Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

By Margaret Atwood


Welcome to the world of Margaret Atwood and her intriguing exploration into the life of a writer with her book, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing πŸ“šβœοΈ. Published in 2002, this collection of essays stems from a series of six lectures Atwood delivered at the University of Cambridge. It’s not your typical novel or a straightforward non-fiction guide on how to write. Instead, Atwood delves deep into the existential and philosophical aspects of writing, drawing from her own experiences, the broader literary tradition, and the tangled relationship between the writer and their work.

Margaret Atwood is a literary giant, renowned for her novels, poems, and essays that often explore themes of feminism, environmental issues, and the interplay between fact and fiction. With Negotiating with the Dead, she adds another layer to her illustrious career, offering insights not just into the process of writing but into the psyche of writers themselves.

This book sits at the crossroads of several genres: part memoir, part literary analysis, and part philosophical inquiry. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the behind-the-scenes of the literary world, the philosophical underpinnings of storytelling, and the inner conflicts and triumphs that accompany the act of writing. Let’s dive into Atwood’s mind and discover what it means to negotiate with the dead.

Plot Summary

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood is a unique exploration that doesn’t follow the traditional plot structure of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Instead, the book is structured around six essays, each derived from a lecture Atwood gave at the University of Cambridge. These essays collectively delve into the complexities of the writing life, examining the relationship between the writer and their work, the dead, the reader, and the muse. Here’s a brief overview of the main themes and ideas presented in each essay:

  • Orientation: Who do you write for? β€” Atwood begins by exploring the question of for whom writers write, suggesting that writing is a form of communication with both the living and the dead. She examines the historical and personal motivations behind writing.
  • Duplicity: The Jekyll hand, the Hyde hand, and the slippery double β€” This section delves into the dual nature of writers and their ability to inhabit multiple identities, both in their work and in their personal lives. Atwood discusses the concept of the “shadow self” and how it influences the writing process.
  • Dedication: The Great God Pen β€” Atwood examines the historical figure of the writer as someone who possesses a special gift or curse. She explores the idea of the writer as a medium or conduit for voices from beyond, including the societal and ethical implications of this role.
  • Temptation: The writer as Moralist or Trickster β€” Here, Atwood addresses the moral responsibilities of writers, contrasting the roles of the writer as a moralist with that of the trickster. She discusses the power of the writer to influence, challenge, and subvert societal norms.
  • Communion: Nobody to Nobody β€” Atwood explores the relationship between the writer and their audience, focusing on the often invisible, imagined connection between the solitary writer and the solitary reader.
  • Descent: Negotiating with the Dead β€” In the final essay, Atwood delves into the concept of the writer’s journey into the underworld, drawing on classical myths and personal anecdotes to explore the idea of writing as a form of negotiation with mortality, the past, and the unseen.

Each essay builds upon the last, creating a complex and nuanced discussion that spans the philosophical, the practical, and the mystical aspects of the writing life. Rather than a plot with a clear beginning, middle, and end, Atwood presents readers with a series of reflections that invite them to contemplate the deeper meanings of writing and creativity.

Character Analysis

Given the unique nature of Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, the “characters” in this exploration are the concepts and roles Margaret Atwood discusses, rather than individuals with personal narratives. Here, we will analyze these conceptual characters in terms of their “personalities,” “motivations,” and how they develop throughout the essays:

  • The Writer β€” The writer is depicted as a multifaceted character with dual or multiple identities. Atwood explores the writer’s motivations for storytelling, which include the desire to communicate with both the living and the dead, to navigate personal and societal dualities, and to fulfill a role that oscillates between moralist and trickster. This character develops from a mere communicator to a complex figure who navigates ethical, philosophical, and existential dilemmas through writing.
  • The Muse β€” The muse is characterized as an elusive source of inspiration, often externalized as a separate entity that guides the writer. This character represents the mysterious and often inexplicable nature of creativity, motivating the writer to explore unknown territories in their work. The development of the muse in Atwood’s essays highlights the evolving relationship between the writer and their source of inspiration, emphasizing the collaborative nature of this relationship.
  • The Reader β€” The reader is portrayed as the silent interlocutor, the invisible presence that completes the act of writing. Motivated by a desire for connection, understanding, or escapism, the reader’s relationship with the writer is symbiotic, defining the purpose and reception of the written word. This character develops through the essays as a complex figure whose interpretation and reaction to the text are as significant as the act of writing itself.
  • The Dead β€” The dead represent the past, tradition, and the voices that have gone before. They motivate the writer to engage in a dialogue with history, memory, and legacy, influencing the writer’s work in profound ways. This character develops as a constant presence that the writer must negotiate with, embodying the weight of history and the challenge of originality.

