Inside Margaret Atwood’s Tent

“Wind comes in, your candle tips over and flares up, and a loose tent-flap catches fire, and through the widening black-edged gap you can see the eyes of the howlers, red and shining in the light from your burning paper shelter, but you keep on writing anyway because what else can you do?”
~Margaret Atwood, The Tent (2006)
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It’s warm and cozy inside Margaret Atwood’s tent. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that outside, the red-eyed howlers are pounding at her door. All that protects her is a paper thin tent. Camping, she says, is a lot like writing. And so starts the story called The Tent, in which Margaret Atwood takes us to the dark side of camping and writing.

Yes, that’s what I said: The dark side of camping and writing. What a delicious premise for a story, and how Canadian!

The Tent is the title story from a collection of “mini-fictions” published in 2006. As a student of Canadian Literature (way back when people were actually encouraged to take a degree that would not necessarily lead to a job), I was required to read and dissect a lot of Atwood. Her fiction and her poetry. In many ways, my coming of age was shaped by reading Atwood (and Alice Munro). I’ve fallen behind on her more recent works, and I completely missed this one: The Tent was published the year my daughter was born, which could explain this oversight.

I picked this up from the library for my recent cottage vacation. It seemed the perfect book for a week in the woods, and I enjoyed the casual tone and form of the collection — it’s easy to pick-up and put-down between dips in the lake, as you do on vacation. There are thirty-five stories in all, including drawings, short ramblings and longer stories with intriguing titles such as Chicken Little Goes Too Far, Post-Colonial and Eating the Birds.

Heather Birrill, from the Quill & Quire, aptly describes the collection as a miscellany or a notebook:

“Also attractive – perhaps especially so for diehard Atwood fans – is the way she juxtaposes her status as a venerable author with her own human vulnerabilities and mortality throughout these rants, reckonings, drawings, retellings, and requiems.”

This vulnerability endears me to the collection, and to the title story in particular. In The Tent, Atwood lays bare the agony and the ecstacy of writing — even for a Great Canadian Author™ like herself. Consider the stark honesty of this line:

“It’s an illusion, the belief that your doodling is a kind of armour, a kind of charm, because no one knows better than you do how fragile your tent really is.”

The feeling of exposure:

“You’re too conspicuous, you’ve made yourself conspicuous, you’ve given yourself away.”

And this, about how writing can come between you and your loved ones (much like being trapped in a tent for a few days with your family):

“…they resent being cooped up in such cramped space with you and your small candle and your fearfulness and your annoying obsession with calligraphy, an obsession that makes no sense to them, and they keep trying to scramble out under the walls of the tent.”

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The howlers at the door. (Drawing by Margaret Atwood from The Tent.)

For Atwood, writing is like living in a paper-thin tent, with “howlers” and “high winds” pounding at your door (perhaps publishers, critics, self-doubt, depression?). What at first seemed like a warm and protective place (“…you have a small candle in your tent. You can keep warm.”) is now “beginning to seem like a prison”. That candle that also warms you, also threatens to light your tent on fire.

“But you keep on writing because what else can you do?”

As always, Atwood’s writing here is dark, but never hopeless (or helpless). Just like sleeping in a tent on a stormy night. You remain woefully hopeful that the storm will end, and the sun will shine again tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the next. But that’s another story.

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