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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Appreciating Margaret Atwood

In a university level advanced fiction writing class I was given the assignment to read Margaret Atwood's short story collection, Bluebeard's Egg, to analyze her technique, and to mimic her writing style. I objected to this assignment: I dislike reading short stories. I dislike reading first person stories. I dislike stories about everyday life. Can't you give me a novel in third person by another first rate author that takes me out of this world and into another?

Reading Margaret Atwood's Bluebeard's Egg, analyzing her writing techniques and applying them, freed me from third person, past tense. I've experimented with first person. I've experimented with third person, present tense and future tense. In short, I've experimented, and I now feel I can choose the best tense and point-of-view for each of my stories. Like Atwood, and Alice Munro, I feel like I can move fluidly between the tenses, within a story, as the need arises.

I've always enjoyed alternating points-of-view within a single story or novel, or novel chapter. It's part of what I do and why I write. I still avoid omniscience, viewing it, in my own writing, as "authorial intrusion," and I often think of first person as a veiled form of authorial intrusion (who's really speaking here - the character or the author?) But, I accept it from Atwood, and Munro, and from Joyce Carol Oates. I want to know their personal point of view. Sometimes, in their work, it is clearly a character speaking, and sometimes it is the author, guiding me, sharing her world view. Isn't that what we all do anyway? When we write from the point of view of a character we abhor or pity, aren't we showing the world the opposite of how we'd like the people in this world to behave?

After analyzing Atwood, I can't help analyzing the technique of other authors I read, to see how they achieve their effects. I enjoy a short story on two levels: as a reader, and as a writer. I've read many a short story since then, and written quite a few. My appreciation for the short format is sealed.

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For what it's worth: here are large excerpts from my essay, edited to leave out references to my "imitation" short story, which ended up being it's own thing, and not a direct imitation of Atwood:


Bluebeard’s Egg: A Study in Writing Technique © 2007 Annie Swann (Note: This is my original thinking. If you use any idea from my article, cite the source, and the copyright information.)

Margaret Atwood’s Bluebeard’s Egg consists of twelve short stories, five written in first person, and seven written in third person. With the exception of “Scarlet Ibis,” all of the third person stories, and most of the first person stories, are written in present tense for present action, and past tense for past action (interior thoughts related to the past, including flashback scenes).

The third person story, “Uglypuss,” frequently switches between past and present tense (p. 67): “He goes out to the kitchen and rummages through the refrigerator, finding not much. Of the two of them, it was Becka who’d done most of the shopping.” Later, the main character eats at a restaurant (p. 72): “Joel wipes his mouth, pushes the plate away. He’s stuffed down everything…”

“Scarlet Ibis” is written in third person, past tense. Atwood retains a sense of immediacy by using brief opening statements to establish a time frame and a setting, then moving the reader into the significantly detailed action of the story. The story begins (p. 152): “Some years ago now, Christine went with Don to Trinidad. They took Lilian, their youngest child, who was four then... The others… stayed with their grandmother. (Second paragraph) Christine and Don sat beside the hotel pool in the damp heat... Lilian wanted to be in the pool all the time…”

In every story, all of the third person narration is filtered primarily through a point-of-view character, but the omniscient narrator freely adds reflective commentary or points of fact, an effective combination of telling and mostly showing. In the title story, “Bluebeard’s Egg,” Atwood employs this technique (pp. 110-111): “For it must be admitted: Sally is in love with Ed because of his stupidity, his monumental and almost energetic stupidity… He’s a child of luck, a third son who… manages to make it through the forest… and end up with the princess, who is Sally, of course.”

In the first person stories it is the first person narrator who reflects upon what other characters think, what she thinks of other characters, and the meaning of her life’s events. In “Unearthing Suite,” the narrator surmises (p. 227): “… I could not have been born, like other people, but hatched out of an egg. My parents’ occasional dismay over me was (like)… the bewilderment of two birds who have found a human child in their nest and have no idea what to do with it.”

In all the short stories, Atwood gives the reader a little information at a time, at the point it is needed, so that the story fully emerges in stages and what the reader has already experienced takes on renewed significance. For example, in “Bluebeard’s Egg,” the reader learns Sally’s husband is a heart man, and later learns this means he is a heart surgeon. In “Loulou; or, The Domestic Life of Language,” the reader learns over the course of the story, all of the male poets who eat at LouLou’s table were her husbands or her lovers, and she is currently married to one of them.

In both the first person and the third person stories, Atwood employs scenes, varying in length from two paragraphs to many pages, dictated by the needs of the individual story. Some scene breaks consist of white space, and others are full scene breaks demarcated with a series of three dots. The scenes range from two in “Scarlet Ibis,” to thirteen scenes in “Hurricane Hazel.” Atwood ends each scene in a story with a question, an observation or a reflective statement, and she begins and ends most stories with a symbolic thought or image.

In her story collection, Bluebeard’s Egg, Margaret Atwood often uses seemingly ordinary domestic scenes to illustrate the inner lives of her characters. In Atwood’s short story, “The Salt Garden,” symbolism is employed at the beginning of the story and at the story’s conclusion. Atwood begins (p. 171): “Alma turns up the heat, stirs the clear water in the red enamel pot, adds more salt, stirs, adds. She’s making a supersaturated solution: re-making it. She made it already, at lunchtime, with Carol…” Atwood repeats key words to emphasize her points and relay a rhythm to her stories... Later in Atwood’s story, the reader learns the significance of what Alma is doing, that her world is on the edge of annihilation. At the end of “The Salt Garden,” Alma reflects (p. 194): “After everything is over, she thinks, there will still be salt.”

Margaret Atwood tells her stories using vivid descriptions of domestic scenes, people, and nature. In the “Scarlet Ibis,” she describes the setting for the appearance of the birds (pp. 162-168): “It was cloudier now, and not so hot… It began to rain, not a downpour but heavily enough, large cold drops… Now they reached the long aisle of mangroves and emerged into the open; they were in a central space, like a lake, with the dark mangroves walling it around…”

Analyzing Margaret Atwood’s techniques in a variety of stories, both first person and third person, has been a valuable experience. Her writing style reveals the positive benefits of tense changes within a story, and choosing a tense and a narrative voice based on the needs of the particular story. Atwood elegantly shapes her stories and her scenes, fluidly integrating action, imagery, meaning, and symbolism.

Edition Used:
Atwood, Margaret. Bluebeard’s Egg, New York: Anchor Books, c1983

© 2007 Annie Swann (Note: This is my original thinking. If you use any idea from my article, cite the source and the copyright information.)

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I've skipped around reading Atwood. Alias Grace is my favorite Atwood novel. Several of the stories in Bluebeard's Egg are among my favorites (there are others in this particular collection I find tedious, however intriguing). I'm just now starting Moral Disorder: stories.

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