The Writing Life: How I Started the Margaret Atwood Revolution by Sonal Champsee

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I hadn’t anticipated this when I first joined Twitter.

I’d been a Twitter-hater up until then. I was all over Facebook, but I didn’t get why anyone would want a minute-by-minute update on Kim Kardashian’s life, or how anyone would find wisdom in a 140-character distillation of Justin Bieber’s deepest thoughts. Fluff and garbage. But after discovering my writing mentor, Sarah Selecky, was an avid Twitterer, I realized Twitter was simply another communication medium and that I did not understand it at all. Rather than sitting on the intellectually superior high ground with my anti-Twitter stance, I was actually occupying the out-of-touch space that gets left behind.

So in the summer of 2011, I made it my mission to figure out Twitter. I owed it to myself as a writer to learn all about this new way of communicating, and I gave myself the excuse of following Sarah’s daily writing prompts. I told myself that Twitter would magically improve my writing discipline. Predictably, this did not happen. Twitter instead opened up a whole new world of distractingly cute kitten videos and news stories that I could post on Facebook to make myself appear more politically attuned than I actually am. I indulged in writing-related distractions to deceive myself into thinking I was working instead of simply goofing off. I read writing tips via the #writetips hashtag, participated in 140-character book clubs, and followed renowned authors in the hopes that their tweets would somehow stir me to literary greatness.

Twitter was fun. I felt like I was in the know all the time. Funny video going around? I heard about it on Twitter first. Breaking news story? It’s trending on Twitter. Cool new street festival going on? Someone just twitpic’d photos of it.

Plus, I had an outlet for every passing fancy I ever had, just as long as I could express it in 140 characters or less. I tweeted about work so I could vent on the spot without my co-workers knowing. I tweeted about wanting a way to unpress elevator buttons. I tweeted about eating cake for breakfast. Who cared that in my two months of tweeting I had only scrounged up twelve followers, seven of whom I knew and five of whom were some kind of a spambot? I could pretend that someone out there was actually listening.

I played Twitter games like replacing a word in a quote with duck. My best line, “My name is Indigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to duck.” was even retweeted. This was Twitter gold. Not only was there actual proof that someone had heard my tweets, but someone found them of enough value to share it. Maybe one of his followers would see my tweet, check out my Twitter profile, decide that my voice was consistently of value, and would follow me as well. It was like getting published — except much, much faster and easier. Perhaps this was why I found so many authors that I really liked tweeting away. Among them was literary giant Margaret Atwood, so like nearly a quarter of a million other people before me, I decided to follow her.

Around the same time, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford began his first major step in his mission to stop the gravy train at City Hall. Mayor Ford, who made the unusual choice of inviting Don Cherry to speak at his inauguration (who prophetically told the “left-wing kooks” to “put that in your pipe and smoke it!”) had commissioned a KPMG report that identified which city services were essential and which were just gravy. The $350,000 report itself was a quick and dirty analysis that simply looked at which services were legally mandated and which were not, with no thought as to whether the cost of the service was higher than necessary, or what the impact of cutting any particular service would be. Even still, the report revealed that the giant bowl of gravy that Mayor Ford had envisioned was actually full of meat and potatoes: 97 percent of the services funded by City Hall were essential. Among those identified by the report as gravy were fluoridation of the water supply, crossing guards, and some areas of the Toronto Public Library.

Naturally, there was an uproar.

Ford had been elected by a suburban power base, but urban voters were far more vocal, or at least had better media coverage. Since Mayor Ford was not commenting on which of the recommended cuts he was considering, there was a petition frenzy to get support for everything. Both Twitter and Facebook were hopping as people shared, posted and tweeted links. Doug Ford, the Mayor’s brother and councilor of Rob Ford’s former ward, famously and incorrectly declared over the radio that there were more libraries than Tim Horton’s franchises in Etobicoke. Active Twitterers quickly broadcast that the opposite was true: there are 39 Tim Horton’s franchises and 13 libraries in Etobicoke.

I decided to digitally sign the library petition. As a kid, I’d racked up huge fines in unreturned books until I thankfully lost my card, but as an adult, the high cost of living space in downtown Toronto behooved me to find a way to feed my reading habit without permanently acquiring more books. After signing the petition, I was prompted to share it on Facebook. So I did. Absolutely none of my 187 friends commented.

In the following week, I received another email or two from the petition that I simply deleted. I had signed. I had shared. What more did they want from me? But one Thursday afternoon an email came in saying that already 12,000 people had signed, but they needed more. I remembered Twitter. I shared it with my twelve followers. And then I thought, I wonder if I can get Margaret Atwood to retweet me with this?

Wouldn’t that be the utter Twitter validation? To have Margaret Atwood deem my tweet worthy enough to say to her then-225,000 or so followers, here is someone who has something worth saying. Never mind that it was a petition that I had absolutely no part in making, and never mind that Margaret Atwood regularly agreed to retweet requests to promote good causes; I wanted Margaret Atwood to notice me. I scrolled through her Twitter feed, thinking that someone must have already sent her the library petition to retweet. This petition had been going around for at least a week, surely someone with more Twitter-savvy than me had already asked Ms. Atwood if she would please RT this.

