Margaret Atwood explores forms of storytelling
Catherine Owers | Thursday, April 10, 2014
Acclaimed author, critic and poet Margaret Atwood delivered the 2014 Yusko Ward-Phillips lecture “We Are What We Tell: Stories As Human” on Wednesday evening in McKenna Hall.
The lecture was sponsored by the Yusko Endowment for Excellence in English, the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, the Provost’s Distinguished Women Lecture Series, the Department of American Studies, the Ph.D. in Literature Program, the College of Science’s Minor in Sustainability, the Gender Studies Program and the English Department.
Although always subject to the interpretation of the reader, writing is a transmission device that allows a voice to carry through time and space, Atwood said.
“The next time somebody asks you why you write, the short answer is, ‘Because I’m human,’” she said. “All humans are storytellers by nature. Writers who write stories down are story transmitters as well as storytellers.”
These stories can be a source of instruction or entertainment, Atwood said.
“Do nothing but entertain, and it’s a one-time read, soon discarded at the beach,” she said. “But do nothing but instruct and you will annoy most readers very quickly.”
Atwood said stories are understood in two senses, in the first sense as a true and factual account.
“Sense two – what Huckleberry Finn called a stretcher, what your mother may have meant when she warned you not to tell stories – that is, a tell that is more than somewhat decorated, which may extend all the way to the palpable non-truth,” she said. “The second kind of story comes in two forms, an outright whopper meant to deceive or a fiction labeled as such on the outside of the book, thus a license to lie.”
Readers understand that a work of fiction isn’t true, but they enter into the work anyway if the writer is skilled, Atwood said. This is where novelists specialize.
“There is a caveat,” she said. “In our ironic modern age, those writing autobiographies and memoirs are routinely suspected of making things up, whereas novelists are thought to be telling scandalous truths about themselves or others disguised by fake names.
“We are the stories we tell, we have told and have written. … And yes, the stories we write, write us in their turn,” she said. “And we are also the stories that are told about us, and eventually not much more.
“But writing down a story is always a gesture of hope. Why? Because you are assuming there will be someone alive who will be interested in it and who will read it later in time. That’s a truly hopeful thing.”