railway project and his actions in uniting Canada as a Founding Father and first Prime Minister. Because of his historical impact as a Founding Father, his views around women and their right to vote, and the bias of current values affecting our judgement of his actions, John A. Macdonald’s name and likeness should not be removed from the public sphere.
While some people view John A. Macdonald as someone who contradicts Canadian values, he was actually quite progressive for his time, especially concerning his work surrounding women and their rights in a social and political environment. In the words of John A. Macdonald, he was “strongly of that opinion […] that Canada would have the honour of first placing women in the position she is certain, […] completely establishing her equality as a human being and as a member of society with man” (Macdonald). Macdonald believed that women were of equal status as men and should be allowed to vote, a view uncommon in the 1800s. His values were not reciprocated by his fellow politicians and although he fought, he was unable to pass the law allowing women the right to vote. However, we need to remember that Macdonald was fighting against the predominant social value in his time. All his views, the good and the bad, were influenced by the values of the 1800s and not the values of the present day. It’s when we look at our past through a skewed historical lens based solely on the views of our time alone that we are the blindest to how those values came to be. Without people like Macdonald who challenged the beliefs and norms of their time, the social values we hold dear today would not have come into existence.
Those who agree with social liberal ideas would say that Canadian values change over time and that John A. Macdonald contradicted those values with his contributions to Indigenous oppression. However, it’s important to realize that history needs to be viewed from many sides, and Canadian history has its high and low points. Erasing that history in a hasty attempt at political correctness isn’t going to fix the mistakes of the past; rather, it’s learning from our history that paves the way for repairing the future. We need to “understand the reality of John A. Macdonald – to teach his flaws and his virtues, and embrace our history, not run away from it”, because without hearing both sides, the cycle of historical bias and uneducated oppression continues (Moore). While John A. Macdonald’s actions against indigenous people were horrible, we must realize that those crimes happened during a time where Canadian values were different. It’s teaching about Macdonald and how he exemplified and contradicted present day norms that shows how much Canadian values have changed over time. John A. Macdonald’s statues are not just a piece of our history; they are symbols of a change in values from the 1800s to the present day. Someday there will be monuments of people from our time who will contradict the values of the future, just as there are statues of people from the past that contradict our values. Erasing any statues or mention in the public sphere of anyone who contradicts social beliefs is fruitless; eventually, no statues or major traces of history will remain because everyone has flaws. The knowledge that can be gained from learning both sides of our past is what drives and leads to social change.
In order to raise awareness of John A. Macdonald’s flaws and actions against Indigenous people, communities such as the Victoria City Council decided that statues of Macdonald should be removed from the public sphere as it positively promotes a man whose values does not line up with Canada’s values today. However, many groups such as members of the previous Conservative party argue that John A. Macdonald is an important part of Canadian history as it’s first Prime Minister, and that there are other historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson who have contradicted global values around slavery but haven’t been removed. Because of his progressiveness on women’s rights and his widespread impact as a Founding Father of Canada, John A. Macdonald does not deserve to have his name and statues erased from the public sphere, especially when most of his actions are being viewed by a historical bias. All historical figures leave good and bad impacts but it is not our place to judge them through the values of our own time. Rather, it’s when we look at the world through an open mind and see both sides of the story that we gain the most understanding of our history.
Sears, Matthew A. “Monuments Aren’t Museums, and History Suffers When We Forget That.” Macleans.ca, 14 Aug. 2018, www.macleans.ca/opinion/monuments-arent-museums-and-history-suffers-when-we-forget-that/.
Wherry, Aaron. “’A Teachable Moment’: Debating Whether John A. Macdonald’s Name Should Be Scrubbed from Schools | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 25 Aug. 2017, www.cbc.ca/news/politics/john-a-macdonald-etfo-schools-analysis-aaron-wherry-1.4260366.
Zussman, Richard. “Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps Apologizes for Way Decision to Take down John A. Macdonald Statue Handled.” Global News, 29 Aug. 2018, globalnews.ca/news/4416475/victoria-mayor-lisa-helps-apologizes-decision-john-a-macdonald-statue-handled/.
Bascaramurty, Dakshana. “Debate Escalates over Legacy of John A. Macdonald in Ontario Schools.” The Globe and Mail, 25 Aug. 2017, www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/ontario-elementary-teachers-union-wants-john-a-macdonald-schools-renamed/article36076966/.
Gwyn, Richard. “Richard Gwyn: How Macdonald Almost Gave Women the Vote.” National Post, 14 Jan. 2015, nationalpost.com/opinion/richard-gwyn-how-macdonald-almost-gave-women-the-vote.
Belshaw, John Douglas. “Canadian History: Pre-Confederation.” Canadian History PreConfederation, BCcampus, 13 Apr. 2015, opentextbc.ca/preconfederation/chapter/10-7-gender-roles/.
