I was 16 in November 1955, living in Canada. This was a time of Elvis Presley, rock ’n’ roll, circle skirts, penny loafers, formal school dances with strapless dresses – though I never went that far. In grade 12, it might surprise you to know, along with my partner Sally, I was our school’s entry in the Consumers’ Gas Miss Homemakers contest. We had to make a baked potato in a gas stove. And iron a shirt with a gas iron. We didn’t win but we got some very nice charm bracelets.
One thing I would advise my younger self would be to take secretarial studies to learn touch-typing. I still can’t type. Careers advisers had a short list of possible careers for girls. Primary school teacher, nurse, airline stewardess and home economist, which meant something along the lines of a nutritionist or dressmaker. I didn’t want to do any of those things but looked at all the salaries, being a mercenary child, and home economists made the most. So I took those classes and learned how to fasten a zipper but I never learned to type.
I would tell the 16-year-old Margaret to stop worrying about her hair. It is what it is and there’s nothing you can do. Ever. So just forget it. In reality, I didn’t reach that point of acceptance until I was about 30, after some untoward experiments. Twiggy was a nightmare I have to say.
I read a lot as a teenager but I did a lot of other things too. I made my own clothes. I ran my own puppet show at school. We made the puppets and the stage, and we did all the voices. I was quite entrepreneurial, I made money doing that. We ended up having an agent and putting the shows on for children’s Christmas parties. I also wrote and sang in a home economics-based opera. And I was on the basketball team; you didn’t have to be as tall then. I was very participatory.
I became a more anxious teenager when the serious exams arrived. But not terribly so. I wasn’t that anxious about boys, there always seemed to be a plentiful supply. This was the stage of going steady, serial monogamy, and it was before the pill. So you didn’t have to worry about having sex because you weren’t going to have it. That was understood.
Sixteen was the age at which I started to write. My friend remembers me announcing this in the school cafeteria. She said to me later, you were so brave, saying you were going to be a writer right out loud. That’s because I didn’t know any better, that you weren’t supposed to say that. I don’t know where the inspiration came from. There were no role models. I knew zero about it.
But I was reading Hemingway and Orwell and lots of science fiction, as well as 19th century classics at school. I went out and bought a book called Writers’ Markets – telling you where you could sell your writing and true romances made the most money. My plan was to write those to make money, and write my masterpieces in the evening. I was no good at first but I thought I was. So I kept going.
If I met the 16-year-old me now I’d think, what planet did you come from? I was not the same as my cohorts. That’s because I grew up in the woods and I wasn’t too concerned about what other people thought. I didn’t grow up in a large extended family or a local community, worrying about what they all thought. I was quite sarcastic, full of smart talk and quips, making fun of things – my friends and I would probably be considered quite harsh these days but we got that attitude from the movies.
I think some of my independent thinking came from my parents. My mother hadn’t followed the pattern either. She never told me there were things I couldn’t do because I was a girl. My parents weren’t happy about the writing idea because how was I going to make money? I considered being a journalist but my parents brought home a male journalist friend who told me I’d end up writing the ladies pages and obituaries. So they successfully diverted me from that course but not into science, which was where they wanted me to go.
If I was to give the younger Margaret advice I’d tell her to stop overloading her schedule with too many things. But I’ve been saying that for 50 years. And I’d tell her to do something about being a compulsive helpaholic. I need to find a way of not doing that because it eats up a lot of time. And you can’t help everybody in the world.
It would be hard for me to go back and show off to the young Margaret about my subsequent career. She wasn’t very easy to impress. If I told her about my success she’d say, sure, yeah, so you did it. Of all my novels she would probably like The Handmaid’s Tale best – she was reading Fahrenheit 451, 1984, dark sci-fi.
I’d tell the younger me, forget the melodrama, it’ll be okay. It gets better up until you’re 30. Then it gets even better after you’re 40. When I was 20 I didn’t know what the plot was going to be so I was full of anxieties – will I meet Mr Right, will my career work out, will I be happy? By the time I got to 40 at least I knew about half of the plot. And you’re more likely to be listened to as a 40-year-old woman, if you’ve made any headway in your career, than you are in your 20s.
When you get to 76 there’s a whole load of people who have died, and who you never got to say everything you wanted to. By the time my parents died they weren’t really capable of those kind of conversations but I’d already had them earlier in our lives. Because you just never know.
If I could go back in time I might revisit one of our trips to the Arctic. It’s actually a fantastic place. We also lived in France for a while in 1991; maybe I’d go back and relive one of those very nice Fall days. Or a summer in northern Canada, very beautiful. But what really gets me up in the morning is looking forward to what comes next. Too much time looking at the past, you’re in the rocking chair.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood is out now in hardback (£16.99, Vintage, ebook available)