An Inside Look at HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers
August 23, 2017 § 6 Comments
By Donna Talarico, Founder and Organizer of the HippoCamp Writing Conference:
The right time to stop learning is never. Last year around this time, for the Brevity blog, I wrote about why investing in professional development is important.
We writers have many options when it comes to professional development: writing retreats, workshops, online classes, continuing education courses, one-on-one coaching, and, of course, books and articles. All these options, from a conference ticket to a magazine subscription, are purchase decisions we don’t take lightly. We need to choose the opportunities that fit our goals, values, personality, and available time and budget.*
When I founded the HippoCamp conference, I sought to build an experience I’d enjoy as an attendee, often taking cues from other industries. It’s important for me to note that one conference model is not better than another—and that’s the beauty of what the literary world has: something for everyone, from close-knit retreats in an exotic locale to the gigantic, always-abuzz AWP. And from magazine- or genre-specific events to all-encompassing expos.
At Hippocampus Magazine, we found the approach that works for us and our audience, and, in this guest post, I share what we think makes our annual conference, HippoCamp unique (aside from its “punny” name) and, in other cases, familiar.
Now, in all honesty, it felt a little awkward for me, alone, to share what makes us different, so I also put out a call to some past attendees for their thoughts as well.
But before I do that, I’ll explain the name. If you aren’t familiar with Hippocampus Magazine, the name “HippoCamp” out of context can sound silly. Our magazine was named for part of the brain that helps us form long-term memories, the hippocampus, which is shaped like a seahorse (which explains our logo)! Couple our name with the summer-camp-like feeling you get from spending so much time with like-minded people. That’s how we arrived at this perfect, play-on-words of a name**!
Focus on Creative Nonfiction
We know we’re not the only conference catering just to those who love true stories, but we’re a small bunch, us CNF-specific mags and gatherings. So this aspect definitely makes us, along with our fellow memoir, flash, and essay friends, different from the majority of conferences out there.
Rae Pagliarulo , returning to her third HippoCamp, says, “There are so many different kinds of true stories, and this conference provides a way to learn about lots of them. Nonfiction is so much more than memoir, and I love having the chance to meet writers and authors and editors and agents who represent the whole diverse genre.”
Vicki Mayk, another repeat attendee, says, “It’s so energizing to be in an atmosphere 100-percent devoted to nonfiction.”
Returning attendee Stephanie Anderson says, “You could feel the heat of the genre and the business buzzing around you there, and it was exhilarating.”
The Solo-Presenter Model
I love when one rock star can get up in the front of the room and ignite a crowd. There’s an energy to this format that you just don’t get at most panels, where each person gets a small snippet of time. HippoCamp is mostly a for-attendee, by-attendee conference, and we’re open to break-out session proposals from writers and speakers of all skill-levels. At HippoCamp 2015, one attendee who helps plan another writing conference took notice of this, and at her organization’s 2016 conference, they broke away from a mostly panel format and introduced solo talks. I am hopeful that more and more conferences will follow this lead, and see there’s value—and not just default to panels.
Mayk adds, “I feel that presenters reflect a great balance of people at various stages of their writing careers. There are first-time presenters, seasoned teachers, and folks who would fall in between. I think this combination of writers presenting perspectives from different places in their writing journeys contributes to a feeling that HippoCamp is a place where there is an open dialogue about the craft of nonfiction.”
The Right Size
HippoCamp draws about 200 writers, and we’ll likely cap attendance at 250. Lara Lillibridge likes this size: “…[it’s] not too overwhelming for introverts like me!”
Lillibridge noticed that “thought has been put into helping introverts like me to open up to strangers…” citing examples such as breakfast topic tables, snack breaks and receptions, and the addition of the Twitter handles to name badges. “That made it easy to identify people I ‘knew’ online but hadn’t met in real life,” she said.
Andersen also liked the intimacy, but said that at HippoCamp she “also felt a similar energy to, say, AWP, especially during the readings from the authors, Mary Karr’s keynote , and opportunities to meet with agents.” Andersen added that the size of breakout sessions allowed for more discussion, and that “everyone felt comfortable sharing their questions and experiences with the rest of the group.”
Most of HippoCamp’s programming is devoted to the Saturday breakout sessions, but we also have keynote speakers, a few panels, flash talks, readings, and optional workshops and pitch sessions.
Lillibridge likes the jam-packed schedule. “I have a lot of time to write at home, so I’m not looking for workshops with extensive writing time—it’s a conference, not a retreat.”
Running a conference can be hectic and overwhelming, but it’s crucial to be positive at all times. And I think that makes a difference.
Lisa Cottrell said, “The entire atmosphere is warm and welcoming, thanks to Donna, and all of her staff right down to every volunteer. Her husband Kevin is also awesome!”
Along with this, because of the presenter model, speakers are attendees too! I truly feel this contributes to the positive feedback we get about the welcoming atmosphere. Lillibridge said, “I love that the presenters mingle freely with the attendees. It conveys a feeling that we are all in the trenches together. There is nothing snooty or pretentious about HippoCamp!”
Cottrell agrees. “Everyone there is someone I want to connect and talk with, and they reciprocate. Mary Karr [in 2016] didn’t just sign my book, she took time to have a conversation with me, and it was amazing!”
The Special Touches
Our post-conference surveys always mention the little things.
Cottrell, for instance, said, “Seriously, the food. This is the only conference I’ve been to that boasts a mashed potato bar at the opening cocktail party, then closes with a last afternoon break on Sunday including chocolate chip cookies and milk (chocolate milk too!).”
This year, we’ll have a mobile charging station and an attendee break room for those who want to relax between (or even during) sessions.
What Happens After
Any conference organizer hopes that attendees leave energized and ready to write, promote, and publish. That’s why feedback, like this from Stephanie Andersen, makes us beam with pride.
“Within a month of HippoCamp, I had established a new writing routine that would result in my finishing a book by March of this year. I had created a website, stepped up my Twitter game, and landed an agent before year’s end,” she said. “As I look at this year’s line-up of speakers, I see a few who inspired me last year, and I want to tell them that what they said helped me move my writing career forward in many ways. I’m so excited about this year!”
These are the things that we think work for HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers. But if you reflect on any conference you love, and maybe even attend year after year, you’re likely to come up with reasons why you’re drawn there again and again.
No matter what type of writing event or learning opportunity, I think it’s key to remember your audience, what they want from your event, and make it happen. Also, it’s important to recognize that all conferences and events can’t be everything to everybody, which, again, is why the literary community is fortunate to have such a selection. Each one is special, each one has a purpose, and each one surely has its biggest fan! I’m proud of what we built, and proud that HippoCamp is just one offering among many.
No matter what your personal conference, retreat, or workshop preference is, keep. on. learning.
*Note: Of course, not everyone can afford the time or travel, but the good news is that there are excellent no-cost ways to keep your skills sharp and knowledge current. Twitter, for me, is my go-to professional development tool! There are also blogs, podcasts, and the essential practice of reading good writing with an eye to learning from the choices other writers have made.
** One of my favorite higher ed web and marketing conferences is playfully referred to, unofficially, as “Geek Camp” so it’s also a nod to that. And, spoiler alert, one day I hope to have an RV and do readings across the country in what we’ll call the HippoCamper. I’m serious!
Author’s note: In full disclosure, Dinty W. Moore, founder of Brevity, is our closing keynote speaker. We’re grateful he allowed us to share a few words about our upcoming event here on his magazine’s blog.
Donna Talarico is an independent writer and content marketing consultant from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She’s founder and publisher of Hippocampus Magazine, and tweets at @donnatalarico. Learn more at donnatalarico.com.