With In Depth slowly coming to a close, I wanted to say how happy I am for my mentor. We’ve had 9 meetings together with a few more planned before In Depth Night. My latest meeting with my mentor was on Thursday, May 2 from 4:00pm – 5:00pm.
List of Concepts:
My mentor has offered me alternative ways to write a scene, suggestions on edits and plot points, and feedback involving my writing and process. Some of these alternatives have included notes on keeping the scene more clear, different endings and parts of my scene that a) make sense or b) is a good idea to keep in mind, and tips on how to deal with multiple characters in one scene, just as taking some out or leaving them more two-dimensional as to not draw the focus too far away from the main character(s).
Another mentor might not have given me so in-tune or finite alternatives, as my mentor is extremely caring and has a similar style of story planning as me. Instead, the process and steps I went through to reach this point of my novel (save the cat plot points, developmental questions, the emotional wound thesaurus, etc.) would be different, as every writer have different strategies and use different tools. For example, my mentor last year used more worksheets and TED-ED videos for teaching and plotting. While that method was not bad and works very well, the process I went through with Leslie worked better for my style. I was able to clearly put my ideas out in a written form, working my way around world/character/plot building along the way. The amount of work I had to do before I could actually start writing forced me to really plan ahead, and I am less inclined to get stuck not knowing what to write.
My learning centre is going to showcase my process step by step. Similar to a timeline, I want to show how I transitioned from plot pointing to one sentence summary to developmental questions to identifying characters to deep emotional wounds to scene outlining and finally scene writing. I’m going to print out my work as examples, and I will focus on the step and not the detail I put into the step for my writing. I want to be able to teach/show others a process to writing and show how detailed and complicated it is while at the same time giving some food for thought in the form of tools people can use. In addition, my main focus (other than the process) will be the scenes I’ve written for my novel. I have an opening scene, a scene around the middle of the novel, and an ending scene. Similar to last year, I will read out some of my writing, cutting an edited version as to not take up too much time. I will interact with the ‘audience’ by explaining my process and reading out my writing.
“Is it true that artists have to suffer to be creative? (…) Artists suffer, therefore you deviously go about finding ways to make yourself suffer so you can write. (…) But basically I don’t like suffering very much, so I evolved a rationale that permits less of it. (…) ‘Suffering,’ with all its connotations of dark, lonely garrets, suggests that the artist has no choice in the matter; ‘paying a price’ implies that the artist makes a conscious decision about the costs and implications of creativity. The latter is much closer to Atwood’s belief that the artist is a responsible citizen and not a passive victim.” – (Pg. 16-17)
As an artist in the form of creative writing, Margaret Atwood tapped into something that resonated with my soul. The first time I read this passage, I started crying, like it had hit something deep in my heart that I didn’t even know was there. I never thought about the struggles of a writer or needing to suffer in order to be creative, but reading this passage a part of me said that yes, you unconsciously feel that way. The amount of struggle, effort, and emotion that goes into writing isn’t intrinsically suffering, but rather is some sort of price paid in order to connect with your characters and your readers. Something deep in me connects me to this passage, even if I can’t consciously describe it.
While Margaret Atwood redefined and created a lot of Canadian Literature, it’s ideas like this – reinventing what it means to be an artist through suffering and paying a price- that changes how an artist thinks. Canadian identity is a collection of expression, from diversity to culture, and art/writing is a major part of it. Margaret connects with what it means to be an artist, to express yourself and your own identity without the need for suffering but rather by making conscious choices, and defines that expression into a set of values for herself and other artists. This simple change in perspective lets so many artists make more, express more, and do more without the worry of struggle and suffering in order to create. Expression is an element of Canada, and without the artists that line its history, Canada would never be as culture rich as it is today.
“Atwood expected to find at this institution (Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts) the same supportive and exhilarating environment she had found at Vic (Victoria College at the University of Toronto) – only more so. (…) Compared to Canada, the United States was, for Atwood, too familiar to be exotic and too unfamiliar to be comfortable. These inconsistencies led first to disappointment and then to a growing resolve about who she was and who and what she wanted to be. (…) she would be first a writer and specifically a Canadian writer.” – (Pg. 87-88)
From my personal experience travelling in the US, there are certain differences between Canada and the United States. Culture, stores, simple ways of life, even small changes in language and of course, literature. Sometimes when crossing the border I forget that I’m not in Canada, yet at times it is almost painfully obvious this is not my country. The geography, the way people act, everything ties it together in one summed up sentence: too familiar to be exotic and too unfamiliar to be comfortable.
