Self and Margaret Atwood’s “The Writer”

As I make my way through Margaret Atwood’s On Writers and Writing, something grabbed my attention that I’ve seen in previous works on mindfulness. The idea of self plays an important role in mindfulness while Margaret Atwood plays on this idea with the disassociation between writer and writing. It is a duality we begin to identify in mindfulness practice yet translates to the practice of writing and the writer as well. Margaret Atwood identifies this dual persona “the writer”:

“What is the relationship between the two entities we lump under one name, that of “the writer”? The particular writer. By two, I mean the person who exists when no writing going forward – the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed, and so forth – and that other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing.”

As I read deeper into the discussion it occurred to me that this in essence being present while writing. The act of observing our self in mindfulness involves recognizing thoughts and emotions as they arise and objectively viewing them rather than allowing them to trigger further emotions one way or the other. Yet, while those emotions are happening we are tied to the self in such a way that we only recognize the thoughts after the fact. The emotions are happening yet we are not the emotions. The thoughts are happening yet we are not the thoughts. So as Margaret has identified, the writer is present in the moment unable to separate themselves from the other persona.

Margaret goes on to reference Alice in Wonderland’s own passage through worlds as a metaphor to this duality:

“…because Alice is not the writer of the story about her. Nevertheless, here is my best guess, about writers and their elusive doubles, and the question of who does what as far as the actual writing goes. The act of writing takes place at the moment when Alice passes through the mirror. At this one instant, the glass barrier between the doubles dissolves, and Alice is neither here nor there, neither art nor life, neither the one thing nor the other, though at the same time she is all of these at once. At that moment time itself stops, and also stretches out, and both writer and reader have all the time not in the world.”

I’m reminded of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind as he begins discussing the process of breathing with reference to “I”.

“When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no “I,” no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door. … Our usual understanding of life is dualistic: you and I, this and that, good and bad. But actually these discriminations are themselves the awareness of the universal existence. “You” means to be aware of the universe in the form of you, and “I” means to be aware of it in the form of I. You and I are just swinging doors. This kind of understanding is necessary. This should not even be called understanding; it is actually the true experience of life through Zen practice.”

It was an interesting reference for Atwood to make to the duality of self and as I read it the idea of being present as a writer or anything for that matter jumped out at me. If we are present with the moment while writing we are “the writer” or “I” and unable to observe unless we step out of the moment looking back at what we created. It’s only when we step out of the present moment do these identifies materialize. If we are breathing and following the breath then we are simply the breath until such time as we step out and observe the self breathing.

Writing for such a short time I can’t begin to compare with her experience, yet, recalling my experience while writing I do see this duality existing. Observing myself as a writer and yet while writing there is no distinction. Being present with the emotion as it happen or identifying with the emotion and not being present. As we gain more experience in our own practice we realize that the writer is simply a fixed identify we mustn’t cling too. Writing will unfold as we write regardless of our identity. Perhaps that is why Margaret Atwood is so successful in that while she writes she does not have a fixed identify. She just writes.



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