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Margaret Atwood’s Advice on Seeing the Truth and Keeping Your Sense of Humor

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Two-time Booker Prize-winner Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and more than 60 other books, brings a fierce, unflinching eye to her work – and does so with a wry smile. She spoke with us recently about how she maintains her lightness of spirit, why we need to focus on ensuring that today’s challenging conditions don’t get worse, and how we can all maintain a good attitude – no matter what happens in the world. 

Conferences for Women: One of the things that is so intriguing and delightful about you is that you can deliver disturbing truths with a lightness of spirit and even humor. How do you manage that?  

Margaret Atwood: I’m as light as I can be. It’s probably sort of built in – from being Canadian. Having a background in Nova Scotia, people made fun of everything. My brother was also quite a funny person, and so were my parents. And the Canadian thing I can sum up by saying, “Get over yourself.” People will stick a pin in your balloon if you get too full of yourself. 

Another part of the answer is that if you’re not telling an interesting story about something, people won’t listen. You can go lecture, lecture, lecture, scary fact, fact, fact, and people will just turn off because enough already. We’re overwhelmed with bad news. With all that going on, we might as well turn it off and watch a comedy. 

CFW: When you spoke at the Massachusetts Conference for Women in December, you said, “I know we live in terrible times, but it could be worse.” Then you said, “That may be the important work now: to keep things from worsening.” How, specifically, do we do that as women? 

Atwood: It could be a lot worse. I’m writing about the French Revolution in Substack now. The next installment will discuss how there are alarming echoes of that today. So, we need to keep it from getting worse. In The Financial Times, I discuss how we can move from democracy to totalitarianism. So, the most important work is to keep it from going that way. 

CFW: Beyond voting, what can ordinary women do? 

Atwood. Build networks. And avoid extremism. 

CFW: Given that there are many disturbing truths we need to absorb these days, what advice would you share with women about how to navigate setbacks and even age-old challenges with, to put it loosely, a good attitude? 

Atwood: How do you cultivate a good attitude? I am very leery of handing out advice. But you have to look within yourself. What exactly is making you depressed? What is your version of a good world? What does it take to make you feel better or more hopeful? 

My generation, which I almost guarantee is older than yours, entered life during a normal period. The fifties were boom times. You didn’t not have a job. They couldn’t get enough people to fill the jobs there were. 

Or, going through World War II, we saw such devastation. How do people live through these things without having completely trashed life? Think about Holocaust survivors. I also knew them. 

One managed to bring the family up without all of this doom and gloom. She just refused to go there. I don’t know how, but I know people can do it. That’s not to say people didn’t carry darkness. Of course, they did. But that’s not all there is. They try to make things not perfect but better.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood

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