Margaret Atwood’s Wave Theory of Writing

Bob Thompson quotes Margaret Atwood on literary forms and structure in “Writing About Writers,” The American Scholar (19 Nov. 2009):

Once, when Margaret Atwood came through Washington, I bought her a glass of lemonade and watched her draw waves in the air to illustrate the differences among literary forms. “The wavelengths of a poem are very short,” she said, chopping a hand quickly up and down. “You’re looking at the patterns of syllables, and how consistent they are with other syllables a little further down, and words and rhythms.” The wavelengths of a novel are long, like a tidal wave’s, so “if you put the pistol on page 30, you’re probably going to see it again on page 162 and then it goes off on page 415—kaboom.” As for the short story, which was what I’d come to ask about, “the wavelengths are in between those two forms, and you can get a very condensed amount of power into that, of a different kind.”

Call it Atwood’s First Law of Literature: “It’s just a question of wavelength, how far away the bits of it are from the other bits.”

How we might define a wave is complex (see wikipedia on waves):

Agreeing on a single, all-encompassing definition for the term wave is non-trivial. A vibration can be defined as a back-and-forth motion around a reference value. However, a vibration is not necessarily a wave. Defining the necessar y and sufficient characteristics that qualify a phenomenon to be called a wave is, at least, flexible.

The term is often understood intuitively as the transport of disturbances in space, not associated with motion of the medium occupying this space as a whole. In a wave, the energy of a vibration is moving away from the source in the form of a disturbance within the surrounding medium (D. E. Hall, Musical Acoustics [1980]) [e.g., dropping a stone in a pond]. However, this notion is problematic for a standing wave (for example, a wave on a string), where energy is moving in both directions equally, or for electromagnetic/light waves in a vacuum, where the concept of medium does not apply. There are water waves in the ocean; light waves from the sun; microwaves inside the microwave oven; radio waves transmitted to the radio; and sound waves from the radio, telephone, and voices.

[Thus, . . .] difference in origin introduces certain wave characteristics particular to the properties of the medium involved.

Atwood seems to have in mind standing waves, like those of music. With poetry, she talks “words and rhythms”: sense and sound, to put it crudely; with novels, sense alone. And short and long waves respectively. Short stories are in-between. Her model seems to be musical, even when she talks about sense (meaning) in novels. Or, to put it differently, all of her comments could equally describe musical forms and/or structure.

She talks about waves as iterative literary phenomena that create resonances, backward and forward, resonances that disturb the equilibrium of the work (in music, the disturbance would be the introduction of dissonance or new material):

  1. periodic tension and release, i.e., suspense, e.g., foreshadowing/development (→) and dramatic irony/recapitulation (←), involving
  2. cyclical motifs, i.e., themes, images, refrains, and
  3. coincidence, e.g., meetings of main plot and subplot, MacGuffins, etc.

Structural repetition of various kinds, then. That is to say, gunshots always have repercussions in Atwood’s world; or rather, like most of us heirs of Goethe, she can’t help but see literary forms as wholes. Nothing is absurd or singular in literature (or life), though we can make things seem so. Bullets can come out of the blue only if they hit something.

N.B. So when do literary forms behave like particles?

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2 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood’s Wave Theory of Writing

  1. I’d like to see the wave theory of writing applied to academic writing, the expository essay for example. it’s intriguing.

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