Here’s a summary of the character analysis in table format:

The WriterMultifaceted, complexTo communicate, explore dualities, fulfill rolesEvolves from communicator to ethical and existential navigator
The MuseElusive, inspirationalTo inspire and guide the writerBecomes a collaborator in the creative process
The ReaderSilent, interpretativeTo connect, understand, or escapeGains significance in the act of reading and interpretation
The DeadHistorical, legacy-drivenTo influence through legacy and memoryEmerges as a dialogue partner and challenge for originality

Atwood masterfully uses these conceptual characters to delve into the essence of the writing life, creating a rich tapestry of motivations and developments that resonate with readers and writers alike.

Themes and Symbols

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood is rich in themes and symbols that delve deep into the essence of writing and the writer’s place in the world. Here’s a look at some of the major themes and symbols Atwood explores:

  • The Dual Nature of the Writer β€” Atwood frequently returns to the theme of duality within writers, symbolized through the “Jekyll and Hyde” analogy. This theme explores the internal conflict writers face as they navigate their public personas and private selves, as well as the moral and ethical dilemmas inherent in the act of writing.
  • The Relationship Between Writing and Death β€” The title itself, Negotiating with the Dead, symbolizes the complex relationship writers have with mortality, legacy, and the past. Writing is portrayed as a means to achieve a form of immortality, to converse with those who have gone before, and to leave something behind for future generations.
  • The Creative Process as Mystical and Mysterious β€” The muse, often depicted as a capricious and elusive figure, symbolizes the unpredictable nature of inspiration and creativity. This theme highlights the mystical aspects of the creative process, suggesting that writing is both an art and a sort of magic.
  • The Writer’s Responsibility β€” The moral and ethical responsibilities of the writer emerge as a significant theme, where writing is seen as a powerful tool for social and personal change. This theme is symbolized through the figure of the writer as both a moralist, who seeks to impart wisdom and truth, and a trickster, who challenges norms and subverts expectations.
  • The Solitude of Writing β€” The solitary nature of the writing process is a recurrent theme. The symbol of the solitary writer, often depicted in a metaphorical tower or cave, speaks to the isolation necessary for creation and the intimate communication that occurs between the writer and the reader, despite their physical separation.
  • The Eternal Search for Meaning β€” Writing is portrayed as a quest for meaning, both personal and universal. This theme is symbolized through the various journeys writers undertake, be it through the exploration of their inner selves, the negotiation with the metaphysical, or the traversal of the literary tradition.

Each of these themes and symbols contributes to the overarching narrative Atwood constructs about the writing life. They weave together to form a complex picture of the writer’s world, one that is fraught with conflict, beauty, and the perpetual quest for understanding.

Style and Tone

Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing showcases her distinctive style and tone, which play a crucial role in conveying her insights into the writing process and the writer’s role. Let’s explore how these elements contribute to the book’s overall mood and atmosphere.

  • Reflective and Conversational Tone β€” Atwood employs a tone that is both reflective and conversational, inviting readers into an intimate dialogue about the nature of writing. This approach makes complex ideas accessible and engaging, fostering a sense of connection between the author and her audience.
  • Blend of Personal Anecdote and Scholarly Analysis β€” Atwood masterfully mixes personal anecdotes with scholarly analysis, creating a narrative style that is both grounded in personal experience and informed by a deep understanding of literary tradition. This blend enriches the text, providing a multifaceted look at the themes discussed.
  • Humor and Wit β€” Despite the depth of the topics she tackles, Atwood’s writing is laced with humor and wit. Her ability to weave light-hearted moments into serious discourse adds a layer of relatability and keeps the reader engaged through complex discussions.
  • Imagery and Symbolism β€” Atwood’s use of vivid imagery and symbolism enhances her exploration of writing’s themes. By drawing on a rich tapestry of literary and mythological references, she creates a symbolic language that deepens the reader’s understanding of the writer’s psyche and the creative process.
  • Interrogative Approach β€” Much of Atwood’s style is characterized by her use of questions to provoke thought and reflection. This interrogative approach encourages readers to actively engage with the text, pondering their own answers to the philosophical questions she raises about writing, identity, and mortality.
  • Clarity and Precision β€” Despite the complexity of the subject matter, Atwood maintains clarity and precision in her writing. Her ability to distill intricate ideas into clear, concise language makes the book accessible to a wide range of readers, from aspiring writers to literary scholars.

