In my freshman composition courses, the students read a variety of scholarly articles, poems, short stories, style guides, and essays. During our discussion of the writer-reader relationship, I like to work in a chapter from Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. I choose the chapter “Communion: Nobody to Nobody,” in which Atwood attempts to answer three questions: 1) For whom does the writer write? 2) What is the book’s function or duty? and 3) Where is the writer when the reader is reading?
This chapter opens with a series of epigraphs about the nature of reading, writing, and stories. Introducing her guiding questions early on, Atwood takes the reader on a narrative meander throughout the text, stopping to smell the roses of several detailed examples before finishing with a personal anecdote about her first writer-reader relationship.
Atwood first suggests that writer and reader are both “nobodies,” each created by the other’s perceptions and expectations. The writer dreams of an ideal reader, the reader searches for clues about the elusive writer, and both communicate through the written text. With literary exploration and personal experience, Atwood arrives at the idea that writer and reader are, in fact, specific people with unique perceptions and motivations.
Though most students find the theory of Atwood’s chapter to be accessible, they are put off by its structure. Used to the solo lecturing voice of a thesis-driven essay, they become derailed by Atwood’s flowering examples and hefty epigraphs. They do not expect to find so many voices in one document, and they feel like strangers meeting strangers in the textual space.
I recognize the feature that alienates my students from Atwood’s writing as the one I treasure. The piece is an energetic, gloriously detailed conversation, the kind of talk I’d have with colleagues at a gathering for graduate students or the celebration of a poet’s birthday. Atwood’s piece accomplishes what all wholehearted English majors strive for; it creates a conversation space for the living and the dead. Her text is an endless party — the English major’s life-work in microcosm.
As an English major, I’ve never earned a reputation for wildness. I like to spend hours with kindred spirits in musty used bookstores, fighting over the editions with the best old book smell. I wile away entire afternoons listening to grammar books with my assistive devices, annotating as I follow along in the print version. I write poems and share them with friends; we schedule revision dates where we read each other’s work and revise it line-by-line. I get excited about authors’ birthdays, especially Jane Austen’s in December. And now that I’m not taking classes, I beg my student-friends to tell me about the books they’re reading, the papers they’re writing. I want to hear fellow English majors describe their process of discovery – the in-class epiphany that stalls the note-taking pen, the sudden insight that interrupts the at-home reading, the excitement that accompanies a familiar pattern in a new context. I want to relive the moments of delight when I witnessed resonance on the page – when I discovered a contemporary theme in an ancient text.
In an essay from his book, Why Teach?: In Defence of a Real Education, Mark Edmundson describes the ideal English major as a person “unfinished,” constantly seeking transformation and “reincarnation” through the texts she reads. I see the work of the English major – if we even need to call it “work” – as an unfinished conversation, the determination to reanimate old or forgotten voices alongside the remembered ones. The desire to throw a good party across time and language.
Neither art nor the artist can make someone immortal; immortality belongs to the reader, the one who decides to welcome another’s work. By continuing to read, the English major bestows immortality on voices that have long since lost the need for breath. The attentive reader invites others to speak, to share her mind and body. While she lends her mind to another writer’s words, she recognizes who she is. No writer can ever overtake her because she is part of the conversation; her perspective expands, accommodates.
I’ve seen the same guests at my party for years – Austen, Tolkien, Woolf, Thoreau – but, like a good hostess, I try to expand my social circle. Recent partygoers include Vita Sackville-West, Amy Hempel, Laurie Colwin, E. M. Forster, and Jeanette Winterson—and they will definitely be invited again. Others, like Joseph Conrad or Daniel Defoe, will not.
Each of these authors has enriched me as a poet, an observer, a communicator. Still delighted and surprised by the timeless empathy of certain writers, I apply snatches of this ongoing conversation to my music or teaching. As writer and reader, I welcome the animating connection, the splendid life of texts.