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Part Serial Killer, Part Humanitarian: Margaret Atwood and Others on the Writers’ Duality

writers' duality

“As for the artists who are also writers, they are doubles twice times over, for the mere act of writing slips the self into two.”

Story Break
A few streets from our London flat is the adult home of one of the most brutal murderers who has ever lived. Not the Crays, not Jack the Ripper. I mean Agatha Christie. Quite a serial killer, wasn’t she? How did she manage it? Typing away, bit of strychnine here, some mild drowning there. After gardening, before tea?

There is a duality inherent in the writing profession: we aim to spread humanity and consciousness, and yet, there is such cognitive distance required to stomach the ruthlessness of the work. Dorothea Brande notices in her 1935 classic about the psychology and skill of writing, Becoming a Writer, that “The writer’s first task is to get these two elements of his nature into balance,” and she reassuringly adds that disassociation is not always psychotic. (Thank goodness!)

Still, how do we balance those quite separate equally necessarily elements?

In a series of Epson Lectures given by Canadian author Margaret Atwood at the University of Cambridge (subsequently edited into the wonderful collection of essays, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing), Atwood grabs this issue of the writers’ duality with determined force.

“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 is going forward, and that other, more shadowy and altogether equivocal person who shares the same body and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing.”

Atwood presents the writers’ duality as two entities, two sides of self that throughout literature have been presented as mutually exclusive. Consider Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray—both stories fixed on a “good” side suffering in order to sustain the “bad.” Atwood doesn’t attach morality but views both sides as necessary, like a twin or doppelganger. The analogy that most rings true to me is when she relates the duality to superheros. Superheros, she notes, are a concept that originated from the rebellious political sensibilities of the Romantic movement:

“The superhero, large, powerful and good, was what we wished to be; the ‘real’ alias, the one who lived dans la vrai and was small and weak and fallible and at the mercy of beings more powerful than us, was what we actually were.”

This someone else, this powerful person, is the self writers clasp in order to write; from it follows feelings of justice (at least to one’s truth) and righteousness (vis-à-vis one’s message) and power (in terms of one’s ability). Writer’s block, the psychological kind, feels like being at a distance from this superhero self, unable to find her, step into her (save those piercing moments of clarity and strength). Wanting a superhero self is not about perfecting the craft. It is about believing that we can perform the craft in the first place. To “kill people,” we must step into costume (or out of one, depending on how you look at it).

This disassociation between our vrai self and our writer self leads to the oft-described loneliness and isolation of writers. Much more so than our need for quiet or solitary spaces. Critic and essayist James Wood claimed it was impossible for characters to become real, to leave the page and ever be fully formed because we never knew enough about them. The same could be said of writers: we exist through our writing, yet the writing is inherently false to our real selves. Atwood explains the resulting anxiety:

“That the writer and audience may be unknown to each other because the act of creation is separated in time from the act of receiving it, and the infinite replicability of the book—these two factors contributed greatly to the modern writer’s equivocal view of himself. To be a writer came to be seen as running the risk of being an invisible half of a doubles act, and possibly a copy for which no authentic original existed.”

I’ve never felt more unseen or misunderstood than after I became a writer. Perhaps because so many people see me than ever before. Or think they do. But I must still push for a dual self, I’d only be writing from my limited consciousness otherwise.  I’m working this year on pushing myself out of my work. (The extent that I’ve mentioned myself here bothers me, but it’s where I am now.) And occasionally, I come together and write something exposing my non-writer self.

Holding ourselves back and finding, nurturing this duality are imperative but unnerving. Especially those that enter the profession to be seen, noticed, praised. It can feel deeply depressing to step aside from one’s work. Some find their way around it by bolstering the non-writer self, with seemingly extraordinary openness, it—they—become the art, Knausgard’s My Struggle, for example. Others become the fictional self entirely. Penelope Lively’s Booker Prize-shortlisted book According to Mark is about a man who maps his life onto his subject to such an extent that he loses touch with his own self. Different approaches, but ultimately, their outcomes lack promise of balance.

Both parts of self are critical. The question is not how to distinguish them but how to balance them.

Atwood gives advice here too, she refers to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, a scene where Alice, confronted with her double in the glass, can walk away, shatter the glass, or take other measures to destroy that other self. Instead, she chooses to walk through the glass, thus real Alice is merged with dream Alice, both existing, both aware of each other. When she returns to the real world, Atwood notes, she brings stories from the dream world, thus keeping it alive.

I prefer to think of achieving balance in another way. In Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s haunting film about psychological merging, the ultimate nonexistence of self is when it ceases to act as a self. That is the answer: action. To be this artist, this writer, both sides must exist. Not simultaneously, not equal in accomplishment or nature, but equal in ability to act and influence. Act upon my thoughts, instincts, volition, morality, perceptions, etc.. In the film, the ultimate balance of the two merging selves is finally achieved when the one—the quiet, mute one that was slowly dying—speaks out in defiance and self-defense. She acts, thus she exists.

What this means is we can kill people and have our tea afterwards if we do both, not simply one or the other. What’s good enough for Agatha…

Story Break
“Borges and I” can be found among many other excellent stories in The World’s Greatest Short Stories. Persona is a breathtaking but complicated film, I suggest Robert Ebert’s review, in which he recommends to approach it literally. My own poetic take on balance, written when I first began writing, remains as powerful to me as ever, although I realize new meaning.
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