Together, these stylistic and tonal choices create a mood that is at once contemplative, engaging, and enlightening. Atwood’s approach to discussing the writing life is both deeply personal and universally applicable, making Negotiating with the Dead a compelling read for anyone interested in the art and craft of writing.

Literary Devices used in Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing is a treasure trove of literary devices that enrich her exploration of the writing life. Here’s an analysis of the top 10 literary devices she uses:

  1. Metaphor β€” Atwood uses metaphors extensively to draw comparisons between the act of writing and various other experiences, such as negotiating with the dead. This device helps to abstractly conceptualize the complex relationship between writers and their influences.
  2. Allusion β€” Throughout the essays, Atwood alludes to a wide range of literary works and historical figures to support her arguments. These references enrich the text, offering deeper insights and connections to broader literary and cultural contexts.
  3. Anecdote β€” Atwood frequently incorporates personal anecdotes and stories from other writers’ lives. These anecdotes serve to ground her theoretical discussions in real-world experiences, making her ideas more relatable and compelling.
  4. Irony β€” Irony is used to highlight the contradictions and unexpected truths within the writing life. Atwood’s ironic observations often reveal deeper truths about the nature of writing and creativity.
  5. Personification β€” By personifying concepts such as the Muse or the Dead, Atwood brings abstract ideas to life. This device allows her to explore the intimate and often mystical relationship between writers and their sources of inspiration.
  6. Imagery β€” Vivid imagery is employed to evoke a strong visual or sensory response. Atwood’s use of imagery enhances her descriptions of the writing process and the emotional landscape of writers.
  7. Symbolism β€” Various symbols, such as the pen or the tower, recur throughout the essays, representing different aspects of the writing experience. These symbols offer layers of meaning and contribute to a richer understanding of the text.
  8. Hyperbole β€” Atwood occasionally uses hyperbole for emphasis or comedic effect, exaggerating certain points to highlight the absurdity or intensity of the writer’s experience.
  9. Parallelism β€” The use of parallel structures in her prose adds rhythm and emphasis to her arguments, making complex ideas more memorable and impactful.
  10. Juxtaposition β€” Atwood often places contrasting ideas or experiences side by side to highlight their differences or to draw unexpected connections. This device is particularly effective in exploring the dualities inherent in the writing life.

Atwood’s skillful use of these literary devices not only enhances the readability of her essays but also deepens the reader’s engagement with the complex themes she explores. Through these techniques, Atwood invites readers into a nuanced and layered discussion about the art and challenges of writing.

Literary Devices Examples

Let’s break down examples and explanations for each of the top 10 literary devices used in Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood, presented in table format for clarity.


Atwood compares writing to “negotiating with the dead,”This metaphor underscores the idea that writers engage in a dialogue with past authors and their works, seeking inspiration and guidance.


References to Shakespeare and the myths of Orpheus and EurydiceThese allusions enrich the text by connecting Atwood’s ideas to well-known literary and mythological traditions, highlighting the universality of certain writing experiences.


Atwood recounts her personal experiences with writing and publishing.These anecdotes provide insight into the practical and emotional aspects of being a writer, making the theoretical aspects of the book more tangible.


Atwood’s ironic comments on the fame and fortune of writersThis irony exposes the gap between public perception and the reality of the writing life, often marked by struggle and obscurity.


The Muse is described as a capricious entity that visits the writer.Personifying the Muse highlights the unpredictable nature of inspiration, making it a character in the creative process.


Descriptions of Atwood’s writing desk and environmentThe vivid imagery of her writing space invites readers into her world, offering a sensory understanding of her creative process.


The pen as a symbol of the writer’s craftThe pen symbolizes the power and potential of writing to create, transform, and communicate across time and space.


Exaggerations about the amount of coffee consumed while writingThis hyperbole humorously highlights the intense and often obsessive nature of the writing process.


Repetition of phrases or structures in her argumentationParallelism is used to add rhythm and emphasis, making her points more persuasive and memorable.


Contrasting the solitude of writing with the public act of publicationThis juxtaposition explores the private versus public nature of writing, highlighting the transition from solitary creation to public reception.

These examples demonstrate Atwood’s mastery of literary devices, each contributing to the depth and richness of her exploration into the writing life.

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing – FAQs

Q: What is the main focus of Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing?
A: The main focus is on the complexities of the writing process, the role of writers, and their engagement with themes of mortality, inspiration, and the ethical responsibilities of writing.

