Under the Thumb

How Margaret Atwood became a poet

| September-October 1996

I recently read an account of a study that intends to show how writers of a certain age—my age, roughly—attempt to “seize control” of the stories of their own lives by deviously concocting their own biographies. However, it’s a feature of our times that if you write a work of fiction, everyone assumes that the people and events in it are disguised biography—but if you write your biography, it’s assumed you’re lying your head off.

The latter may be true, at any rate of poets: Plato said that poets should be excluded from the ideal republic because they are such liars. I am a poet, and I affirm that that is true. About no subject are poets tempted to lie so much as about their own lives; I know one of them who has floated at least five versions of his autobiography, none of them real. I, of course, am a much more truthful person than that. But since poets lie, how can you believe me?

Here, then, is the official version:

I was once a snub-nosed blonde. My name was Betty. I had a perky personality and was a cheerleader for the college football team. My favorite color was pink. Then I became a poet. My hair darkened overnight, my nose lengthened, I gave up football for the cello, my real name disappeared and was replaced by one that had a chance of being taken seriously, and my clothes changed color in the closet, all by themselves, from pink to black. I stopped humming the songs from Oklahoma! and began quoting Kierkegaard. And not only that—all of my high-heeled shoes lost their heels, and were magically transformed into sandals. Needless to say, my many boyfriends took one look at this and ran screaming from the scene as if their toenails were on fire. New ones replaced them: They all had beards.



Believe it or not, there is an element of truth in this story. It’s the bit about the name, which was not Betty but something equally nonpoetic, and with the same number of letters. It’s also the bit about the boyfriends. But meanwhile, here is the real truth:

I became a poet at the age of 16. I did not intend to do it. It was not my fault.