Margaret Atwood — A Living Legend on Creative Process, The Handmaid’s Tale, Being a Mercenary Child, Resisting Labels, the Poet Rug Exchange, Liminal Beings, Burning Questions, Practical Utopias, and More | The Tim Ferriss Show

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Key Takeaways

  • Poetry comes from a different part of the brain; the part that is linked to the patterning of music and mathematics
  • What keeps her going: “So what keeps me going is you never know. And the other thing that keeps me actually going is don’t open that door.”Margaret Atwood
  • Growing up in a cabin in the woods: when it rained, she read. There was nothing to do when it was raining, except reading, writing, and drawing
  • There was a strong focus on family narrative in their household; they told stories of their shared past and extended family
  • Her first novel was about an ant (she was 7 years old)
  • She wrote for 16 years before making a living out of it (she worked as a cashier in a coffee shop and had many other jobs)
  • Everything in nature is on a bell curve, some forms cannot be put into closed boxes (liminal beings) e.g. the platypus
  • Living in a multiple democracy calls for going beyond labels
  • “Reading dystopian fiction, we know we’re capable of really awful things, we’re also capable of really pretty wonderful things. And we’re smart and inventive.”Margaret Atwood
  • Why don’t we write more about utopias? Why not imagine a better world instead?
  • Margaret is doing a program called “Practical Utopias”
    • It is an eight-week, live online learning experience
    • Blanket statements like “We have to stop using gasoline” are not good enough
    • “Practical Utopias” is a problem-solving enterprise
    • Practical world-building: What to eat? What to wear? What houses will we live in?

Key Books Mentioned

  • The Future of Life by Edward Osborne Wilson
    • Margaret’s recommendation for young adults
    • Reading about ant colonies was like reading about the sack of Troy
  • On Being a Woman Writer, an essay by Margaret Atwood
    • About identity, resisting labels and “closed boxes”
  • Burning Questions by Margaret Atwood
    • Burning Questions is Margaret’s latest book of essays from 2004 to 2021, which will be released in March of 2022

Intro

  • Margaret Atwood (T: @margaretatwood and IG: @therealmargaretatwood) is an award-winning author of more than fifty books of fiction, poetry, essays, and graphic novels. Her latest novel, The Testaments, is the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (an award-winning tv series). Her work has been published in more than 45 countries, and she received more than 50 awards for her writing ( including two Booker Prizes, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Franz Kafka Prize)
  • In this episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, Margaret Atwood talks about her creative process, the secret to her vital life energy, what makes her good at speculative fiction, and why imagining utopia is useful for practical world-building
  • Host: Tim Ferriss (@tferriss)

How Are Poetry and Prose Different?

  • When Margaret started writing, it was open season for her
    • Nobody was there to tell her what to do; there were no writing schools
    • She wrote both poetry and prose
  • Poetry is more likely written on the fly
    • Novels are 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration
    • Writing novels is work, you have to put in the hours
    • For poetry, it’s the opposite – poets get caught in the moment of inspiration 
    • “You don’t know when something may strike you and that’s why poets are so annoying to people who are not poets.”Margaret Atwood 
    • Their life trajectory is more erratic than that of novelists
    • Female poets in the ’50s were just assumed to be crazy
  • Poetry comes from a different part of the brain; the part that is linked to the patterning of music and mathematics
    • Novels come from the part that is associated with narrative and telling stories
    • Epic poetry is similar to novels, but lyric poetry is different

What Keeps Her Going?

  • Tim wonders about Margaret’s vital life energy
    • Margaret Atwood is 82 years young
    • Is longevity determined by genetics? Margaret’s mom lived to 97
    • Curiosity is a big factor; her parents were always curious
    • She is curious about new technologies: “I want to know what’s the upside, what’s the downside, cost-benefit, but also what are people using this for?”– Margaret Atwood
    • People often invent something for one purpose and eventually find many other purposes (e.g. George de Mestral inventing Velcro)
  • Margaret is also a big fan of astrology, she reads palms and does horoscopes (she was taught by her neighbor Jetske Sybesma)
    • She got into it while studying English literature (she was a Victorianist)
    • Astrology was an integral part of the Renaissance worldview (many astrological symbols in arts and literature)
    • That’s when the tarot cards arise
    • It was hard to study T.S. Elliot if you didn’t know something about tarot (e.g. The Waste Land)
    • To learn more about the cultural impact of astrology, check out these Podcast Notes
  • Don’t tell Margaret what to do:
    • “So what keeps me going is you never know. And the other thing that keeps me actually going is don’t open that door.”- Margaret Atwood
    • It’s about trying something new and going a bit deeper

What Makes Margaret Good at Speculative Fiction?

