Why We Tell Stories

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian novelist, poet, and essayist. She is best known for her novels, in which she creates strong, often enigmatic, women characters and excels in telling open-ended stories, while dissecting contemporary urban life and sexual politics. She is among the most-honored authors of fiction in recent history. In addition to the Arthur C. Clark Award-winning "The Handmaid’s Tale," her novels include "Cat’s Eye," which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, "Alias Grace," which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy, and "The Blind Assassin," winner of the 2000 Booker Prize. "Oryx and Crake" was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003. She was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature in 2008. Her most recent novel is "The Year of the Flood."

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: Why do we need to tell stories?

Margaret Atwood: Language is one of the most primary facts of our existence.  It’s something that you say, what is human?  Well many animals have methods of communicating with one another but none of them have our kind of extremely elaborate grammar.  So it is... it’s right dead, smack in the center of what it is to be human, the ability to tell a story.  

There is another theory that has it that the narrative art is an evolved adaptation on which we got in the Pliestocine because those who had it had a much greater edge.  They had a much greater survival edge on those that did not have it.  If I can tell you that right over there in that river was where the crocodile ate Uncle George, you do not have to test that in your own life by going over there and getting eaten by the crocodile.  And I can tell you all sorts of other things that are very useful to you for survival in your world if I can tell you a story.  And we know that people learn and assimilate information much more through stories than they do through charts and graphs and statistics.  You might want to back up those things with the math.  But what really hits people is the story because it’s not an intellectual thing and it’s not just a scream.  It’s not pure emotion; it’s a melding of those two things, which is where we exist as human beings.  

We’re not thought machines, we’re not screaming machines, we are thought/feeling machines, if we’re machines at all, let's pretend we’re not.  We are thought/feeling entities.  In fact, some people who have done studies on it say that if you remove the emotion from the person through some accident, they have a lot of trouble making decisions because they try to reason everything out and you actually can’t.  It’s endless.

Question:
Do new publishing tools like Twitter mean that anyone can be a writer?

Margaret Atwood: A lot of people sing in the bathtub.  It sounds really good.  There's good acoustics in there.  But they’re not singers.  By that, I don’t mean they can’t or don’t sing.  I mean that it’s not their profession to sing.  People do not pay them to stand on a stage and make noises come out of their mouth.  So, it’s partly... it’s partly a difference of job.  We love those moments in amateur night shows, which have now become so big, like “American Idol” and “Does Britain Have Talent,” et cetera.  We just love that moment when the person steps forward who has been a garage mechanic, or something, and bursts into prize-winning opera.  We just love it.  It sort of chokes you up.  Because I think it appeals to our human-ness. This is something we all might possibly do, even if we do have some other job that we don’t like very much.  And people say that ordinary people aren’t interested in the arts are just dead wrong.  Everybody kind of is and they all do something in their life.  It’s like that, even if it’s woodworking in the cellar and knitting their own special knit patterns.  They’re doing something creative because we are a very creative species.  

The difference between everybody doing it, no matter what their day job may be and the people who are professionals is that the people who are professionals have somehow been able to cross that threshold to the place where they have an informed audience and where they can scratch a living out of it in some way.  

So I think that’s partly it, and in order to do that, you have to be probably pretty dedicated.  That is, you have to put the work in it... you have to put the practice in.  So as I say to people, you can’t just sit down at the piano and be a concert pianist.  There’s the part where you have to practice.  And there’s the drudgery, there’s the work, there’s the hours.  

I think it’s Malcolm Gladwell that has a theory about how may hours you have to put in to get really good at something.  And that is why I will never, ever be a star ballet dancer.  However much I may like to leap about, I am not that person because I did not start when I was 12, or whatever it was, and put in the practice.

Recorded 9/21/2010
Interviewed by Max Miller


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