Writing Through Roadblocks

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 09:38 min

Learn Margaret’s advice for overcoming challenges such as constant interruption, writer’s block, or a narrative problem you can’t figure out how to solve.

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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You become a writer by writing. There is no other way. So do it. Do it more. Do it again. Do it better. Fail. Fail better. I think it's a good idea, especially when you're-- you're younger, you keep your hand in by writing something every day. So I recommend it. But it's another of those recommendations that I myself have been unable to follow. I think it's a-- it's a question of being able to improvise your time. You come across these descriptions of how people in the golden age, all of them were men, managed their time. So they got up in the morning. They had this lovely breakfast prepared by somebody else. And then, they went into their oak bookshelved study and sat at a large mahogany desk and they did some writing. And then, someone would come in with a silver tea service and they would have some tea or something. And then, do a bit more writing. And then, they would have a lovely lunch, prepared by somebody else. And that would be cleared away. And then, they would go back and do a bit more writing. And then, they would have a lovely stroll around the gardens, maintained by their gardener. And then they would have some choice friends in for the evening to another lovely dinner prepared by somebody else. So that's not my life. And it's probably not the life of many people that you know. So for that reason, you have to be prepared to be interrupted. [MUSIC PLAYING] A lot of things that-- that-- that interest me involve problem solving. I still paint myself into a corner and then try to figure out how to get out of it. So a lot of it is a bit like that. But it's also, I think, just-- just the process, which has always made me quite happy and involved me quite deeply. I know that it's fashionable in some circles to talk about how much you suffer as a writer. And you do suffer in-- in some ways, particularly if you're delving deep into material that you find painful or that is objectively painful. But I probably wouldn't do it if it was-- if the suffering was greater than the reward. If you're encountering a blockage-- I won't say a block, but a blockage-- there are two things you can do. One of them is go for a walk. This is a well-known, ancient remedy. And the next one is go to sleep. So tell yourself the problem. Go to sleep. When you wake up, you may well have the solution. And another good thing is ironing. Ironing-wise, it's a repetitive manual activity. It's quite conducive to thoughts coming in from the-- the sides, which is what you need when you've hit a block. Discipline, sticking to it, fortitude, grit, get back on the horse that threw you, all those types of things. They are all very well to say, but if the person's problem is that they don't have those qualities. How do you foster them? How do you-- how do you defeat the devils themself, doubt, that are usually the-- the things that are stopping people? It's always better to actually do something. You sit down at the keyboard, pick up th...

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.

SO appreciate Margaret Atwood's clarity, sense of humor and applicability to writing in a very real way.

It's been an honor to be Margaret's student. I know she doesn't know me, but I'll always feel as if she gave me permission to continue on my writer's journey. Mil gracias, señora.

A very honest and humorous way of describing things

Margaret Atwood is such an inspiration! Thank you for this masterclass!


Carolyn S.

dearest Margaret, You are adorable! Truly - your wit, your wisdom ... your humanness and kindness. And most of all your sardonic humor. You are a treasure and I love you. Carolyn (an illustration I did for my DARK fairy tale on climate change)


I loved that Virginia Woolf quote about illuminating what was already there in the dark.

Sharon C.

I have a book in my drawer that editor after editor told my agent, "This is great! Someone should publish it," but they didn't. Why? They hated the protagonist. Writing is risky. Clark Burland

Karey B.

Husband always knows when I'm trying to write a synopsis: it's the only time I iron.

Linnea J.

The segment on creating compelling characters is brilliant. I have heard critiques of characters as "unlikable" and, thus, unsuccessful when I thought they and their stories were quite compelling. This insight has given me a new way to view my own characters and the courage to stay with one who is not "good" if I'm convinced she is compelling.

Andrea P.

Does anyone else struggle with making time for their own writing? I work in front of a screen about 9 hours a day. When I get home, I'm super tired and the last thing I want to do is sit in front of my laptop. I journal, but even then, I'm not disciplined enough. Anyone else feels this way?

Vanessa G.

Thank you! After working on 'bringing characters to life' and then realizing that I probably did it wrong when I got to 'creating compelling characters', my wheels really began to sink in the mud. From this lesson I get the impression that nobody really knows what they are doing when they start a story, or maybe this is a reflection of the fact that I'm just a beginner and not even a math genius at that. So much to think about!


Atwood's take on gender is fresh, as we all like complicated characters best. I'm amazed that in the 21st century, ad agencies still depict Grandma's in old fashioned, whimsical ways -- when we all know the Grandma next door plays tennis, marches in political rallies or mixes a great cocktail. Listening to Atwood describe her complicated and multi-faceted women, helps me better focus my own characters and the nuance of each.

Suzanne L.

Margaret Atwood is incredibly compassionate and rigorous in her advices. I do allow myself to do a lot of wandering around. I just know I have to continue, sit down and write at some point. And I do. When I am in the dark, only one thing at a time comes to me. I have to listen and look for it carefully. I cannot see the whole picture and that’s the very reason why I keep working at it, imagining it, figuring it out, dreaming about it, sleeping on it, planning, trying, mistaking, writing around it, almost calling it. Much as an archeologist, I am certain that something special is hiding in that darkness. Something that will help me to continue living after I have found it. I must find it to illuminate my own psyche. I do enjoy the process very much and the blocks are part of it, like a game with my unconscious. Thank you Margaret Atwood !

John D.

I must do more ironing! Thankfully if I encounter a blockage I have been able to write something else - another or a different scene or perhaps move to a completely different project if the blockage is that bad. I tend to think to myself, at least I have written.