Submitting

October 4, 2017 § 28 Comments

zz Dheepa R Maturi Bio PhotoBy Dheepa R. Maturi

Long ago, my grandmother peeled oranges for me — and by peeled, I mean stripped bare of rind, fascia, fibers and membranes until the bulbous cells underneath lay exposed and quivering. When I began to submit my writing to journals, I, too, felt stripped and offered for casual consumption.

I’d been writing my whole life, but in unpredictable bursts recorded on post-it notes and backs of shopping lists and even paper plates — little releases of a pressure cooker valve allowing me to function again when my throat felt too tight, my stomach, too constricted. And then, the pressure would rebuild.

The gradual movement of my writing from disposable dinnerware into computer files and a daily practice challenged and provoked me, but also allowed me to choose proactively where in my life and mind to dig and explore, where to shine light and hope as I wrote. At long last, I felt I was occupying myself, stepping into integrity and knowingness.

While I felt wonderment at all this road granted me, a side path continued to catch my eye and beckon darkly. I disregarded it. I ignored it again and again.

But I knew what it called me to do: submit my work.

* * *

Oh, no.  

Did I really have to cross the line I’d circumscribed around my writing life? The very idea filled me with dread, conjured up tentacular beasts in my psyche and foretold bloody battles. But instinct told me the process would be worth it — if I could survive it.

At first, the lessons were benign, even universal. As I received my initial feedback, I began to comprehend the enormity of my learning curve with respect to the craft of writing. I began to understand the practice was more demanding and exhausting than I’d anticipated. I would need more endurance. More tenacity. A much, much thicker skin. I also found reserves of energy and optimism (not to mention skin) that I’d never known existed.

But then, more personal battles commenced. As rejections rapidly accumulated, I experienced a feeling of perpetual internal scrubbing. The act of submitting my work seemed to be wrestling my numerous neuroses simultaneously — I envisioned hundreds of nanites released into my brain, methodically correcting misfiring systems as they crawled. My head, my whole body, hurt all the time.

I saw my desperation for affirmation, realized that my sense of self-worth was dependent almost entirely on the approval of others — approval that was not forthcoming. Each rejection felt personal, visceral, like a judgment rendered upon me. I had to learn, for survival’s sake, that, despite my plethora of flaws, despite any dearth of talent and skill, I was nevertheless worthy of occupying space, of expressing what I needed to express.

I saw my pathological need for control. I wanted to hold each editor by the shoulders and explain what each line, each sentence meant and what incidents from my past had informed it. Eventually, I had to accept that my words might be disliked, brutally misinterpreted, or not understood at all, yet they needed to be released to the universe anyway.

I saw how well justified many of the rejections were. My own judgments upon others, my many and varied jealousies, my inability to achieve complete authenticity: all prevented me from translating my thoughts adequately into words, from harnessing and conveying truth.

Now, in the face of all of these beasts (whose heads are lopped off, only to grow back just when I believe them conquered), I feel a continuous impulse to close down and protect all of my vulnerable parts. The mother of all battles is to stay open, open, open in the face of all the defeats, to continue to submit, submit, submit.

Slowly, I have come to understand. To submit is not necessarily to surrender, tasting dust and defeat. Rather, it is an offering of one’s own particular concoction of shame and valor and pain and insight to others, as an act of love. I am not the orange, sacrificed to appease monsters unknown. Instead, I am the grandmother, offering all that I am capable of, in the best way I know, with hands open.

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Dheepa R. Maturi is the director of an education grant program in Indianapolis and a graduate of the University of Michigan (A.B. English Literature) and the University of Chicago (J.D.). Her work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Every Day Poems, Tweetspeak Poetry, A Tea Reader, Mothers Always Write, Here Comes Everyone, Flying Island, Branches, Corium, and The Indianapolis Review. Her short story “Three Days” is a finalist in the Tiferet 2017 Writing Contest.

