Margaret Atwood’s Creative Process

Question: How do you begin working on a new book?

Margaret Atwood: Okay, where does a book come from?  People have been thinking about that for a long time.  How do you begin?  How do you get into it?  I would say that if you’re not finding this happens somewhat spontaneously, you probably shouldn’t be doing this activity.  I mean, a lot of people say, “I want to be a writer.”  And you say, “Well, what do you want to write?”  And they say, “I don’t know.”  

So for me, I think it’s not a question of sitting around wondering what I’m going to write.  It’s a question of sitting around wondering which of the far-fetched and absurd ideas I’m going to try to tackle.  Sometimes, I think I should be a lot safer and less risk-taking and stick to somebody, or something, a little bit more manageable.  

But those aren’t the things that appeal to me, unfortunately.  I wish I had a formula, I wish I had a way of preceding that would be kind of, you know, this is what Chapter One is always like, and this is what Chapter Two is always like.  But it isn’t.  I just have to plunge into it.  And it’s usually the one... that the voice of sanity and reason is telling me not to write.  It’s usually that one that I end up writing.   

Question:
What is your writing process?

Margaret Atwood: My absolute opening entry is always a handheld object with a point on one end.  So it’s going to be either a pencil or a pen.  And then it is applied to a flat substance of some kind, which is usually a piece of paper, but could be a piece of cardboard if one’s stuck without the paper.  Or even my arm when things get really bad.  

I think that people should carry notebooks with them at all times just for those moments because there’s nothing worse than having that moment and finding that you’re unable to set it down except with a knife on your leg or something.  You actually don’t want to do that.  So I recommend the paper and the pencil.  Or if you must, some other stylus writing device that provides a permanent record of what you just set down.  

When we get a bit further into it, I have to say that I do love the sticky notes.  I like them.  I like the bedside notebook for those thoughts that are so important at about 12:00 midnight when you wake up in the morning and can’t figure out why you thought that.  So all of that goes on.  

And then, do you know what a rolling barrage is?  A rolling barrage comes from World War I and it’s when you run forward and then crouch down and your side fires over your head.  Then you stand up, run forward and your side fires over your head again.  If you get the timing wrong, of course, it’s unfortunate.  

So, I start typing on a computer now.  Computers were very helpful for me because I was always a bad typist and a bad speller.  I start typing up my handwritten text while I’m still writing it at the back.  So the rolling barrage of typing goes on while the writing creeps forward along the ground, if you will.

Question:
How long does it normally take you to write a novel?


Margaret Atwood: First of all, there is no normal time that it takes me to write a novel.  It very much depends on the length of the novel and how well or badly it’s going.  And some of them have taken quite a long time because I have started off on the wrong foot, I have gotten quite far down the path and realized I have to change everything, go back to the beginning, start again, and that can happens several times.  So that, of course, takes up time.  

Some of them are quite quick because you’ve started off the right way and you can just roll with it.  I don’t know if you’ve every done any white water canoeing, or surfing.  But that can be an exhilarating experience, and that’s when the wave is going with you.  With white water canoeing, you actually want to go faster than the water and with surfing; you want to go with it.  So when that happens, it’s really terrific.  But when that doesn’t happen, it could be very frustrating and could take up a lot of time.

Question:
Are you a surfer?

Margaret Atwood: Am I a surfer?   Not anymore dear.  Not anymore.  I would break my neck. 

Recorded 10/21/2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

For the author, it’s not a question of sitting around and wondering what to write; it’s a question of deciding which of the "far-fetched and absurd" ideas she’s going to try to tackle.

Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

Videos
  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel:
https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work

Study: Unattractive people far overestimate their looks

The finding is remarkably similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how incompetent people tend to overestimate their own competency.

Sex & Relationships
  • Recent studies asked participants to rate the attractiveness of themselves and other participants, who were strangers.
  • The studies kept yielding the same finding: unattractive people overestimate their attractiveness, while attractive people underrate their looks.
  • Why this happens is unclear, but it doesn't seem to be due to a general inability to judge attractiveness.
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Meet the worm with a jaw of metal

Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.

Credit: Mike Workman/Adobe Stock
Personal Growth
  • Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
  • Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
  • It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
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