Going to a brand new conference is always a risk. It’s a big investment of time, money, and energy. But, after reading the list of panelists and authors lined up for Hippocampus Magazine’s inaugural conference, Hippocamp 2015 (August 7-9), the price tag seemed more than reasonable. Plus, it was being held in Lancaster PA, just a two-hour drive from my home in Philadelphia. (I hadn’t been able to attend this year’s River Teeth Conference in Ashland, OH or the Creative Nonfiction Conference in Pittsburgh due to the distance, so news of Hippocamp soothed my creative-nonfiction-loving soul.)
When I arrived Friday afternoon, my friend (another burgeoning essayist) and I registered, and then set out to find a stiff cocktail and a greasy cheeseburger, the perfect antidote to a two-hour drive in Friday traffic. When we returned a little later, it was time to hear some new authors read from their books. All of the authors featured were fantastic, but there were definitely standouts for me.
Kathleen Frazier read from her forthcoming book Sleepwalker: The Mysterious Makings and Recovery of a Somnambulist, and her lyrical, meditative prose, paired with her soothing speaking voice enchanted me. Lisa Jakub, best known as the eldest daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire, read from her book You Look Like That Girl… and explained her 180-degree turn away from the limelight. I was nervous, having heard plenty of ex-celeb and child star memoirs gone terribly awry. But to my great delight, Jakub is a skilled and witty writer, committed to telling her story, no matter how bereft of rehab stints and scandalous behavior. It was refreshing to hear, and made chatting with her casually over cookies and coffee later much less nerve-wracking.
When D. Watkins took the stage, I was blown away. His two forthcoming books, The Beast Side (out in September 2015) and The Cook Up (out in May 2016) sound like amazing projects. D’s reading was impassioned, engaging, and heartbreaking. He commanded the room – could it have been because he was one of very few men, and one of the only people of color? I’m not sure, but as I looked around the conference space, filled primarily with Caucasian women, I felt simultaneously guilty for my privilege, and grateful for D’s willingness to attend this event and stun us with his work. I orbited him afterwards, fawning and congratulating, but he had to make a quick getaway to another engagement.
Saturday was jam-packed with panels and workshops. Having learned my true limit for interaction and information at this year’s AWP Conference in Minneapolis, I felt more than ready for the day’s busy schedule. Each time slot had two or three options, so I wasn’t cursed with the prevailing, overwhelming sense of FOMO that plagued me at AWP. Even better – I didn’t have to hunt for the sessions relating to my confirmed love, CNF. Everything was relevant!
The first session, “Starting with Place: How to Leverage the Special Spaces in Our Stories,” was engaging and fun. Matt Skillen challenged us to draw a map of a significant place in our lives – be it a single room or an entire city – and then tell the story of that place to someone in the room. Through that exercise, I realized just how big a role place plays in my memory. As I drew the streets I inhabited during the two most tumultuous years of my adolescence, I understood the strength and importance of using those places – the gas station, the bowling alley, the synagogue – to enhance my work. I’m always harping on my writing partners to use detail, detail, and more detail to make their stories sing with originality. How could I overlook the details that would help me with world building, a skill I’m always envious of in fiction writers?
“Lying to Tell the Truth: Being Creative with Your Nonfiction” with James Stafford was probably the most informative and helpful session. Stafford took us through a history of memoir writers who have lied, to varying degrees of success, and then instructed us on several types of acceptable lies. By outlining ideas like composite characters and scenes, and reconstructing dialogue, as well as discussing issues like disclosure to the reader and changing names, I came away with a more complete understanding of truthful writing, and all the gray areas it includes. The more I study creative nonfiction, the more I understand that there is no such thing as empirical truth when it comes to memory. It makes the stakes of outlining our own version of the truth, in all its gradients and missing pieces, that much higher. In essay writing, sometimes it’s not about finding an answer, the answer – more often than not, simply asking the question is enough to create something amazing.
