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Atonement: A Handbook On Writing

As I mentioned in an earlier post about Atonement, this novel at times feels like a handbook on writing.

The central character, Briony, is a young girl who wants to be a writer. She uses her creativity and imagination to write plays and novellas. As the story moves forward, we find out that Briony has become a famous author. As a result, Ian McEwan is able to throw in some great zingers on writing.

Here’s several of my favorites:

“Falling in love could be achieved in a single word–a glance.”

“A story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader’s. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it.”

“Wasn’t writing a kind of soaring, an achievable form of flight, of fancy, of the imagination?”

“There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive.”

“How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.”

“But how to do feelings? All very well to write “She felt sad”, or describe what a sad person might do, but what of sadness itself, how was that put across so it could be felt in all its lowering immediacy? Even harder was the threat, or the confusion of feeling contradictory things.”

“Nothing was to be lost by beginning at the beginning…”

“Briony began to understand the chasm that lay between an idea and its execution.”

I don’t know where I’ll put Atonement in my rankings when I’m finished with it, but I can promise that it’s certainly had an impact on me.

Though I don’t write fiction, I still can appreciate Briony’s struggles with confidence and technique and finding her voice. All writers struggle with that.

Besides the element of writing, Atonement is actually a good story. Perhaps a touch sappy, still. But just a touch. I’ll let you know more about that when I review the novel soon.

Any of these quotes jump out at you?

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15 Comments Post a comment
  1. I just picked this book up yesterday and got to that first quote, “Falling in love could be achieved in a single word–a glance.” I love it. (Although isn’t it two words??? haha.)

    Like

    September 13, 2012
  2. I love that quote about a novelist getting atonement especially within the context of how the story ends.

    Since you have come this far, I am guessing you have finished the book? So looking forward to you review.

    Like

    September 13, 2012
    • Yep. I’m taking my time on the review, though. Will be the week after next.

      Like

      September 13, 2012
  3. “Nothing was to be lost by beginning at the beginning…” This one is very inspiring. “Wasn’t writing a kind of soaring…” is beautiful. This is a book I could read.Thank you.

    Like

    September 13, 2012
  4. One of my favourite (though crass) quotes on writing comes from Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:

    “The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.”

    Like

    September 13, 2012
  5. “There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive.” Well said!

    I’ve just discovered McEwan, read Amsterdam and am totally mesmerized by the book and his style, and this quote to me represents the essence of his writing – vivid, real & alive! Atonement is on my reading list but I prefer to take a break rather than read one author continuously – no matter how good they are, their work eventually tends to get repetitive and monotonous.

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    September 13, 2012
    • Make this one your next McEwan selection. I think you’ll like it.

      Like

      September 13, 2012
      • Thanks! I will! Planning to read Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary mantel next which should keep me busy a while! I enjoyed Wolf Hall.

        Like

        September 15, 2012
  6. “But how to do feelings? All very well to write “She felt sad”, or describe what a sad person might do, but what of sadness itself, how was that put across so it could be felt in all its lowering immediacy? Even harder was the threat, or the confusion of feeling contradictory things.”

    and

    “A story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader’s. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it.”

    and

    “There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive.”

    These especially stood out. You spoke about that last one in a previous post which rings true to me. I do write fiction and have found that when I have tried to begin a story with a moral and wrap characters and events around it the story has no life. The best stories I have written begin with a character or a scene. I hear their voice, something in a scene resonates and I can no longer contain them in my mind their story demands to be told.

    Like

    September 13, 2012
  7. There’s a long, storied tradition of writer’s writing about fictional authors, or writing about the writing process itself. A good recent example is the movie “The Words.” Definitely a movie worth checking out.

    My favorite quote, among the ones you listed, is: Wasn’t writing a kind of soaring, an achievable form of flight, of fancy, of the imagination?” I myself am a writing in an MFA program of creative writing at Northwestern University, and I find all the fiction about being a writer inspiring.

    I have another quote to pass along: “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say,”–Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own.”

    In my last two blogs, I myself have commented on writers’ writing. If you get a chance, check it out at http://www.michaelanson.wordpress.com.

    Like

    September 13, 2012
  8. Kathryn Frances #

    “A story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader’s. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it.”

    What a revelation. I’d never considered the power writers have over their audiences…and this illustrates it in such elemental terms. Powerful.

    Like

    September 17, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Way late review: Atonement
  2. Write What You Don’t Know – Lynn Reynolds - Author

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