No one had.

This was my opportunity. I took the original tweet and carefully modified it to call out to Margaret Atwood specifically and include my request, since when you ask a Canadian literary icon to retweet something for you, you don’t want to make a typo. So I sent:

@MargaretAtwood please RT? Toronto’s libraries are under threat of privatization. Tell council to keep them public.

I obsessively refreshed my Twitter page for the next few minutes to see if she’d retweeted me, but when I didn’t receive instant gratification, I decided to actually do my job to pass the time. But just before leaving the office, I got an email from Twitter telling me that @MargaretAtwood had retweeted one of my tweets.

It was a sweet moment. I just had to share it on Facebook. So I wrote:

Only on Twitter can I ask Margaret Atwood (yes, that Margaret Atwood) to do me a small favour, and then she does it.

While I was checking the library petition page to see if there had been any impact, a Facebook friend asked me what the favour was and so I replied:

Nothing big. I asked her to rtweet a link about saving the Toronto Public Library from Rob Ford’s hunt for gravy, and she did… she has a couple of hundred thousand followers, so perhaps it’ll do some good.

Still, I just interacted with Margaret Atwood. I felt special.

There were now more than 13,000 signatures on the petition. I decided to let my Facebook friends know the impact of Margaret Atwood retweeting me, and refreshed the webpage to get the most up-to-date number. The server had gone down. I posted:

Okay, so shortly after I asked Margaret Atwood to re-tweet the link, I noticed that there were 1,000 more signatures on the petition, and now the bandwidth for this website has been exceeded…

Margaret Atwood has some serious Twitter power…

Then I emailed the library to let them know that the server was down and suggest that they harness the star power of Margaret Atwood. I mean, if she took a quiet little request from an unknown like me, surely someone who actually represents the Toronto Public Library would be taken more seriously. I got a reply thanking me for alerting Margaret Atwood to this, and that they were working on getting the server back up. Seeing another opportunity, I asked them to let me know when the server was back up so I could ask Margaret Atwood to send another tweet to any of her followers who’d tried to sign the petition but couldn’t. That request was much more difficult to fit into 140 characters.

After @MargaretAtwood kindly RT to save public libraries, the site overloaded. It’s back w/1K more supporters. Pls RT?

I was not retweeted, but by Friday morning, the story had exploded. Margaret Atwood tweeted this, which included a link to a 680 New Radio report about the server crashing:

Thanks to all who signed #TO #libraries #cdnpoli @torontolibrary to stop closure & etc.: seems you crashed the site!

And immediately afterward, she tweeted this:

Here is direct link to the @torontolibrary petition to stop closure and privatization. Thanks to all, pass it around..

Excited, I posted on Facebook, and a few minutes later a Facebook friend of mine told me that the Toronto Star had picked up the story. The Star article included my Twitter handle.

“At 4:15 p.m. Thursday, Atwood retweeted this from @sonalogy: “Toronto’s libraries are under threat of privatization. Tell city council to keep them public now. ourpubliclibrary.”

My one tweet had won me a Twitter jackpot. Not only had it been retweeted by such Twitterati as Margaret Atwood, but it had been re-retweeted by 44 of her followers, it had crashed a server, and it had been mentioned in the mainstream news.

“Margaret Atwood” started trending on Twitter. I was no longer reading about events as they happened, I was making them happen. Granted, this hadn’t resulted in many more actual followers, but I didn’t care. I had harnessed the power of social media and was now a shit-disturber at a world-class level.

Over 1,800 people recommended The Star article on Facebook. Margaret Atwood herself must have caught the excitement, because she began retweeting tweets from other people directed at her telling their stories about why the library was so important to them, and started tweeting her own snipes at Rob and Doug Ford. The most biting of these, which contained a link to the same Toronto Star article, was this:

Twin Fordmayor seems to think those who eat Timbits (like me) don’t read, can’t count, & are stupid eh? @torontolibrary

I began watching the number of signatures on the online petition. Every few minutes, I would reload the page and the number of supporters would increase. Before sending the first tweet Thursday afternoon, there were 12,000 supporters. By Friday at noon, there were 15,000 supporters. Within 24 hours of Margaret Atwood’s retweet of my tweet, 16,500 supporters. By Monday afternoon, the Globe and Mail reported 23,000 supporters, and one week afterward there were more than 38,000.

The most amazing thing to me was how many people began expressing passionate support for the library. Who knew the library was so hip? Evidently there were a lot of us who had a secret love-affair with the Toronto Public Library, because in all the press coverage, it was quickly revealed that the Toronto Public Library was the biggest and busiest urban public library in North America. Circulation exceeds that of the New York Public Library. 72 percent of Torontonians use the library. What many of us took for granted was now emerging in the public mind as a point of pride for Toronto.

