Getting Started as a Writer

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 11:14 min

Margaret encourages you to find your own path, overcome obstacles like fear, and start writing by sharing her own writer’s story and creative process.

Margaret Atwood
Teaches Creative Writing
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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Well, 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 North Woods, and there were no other forms out there. So no radio, no television, no theater, no cinema, no electricity, and no running water, but there were books. We weren't in a village. We weren't in a town. We were actually out in the woods. Except for the winters, we would go back to a city. So other children might be afraid of being lost amongst the trees, et cetera. I was afraid of flush toilets. What was going on there? Why did things just vanish? I was an early writer. I wrote comics, and I wrote little stories, and I wrote my first novel when I was seven. It was about an ant. It was not a great success, but it was illustrated. And then I lost interest in writing. I wanted to be a painter. One of my first entrepreneurial activities was a puppetry business in high school. We ran birthday parties for five-year-olds, and the puppet shows were always about those things that are dear to the hearts of five-year-olds, namely cannibalism. So they were the classics. They were the "Three Little Pigs." They were "Little Red Riding Hood," and they were "Hansel and Gretel." And I started riding seriously again when I was 16. Then I really wanted to be a writer. And I thought maybe I would go to journalism school, and I was discouraged from that by being told that if I was a female working for a newspaper, I would be writing nothing but the obituaries and the fashion pages. This was the '50s. So then I thought I would run away to Paris, live in a garret, drink absinthe, smoke cigarettes, write masterpieces, die young. But first, I would go to English language and literature, because I might conceivably end up as a teacher before jumping off the bridge. Then I ended up going to graduate school at Harvard, which was proposed to me as being better than being a waitress. I would get more writing done that way I was told by those who were humoring me. And I did have one of my advisors say that I should just forget about this writing and graduate school business and find a good man and get married. But I paid no attention to that. So by this time, I was already publishing in small literary magazines, and I was already writing the same kinds of things that I have continued to write, namely poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and roughly speaking, dramatic works. So I continued doing those things in the world of little magazines and small publishing, and I published my first book of poetry in 1966. I made the cover myself out of letraset the little red dots that you put on legal contracts. That book of poetry won the only literary prize that was going in Canada at that time. And I got a letter from one of the few publishing companies that then existed saying they heard that I had a novel. Well, I did have a novel. It was my second novel. My first had come to nothing, but the second one I had actually sent t...

The art of powerful storytelling

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online writing class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction, that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I wish this one never ended. I learned honestly more than I could put down here. I will quite possibly go back through this one.

treasure island: an island...a palm tree, a pirate, a secret...a map that's all you need plus imagination/work/work/research/Work and talent. I just bought Handmaid's tale...on more reader thanks for a lovely journey

Margaret taught me the importance of both discipline and freedom in my writing. She's a star!

... great to learn from the minds of great writers ...


Sue P.

One of the aspects of these tutorials that I most appreciate is MA's humility. It feels as if there's no ego running the show - rather there's a kind, intuitive and vastly experienced intelligence that is being shared. It's very authentic.


I have to admit I've come across several of Atwood's descriptions when it comes to writing. I haven't really known much about what others do. I just wrote what suddenly came to my mind.

Aaron P.

I am so glad she spoke on the fear of writing. I think this is one thing that has kept me from writing so much these past few years. When I was younger I use to write all the time. However, as I have gotten older, and also realized I'm dyslexic, I think the fear of writing has kept me from moving within my stories. I am going to do my best to face these fears and overcome them so I can keep moving within my writing. I am so glad she didn't listen to those critics from her past! She definitely inspires me!


I've had this tattoo since I can remember. When I was young it was blue. I could see it vivid on my chubby white arm when I hung from the monkey bars or went swimming. Everyone else had one so it wasn't unusual. But even then, it felt foreign on my body, a string of numbers like ants marching down my arm. Now it's grey and faded. The last number in the series is hardest to see, stretched by the flaccid skin on the inside of my arm. Age has drawn it out, erased it's permanence. But I know the number by heart, 19112019. It marks the day I will die. It was yesterday.


This lesson made me spend a lot of time identifying aspects of my writing process; where I am and why and importantly, what I need to do now in order to move forward. The assignment exercises are worth taking time over because they enable you to see yourself in the context of how your work has evolved to where it is and what action you need to take next that will result in meaningful progress. It also made me think about the 'why' when I looked at the support material and noticed Joyce Carol Oates' comment that the satisfaction is in the effort and rarely in the consequent rewards.

Jennifer D.

Incredibly insightful about the "fear" of writing. Everyone has something stopping them from reaching goals. Mine is a fear of failure, but having written a short novel based on a successful short story, I am afraid to take the next steps--like facing all the rejection I know I will get when I seek out a potential publisher. Margaret Atwood has such a lovely approach to this wide relatively non-academic audience.


Assignment inventory writing process, goals, fears and fear banishment. Done

Phyllis M.

Appreciated the assignment, particularly identifying fears and finding ways to face them. My list focused on two main themes; do I have anything worthwhile to say, and do I want to expose myself not only to others, but to myself. I found the suggestion of using a "trusted" reader very helpful, and upon reflection was able to identify three of them. Ironically, they are the same three people I trusted with drafts of my term papers while in university. In terms of the "exposure", this led me down a path of trying to understand who I want to write for. Others? Myself? Why? I think I am going to enjoy this journey.


I love the metaphor of the "downhill skier" and ne necessity to revise afterwards. Yes I agree: the more we work the more ideas we'll get. Thanks a million!

Kendyl A.

It's only you and the page- I love that statement. And when she discussed beginning a story with characters, voices, objects, etc. and not just an idea, I actually screamed YES out loud to myself. I feel as though my stories usually begin with a character quirk or something crazy they would say... maybe a song they would like. And then their development goes from there, and so does the story.