Booker Prize-winner author Margaret Atwood was the keynote speaker at Belmont University’s Ninth Annual Humanities Symposium on October 27. Karen Trotter Elley, BookPage Production Designer, attended Atwood’s talk. Below, she describes the memorable evening (Atwood sang!)—and provides some writing tips from the prolific author.
On Wednesday, I sat in a pew in the Belmont Heights Baptist Church patiently waiting for a talk by acclaimed author Margaret Atwood. In the row in front of me, a young woman squirmed in her seat, giddy with delight.
“I just love her,” she confided. “I never thought I would actually have the opportunity to see Atwood in person. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me!” The young lady I assumed couldn’t possibly be over 18 years of age turned out to be a writing teacher at Belmont University, and she had just checked an item off her bucket list.
Then the highly anticipated event of the evening began as Sue Trout, professor of English at Belmont and an organizer of the symposium, came out to make her opening remarks. Trout stated that the evening was “one of those shining moments in life.” Chalk up another one for her bucket list.
According to the Symposium’s program, Atwood (author of 40 books) is a giant of modern literature, “a rare writer whose work is adored by the public, acclaimed by the critics and studied on university campuses around the world.” She is perhaps best known as the Booker Prize-winning author of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin.
When Atwood finally stepped up to the podium, she had a surprise for us. She listened to the Grand Ole Opry every weekend growing up in Canada, and one of her dreams was to someday sing to an audience in Nashville, TN. Since Belmont University is smack dab in the heart of Music City, she begged our indulgence. In a sweet voice with an authentic sounding accent, the sophisticated, world renowned writer delivered a more than adequate rendition of a verse from an old Hank Williams tune, “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do.” The crowd went wild and one more bucket list item bit the dust.
After that, Atwood charmed us with her warmth, wit and wisdom as she made wry observations about writing and life. Her selected readings from her latest novel, The Year of the Flood (2009), introduced a future world where much of human life has been obliterated. Two women remain: Toby, a former God’s Gardener (a religion devoted to the melding of science, religion and nature) barricaded inside a luxurious spa, and Ren, a trapeze artist, locked away in a high-class sex club with a really good dental plan and the cleanest dirty girls in town. Adam One, the kindly leader of God’s Gardeners, is still around. But how many others have survived and in what form? Atwood wasn’t telling so I guess we’re going to have to read the book to find out.
To put a capper on the evening, there was an extended Q&A with Atwood followed by a book signing. It was a great night for readers, writers and bucket lists.
Writing tips from Margaret Atwood:
• Atwood considers Post-it® notes to be one of the greatest inventions of our time. “If you change your mind, it’s easy to toss.”
• In order to minimize confusion on the part of the reader, Atwood advises writers to use character names that begin with different letters of the alphabet or at least give them a different hair color. For example, Betty is a blonde and Barbara has dark brown hair.
• When writing about several different people, Atwood stresses that it’s important to keep their timelines straight. She suggests creating a chart with the years across the top and the months down the side. Be sure to put the characters’ birthdates in so you’ll automatically be able to determine the actual age of characters as time passes in your story.
• Check the world events against the birthday to determine what was going on at different ages in their lives. One example she gave was the invention of pantyhose, without which mini-skirts might never have existed. Another example cited was the color of appliances, carpeting, etc. used in homes at that time. Some folks still vividly recall the period in the ’70s when avocado green, orange and brown were all the rage in home décor. It’s important to get the details right, she says, or someone will write you a “yah, yah, yah letter,” as she calls it.
• During the revision process, Atwood says you may need to cut what you may feel is a fabulous piece of writing. She advises writers not to throw those pieces away. “Put those cuts in a drawer. That deleted piece might fit perfectly in another writing project somewhere later down the line.”
What is your favorite book by Margaret Atwood?