 

 

 

Submission Amnesia

September 13, 2017 § 25 Comments

Gargi_Mehra_PicBy Gargi Mehra

I subscribe to several newsletters and websites focused on writing, and they often feature success stories from their readers. A common theme I see in these stories is an unfortunate predilection for amnesia. The typical entry reads something like this:

I saw a call for submissions for a contest in your newsletter. I sent in a story I’d written, and promptly forgot about it! A month later, when the winners were declared I was pleasantly surprised to find my name at the top of the list!

I read these words, heave an exasperated sigh, and move on. There are writers out there who submit and having submitted, forget.

I am not one of them.

From the moment I send out my work into the ether, bombarding the inboxes and virtual queues of unsuspecting editors, I grow obsessed with the state of my creation. Has it survived the journey? Will it come back to me dirt-ravaged? Or will it return to my arms carrying the virtual seal of editorial approval? I am anxious to know, and online submissions systems only fuel my anxiety as well as enthusiasm in equal measures. In the submission era of yore, one waited by the post-box to receive SASEs or cover letters that featured a hastily scribbled ‘No’ across the top. But even for that we waited. We stood by our windows and craned our necks for a sight of the postman who might bring tidings of joy or reports of dismal failure, more often the latter.

Even with email, the writer often exercises his index finger vigorously to execute a fervent and frequent tapping of the refresh button.

But nowadays, with Submittable and CLMP, we can observe the various stages of our submission. Watching my story progress from the initial to the more advanced stages fuels my adrenalin. Climbing up even one rung from Received to In-Progress carries significant weight, and portends success, at least in my fantasy world.

I diligently maintain a spreadsheet of my submissions. One of the columns my eye strays to quite often is the ‘Due Date’. In this column, whenever I submit a piece, I place an approximate date by which I might expect a response. It serves as a reminder to me that I must alert the publication when the time for consideration has elapsed.

In the moments that follow after I make a submission, the heart pounds, the imagination soars with anticipation, as if the receiving editor might cast a mere glance over my piece and decide instantly that she must have it in her publication else life won’t be worth living.

This feeling usually fades away soon.

In the days that follow, work and the rigors of daily life swallows me in its obsessive clutches. It is true that I do forget about my submissions, but this feeling is temporary, fleeting. As the time for a response draws near, I turn to the due date for solace. I dread sending a gentle nudge to the editor, knowing full well that she must have valid reasons for not responding. But my fingers are quick, and when the dreaded rejection does not appear, I type out the words with ease, shedding my worry about virtually prodding the journal through the ether.

If I ever sent in a story to a newsletter, this is how it would appear:

I saw a call for submissions for a contest in your newsletter. I sent in a story I’d written for the contest and promptly began obsessing about it! I checked my email every four minutes, tinkered with old stories, wrote nothing new, and waited for ages for the response. A month later, when the winners were declared I was hardly surprised that I hadn’t made it to the list, but I was grateful I could have my life back, even for a few moments until I sent in a new submission and a cycle of obsession began anew.

I long for the day when I can send in an entry and soon afterwards wake up to an incandescent mail declaring me the winner, astounding me in the process. I long for the day when I will acquire that particular brand of amnesia that allows me to submit and forget.

Until then, my fixation with my submissions promises to continue.

__

Gargi Mehra is a software professional by day, a writer by night and a mother at all times. She writes fiction and humor in an effort to unite the two sides of the brain in cerebral harmony. Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines online and in print, including The Ilanot Review, Literary Mama and Papercuts magazine. She recently placed on the Editor’s List of the BlueShift Journal’s Brutal Nation Prize. She blogs at gargimehra.wordpress.com/ and tweets as @gargimehra

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Media

September 7, 2017 § 19 Comments

zz_kathyBy Kathy Stevenson

This past November I took the plunge and jumped headlong into social media.  Of course I already had a personal Facebook account for friends and family, but professionally I was way behind the curve.  I didn’t have a blog, nor did I tweet.  Whenever I had something published, I posted a link on Facebook, but that was kind of like the proverbial tree falling in the forest.  My friends and my mom could “like” my link, but it was highly unlikely that an agent or editor would stumble upon anything I posted.

