May 16, 2016 § 8 Comments
By Donna Talarico
The first time I tried it, I was a sophomore in high school. And now I’m hooked. A conference junkie. That’s what I am. Ever since that inter-scholastic journalism conference in Oklahoma I haven’t been able to escape the craving to alter my brain with new things, to be inspired by others’ passions.
Professionally, my first taste of sharing expertise—and enjoying the camaraderie of like-minded people gathering from all over the country—was at Solid Cactus Boot Camp, a semi-annual conference hosted by my former company for our ecommerce clients. When I moved into higher education, I immediately hit the conference circuit – and took a chance on submitting a proposal to present at the first industry event I attended, HighEdWeb. It was accepted, and this October will mark my sixth time giving a session or workshop at this particular event and about my fortieth time presenting at a web, marketing or publishing conference. Speaking is rewarding, but I’m only a presenter for about an hour during these multi-day events; the rest of the time, I’ve got my notebook out and my attention fixated on the front of the room. It’s the learning that excites me the most.
Needless to say, I’m in love in with sharing and learning in a conference environment. That’s why adding a creative writing conference—one modeled after the most enjoying, exhilarating events I’ve attended—to Hippocampus Magazine’s offerings was a dream from the get-go; we held the inaugural HippoCamp in 2015.
I consider conferences an investment in myself, one that pays off time and time again. Here are five reasons why.
Everyone has a voice.
My favorite conferences are those which have an open call for proposals which are then vetted by a committee—this usually allows for more diversity in voices, topics and experiences. When the conference programming features a range of career experiences, I know I’m going to learn a lot. For example, at the higher education conferences, some of the best sessions I’ve attended were led by “newbs” to the industry—but they had a significant case study to share. Likewise, someone who has been in the field for three decades can impart such wisdom on attendees. The same can be said for the creative nonfiction genre. We can learn from everyone; all professionals have something to share. And if they can do it in a confident, compelling way in front of a crowd of colleagues, it’s pretty exciting.
Everyone has similar experiences.
Everyone is different, of course. Our projects, our personalities, our backgrounds. But what I mean here is that life-long bonds are formed at conferences of all kinds because they bring like-minded people together. But perhaps it’s more special when it comes to a gathering of wordsmiths. When we writers are at home, we can be misunderstood. Our intentions questioned. Our dreams get pushed aside as family and (survival) job obligations take over. Non-writer friends and relatives can support us in some ways, but they don’t always get what we’re going through. But, ah! A conference full of a hundred or so (or thousand, depending on which event we’re talking about!) writers offers the chance to mingle and chat with those experiencing the same challenges, maybe even prompt deep, meaningful conversations, complete with tears, that last until 3 a.m., which is what happened to me at AWP 2016. People leave conferences inspired because of the content and new-found knowledge, but perhaps the head home even more invigorated by the conversations outside of sessions.
Everyone takes something away.
We all come away from a conference with scribbles, ideas, connections. Frankly, that can be overwhelming. I’ll pass along some wisdom that was shared with me at some point during my conferencing: find your ONE thing. What did you learn at the writing conference that you can implement immediately? Sure, you’ve got lots of plans after leaving a multi-day writing event, but you won’t be able to do it all at once. Cull through your notes and find that, as trite as it sounds, golden nugget. Start there. Over time, you can put to use other things you’ve learned.
Everyone has a chance to be seen.
I wrote earlier in this piece that the ROI—return on investment—for conferences has paid off for me. Sure, that’s a marketing term, but it’s appropriate here. See, just like a vendor or event sponsor considers setting up a booth at a conference as a marketing expense, I consider conference registration as investment in myself as a professional (and creative) writer. I’m learning, but I’m also making myself visible in my industry. I’m not talking as a speaker, but as an attendee. Just by being present, and perhaps active on the Twitter back channel, you have a chance to connect, to get your name out there, to have the most fruitful experience you can imagine. Many of these connections happen organically, but sometimes conferences offer structured sessions that allow us to get uninterrupted time with someone who can offer advice—sometimes opportunities. So maybe you’ll find a critique buddy, the perfect editor for your manuscript, a potential client, an agent, a lit mag publisher, an MFA program director who needs more instructors – or just a really good friend. If people remember you and stay in touch after the conference, consider that some good ROI. One year after the inaugural HippoCamp, I’m still discovering how some attendees have connected and found ways to work together, cheer each other on.
Everyone can share something.
While most independent professional development conferences—the ones that are for peers, by peers—do not offer pay outside of keynote speakers, they do offer us an opportunity to be seen. Submit a proposal present at an upcoming conference; if accepted, you’ll probably save some on your registration, but going along with the previous section, you’ll get to connect with others in a really meaningful way. You will have a captive audience with which you can share your stuff. Dazzle them with your knowledge. Answer questions with confidence. By speaking frequently at the same type of events, I’ve developed a platform in certain areas. Going back to ROI, this credibility has led to future speaking engagements – and freelance projects. Well-paying freelance work that has allowed me to leave my full-time job. See, you never know who will be in the audience, who you will eat lunch with, who you will grab a taxi (or Uber) with. Who you will inspired. Who will have an “Aha!” moment while you’re at the mic. When you speak up, cool things happen. Try it! (Even think beyond writing conferences to whet your speaking whistle – as nonfiction writers, our knowledge could benefit local business, nonprofits, you name it!)
I could carry on for many more words about my love of conferences and why I feel they’re a worthwhile investment in personal and professional development. But I’ll leave you with this: we need to continuously hone our craft, stay up to date on industry and technology trends, and find the motivation to push through our work. There’s no better way to recharge your spirit and refill your brain than by attending one (or more) writing conferences each year. Just a little bit of peer pressure; you know, in hopes that you may also become a conference junkie, too.
