Thursday, August 30, 2018

Notes from the Third Row: Good Stuff from the Hippocamp Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers, 2018

When this blog was an infant, I ran some posts summing up advice and insights I’d returned with after attending a writing conference, residency, or similar gathering. I thought I’d revive the tradition, because this past weekend, for the fourth year in a row, I was at Hippocamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers, in Lancaster, PA.

Since its inception, I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of Hippocamp, which is put on by Hippocampus Magazine, a rather nice and well-respected online literary journal. This smallish conference continues to be a particularly loved favorite of mine for so many reasons, checking the important boxes I tick off when deciding on attending a writers’ conference.

As usual, I tried to get to all the breakout sessions, panels, and special presentations that sounded of particular interest to me. And as usual, I failed, because with so many promising concurrent offerings, it’s just impossible. So, I’ll be watching, myself, as post-Hippocamp coverage begins to emerge, as it usually does on others attendees’ blogs and writerly websites. (Update: like this one I just found by Joanne Lozar Glenn, and this one from Kelly Kandra Hughes, and this from Anne Pinkerton.)

Meanwhile, here’s a peek into some of what made it into my notebook, though much more is rattling around my head, my heart.

I took a pre-conference workshop with writer and journalism professor Wendy Fontaine  on “Using Brain Science to Write Memoir.” I teach a memoir workshop on integrating memories into memoir, and how to transform elusive, uncooperative memories into nonfiction prose—but this was a terrific chance for me to learn how and why our brains actually handle memory. I know this will not only expand what I can share with students in the future, but that it also opened doors and windows to my own understanding of why humans do and don’t remember, and how that impacts writing.

A few tidbits:

. I already knew that smell is the strongest and most powerful memory trigger (yes, more than music), but now I know why. It’s because the olfactory center is located in close proximity to the hippocampus, the place in the brain that files, retrieves and makes connections between memories.
. Some things that occurred are never recorded in memory, so even if we know we were present when X happened, it’s possible our brain never encoded X. All the trying-to-remember gymnastics just won’t work. Some would-be memories really are “lost”.
. What my husband calls “revisionist” history is a thing. A thing called “memory source confusion” – when we substitute what makes sense for what we can’t recall.

The opening conference speaker, Beth Kephart (whose work I’ve admired since reading A Slant of Sun as a newish mother), delivered a beautiful talk on the job and art of the memoirist—and its limits—and I snatched these juicy morsels:

. The memoir writer’s job is to tell facts and to confess when we don’t.  “As memoirists, we are most trusted when we acknowledge what we don’t know.”
. When James Baldwin wrote, “I realized I didn’t know my father very well,” he then re-imagined him, but used language to cue the reader:  “…he was, I think…” “I gather this from…”
. On the art of knowing what to leave out, and how memoir thrives on what’s not there: “Truth is messy. Carve your truth from the mess, but leave most of it off the page.”
. Finally, this beauty: “Grace Paley once said, ‘If you find only yourself interesting, you’re boring.’ Write past yourself and you won’t be bored.”

From Elane Johnson’s session on “Dialogue that Doesn’t Suck,” –
. Dialogue must be true, meaning it must match the character, personality, education, of the person speaking.
. Remember to show how a (real) character may talk differently when in conversation with different people.
. Don’t try to score revenge by placing words in someone’s mouth they wouldn’t have said. “Even if Mom is dead and no one will protest, it makes her look bad and it will be WRONG for your story and that will show.”

Kelly Caldwell  presented a useful session on “The Art of the Catastrophe Narrative” (and the best ever, whopping 40-page handout packet!):
. Keep in mind, the (real life) protagonist(s) has a goal to reach both during and after the catastrophe.
. When writing, remember “Four phases of disaster recovery: Hero phases; Disillusionment phase; Honeymoon phase; Recovery phase.”

During a freelancing panel, Estelle Erasmus offered this deceptively simple checklist for a pitch: “Why this? Why now? Why me?” and added that the “Why now” should include some data, stats, trends or other information that’s brand new.

Steph Auteri, in a flash talk titled, “How to Pump out an Epic Number of Ideas in One Sitting,” offered writers looking to publish in mainstream media key article/essay idea prompts:
. What have I experienced that others might want to know about?
. What do I want to know about?
. What’s in the news that I can comment on?
. What national news/trend can I make local? (and vice versa)
. What new stats or studies can I say something about?
. What in popular culture—movies, TV, books, etc.—am I excited about and can comment on?
. What else are people talking about (what’s in the zeitgeist?)

From “The Art of Interviewing” session with Diane McCormick: Have a conversation, not an interrogation. Make a statement, putting yourself in your subject’s shoes, and see what they say in response: “If that had happened to me, I think I would have…”

From “The Long and Winding Road: Publishing an Essay Collection,” with Randon Billings Noble: Sometimes, you get the dream…and also lose it. I admired Randon’s candor in telling how she landed a hot New York agent (who wooed her over a pricy meal in a famous Manhattan restaurant), only to part ways when she wasn’t willing to mold her work to the agent’s vision. (I just pre-ordered her debut collection, Be With Me Always, from University of Nebraska Press. You might want to also!)

Keynoter Abigail Thomas shared many truth nuggets which I couldn’t record because I was either laughing or nodding furiously in agreement, and also I had committed to staying absorbed in the moment. She’s a literary hero of mine: when I want to try something on the page that’s a little off, I bolster myself with, “Well if Abigail Thomas could do X in (insert one of her books here), then I can…”

One thing that really stuck with me (and I’m paraphrasing her first sentence): We worry when writing memoir that others will say, who cares?

Thomas continues: “Who cares who cares? YOU care.”

That’s it in a nutshell, no?

[I was fortunate to be involved in Hippocamp 2018 as a reader and panelist (Debut Authors Night), and presented a breakout session, “Reconstruction: Transforming (Related) Essays into a Narrative Memoir.” More on the latter in a future post.]

Meanwhile, what have you been inspired by, intrigued by, captivated by recently at a writer gathering?