Coming Off the High of HippoCamp

The inaugural HippoCamp—a creative nonfiction conference held in Lancaster, PA August 7-9, 2015—has come and gone. This is the time you have to sit down and analyze what just happened.

What just happened?

Magic, that’s what. Not to minimize the excruciating amount of work that goes into planning and organizing and executing a conference. Just the opposite. As creative writers, we know the levels of painstaking labor required to set up the stage for magic. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. This time, it worked. Like magic.

And since it’s magic, there’s no point in trying to figure out how, or even why it worked. What I would like to do is make an attempt to verbalize the many elements of HippoCamp that I loved.

Contrasting keynotes: The opening keynote was a rather raucous presentation by Lee Gutkind, a veteran of the creative nonfiction industry who founded Creative Nonfiction (first journal, now magazine) and who is apparently commonly referred to as “the Godfather” of the genre. We learned about the many varieties of creative nonfiction, the historic pioneers in the field, and the importance of interspersing story and information (just like a commercial?) to grab the audience and hold on tight until you are good and through with them. We learned of the rising propensity to use creative nonfiction in fields like science and medicine. And we heard of a significant amount of money Lee had recently scored to foster and further the cause. All good stuff.

The closing keynote could not have been more different. Jane Friedman (full disclosure: I’m a superfan) graced the stage to give a little history lesson as well. Now we learned that the writing profession has never been stable—in fact, it wasn’t even always a profession. Since the beginning of time (OK, she only went back as far as the invention of the printing press), authors have found creative ways to distribute their creative wares. Publishing, however, has not changed. It was always about distribution, or, amplification, as Jane puts it. Distribution channels have recently shifted (think Apple, Google, Facebook, and the big, perplexing elephant in a roomful of authors who would someday enjoy earning a living, Amazon). The publishing industry, according to Jane, has not mastered these new distribution channels. Here, again, is the call for authors to get creative with their merchandise—maybe, by exploring options beyond traditional publishers. Also, good stuff.

An agents and editors panel that wasn’t just agents and editors: Any author who has attended an agents and editors panel within the past, say, five or so years (correct me, here, I really don’t know when platform became all the rage) knows exactly what they are going to say. At some point in the conversation, each and every panelist will be singing the praises of “platform.” It’s important to have a built-in audience for your work. My mind had just started to drift toward the anticipated arrival of Jane Friedman when I heard Kaylie Jones say, “This makes me nervous because…”. In a flash, I was back to the present. And then she said this: “I have never, not once, compromised the integrity of my writing. (And that’s probably why I’m poor.)”* A different perspective? From a publisher who is first and foremost an author? On a panel of agents and editors? Right then and there, I wanted to give Kaylie a standing ovation. But I refrained. Instead, I thought about why Kaylie’s perspective had made me so happy. I guess it’s because I’m a writer, and I want to hear the perspectives of other, albeit more successful, writers. I also want to hear from the agents and editors, of course. But that fresh perspective—that divergent opinion on the panel—made all the difference for me. This was not your average agents and editors panel. And I loved it.

Open mic: The simple fact that an open mic** existed within the conference walls and was, essentially, baked in to the program makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. Even Jane Friedman acknowledged that people who attend conferences are often bombarded by speakers telling them what to do. It’s true. It’s part of why we attend. But this other opportunity—this chance to stand on stage and present your own work—is the epitome of respect. Showing that everyone is valued at a conference where, typically, only “experts” are given stage to speak creates a space where everyone can engage and acknowledge each other’s worth. We are all worthy, after all.

Nothing more than feelings: The last thing I’ll mention in this list that could travel to China and back if I let it is the atmosphere at HippoCamp. This is the hardest to put a finger on. The feeling of support, camaraderie, kindness, and warmth that prevailed was like nothing I’d ever experienced at a conference, and I’ve been to my share. I won’t try to explain it. We all know who gave this conference its life and how a generous spirit can transfer to the creations of its owner. It happens all the time, right? Well, maybe not like this. I can’t complete this post without sending my heartfelt gratitude to Donna Talarico, founder of Hippocampus Magazine, creator of HippoCamp, a conference for creative nonfiction writers, ruler of the planet… oops, that would be the next chapter. I guess we’ll all have to wait.
*I put Kaylie’s last sentence in quotes not for lack of importance, but because that’s how I heard it. In truth, it resonated almost more than anything else I heard on the panel. As writers, we have choices. Integrity is one of them. And making boatloads of money doesn’t have to be a goal.
**Open mic may not have made this list without the hosting stylings of one talented and, I might add, “always dapper” Jim Warner (aka @whoismisterjim).

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3 Responses to “Coming Off the High of HippoCamp”

  1. Debra Eder @twededer says:

    Kudos to @tcalmi who took the time to distill the essence of the experience at #Hippocamp15. A must-read for anyone who attended the conference & inspire the rest of you to attend next year’s HippoCamp16…

  2. You nailed it, Tara. A great summary, as much as words can summarize it, of the conference. Thank you for this, and I second your thanks to Donna and her team. They did an outstanding job.

  3. Tara says:

    Thanks for the comments, Debra and Joanne. I often procrastinate the post-conference blog, but this was too important to lose. What an amazing event. I hope to see you there again next year!

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