One Way to Dine with Margaret Atwood (with Some Thoughts on Posses)

This is the story of sitting at two tables six months apart. The first was at my coffeehouse last October, where my friend Wendy Wimmer Schuchart and I decided to do something nice for readers and writers. The second was at a restaurant in April, where our board dined with Margaret Atwood at the end of a successful book and author festival that drew thousands to Downtown Green Bay. At that first table we never could have imagined the possibility of the second; and that happened because we formed a posse. It’s lovely doing personal projects on your own, or working with your spouse, friend, child, mentor, or former grade school teacher. But I’d argue that for bigger, community changing projects, you shouldn’t do it alone. Working with a posse gives your project—whatever it is—the complexity and balance that mirrors a healthy community.

A posse is a cluster of people brought together around an immediate, shared goal —to smoke out the bandits, to find the lost child, to put out the fire… the really important things. It’s like a ‘team,’ but with the attitude that comes from facing much longer odds. One of the more significant posses I formed was to fight the Walmart corporation because of a land use disagreement. At the beginning of that fight, there were many people who told us that we were wasting our time trying to take on one of the largest companies in the United States. Proving those people wrong became part of our shared culture. Happily we succeeded. This isn’t something one can do on their own. Also, interestingly, it wasn’t something that existing organizations were able to take on, for reasons that must only be clear to them.

Assuming you’re not tapped on the shoulder by your county sheriff, how do you start a posse? Coffee’s a good start. There are conversations that lead to action and conversations that don’t. And what’s interesting about that is you’re not going to know whether or not you’re just dreaming out loud until you find yourself making a to do list and acting on it. If it’s that kind of conversation, then the people at the table are the core of your posse. Think very carefully about who else to invite in, because that’s what’s going to determine the success or failure of your project. The most important thing is to only consider people who have a track record of making things happen.

I’m tempted to say that anyone could do what we did, but that would be false modesty. Making things happen takes practice. I cut my teeth while in college. My friends and I published literary journals, organized festivals, led protest marches, founded student organizations, hosted readings, promoted basement punk shows, art exhibits, fundraisers, and—of course—house parties. We even wrote a grant, received money and flew in our favorite author from across the country. The magical thing about a college campus is that you’ve purchased the privilege of failing without consequence. And that may have been the most important part of our education. Many of us are still doing more or less what we started twenty-some years ago. Most notably the small record label that a few of our friends started has become one of the most important indie music labels in the world. It’s never too soon to start making things happen in the world, but if you don’t think of college this way then you’re missing out. Being “movers and shakers”  was at the core of our identity. It turns out that we were learning skills and developing instincts that translated very well into the real world.

These are the kind of people you want on your posse: movers and shaker that can reach into different worlds, that have differentiated skill sets, that are balanced between amplifiers and restrainers, that share a common goal, that are prepared to be persistent, and—importantly—you enjoy spending time with. And then find a way to communicate densely and relentlessly. We used Slack to great effect (non-profits can use it for free).

So how does one dine with Ms. Atwood? There may be simpler ways, but here’s one way in seven steps.

  1. Decide to start a literary festival. Gather your posse and define the vision.
  2. Create the infrastructure you need to carry out the vision. We realized quickly that we would only succeed if we were a 501c3 non-profit cultural organization. So we became one. Create an ‘Asset Map.’ We did this early on—we made a list of every person, place, and entity that could conceivably be helpful to us. It turned out to be invaluable.
  3. Raise the money you need. Obviously this is the tricky part, especially for a festival in its first year. The only way to do this is to be credible and to understand how a cultural festival could be important to a potential sponsor.
  4. Talk to authors and speaking agents. Solicit ideas for talks and panels. Invite Margaret Atwood and Sherman Alexie to be capstone speakers. It turns out that Atwood was very intrigued to be invited to a first time festival in a place she’d never been. Her agent said that not only would she come, but she was excited. Here’s a quote from Daniel Burnham that I often repeat to myself: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood… “
  5. Hit the logistics hard.
  6. Market hard.
  7. Invite Margaret Atwood to dinner after her talk. Try not to look uncomfortable like I do sitting next to her (prior to her talk) in the photo above.

If you choose to follow these steps, I’d be very interested in hearing how they worked for you and whether you found Atwood to be as extraordinary a dining companion as I did.




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