Friday 4 June 2010

Margaret Atwood: the usefulness of writing

For our intermittent series on writing, here's a remark by the great Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood. It's from a piece she did a few years ago for the Washington Post:

What is writing for? Writers – unlike dentists, bricklayers and other practical folk – are always being asked why they do what they do; asked, in effect, to prove their usefulness. It's an odd question, because language and mathematics are the two most potent and useful tools human beings have ever invented. Sometimes, as a writer, you forget this. You can get stuck; you can start believing in your own superfluity...
Update: Daniel Hartley has posted an incisive response to this quote.


The Talking Donkey said...

Well, I guess writers will say anything to comfort themselves and justify their work... Including theologians. :P

kim fabricius said...

How amazingly graceless. What kind of authorial prat boasts of the indispensibility of one's work? If there is a justification for writing, it's precisly in the superfluity of it. And lets face it: most writers write (a) because they have to and (b) because they can do bugger-all else. Talk about making a virtue out of a compulsion and a necessity.

Dan Hartley said...

Hey Ben, I've written an entire post in response to this!

Brett Gray (The Revd) said...

How amazingly graceless. What kind of clerical prat boasts of the indispensibility of one's work? If there is a justification for ministry, it's precisly in the superfluity of it. And lets face it: most clergy minister (a) because they have to and (b) because they can do bugger-all else. Talk about making a virtue out of a compulsion and a necessity.

Brett Gray (The Revd) said...

Riffing on Kim's post, I think writing, ministry and theology have this in common - the necessity of grace and gratuity. What I do as a priest and part-time doctoral student is gratuitous in more ways than one. It is also increasingly nonsensical to many, even in my congregation. Which leaves me with a choice, justify my existence according to some utilitarian order or embrace the gift of my increasing irrelevance and hope that I may be just another sign of the Order of Grace.

Karl Hand said...

I think writing is useful.

I have lost count of the times a book has changed my life. Writing has changed my ethics, my praxis, my psychology, my understanding of other people's needs.

sometimes I have read a sentence and immediately found clarity about a problem, or a massive weight of anxiety has lifted.

Some times I have read something and it has compelled me to act in a way that I lacked the courage to act before.

I suspect sometimes, a powerful artwork or song changes the collective mind of a whole nationin that way!

Why is that less useful than bricklaying or dentistry?

Unknown said...

One argument why it is less useful may be because of its inability to be reduced to the mechanics of brick-laying. There are bricklaying authors of fiction but I, personally, would place that in another category . . . perhaps that of manual or technical writing.
I hope there are no bricklayers out there taking offence!

Dan Hartley said...

Stanley Hauerwas is the most famous bricklayer I know - and you wouldn't want to mess with him!

Brett Gray said...

Can't bricklaying be done in a gratuitous/graceful fashion? Thinking about Stanley Hauerwas' account of his father's work in 'Hannah's Child', I doubt Hauerwas Senior's care and craftsmanship would be appreciated on many building sites today. Care and craftsmanship, with words, souls or bricks, is rarely cost effective or 'practical'.

Of course, this could also be a lot of self-justifying bullcrap on my part.

Pablo said...

I really needed to read this right now. Sincerely, thank you, Professor Myers. That I read this right now means more to me than you'll ever know...until I someday tweet it @ you.

John Hartley said...

Dear Colleagues,

As a former research student in mathematical logic, I was quite used to the question about why one should do research in maths. My standard package answer was to say something like: "Physics is the study of the physical structure of the universe, and Maths is the study of the logical structure of the universe." To Christians I would vary this and say: "Physics is the study of how God makes the universe work physically, and maths is the study of how God makes it work logically."

Since then, I've studied theology and become a clergyman (but probably not a "theologian"!). I've also started writing songs, including lyrics. Someone asked me: "How do you write poetry if you're a numbers person and not a words person?" And my answer is: "Well, the thing is, words are just numbers, really, perhaps in disguise but essentially the same thing as numbers."

Putting these two together, the purpose of bricklaying is to build something in the physical universe ... and the purpose of writing is to build something in the logical universe. (Or one might say, the conceptual universe.) The best writing is an exploration of the logical possibilities of what is, or is not.

John Hartley.

Anonymous said...

What is the subject matter proper to rhetoric? If none, is it not but a knack, not an art?

Gorgias, what’s it good for?

Daniel Imburgia said...

Saussure looked for hope in between

Taxanomical tracks in the spaces

It makes all the differance, you’ll get what I mean

If you follow the signs and the traces.

(Sorry, should have posted that below).

Timothy Parker said...

I simply thought that writing is thought put down; that thoughts can embrace reason and reason can embrace love, and that writing is not too far removed from Logos and his Love.

Unknown said...

Shakespeare's plays and sonnets are as essential to human life as breathing - not superfluous.
Then there are great writers (Margaret Atwood being one) who enrich and inform us - not superfluous.
Then there are "writers" (who sideline as ministers, Phd students etc).

Brett Gray said...

Dear hepzibah,

Who ever said that the gratuitous and graceful was superfluous? Well, pehaps a few people and perhaps that's one of the great problems we face. The point I'd want to make is that to try to justify good writing (or theology, or pastoral care, or careful craftsmanship) according to a utilitarian or (even worse) capitalist order is to make a mistake. And when writers (and clergy, theologians and careful brickies) try to justify their existance by their utility they just look silly.

But also slightly silly is raising some romanticised class of artist above the rest of the careful users of words. Shakespeare might be a better writer than, say, Ben Meyers, but he isn't a different sort of being.

Unknown said...

Thanks Brett for your insight. I wasn't referring to the worth of a person. Just annoyed that great writers were being torn apart (for no good reason).

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