Four Reasons We Descend into the Underworld: Lessons from Margaret Atwood, Part 2

It seems that every writer has a metaphor for their process. Stephen King and his car crash. Anne Lamott and her brother’s birds.

Last Wednesday, I introduced you to one of Margaret Atwood’s metaphors: the writing process as a mythic ritual. Atwood draws on parallels to classical mythology to illustrate her writing process as a negotiation with the dead and a communion with worlds unseen.

One of the most pivotal lessons I gleaned from Negotiating with the Dead was Atwood’s four reasons why we descend into the underworld (i.e., why we write). Last week, I covered the first two: in search of material wealth and to do battle with a monster.

Here, we round out the last two, and hopefully with them, challenge your sense of self as a writer.

3. In search of lost love (nostalgia).

Orpheus and Eurydice. Dante and Beatrice. Demeter and Persephone.

We know these stories because Western canon returns to them time and again. (If you only know the "Can Can" from Bugs Bunny or Moulin Rouge, might I introduce you to Jacques Offenbach?) 

There’s something compelling about a hero sacrificing herself in the hopes of saving a lost love, and so we return to this, even creating new spins on the story over time (e.g., Giselle, The Phantom of the Opera).

Perhaps there is an element of nostalgia or loss in your writing. In the work of nostalgia writers I know, this often stems from a passion, a person, or a vitality that has been loved and lost in their lifetime. And so, they descend into the underworld – their writing practice – to do battle with that monster Trauma and try to reclaim their lost love.

But nostalgia can be dangerous.

Orpheus breaks his promise not to look at Eurydice until they reach the surface, and he loses her forever. Persephone eats Hades' pomegranate, so Demeter can only be with her daughter in spring and summer.

These reclamations come at a price, both in these mythological examples and as an emotional burden for the modern-day writer.

Perhaps, then, the best way to approach this particular quest is not to reclaim your lost love, but rather to work through your loss and come through as safely as possible on the other side…

4. In search of knowledge.

…which brings me to Atwood’s final point.

Though we may not seek it outright, many journeys to the underworld are in some way quests for knowledge. Or, at least, knowledge is a side effect.

In JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the subsequent Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo Baggins is described as returning from his travels a new hobbit. He’s been marked by knowledge – some of it dark and deep, like the secrets of the Ring – and as a result, his neighbors see him as eccentric and his nephew Frodo as dangerously strange.

In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the Pevensey children enter a wardrobe in World War II England and exit it, no different physically, but having lived a lifetime in Narnia.

In last week’s post, I mentioned that the writer can write for several reasons, and that the four quests can often be combined.

I am resolved that when Atwood made this corollary, she was thinking of the quest for knowledge.

We as writers often begin our journey hoping for riches, material wealth, but if we survive those first drafts, much less the editing, we come through it with something much more valuable: a greater knowledge of ourselves and the world around us.

Do you find that knowledge is a reward for your writing practice?What knowledge have you gained from your journeys to the underworld?  

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