Margaret Atwood – Independent Novel Check-In

“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“(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.

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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.

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