Q: Who would benefit from reading this book?
A: Writers, aspiring authors, literary scholars, and anyone interested in the philosophical and practical aspects of writing and creativity.

Q: How is the book structured?
A: It’s structured around six essays, each derived from lectures Margaret Atwood gave at the University of Cambridge, exploring different facets of the writing life.

Q: Does Margaret Atwood provide writing tips in this book?
A: While not a traditional writing guide, the book offers deep insights into the creative process, challenges, and philosophical questions that can inform and inspire writers.

Q: Can you explain the title “Negotiating with the Dead”?
A: The title reflects the idea that writing often involves a dialogue with the pastβ€”engaging with literary traditions, deceased authors, and the historical context of themes and narratives.

Q: How does Margaret Atwood use literary devices in the book?
A: Atwood employs a range of literary devices, including metaphor, allusion, and personification, to deepen the exploration of writing as both a craft and a philosophical pursuit.

Q: Is Negotiating with the Dead relevant for readers who are not writers?
A: Yes, it offers valuable insights into the human condition, the power of storytelling, and the influence of literature on society and culture, appealing to a broad audience.

Q: What themes does Atwood explore in Negotiating with the Dead?
A: Major themes include the dual nature of the writer, the relationship between writing and death, the mystical aspects of creativity, and the ethical responsibilities of the writer.

Q: Does the book include personal anecdotes from Atwood’s own writing life?
A: Yes, Atwood shares personal anecdotes and reflections on her own experiences as a writer, adding a deeply personal dimension to the essays.

Q: How does Atwood view the relationship between the writer and the reader?
A: She sees it as an intimate, though often invisible, communionβ€”a solitary act of creation that reaches out to touch the reader in profound ways.


What is the primary structure of Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing?A collection of poemsA novelA series of essaysA memoir
Who does Margaret Atwood suggest writers are negotiating with?Their readersThe deadLiterary agentsPublishers
According to Atwood, what role does the Muse play in the writing process?An adversaryA source of distractionA source of inspirationA literary critic
What theme is central to Atwood’s discussion in the book?The pursuit of fameThe relationship between writing and mortalityThe importance of literary awardsFinancial success in writing
How does Atwood describe the writing process?As a solitary act of communication with the readerAs a team effortAs a necessary evilAs a straightforward task
What literary device does Atwood frequently use to enrich her narrative?OnomatopoeiaAllusionSimileHyperbole
What does Atwood use personal anecdotes for in her essays?To distract the readerTo provide comic reliefTo ground her theoretical discussions in real-world experiencesTo advertise her other works
Which symbol does Atwood use to represent the writer’s craft?A mirrorA penA bookA computer
What does Atwood imply about the nature of inspiration?It is constant and reliableIt is elusive and unpredictableIt can be boughtIt is unnecessary for true talent
How does Atwood view the ethical responsibilities of writers?As unimportantAs the most important aspect of writingAs secondary to commercial successAs a modern invention

This quiz is designed to test comprehension and engage with the themes, ideas, and stylistic elements discussed in Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood.


Spot the Literary Devices

Read the following paragraph from Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing and identify the literary devices used. List the device next to its example in the paragraph.

“Writing is a deep sea dive. You need hours alone in the unquiet darkness, your way lit only by the phosphorescent trails of your predecessors. The voice you hear whispering through the water is not your own but that of the Muse, elusive and flickering, leading you to worlds both ancient and undiscovered. Here, in the depths, the dead speak to us, sharing their secrets and stories, a tapestry woven from the threads of memory and imagination.”


  1. Metaphor – “Writing is a deep sea dive.” This compares the act of writing to diving deep into the sea, suggesting depth, exploration, and the unknown.
  2. Imagery – “Your way lit only by the phosphorescent trails of your predecessors.” This creates a vivid picture of navigating through darkness with only the light left by others.
  3. Personification – “The voice you hear whispering through the water is not your own but that of the Muse.” The Muse is given human qualities, specifically the ability to whisper and guide.
  4. Allusion – “Here, in the depths, the dead speak to us,” alludes to the idea of writers communicating with those who have gone before, echoing the book’s title and central theme.
  5. Symbolism – “A tapestry woven from the threads of memory and imagination.” The tapestry symbolizes the intricate and interconnected nature of stories and ideas, woven together to create something new.

This exercise helps students identify and understand the use of literary devices in shaping meaning and enhancing the reading experience.