Part of the reason I was reluctant at first to start a blog or Twitter account, was that – like many writers – I am not so good at “tooting my own horn.”  Even though I have published hundreds of essays and short stories, most copies of these languish as clippings in three-ring binders I store in my office closet.

One day though, after fretting and grousing about how out of the literary loop I was, I decided I would jump in, and I hired a young woman to help me set up a WordPress blog and Twitter account.  It only took a few hours, and I was on my way.  And, to my surprise, I discovered that I loved the whole enterprise!  Here are some of the reasons why:

— I am very opinionated, and I am always right.  (Just ask my family.)

— I’m old, in social media terms (or any terms, for that matter), but my online persona enables me to inhabit a new, witty personality, that – oddly – suits me very well.

— I can share and link to interesting essays, stories, books, and articles about the writing world with my “followers.”  My family is happy that I now have an audience – other than them – for this compulsion to share.  My mom has this same compulsion, which manifests itself as mailed newspaper clippings.

— I love making new “friends.”  Even theoretical friends who I will never meet.  And I can ignore nudists, religious zealots, gun lovers, and people who can’t spell.

— I can sit at home in my pajamas and act like I’m doing something in the literary world.  I’m involved, even if peripherally and at third remove, with all these new people I follow: authors, editors, agents, publishers, and literary journals.

— Who doesn’t like being “liked” and “followed”?  I’m all about immediate gratification.

— I can harbor delusional, but harmless thoughts that an agent/producer/editor will read my brilliant thoughts/tweets and “discover” me.

— I have something quiet and productive to do every day, when I wake up at 5:00 a.m. and everyone else is still asleep.

— Posting tweets and blog entries forces me to do something in the realm of reading and writing almost every day, or at least think seriously about doing something.

— It turns out that I’m really good at thinking up short, pithy random thoughts totally unrelated to anything else.  Or, as I prefer to call them: aphorisms.  Don’t laugh – Sarah Manguso recently published a book of aphorisms, 300 Arguments: Essays, with Graywolf Press, described on Amazon as, “A brilliant and exhilarating sequence of aphorisms from one of our greatest essayists.”

— Even though I know very few of my readers or new “friends” personally, I feel that I have found a group of people who are silently cheering me on.  And that may be the be best part of all.

__

Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Red Rock Review, Chicago Tribune, Clapboard House, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, the Tishman Review, the Brevity blog, and many other publications.  She has a recent MFA from Bennington College, lives just north of Chicago, blogs here, and can be found on twitter at @k_stevenson01.

Does It Matter If I Never Publish My Memoir?

September 7, 2017 § 22 Comments

By Karen Pickell

More than a year ago, I completed a draft of a memoir I’d been wanting to write for a very long time. It’s hard to say when the need to tell this story began. I started keeping journals as a pre-teen, and I’ve continued to fill notebooks throughout my adulthood. I signed up for my first creative writing class when I was 32 and pregnant with my oldest child. While my kids were toddlers, I began exploring my memory, crafting short pieces that I wasn’t sure would become a connected whole. In 2009, when I was 41, I applied to graduate school with the intention of writing a cohesive memoir. After I earned my MA, it took another two years to figure out how to shape my story from beginning to end.

Strangely though, since I finished the draft, the urgency I once felt has faded. It’s been usurped, I think, by fear—fear of being seen, of being known, even though being known is what I wanted most, because I’d felt unseen and unheard for much of my life.

My fear is multifaceted. My story cannot be understood without saying who and what have caused me to feel small and invisible. Some writers have waited until the secret keepers died before telling their stories. We are conflicted by our loyalty to those from whom we’ve always sought permission to speak. We don’t want to inflict pain, despite the pain we’ve experienced ourselves. We are afraid that if we tell our stories, ties to important people in our lives might be irreparably damaged or, even worse, severed altogether.

I’m uncomfortable with the possibility that by publishing my memoir I may hurt someone close to me, but I’m also afraid I’ll be hurt myself by the reactions of my loved ones. Am I resilient enough to withstand the very real possibility that some may try to discredit my own lived experience?

