Reading Bluebeard’s Egg and Other Stories (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1986) is to become awash in a very particular literary voice, one I would recognize anywhere: the voice of Margaret Atwood. Dry, acutely observant, ironic but never mean, one can imagine her third person narrators sitting in a corner of the cocktail party sipping the same drink for hours and taking notes, the author herself listening to a family argument as a child and thinking: “I have to remember this for later.”
The first story, Significant Moments in the Life of my Mother, leaves me wondering if it is fiction or not. But does it matter? The narrator becomes a university student, now wearing black all the time and grown a bit severe, no longer the little girl her parents understood: “My mother vacuumed around my feet while I sat in chairs, studying, with car rugs tucked around me, for suddenly it was always cold.” Atwood quickly places us in the 50’s (who has car rugs anymore?), that decade so simple in white middle class Happy Days-style, Kodachrome nostalgia, with its sock hops, muscle cars, prosperity, and, well, whiteness and housewives everywhere. Ignorance, however, is not innocence. Missippi’s burning. And so, as the generations begin to split off from one another, we see the awkward imbrication of eras, the chill creeping over the new generation: the Cold War, the realization that injustice and hypocrisy abound, a growing knowledge that a nice, clean, modern house is just not enough. You can hear the creaking as the tectonic plates move, the grinding continental drift. The New Woman shoulders her protagonism and her feminism. History and language themselves, not her daughter, is what leaves the befuddled pre-war woman behind. “It struck me, for the first time in my life, that my mother might be afraid of me. I could not even reassure her, because I was only dimly aware of the nature of her distress…at any time I might open my mouth and out would come a language she had never heard before…”
To become a great writer is precisely about discovering a language no one has ever heard before: your own. It’s about hearing the way people speak to each other without talking at all. It is about noticing the sly husband’s hand on the best friend’s ass and running home to put it into a story. It’s about placing your finger on a strong emotion for which there is no word and then finding the word. It is writing what you alone have to write, however discordant it may sound at first, and listening to that strange music in your head. It is letting the syntax spill out of you the way it must. This is not a job for cowards or joiners. “Out would come a language,” writes Atwood; not “a language would come out”. I suspect Grammerly would “correct” her syntax.
Be careful I tell myself. Be careful, I want to tell little girls. Don’t let those computers and writing programs cut your tongues out! Don’t let them “fix” your words into oblivion or turn you into an AI version of yourself. When at last you hear the music, for the sake of all you hold sacred and dear, keep humming your tune. Because in the end, it’s not winning prizes, accumulating “followers” and “likes”, or even getting published that matters: speaking and writing in your own true voice is the most revolutionary and feminist act of all.