Writing

What Is Margaret Atwood’s Writing Style? Learn How Margaret Atwood Approaches Gender in Her Writing

Written by MasterClass

Aug 16, 2019 • 5 min read

The bonneted survivor-women of The Handmaid’s Tale, the environmental dystopia of Maddaddam, the unsettling gothic murder mystery of Alias Grace—they all come from the imagination of Margaret Atwood, one of the biggest names in contemporary literature.
The Canadian author writes in an array of styles, but her unique way of thinking unifies a vast body of prose, poetry, and critical essays.

Below, she shares how genre, ideas, gender, and the writing process play into her signature style.

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Who Is Margaret Atwood?

Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born in Ontario, Canada on November 18, 1939, to an entomologist and a former dietician. She set her sights on writing professionally after a childhood of voracious reading and roaming the forests of Quebec.

“I became a writer partly, I think, because I was a very early reader, and I was a very early reader because I grew up in the Northwoods, and there was-- there were no other forums up there,” says Atwood. “So no radio, no television, no theater, no cinema, no electricity, and no running water. But there were books.”

She did her undergraduate English studies at Victoria College at the University of Toronto. Then, in 1961, she published her first poetry collection, Double Persephone, and in 1962 obtained a master’s degree from Harvard University’s Radcliffe College.

It marked the start of a long writing and teaching career. She has held posts at the University of British Columbia, University of Montreal, and New York University, among others, and won awards including the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Governor General’s Award.

What Is the Cultural Significance of Margaret Atwood’s Works?

Atwood has made a huge impact on Canadian literature. She is known for exploring ideas of gender, power, and identity, and for rewriting myths and fairy tales (or in the case of her 2016 novel Hag-Seed, a Shakespeare classic).

Above all, perhaps, Atwood has made her mark with haunting visions of future dystopias. This has reached a new peak since The Handmaid’s Tale premiered as a television show in 2017. Told from the first-person perspective of Offred, a woman kept as a slave in a totalitarian future version of the United States called the Republic of Gilead, the story has become a symbol for the country’s real-life political controversies.

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What Is Margaret Atwood’s Writing Process?

Atwood says she tends to handwrite her drafts because that is how she gets the best flow from brain to hand to the page. She describes herself as a “downhill skier”— she tries to go as fast as she can and then backtracks to fill in the gaps later.

And although she is known for the scale and perspicacity of her ideas, Atwood is adamant that is not where her books start, nor should they.

“I never start with an idea,” says Atwood. “When people are teaching books, books that have already been finished—then they can talk about ideas, because by that time somebody might know what the idea is or what the ideas are.”

“The way we were taught literature in high school was probably backward. We were taught that there was this container. The work of art. There were these ideas like prizes in a Cracker Jack box, but that isn't usually how writers write. They start with characters, they start with voices, they start with scenes. Sometimes my books have started with objects. And out of that comes a story. Because what are novels if not stories.”

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How Does Margaret Atwood Approach Genre?

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Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.

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Often, books in the science fiction genre are seen as separate from works of serious literary fiction—but Atwood blurs the boundaries between the two. In fact, she purposefully avoids thinking about genre while writing; she leaves that task to the marketers.

“What is the value of knowing the genre or type of book you're writing before you start?” she says. “Well, there may be a value in not knowing. And the value of not knowing may be that you may be able to do some genre-bending that if you lock yourself into a preconceived box, you might not be able to do.”

The particular type of sci-fi her works tend to fall into is speculative fiction, where the setting is similar to reality on earth, but with a few key invented elements. She says magazines like New Scientist or Scientific American can spark ideas for this kind of work. She started writing the dystopian Oryx and Crake after reading about genetic experiments and ruminating on extinction.

“For speculative fiction, it has to have its roots in things we can already do, or are on the road to being able to do,” she says. “So the growing of human organs in pigs had already started by the time I wrote Oryx and Crake. They had not quite succeeded, but now they have.”

How Does Margaret Atwood Approach Gender in Writing?

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Since her very first novel, The Edible Woman, Atwood has frequently explored the female experience of the world through her books. Often, her main character is female, but even when it’s not, she writes with a distinctive awareness of the role of gender in shaping their identity. This is intentional; she considers both the performative aspects of gender—what a person is taught to show the world—and the ways they might defy those norms.

“What does it mean, for instance, in the Tudor era to be a male person? What does it mean to be a female person?” she says. “And in our age, we no longer think that there are only two packages, pink and blue. And science has backed that up. It's a bell curve. It's a continuum. And your character can be situated anywhere on that continuum.”

When she’s writing women, she values imperfection and even villainy. She wrote The Robber Bride—the name comes from a gender switch on a Grimm's fairytale called The Robber Bridegroom—in indignation after someone told her there were no female conmen.

“Women come in all shapes and sizes, ages and stages, heights and colors, and different parts of the world,” she says. “And to expect or demand that they be angelic and perfect is very Victorian. There's limited space on a pedestal. You don't get to move around a lot.”

Learn more about creative writing in Margaret Atwood's MasterClass.

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