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Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose: 1983-2005

by Margaret Atwood

Like Stonehenge

A review by Alexis Smith

There aren't many writers of the late twentieth century who have won the kind of critical and popular respect Margaret Atwood has. John Updike comes to mind, and Philip Roth, for different reasons. Toni Morrison's novels have certainly been compared to Atwood's. Other British and Canadian women come close: Alice Munro, A. S. Byatt, Angela Carter. But Atwood's reputation for intelligent, distinctive prose and poetry has spread farther and wider than other writers of her generation. If one tries to find a comparable literary figure in history, Virginia Woolf comes to mind immediately. Years from now, when readers look back at Margaret Atwood's writing, Writing with Intent will be a seminal text, read alongside her novels for further insight into her methods, her life, and her perspective on the political and cultural events of her time.

That said, Margaret Atwood also has the good luck of being eminently readable in every way: prose so clean you could eat off of it, the engaging tone of a good friend, and the assurance of a professional tour guide. Readers who pick up Writing with Intent with the thought of reading an essay or review here and there throughout the book, be warned: you will finish one piece hungry for the next, surprised at your own willingness to spend all day consuming a collection of a famous novelist's nonfiction.

The book's architecture may have something to do with its readability: Atwood introduces the book, and each of three chronologically-collected parts, with a brief description of the political and social context, and of the novels she was writing and publishing at the time. The political and social context is extremely important, and offers incredible insight for fans of her more overtly political novels, The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake. As she explains in her introduction, the title Writing with Intent is supposed to invoke the sense that a writer's tool -- the written word -- can be dangerous to those who underestimate it, misuse it, or attempt to suppress it.

The stand-out pieces here are the personal essays -- the "occasional" pieces and the political commentary. In these pieces Atwood displays her clarity of vision, her mastery of the sentence (not a Woolfian comma splice in sight), and her brilliant sense of humor. In "Nine Beginnings," a reply to the question, "Why do you write?" Atwood begins, "I've begun this piece nine times. I've junked each beginning. I hate writing about my writing." She goes on to begin answering the questions again, from eight different perspectives. In one response, which refers subtly back to Woolf's A Room of One's Own, Atwood has this to say: "I can talk about the difficulties that women encounter as writers. For instance, if you're a woman writer, sometime, somewhere, you will be asked: Do you think of yourself as a writer first, or a woman first? Look out. Whoever asks this hates and fears both writing and women."

One doesn't usually expect to laugh out loud when reading the reviews and essays of a serious writer of serious books. What a delight to find an author who can cause bursts of hilarity in the midst of a large, long collection. One of the most delightful is "The Grunge Look," a recollection of her first trip to Europe, in 1964, as a young woman. Bookish but not worldly, a twenty-something Atwood decides that "a visit to Stonehenge would surely improve my understanding of Thomas Hardy. Or someone." Her comic timing, her sense of the absurd, her self-deprecating humor, and her reflections on the fashions of the day keep a lively pace, but the genius of the piece doesn't become apparent until the end. She weaves a thread from England, to France, to Luxembourg, with men -- much to her dismay -- propositioning her the whole time with the evocative, "Americaine?" When she tells them she is Canadian they are visibly disappointed and somewhat confused. She survives dysentery, wet bed sheets, cockroaches and, of course, those randy Europeans, and finally decides to forgo the "cultural trophies" for a theater showing Some Like It Hot. "With subtitles in Flemish, French, and German...I was the only person in the theater who laughed in the right places." Atwood perfectly captures the alienation, determination, and, finally, the exhaustion of the young, idealistic traveler. In the last paragraph, she effortlessly leads us to that all-too-common conclusion to travel stories: that the traveler learns more about herself than about the places she visits. But Atwood's grace and subtlety allow this realization to come to us as retrospect, as it would come to the young, naive traveler herself.

I did get to Stonehenge, incidentally. I felt at home with it. It was pre-rational, and pre-British, and geological. Nobody knew how it had arrived where it was, or why, or why it had continued to exist; but there it sat, challenging gravity, defying analysis. In fact, it was sort of Canadian. "Stonehenge," I would say to the next mournful-looking European man who tried to pick me up. That would do the trick.

Of course, Atwood's reviews and political essays astound as well. She is a voracious reader of everything from pulp thrillers to scientific reviews, so the subjects are broad and more than one obscure title gleams in her gaze. Her reviews of popular titles like Beloved, The Witches of Eastwick, and Reading Lolita in Tehran are insightful and enjoyable. The review of Studs Terkel's Hope Dies Last is a timely meditation on the lack of kindness and thoughtfulness in the world. "Napoleon's Two Biggest Mistakes" and its partner, "Letter to America," remind us that as our country engages in war, it is making history -- and not in a good way.

What is so absorbing, so satisfying, about Writing with Intent is Atwood herself and the unique voice of this woman living in a certain time and place, observing the world around her and making something out of it. The writing in this book demonstrates, above all, Atwood's willingness not just to tell stories, but to act -- as she notes of George Orwell -- as an oracle for a species in a precarious state of self-inflicted decline. Her experiences and her obvious love of words and books have created a mind more lucid than most, fantastically equipped to imagine what politicians and the average citizen can't or won't. It is impossible to summarize Writing with Intent, or to explain just how Atwood manages to be so canny, charming, and, well, just a little bit scary all at the same time. Writing with Intent is an inspiring book that reminds us why the written word is so powerful, and why Margaret Atwood is one of the great literary figures of our time.

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