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Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing

Meet your new instructor: Man Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood. In your first lesson, Margaret shares her perspective on the art of writing and who ultimately gives your book its meaning.

Meet your new instructor: Man Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood. In your first lesson, Margaret shares her perspective on the art of writing and who ultimately gives your book its meaning.

Creativity is one of the essential things about being human. You don’t have to apologize for it. It’s something human beings do. Sometimes people say, express yourself. I don’t really think that that’s necessarily the key thing. Expressing yourself can be shouting in a field. So rather than expressing yourself, why don’t you think in terms of evoking, conjuring up for the reader some curiosity, some suspense, some interest rather than this is my ego?


If you’re a writer, you have a very limited repertoire of tools. Your repertoire is a blank page and some words that you put on it. So you’re not making a film. You don’t have sound effects. You don’t have actors. You only have those words that the reader is reading. And that’s what you use to build everything in your story as words.

Words on a page are inert. They’re like black musical notes on a score. They’re inert until the music is played, or in the case of a book, the reader is reading. And when the reader is reading, the words transform back into representations, sounds, smells, colors, people.

Reading is the most participative of the arts. There’s more brain activity when you’re reading that kind of intense text than there is, for instance, when you’re watching television, when you’re watching film, because the brain has to supply everything with the words used just as cues, clues. So what you’re providing the reader with is a score, a score that the reader will then interpret. And all you can do as a writer is make your book as good as it can be. You throw it out into the world, hope for the best. And that’s all you can do.

You can not dictate to the reader how they should read your book or receive your book. Because the meaning of a book, once it’s is out in the world, is not decided by the writer anymore. Even if the writer has thought the writer was putting x meaning into the book, the reader may have quite a different idea, and usually does over time. So Thomas Hardy thought that “Tess of the D’urbervilles” was about the irony of fate, and we think it’s a pretty kinky story about what happened to women in the Victorian period. I mean, that’s what I think. What do you think?

When I wrote “The Handmaid’s Tale,” I didn’t give the central character a name. The readers decided that her name was June. There’s nothing in the book that contradicts that. In fact, it all fits. But it wasn’t something I thought up. The readers figured it out. It has to be June once you come to think of it, because each of the names that are mentioned in chapter 1, they all occur again in the book except for June. I thought that was pretty smart of them.

I’m Margaret Atwood, and this is my MasterClass.


01. Introduction
02. Getting Started as a Writer
03. Story and Plot
04. Structuring Your Novel: Layered Narratives and Other Variations
05. Who Tells the Story: Narrative Point of View
06. Point of View Case Studies
07. Bringing Characters to Life Through Detail
08. Creating Compelling Characters
09. Writing Through Roadblocks
10. Crafting Dialogue
11. Revealing the World Through Sensory Imagery
12. Prose Style and Texture
13. Working With Time in Fiction
14. The Door to Your Book: The Importance of the First Five Pages
15. Writing the Middle and Ending
16. Revision: Seeing Your Work Anew
17. The Novel and the Shifting Sands of Genre
18. Speculative Fiction
19. Speculative Fiction Case Study: The Handmaid’s Tale
20. Research and Historical Accuracy
21. The Writer’s Path
22. The Business of Being a Writer
23. Parting Words

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