Jenna McGuiggan‘s “One Moment Memoir: Writing Flash Essays” session was definitely the most fun and exploratory session of the day. The room was packed with people lining the floors and aisles, which confirmed my suspicion that flash creative nonfiction is in higher demand from publishers and magazines, and is incredibly difficult to do well. McGuiggan’s “OMM” technique, broken down into 6 easy steps, seemed at first to be rather basic. But the steps intensified as we completed each one, and by the end, I was suddenly aware of how the fancy, way-too-expensive dress I wore at my 30th birthday party actually symbolized all the pressure and obligation I felt to be, after all those awkward years, a functional and impressive adult. Several people around the room shot their hands up at the end to make similar comments. I didn’t even realize this incident was so rife with meaning, they sighed, until I mapped it out. I never even considered writing about this stuff. Later on, I cornered McGuiggan, a friendly and charming woman, gushed about the success of the exercise, and warned her that I’d be stealing the exercise (with full credit given, of course) for a future workshop.
The highlight of Saturday came, of course, at the end, with “the godfather’s” arrival, the inimitable Lee Gutkind. The room was at capacity, all of us anxiously awaiting an address from the man who may not have started it all, but made it all what it is today. Gutkind barreled into the conference room, a short nebbish, hands flailing, his voice reaching crazy registers. Before the presentation itself began, Gutkind ran around the room, relaying his chaotic evening to us. Apparently at dinner, a bat had gotten into the restaurant, causing the servers to shut the doors and scamper around with brooms above their heads. After narrowly avoiding a cranial injury from a flying beast, he made it to the hotel, only to get stuck in the elevator with a man dying for a cigarette and a gorgeous woman for 20 agonizing minutes. Steve, one of the conference organizers, was ready to step in for Gutkind’s absence, but miraculously, he got out. “And now Steve hates me!” he squealed. “I stole his spotlight! But here I am! And this isn’t even my speech!”
I kept thinking he’d run out of energy eventually, but I was dead wrong. The guy bounced around the room like pure lightning, running up the main aisle, asking for feedback, telling jokes. Having read most of Gutkind’s work already, I was treated to a refresher on the structure of good nonfiction (“Scene, information, scene, information!”) and the story of his christening as “the godfather” by Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott in 1997. After an exhilarating hour and a half, Gutkind retreated to the lobby to sign books and shake hands. I questioned whether the wait was worth it, but ultimately chose to grab his newest essay collection, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and queue up.
Never one to choose politeness over making an impression, I dropped my book in front of Gutkind when my turn came, planted both hands on the table, and said, “Boy, have I got a bone to pick with you.” His face showed equal parts fear and delight.
“You know, I’ve been waiting a long time to tell you something,” I continued. He shifted nervously and looked at my friend, standing behind me with a big smile plastered across her face.
“Should I be worried right now?” he asked her.
“No, Lee. This is all part of her charm. Trust me.”
He looked back to me, a little relieved, and said, “All right – what have you been waiting to tell me?”
“Thank you,” I said plainly. His face broke into a smile, and he grabbed my hand, pulling me closer to the table. “I’m in love with creative nonfiction, and every time I wonder what else is possible with it, what else I can do, you move the conversation forward. It inspires me,” I said, squeezing his hand. He bopped my fist down on the table a couple of times, smiling in such an honest and kind way.
“Well, you’re just wonderful to say that. It’s my pleasure.” We joked and kidded, laughing about his massive catalog, the hilarity of his specific notoriety. I chided him like I would an old friend, delivering the wit and sarcasm I could feel he probably craved during these events, where he was likely cooed over by throngs of star struck writers. To say this moment was the highlight of my weekend would be an understatement.
The last day of the conference, a drizzly and overcast Sunday, was reserved for panel discussions focused on getting work out into the world. A roomful of questionably caffeinated writers listened to smart and thoughtful editors, agents, bloggers, and authors, who told us all about good literary citizenship, and the delicate art of querying. Though it felt like it went by in a flash, as I look through my notebook from the weekend, I realize just how many ideas I came away with.
The one thing I heard over and over – in the coffee line, in the bathroom, even on Twitter – was a lovely sentiment from the conference’s attendees. These are my people. I have found my people. Writers seek writers, and yes, we are of the same species, but to gather a genus together, creative nonfiction lovers, essayists, is to harness a special kind of energy. We do as the word says – we weigh, and examine. We put the truth on trial, collect the evidence, and come to understand, after 750 or 70,000 words, that sometimes, simply asking the question is enough.