Margaret Atwood on Writing Poetry

Hello, hello, and welcome to the middle of the week, dear readers. If you are feeling a little run down or if Friday is feeling a little too far away, I encourage you to check out Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen of Silver Threading and Ronovan of Ronovan Writes. My contribution is from the Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood.

mg_5527Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Because of her father’s work and research in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of northern Quebec and traveling back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was eight years old.

Atwood began writing plays and poems at the age of six and realized she wanted to write professionally by the time she was 16.

In 1957, she began studying at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where she published poems and articles in Acta Victoriana, the college literary journal. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in philosophy and French.

She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000.

She has also published fifteen books of poetry. Many of her poems have been inspired by myths and fairy tales, which have been interests of hers from an early age. She has also published four collections of stories and three collections of unclassifiable short prose works.

Atwood is also the inventor, and developer, of the LongPen and associated technologies that facilitate the remote robotic writing of documents.

She is a noted humanist, and, in 1987, she was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.


How do the activities of writing poetry and writing prose differ for you?


My theory is that they involve two different areas of the brain, with some overlap. When I am writing fiction, I believe I am much better organized, more methodical—one has to be when writing a novel. Writing poetry is a state of free float.

— Margaret Atwood, The Art of Fiction No. 121

My girlfriend asked me the other day why I don’t write poetry as much anymore. I told her I don’t like it. Then she asked me why I ever wrote it all if I don’t like it. I told her I write it because I like writing poetry. She was understandably confused.

The thing I hate about poetry is also the thing I love about it and Margaret Atwood put into words. Writing poetry is like free floating. You can’t hold on to any one thing. You can’t try too hard to stabilize yourself. You have to let yourself go and move freely from one thought or feeling to the next caring only about what the connections mean.

You have to let yourself slide back and forth along the piece tweaking here and there until you feel your feelings coming through in the words you have strung together. There is no research, there is no grounding topic or prompt, there is only a vast sea of time, and space, and emotion inside of you. You have to let the current take you where it will. You must passively ride the waves and eddies and concentrate only on documenting what you find there.

Sounds easy enough, right?

It would be if it weren’t for the pesky human need for control and the pesky human tendency to second guess everything.

Poetry is hard because you set out wanting to say a certain thing and you end up saying another thing entirely. You think you know how you feel until you start writing and words flow out of you that you didn’t set out to say. See, you want to swim through the sea rather that float. You want to reach a predetermined destination. You know what you want to say and you intend to say it!

Except that is not how poetry works. Poetry is all patience and free float. You can’t force it and you can’t fight it. When I feel like having a little control over what I write I try fiction. I will get a few surprises here and there but through editing, I can rein things in and stay on course. If I want a lot of control I switch to nonfiction. I think I am the type of writer who has to try all three. If I want a lot of control I switch to nonfiction. Where there is research and very strict steps to take. I like to know where I am going every step of the way.

I think I am the type of writer who has to try all three.

I love to swim but it feels damn good to free float too.


Check out my weekly-ish newsletter for interesting reads + some of my own existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering, or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Check out: Margaret Atwood on Existing in Two Places

Featured image via Unsplash

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads


5 Replies to “Margaret Atwood on Writing Poetry”

  1. Lisa, what a great take on writing poetry vs. fiction from Margaret Atwood. I love her fairy tale poetry. I too am following in her footsteps and delving into the ancient myths. There is just so much there. This was totally amazing. I don’t know if you realized it or not but you also talked about writing freedom. Bravo!!! :D <3


    1. I’ve never read her poetry before but when I was reading about her I did think of you and your fairies. And no, I didn’t realize I had written about freedom until just now. Awesome :)

      Liked by 1 person

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