my writing notebook: the handmaid’s tale

Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale
Anchor paperback
1998 (1st pub 1985)

On moving in and out of the present action:

Frowning, she tears out three tokens and hands them to me.

[13 paragraphs of backstory and interior monologue]

I take the tokens from Rita’s outstretched hand. (10-11)

On truth (and the end of the story):

When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove. It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which [sic] can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many. (134)

On seeing the big picture:

What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bed sheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, crisscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be. (143)

On associative writing:

With that man [the man you loved] you wanted it to work, to work out. Working out was also something you did to keep your body in shape, for the man. If you worked out enough, maybe the man would too. Maybe you would be able to work it out together, as if the two of you were a puzzle that could be solved; otherwise, one of you, most likely the man, would go wandering off on a trajectory of his own, taking his addictive body with him and leaving you with bad withdrawal, which you could counteract by exercise. (226-227)

16 thoughts on “my writing notebook: the handmaid’s tale

  1. Such a classic. truly the first book I read that made me want to be a writer. The things she does with language and character in this book were so inspirational. I remember reading it and thinking “You can do that?” about the language. And then thinking, well if you can do that, I want to write too.


  2. Wonderful excerpts from one of my favorite books. I often worry about those transitions from present tense to backstory and back, especially when writing for teens. It is easier when writing in the present tense first person.


  3. I, too, have been thinking about this book a lot lately. It has haunted me as an all-time-scary-book since I first read it in the 80s. For years I refused to use a debit card; now I have my very own red plastic card that can be shut down on someone else’s whim. And the tale becomes more prescient every day. I remain an Atwood fan. She is funny and irreverent and brilliant. I heard her speak at Emory a few years ago. And I always enjoy my visits to your site.


    • Anne, sorry to be so long in replying. And to such a good comment that sent me back to the book to find the line I’d underlined about paper money and plastic cards: “You had to take those pieces of paper with you when you went shopping, though by the time I was nine or ten most people used plastic cards.” Eerie, eerie.

      Thanks for ALL your visits and your kind words.


  4. Brilliant choice of book to discuss, I am re-reading Moral Disorder at the moment. I am fascinated about how Atwood manages to hold together the childhood and the adulthood of her characters, a pendulum swinging between these two worlds. Her portrayals of adolescence often send shivers down my spine, tingles of remembrance.


    • Susanna, I love your observation of Atwood’s ability to hold together the childhood and adulthood of a character. And what a great image–a pendulum swinging between the two worlds. I haven’t read Moral Disorder yet. How interesting that we were both re-reading an Atwood book at the same time.


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