  • Margaret was always an avid reader and she read a lot as a teenager in the 50s
    • At that time, a lot of classics had hilariously misleading covers: “They made you think that you’re buying a really trashy book.”Margaret Atwood
    • Her paperback version of Orwell’s 1984 featured a woman with a huge cleavage
    • She also read a lot of Ray Bradbury
    • What you read as a teenager has the biggest influence when you start writing
    • She wanted to write something like 1984, but with women
    • It’s all about the people you are drawn to and the skills you have at the moment
  • Growing up in a cabin in the woods
    • Tim dreams about living in the woods, with lots of trails to explore, a lake or a pond
    • He asks Margaret about the impact it had on her writing
    • When it rained, she read. There was nothing to do when it was raining, except reading, writing, and drawing
    • There was a strong focus on family narrative in their household; they told stories of their shared past and extended family
  • Her first novel was about an ant (she was 7 years old)
  • She fixated on writing poetry in 12 grade
    • She had a eureka moment while walking across a football field in a pink princess line dress she sewed herself
    • How it starts: “You write some pretty terrible poetry that you’re very excited about, and luckily there’s nobody there to tell you, ‘This is really terrible poetry,’ and then you go on from there.'”Margaret Atwood
  • At that time, she was thinking about different career options: painter, fashion designer, home economist, etc.
    • She wrote for 16 years before making a living out of it (she worked as a cashier in a coffee shop and had many other jobs)

Resisting “Closed Boxes”

  • “The reason I resist closed boxes is that nature does not deal in closed boxes.”Margaret Atwood
    • Everything in nature is on a bell curve, some forms cannot be put into closed boxes (liminal beings) e.g. the platypus
    • We all contain multitudes; just because Margaret is a woman and a writer, it doesn’t mean that’s the end of the story
  • People label other people, and then they attack the label
    • You can put a general heading over anything; people can share many similarities, but in the end, no one is exactly like you
    • When you get attached to labels, they become an important facet of your identity and you will want to defend them
    • Living in a multiple democracy calls for going beyond labels

A Connoisseur of Dystopian Speculative Fiction

  • “Reading dystopian fiction, we know we’re capable of really awful things, we’re also capable of really pretty wonderful things. And we’re smart and inventive.”Margaret Atwood
  • Hope is built on a very fundamental level
    • How to find hope in the face of the climate crisis?
    • The climate crisis is real, but we are inventing a lot of new things 
    • We are looking at the problem, and coming up with answers
  • The 19th century was a century of utopias: “They wrote a lot of them because they had made so many improvements already in the 19th century, that they thought, ‘This is just going to go on, and it’s going to get better and better and better.'”Margaret Atwood
    • Why don’t we write more about utopias?
    • People are writing dystopias; why not imagine a better world instead?
  • Margaret is doing a program called “Practical Utopias”
    • It is an eight-week, live online learning experience
  • Their goal is to consider different ways to live to overcome the crisis 
  • “Short-form is the oceans die, we’re gone. Sorry. We’re going to have to deal with that.”Margaret Atwood
  • Blanket statements like “We have to stop using gasoline” are not good enough 

Making a LEGO Village (Practical World-Building)

  • “Practical Utopias” is on DISCO (an interactive live learning platform)
    • With DISCO, you have the tools to do your own live learning experience 
  • “Practical Utopias” is a problem-solving enterprise
    • Practical world-building: What to eat? What to wear? What houses will we live in?
  • Margaret enlightens Tim about practical world-building: 
    • “Did you know you can make bricks out of mushrooms? 
    • “Would you like to have a mushroom coffin?”
    • “Do you know you can 3D print houses out of compressed earth in two days?” 
    • “Did you know you can make fabric out of algae?”
    • “Do you know that there are now prefab houses that you can erect that create more energy than they consume?”
  • “Practical Utopias” is bringing all of these ideas together, with an aim for a cheap, scalable, green solution
  • They focus on making practical decisions:
    • “They’re going to have to say, ‘Okay, which is better?’ Is it better to get your corpse disposed of by cremation? Very carbon producing. Is it better to put it in a mushroom coffin?”Margaret Atwood

For the Handmaid’s Tale Aficionados *Spoiler Alert*

  • The evolution of Aunt Lydia’s character
    • She was a secondary character in The Handmaid’s Tale but became a primary character in The Testaments
    • She was originally not supposed to be a double agent, that happened in the space between the two books: The Testaments is around 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale
    • “Things have happened to Aunt Lydia since that time. I always base things on stuff that’s happened. And one of my go-to’s for Aunt Lydia was people who had been believers within a system and then change their minds.” – Margaret Atwood
  • Margaret’s character development process
    • The inside of her head is like an attic
    • It’s a collection of stuff that she doesn’t want to throw out and she can’t think of what else to do with it
  • “I had a lot of it already in the junk shop of my brain, and some of it in the war, spies, totalitarianism section of my library. And some of it, of course, in Shakespeare.” – Margaret Atwood
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