Canada and the US are often seen as similar due to their connection in trade and alliances. However, the opposite is also argued; that the cultures are vastly different, and the values of the people don’t match. Which is true? It’s a mix of both. In the end, it comes down to your own roots that define which culture you aline yourself with, and Margaret realized that Canada needed its writers. In the past, Canada was more supportive compared to the US, and it’s argued that it still is today. While prejudice still reigns in both times, the fact still stands that when compared at Margaret’s time, Canada was saver, ‘free’ of the dangers Margaret soon learned the US held.
“As a young girl, Atwood was subjected to one important lesson of the times: society expected women to choose between career and family. In fact, this was the lesson of the times, but somehow the Killam (Margaret’s family) women had both acknowledged and ignored it. Ultimately, Atwood herself would reject it (…) largely because the extraordinary talent and drive of the Killam women showed her that it did not have to be an either/or option. Her mother was perhaps the most obvious example of a woman who could not be contained by the middle-class-Canadian-housewife stereotype.” (Pg. 43)
Much like Margaret Atwood, my mother defied the stereotypes of women and housewives. Strong, independent, smart and business-savvy, it was her and the other strong women in my family and friends that first taught me how to defy the typical prejudices of our society, which grew into a resolve to avoid the traps that lay in the groundwork of gender workforces. Why should a woman need to feel forced, to choose between her dreams and goals? I don’t let myself be caught in the web of sexism, and I hope to follow Margaret in paving a road against these stereotypes through writing.
Canada is currently very forward compared to parts of the world when it comes to feminism, but in Margaret Atwood’s time, there still was some bias and stereotypes. Part of Canadian identity is striving past borders and boundaries and pushing the limits of yourself and society. It’s how we’ve been able to advance so much throughout the years as a country and nation, and why Canadian identity and views have changed. Nowadays, Canada is a place for everyone to express themselves without judgement and bias, and while it still exists, the values of equality in Canada have changed to be more open regardless of gender, sexual identity, race, and religion.
“Atwood taught a course called Canadian Women Writers. This was the first time she had ever actually taught ‘Canlit’, and it reflected both the growing impact of Canadian nationalism on university curricula and Atwood’s own role in that reform. As well as examining the work of contemporary Canadian women writers (…), Atwood initiated a project designed to determine whether Canadian reviewers betrayed a gender bias. (…) The project spoke not only to the times but also to Atwood’s own perspective on gender bias in the profession.” (Pg. 180-181)
Margaret Atwood strikes me as a very eminent person not only in Canadian history but global culture. Her work is inspiring, how she managed to identify and almost completely change society’s gender bias in writing. Her work laid the stepping stones of today’s equalization, and I strive to follow in her footsteps to prove that Canadians, women, and especially Canadian women can write.
Canlit and the teachings Margaret Atwood taught in her Canadian Women Writers course inspired many generations of Canadian writers and shed light on Canadian literature that had previously been pushed aside and shadowed behind US publications. Canada didn’t always have gender equality (and arguably it still doesn’t now), and Margaret Atwood and other women writers had the drive to fix that. In addition, Canada started taking its own identity and nationality seriously in public education; today we learn about Canadian culture, history, and literacy, while in Margaret’s time her class was one of the few that were truly ‘Canadian’. Canada identity today, therefore, is learning and teaching our culture and openly accepting our heritage.
“(Atwood) very firmly believed that her role was not just to be a writer; it was to be a Canadian writer. During the 1970s, to fulfil such a role entailed a struggle. It was still unusual and enormously difficult to make a decent living by writing full time in Canada. (…) Refusing to acknowledge where you come from… is an act of amputation: you may become free floating, a citizen of the world (…), but only at the cost of arms, legs or heart. By discovering your place you discover yourself. Over the course of the next decade, (Atwood) would not only discover Canada but become one of those who created it in myth and narrative while striving to protect it from the cultural imperialism of the United States.” (Pg. 197)
The US is way more popular in literature; from books published from the US to the literal setting of novels, the United States is identified as the main location of North America for some reason. I can relate to Margaret Atwood’s resolve to stick to her roots. Settings of my writing often include Canada instead of the US, and I stick with it. The geography and culture of Canada is something I hold dear to my heart, and I would never be able to throw it away just to seem a bit more ‘recognizable’.
Margaret Atwood was determined to be a Canadian writer, and her drive inspired the creation of Canlit, revolutionized what it means to be a Canadian artist, and acknowledged what it means to write about your culture. There are differences between the US and Canada, especially in culture, and a huge part of Canadian identity is being unafraid of showing who you are. At the time, writing was not a common career for full time in Canada, but through Atwood and Canlit it changed into a form of expression, with Canadians sticking to their roots with their writing and artistic works.
Theme: By understanding where one comes from, we can connect to the culture of our heritage and express a deep bond on who we are with the world.