Was I fair in my writing? Did I talk enough about good moments, happy times? Then again, maybe my telling is too subtle, tries to make things sound too normal, when so much was not normal at all.

After so many years of writing, I’m no longer sure I’ll try to publish this book. I’m already a better person and a better writer for having completed the draft. I’ve begun to trust my voice and I’ve learned to see a long project through to completion. I kept the promise I made to myself to finish writing the story.

But I suspect that if publishing my memoir wasn’t important to me, I wouldn’t be sitting here anguishing over it. My original need to be known lingers and won’t be satisfied by confining my story to my hard drive. I want to connect with others who’ve had similar experiences, to help them also be heard and seen and known.

Money’s always nice, but I didn’t set out to write a book as a means of earning income. The respect of the literary community, though, does matter to me, which raises another fear—that my writing isn’t good enough to communicate my experience clearly and my motivation for telling this particular story will be misunderstood by readers who don’t know me in real life.

I’ve read takes by successful authors on the fallout from publishing their own stories—a gazillion different opinions on the ethics of memoir—and I’ve developed my own pretty strong opinion: I think everyone has the right to tell their own story, being careful to include only what’s absolutely necessary from the overlap with others’ stories, and that it’s best for each writer to trust their own judgment when it comes to anticipating consequences in their relationships.

It turns out that I’m the one who must give myself permission to release my memoir into the world, negative reactions be damned.

If I decide to publish, I’m certain someone will find something in my memoir to criticize. It’s possible some people won’t understand my story or won’t like me very much for publishing it. Will I like me if I publish it? Will I like me if I don’t? Will I respect myself? Answering these questions won’t banish my fear, but will help me find the courage to proceed.

___________________________________

Karen Pickell holds a MA from Kennesaw State University. Her work has appeared in Bluestem Online Quarterly, Conte, and in several independently published anthologies. She founded the website Adoptee Reading Resource and she blogs at karenpickell.com. Originally from Ohio, Karen currently lives in Florida.

Fear of Flying: Inside the Memoir-on-Submission Wind Tunnel

September 5, 2017 § 17 Comments

By Cameron Dezen Hammon

“What is it Mama?” my daughter asked, her so voice so hushed I could barely hear her. “What did they say? Mama?”

My daughter is not a quiet person. When she speaks, she’s usually heard. Maybe she was afraid of my answer. Or maybe I couldn’t hear her over the rush of blood in my ears, the slap of my palms on the hot steering wheel, the tepid air conditioner in my ancient Honda, barely keeping out the one-hundred-degree Texas heat.

I was in a Starbucks drive-through, my 11-year-old watching slime videos on her phone in the backseat. We’d just come from iFly, an indoor skydiving place on the Interstate 10 feeder road. My agent had sent my memoir out in early July to 45 editors, and since then I’d become an expert at choosing activities–like indoor skydiving—that prevented me from obsessively checking my email. I’d taken a two-day road trip through the desert with no cell service. I’d made a vision board (ok, I made three.) It’s hard to check email with glue on your fingertips. And I discovered flying. iFly offers two minute “flights” in a 90 mile-per-hour wind tunnel. Two-minute intervals during which I couldn’t do anything but focus on keeping my body steady, my mouth closed (no one wants wind-tunnel cheeks), and chin up. What better metaphor for the process I was in.

“Mama?” my daughter asked again from the backseat.

“They said no, baby,” I replied, surprised by the catch in my voice.

When my agent first sent my memoir out, a couple of editors reacted almost immediately with good news. They were taking it to editorial boards, getting additional reads. My book, This Is My Body, is about my conversion from the Jewish agnosticism of my New York upbringing to the Southern evangelicalism of my husband’s. It’s about the romantic and political turmoil that followed (hello, Trump,) causing me to strip my beliefs to the studs and re-build from the ground up. Because it’s a book about love that also deals heavily with the evangelical subculture and what it means for women, I knew it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. Spirituality isn’t exactly the bread and butter of New York publishing. But I dared to hope.

