Four Reasons We Descend into the Underworld: Lessons from Margaret Atwood, Part 1

Recently, I enjoyed some time out of office, building my personal writing practice.

When I can block out chunks of time like this, I always bring a book on the craft of writing with me. Reading and taking notes on a chapter a day helps me consciously process those elements we take for granted: the mechanics of writing.

So, I went into a local used bookstore in search of Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters on Literature, which came highly recommended by a friend. When Nabokov was a no-show in the “Books about Writing” section, this Atwood title caught my eye.

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Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing is adapted from a series of six lectures Margaret Atwood gave at the University of Cambridge in 2000.

Each chapter draws parallels from classical mythology to the 21st century writer, using examples from the Western canon and Atwood’s own experience.

This lesson—from the final chapter, “Descent: Negotiating with the Dead” – was the single most pivotal thing I learned on my retreat, and I am eager to apply it to my writing process.


Descending into the underworld? What?

You may think you don’t come anywhere close to doing such a thing in your writing practice. I thought the same thing once upon a time, but after reading Atwood’s lecture, I beg to differ.

Even if the underworld is a scene you’re struggling to edit; even if the dead you negotiate with are painful memories; even if your epic poems translate to chick lit; even if Cerberus is the neighbor’s dog yapping while you write; you pay the ferryman and navigate your way across the river each time you pick up a pen.

Over the next two weeks, I'll discuss the reasons we descend into the underworld. These posts should help you find a primary identity for yourself as a writer. Which of the following quests drive you forward? Why? (Hint: there may be more than one right answer for you.)

1. Riches.

Many descend into the underworld for riches, but Atwood quickly put the kibosh on this by alluding to fairy money, like leprechaun gold that vanishes at sunrise or Hades’ pomegranate seeds that come with their own fine print.

There are often strings attached if you descend in search of riches. So, don’t write a book only to get rich. It might be a wonderful bonus someday, but that isn't sufficient motivation to make it through the creative process safely.

2. To battle a monster.

Theseus and the Minotaur. Harry Potter fighting Lord Voldemort. Buffy and the Scoobies vanquishing the Hellmouth.

These are all pretty epic, fantastical examples of battling supernatural forces, but we all know that there are everyday monsters, too. They may show up in the content of your writing as the protagonist’s work rival or ex-partner, or in the mechanics of your writing as writer’s block.

There are typically monsters roaming around in your real life that inspired you to be a writer, challenges we’ve faced often due to personal identity or circumstances. When we write, it can be a cathartic experience to fight these foes.

Why do you descend into the underworld? What underlying current motivates your writing? 

I'd love to hear from you! Tell me more in the comments below.