Tuesday, September 24, 2013

In the presence of greatness

Margaret Atwood photo by Scott Hill
Last Friday evening I was fortunate enough to attend a pre-National Book Festival "event," billed as an intimate talk and book signing, with Margaret Atwood. I was quite looking forward to hearing what she had to say, and to receiving an autographed copy of her latest book, MaddAddam.

You have likely heard of Atwood--after all, she is an incredibly prolific author who has won just about every major award. If you read The Handmaid's Tale when you were an emerging gown-up, especially an emerging female grown-up, then she became one of your personal icons, the literary equivalent of a Rock Star.

You may also know that Atwood has made her reputation with biting satire, stinging observations, writing about humankind's inability to be kind to fellow humans, and about life in chillingly possible dystopias. Her voice is the opposite of warm. You will never find a soft landing anywhere in her world. (I say that with a caveat: I have never read any of her children's books; they may be very different).

So I expected someone who was a remote tower of intellect, distant, perhaps more than slightly disdainful of her "fans." Possibly judging us all behind that sly smile. Someone who would pontificate from behind the barrier of the podium, setting herself apart, aloof from the audience. Someone who felt no need to connect.

Imagine my surprise when she stepped up to the podium looking like a cross between your adored great-aunt and your favorite professor. She was gracious--and, yes, warm! Atwood is Canadian, a nationality perhaps best known for its general niceness. But she was not just generally nice. She was connected and in the moment--open to our questions and comments. When she made passing mention of her high-tech invention and commitment to environmental sustainability, it was not to brag (humble-, or otherwise), but to establish credibility. She really does know how objects and systems could work in the fictional worlds she creates. She has seen the future--and, through many of her novels, she has taken us there. She has one of those minds that you can almost hear working. The evening was fascinating!

I was enthralled. But what really struck me was how she, a famously brilliant woman with a decades-long career, leaned over the podium and listened to questions. She did not rush to answer, rolling off a litany of talking points, but took her time framing responses. And, she actually answered the questions asked. It was a very refreshing evening here in Washington, D.C., where often speakers are too insecure, or are too busy pushing their own agendas, to let the audience share their spotlight. It's been a long time since I have seen an Honored Guest bridge the divide and actually invite the audience to join her charmed circle.

Maybe it is only the truly Great Ones who have the confidence and maturity to stop posing and just BE. But it is something I urge all my clients, students, colleagues and friends to strive for. Talk about presence!

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