Idling in the drive-through, full of post-flying false confidence, I unwisely checked my email. “It was a classic editorial vs. publicity stand-off,” my agent wrote. “Publicity won… There’s a lot of consensus about your writing… but there’s a disconnect with the business brass about how to reach readers.” This was one of the few progressive religious publishers brave enough to take on books dealing with controversial, too-often ignored issues in the evangelical church. Their mission statement read like the mission statement for my life. And the editor had loved my book, loved my writing. They were—my agent thought, I thought—the perfect fit.

I felt a tide of emotions when that email came in. Shame. Anger. Fear. Embarrassment. I’m a writer; I know rejections by the boatload are part of this life. I’ve had rejections by the boatload. But I’d developed—or so I thought—a way to avoid being paralyzed by them. This one hit me with the force of the iFly wind tunnel. It took my breath away.

No one knows what goes into writing our books quite like our children, our lovers, our partners. Our butts get numb and our health suffers, maybe we lose our hair, keys, minds—while glued to the computer screen. But they lose us. Or mine did, at least for a time. For six months last year while juggling three jobs and somehow managing to not tank my marriage, I’d taken a collection of fragmented essays and turned them into a book, a book I’m proud of. My daughter—in her last year of elementary school, her last year of being a kid before entering that netherworld of pre-teen—patiently withstood my divided attention. She pulled me back—to her after school activities, her latest math test, her plans for the weekend—when I got that far-off look in my eyes that meant I was solving some timeline, dialogue or structure puzzle in my mind. But she also celebrated with me. We jumped up and down in our socks, sliding on the wood floor when I found out I’d placed an essay with a dream publication. We toasted with Sprite at our favorite neighborhood restaurant when I finally finished the first draft of the book, and secured representation with a fancy New York literary agent. What took my breath away was not only the loss of this and other opportunities to see my book born into the world (35 more publishers had also passed, my agent included in the email) but that my daughter, my cheerleader, nervously sipping her black tea lemonade as we pulled into traffic, was also experiencing that loss.

It’s true that it would been nice to impress the “business brass,” those people with the power to write checks that could potentially replace the crumbling siding on my garage, or upgrade the ancient Honda. But that’s not why I started writing. I started writing because the terror of not writing was greater than the terror of writing. Because the joy of writing something new, of applying ass-to-chair and performing the mystical alchemy of revision, of seeing a project—like this essay—from start to finish, that joy is better than almost any other I’ve known.

“All is not lost, baby,” I said a few minutes later when I caught my breath between traffic lights.

I know that,” she said, with her characteristic half eye-roll. As if nothing could be more obvious.

I choose to believe the right editor for my book is still out there. In the meantime, I’m writing. That’s what my daughter sees. And for now, that’s enough.

 

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Cameron Dezen Hammon is a writer and musician whose work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Brooklyn Review, The Rumpus, Ecotone, Guernica’s “The Kiss” series, The Literary Review, Houston Chronicle, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Seattle Pacific University, and is at work on a memoir about religious and romantic obsession.

Conference Talk: The Importance of Student Sharing

August 28, 2017 § 8 Comments

x rae_mosaic

By Rae Pagliarulo

Earlier this summer, I attended an exceptional writing conference, hosted by a highly respected literary magazine. The week-long event was scheduled meticulously, with several hours of in-class time each day, afternoon craft discussions, and nightly readings from our critically acclaimed faculty members. From 8 AM to 8 PM, we were on the move and engaged pretty much non-stop. Upon reviewing our daily schedule, I noticed that towards the end of the week, there was a special session carved out so that those who had received scholarships to attend could publicly read their work for the rest of the students and faculty. While I thought it was wonderful that the scholarship recipients had a chance to share their work, it made me wonder – what about us, the students who had paid to attend?

During lunches and dinners, classes and talks, I had come to very quickly bond with my fellow participants. They were smart, engaging, welcoming, and so diverse – people from all over the country, with such different styles of writing and vastly different lives. On the bus on the way to class and over coffee in the mornings, we hungrily asked each other, “What kind of stuff do you write? What’s your process? Where can I read your writing?”