The Ford brothers did not take this well. While Mayor Rob Ford was busy defending himself over an allegation that he’d given a woman and her six-year-old daughter the finger, Doug Ford was called upon to defend the Margaret Atwood Twitter onslaught. On July 26, he bullheadedly declared: “Good luck to Margaret Atwood. I don’t even know her. She could walk right by me, I wouldn’t have a clue who she is.” This was followed by the less politically astute: “She’s not down here. She’s not dealing with the problem. Tell her to go run in the next election and get democratically elected and we’d be more than happy to sit down and listen to Margaret Atwood.”

My first reaction was laughter, that the man who wanted to cut libraries because they supposedly outnumbered Tim Horton’s franchises did not know who Margaret Atwood was; this suggested that he would probably benefit from spending more time at the library than at Tim Horton’s. But then the disgust set in. Here was a man whose job it was to listen to the citizens of Toronto, saying that the opinion of one particular citizen of Toronto didn’t matter, because she was not an elected official. Doug Ford tried to undo the damage the next day by saying “I think she’s a great writer and I look forward to her input,” and in the process learned that backpedaling is not an effective public relations strategy.

Margaret Atwood went to a remote location to work on her next book, but the rest of us were too busy tweeting to notice. Councilor Mike Layton, son of the late Leader of the Opposition Jack Layton, suggested via Twitter that we all send Doug Ford copies of our favourite Atwood book. This call to action was greatly aided by bookstore Chapters-Indigo, who broadcast over Twitter that not only did they know who Margaret Atwood was, they were going to offer 30 percent off all Margaret Atwood books to anyone who showed their library card.

On Facebook, a community page entitled “Margaret Atwood for Mayor of Toronto” popped up and quickly garnered over 7,000 likes. Graffiti popped up throughout the city promoting “Margaret Atwood 4 Mayor” in multi-hued spray paint. Mayor Ford, in response to the growing criticism, opened Toronto City Hall to a marathon 22-hour meeting to hear citizens present their opinions on the proposed services cuts. I followed the events on Twitter, reading tweets from NOW Magazine and Councilor Mike Layton. The library was one of the most mentioned issues, perhaps most movingly expressed by a terrified 14-year-old girl. She fought through tears induced by a fear of public speaking to ask Mayor Ford not to close the Willowdale library, as it was the only place where she could do her homework, noting that while not a taxpayer yet, with the help of the library she might one day become one.

The story continued for months. Two weeks later, newspapers across the country op-ed pieces; evidently admitting ignorance of Margaret Atwood is breaking news in Canada. Margaret Atwood, while wondering if Toronto is still a place where book-lovers, artists and creative people are welcome, continued to receive and retweet story after story about libraries and how important they have been in people’s lives. She has confirmed that she will not be running for Mayor, stating on Twitter:

Noo, not running for mayor … too old. Used to think too ignorant, but that hasn’t stopped some. 😀 Appreciate the kind thoughts however!

Given the ongoing drama of Rob Ford’s reign, it’s hard to quantify the effect of all this. Municipal politics are not normally exciting, but the threat of library closures certainly got people’s attention. So much so council—including some of Ford’s cohorts at the time—banded together in January 2012 and overruled the Mayor through a series of relatively dramatic budgetary amendments; his first big loss as Mayor, and a highly unusual event for Toronto City Council. However, what does seem clear is that Margaret Atwood emerged as a figurehead for those of us in Toronto who believe that good gravy is what makes the meat and potatoes worth eating.

In any case, now that I’ve got the hang of Twitter, I hope Mayor Ford is prepared for the day that I actually gain a significant number of followers.


sonal chapseeSonal Champsee is writer from Toronto, Canada. Her short fiction appears in the anthology, Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline. Her full-length play, Everything But the Paper, premiered in Seattle, Wash. in September 2014. Sonal serves on the prose editorial board for PRISM International. She teaches creative writing independently, and for Sarah Selecky’s The Story Intensive. She is working on an MFA in creative writing at UBC and has studied privately with Sarah Selecky, Matthew J. Trafford, Jessica Westhead, Gail Anderson-Dargatz and Zsuzsi Gartner. The Rob Ford saga is her current favourite soap opera.

Website & Blog: | Twitter: @sonalogy

  9 comments for “The Writing Life: How I Started the Margaret Atwood Revolution by Sonal Champsee

  1. Congratulations Sonal! Great story!

    The mayor of mass destruction meets weapons of mass delegation.

    Understatement of the year: “he [Doug Ford] would probably benefit from spending more time at the library than at Tim Horton’s.”

    A lot of donuts have passed under the bridge since the library fiasco.

    Cheers, DW

    • Thanks Donald!

      Given everything that’s happened Ford-wise since then, it all seems to innocent now. We thought the worst thing he could do was close a library. How adorable!

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