I realized that if I didn’t make myself very annoying to the organizers, we wouldn’t have the chance to share our work with each other, and we would leave the conference without something I specifically go to conferences to gain – a writing community. I knew that while it was invaluable to spend several hours each day with a prolific, brilliant, and widely published author, after the conference was over, that author and I wouldn’t become best friends or long-distance writing pals. (I mean, a girl can dream, but let’s be real.) The greatest long-term benefit I would derive from this event would be from my peers – the people that I would keep in touch with, send rough drafts to, visit when I end up in their cities randomly. We were all learning, growing, hungry to improve our craft, and working to build our own networks of writers and creatives who, as we progressed in our journeys, would help and support us in very unique and intimate ways. I became a persistently buzzing fly in the ears of the organizers until I was granted unofficial use of a vacant room for a couple of hours.

Out of 30 conference participants, 20 signed up to share their work. We went so far over time, an employee of the building actually asked us to leave (citing that we hadn’t actually booked the room – details, details), and we were forced to continue the rogue reading in another un-booked room the next day. In the end, all 20 readers got 7 minutes to share their work – and boy, did they share.

I knew for sure that I would be blown away at the nightly readings from our faculty members – after all, they were highly successful authors. It was a sheer delight to hear them read their work, but again – I was not surprised at how delighted I was. Similarly, I knew that each class session and craft talk would leave me with pearls of wisdom, incredible insights, and advice that I could apply to my writing and my life. On those two counts, I was pleasantly affirmed each and every day of the conference. However, the sheer brilliance and emotional fortune of the student reading surpassed every expectation I had. I knew I was arguing for something important and worthwhile, but after I got a sneak peek into those 20 writers’ souls, I suddenly felt like I had stumbled into a new family, a group of people that I grew to know impossibly well after only four short days.

Each person read work that truly represented who they were and what they cared about. I was moved to tears by a short story about a young man struggling with poverty and incarceration; I was doubled over laughing at the missive exploring robot fashion accessories; I was swept away by lilting and verdant meditations on nature and beauty. Political poems, essays good enough to grace the pages of Rolling Stone, fictional worlds I couldn’t invent if I tried – my colleagues delivered one hit after another, and by the end of our two-day marathon, we were hugging, and crying (OK fine, I was crying), and complimenting, and celebrating. To cement the long-term effects of this love-fest, I collected every single reader’s email address and created an unofficial conference mailing list, so we could keep in touch moving forward.

Up until the close of the conference, my fellow writers thanked me for organizing the reading, and even though I said “you’re welcome” about a hundred times, I wish I had said “thank you” back even more – if they were not willing to show up and read their work, and if they did not place a high value on student sharing, I would have been bugging our very busy conference organizers for nothing. I was grateful to get a public shout-out from the organizers during one of our evening events as well. I want to be clear – the absence of a student reading did not sour the incredible benefits I gained from this conference. When I relay my experience to others, I beam with pride and excitement that I was even considered to attend. The week I spent there was truly a unique (and perhaps once in a lifetime) experience, and regardless of what was missing, I am unendingly grateful I had the chance to attend.

But I hope that next year, when it comes time to plan this wonderful conference once more, the organizers remember that while gaining insight and feedback from accomplished, brilliant authors is incredibly important and inestimable, allowing students to share their work – whether they paid to attend or were granted scholarships – sends the message that we are held to the same standards of excellence, that we are similarly valued for our contributions and opinions, and that no matter where we are in our journeys, we are seen and recognized as writers, one and all.
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Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae is the Writing Life Column Editor at Hippocampus Magazine, and works as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.

An Inside Look at HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers

August 23, 2017 § 5 Comments

zz 0813 HippoCamp 1697By 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 [2016], 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.”

The Programming

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.”

The People

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!”

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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.

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HippoCamp 2017 runs Sept. 8-10, 2017, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Pre-registration ends August 28. More details here.

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*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.

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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.

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