Donna Talarico is the founder/publisher of Hippocampus Magazine. She has nearly two decades of experience in marketing, communications, writing and media, most recently as director of integrated communications at Elizabethtown College (2010-2015) in Pennsylvania. (She has past lives in radio and ecommerce.) Now an independent writer and consultant, she speaks at higher education and publishing conferences, writes an adult learner recruiting column for Wiley, and has contributed to Currents (a higher education trade publication), Guardian Higher Education Network, mental_floss, The Los Angeles Times, Games World of Puzzles, The Writer, and others. She has an MFA from Wilkes University and an MBA from Elizabethtown College. She loves road trips, national parks, board games, greasy-spoon diner breakfasts and museums.
May 13, 2016 § 1 Comment
By Kelly Kathleen Ferguson
It’s the first real day of spring, all sunshine and budding tulips, ideal for reviewing a book of essays on disaster. I’ve finally settled in the coffee shop sofa, blocked out the grinding soundscape of Frappucino production and “Africa” by Toto, when two men sit behind me—one younger, one older. The younger man talks. The older man listens. Let’s call the younger man Theodore, after my orange tabby cat who yowls existentially into the night.
Theodore: “Do you feel as if you know everything, because you seem like someone quite sure in life, or are you still searching?”
If a writer begins her book review by transcribing a conversation that, while oddly compelling, amounts to Deepak Chopra gobbledygook, she is:
- Engaging in the postmodern spirit of This Is Only a Test, which employs offbeat structures such as quizzes, lists, and parallel narratives to circle around the author’s ruminations on disaster.
- “Off topic,” a note she frequently writes in the margins of her freshman composition papers.
- Okay, the reviewer can’t think of a good option “c” but wants to uphold the Rule of Threes. Isn’t that what she tells her creative writing students—that two feels like a mistake but three creates a pattern? That’s why Hollars, despite his varied forms, divides his book into a three-act structure: Dizzied, Drowned, and Dropped.
Humans crave pattern, which is why we look for connections. Consider B.J. Hollars and me. He grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the 1940s leading manufacturer of nuclear warhead parts. I live in Cedar City, Utah, the Post WWII nuclear testing fallout capital of America. Was it fate that we ran into one another at an AWP conference hotel sauna? Or that I grew up in Tuscaloosa, in a house blocks away from where the 2011 tornado near-missed Hollars and his burgeoning family?
Theodore: “Movement defines the universe. But if you go to higher planes—since movement can go in any direction—the data can move and it self-directs.”
If two people have lived within a few blocks of one another that is:
- Totally trippy and cool.
- A coincidence the reviewer is trying to stretch into something totally trippy and cool.
- Means the reviewer needs to refresh her undergraduate philosophy notes on David Hume’s concepts of continuous versus contiguous.
Who lives? Who dies? Who gets to write about survival and death? How should we write about survival and death? Hollars’s self-examination implies that if nothing else, we should exercise some manners in the situation, and stay humble. We shouldn’t interrogate a man walking the banks of the Black Warrior River for his son’s remains. We shouldn’t feel special because a fever spares our child but takes another. No one really knows why lightning decimates one house and skips the next. Furthermore, we should question our questioning.
Theodore: “I’m an idiot. Probably the dumbest guy in the room. But if I don’t open my mouth, how will I learn?”
Which of the following is Theodore’s wisest aphorism?
- If I can understand my wants, then I can cure the pattern.
- Love is a construct that operates interdependently while allowing us to be dependent.
- Energy comes from the tension of all directions. Past. Present. Future all exist at once. Time is malleable.
Theodore, apparently, could go on like this forever, and I can’t help but think I will see him one day starring in his own million-dollar infomercial. After all, self-help is an industry because people want to believe in the power of positive thinking. I heard recently that writing down our goals in a journal increases our likelihood of achieving them by 49 percent . But I bet the study didn’t include goals such as: “I would like to not fall in an earthquake crevasse this year.”
Hollars circles around the human desire for order like an insomniac dog, which is maybe the best we can do as humans on the planet that hates us. In the end, what can we do but clutch our loved ones in the bathtub and hope the tornado blows over? Even my upbeat coffee shop guru, like Hollars, eventually concedes that while he believes in a key to the universe, he’s not sure how to access it.
Theodore: “But I don’t know how it works. I don’t know how it works.”
Kelly Kathleen Ferguson is an assistant professor at Southern Utah University. She is the author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other publications.
May 13, 2016 § 6 Comments
by Melissa Greenwood
Ostensibly, Bernadette Murphy and I have little in common. A mother of three, the author of Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life, is a tattooed associate professor who took up motorcycling in midlife. As for tattoos and children, I have neither. I’m thirty-two and check the box beside single/not married on my taxes each year. (I also have a grandmother who would faint if I showed up for Passover with body art.) As for motorcycling, I lack the risk-taking gene. In fact, you couldn’t even get me on a regular bike without the promise of an empty parking lot, hand brakes, and a tightly-strapped helmet. So why on earth would this book appeal to a woman who prefers spinning teacups to roller coasters?
For one thing, Murphy and I weren’t always so different. Believe it or not, she once “had contingency plans for contingency plans.” She believed that if she worried enough about something, she could keep the next “far-flung-but-certainly-pending tragedy” from happening. I can relate. Like Murphy, “what ifs” keep me up at night. But I have to confess, I’m a bit of a former risk-taker. Scroll back a decade to my twenties, and you’ll find a girl who was careless with her body and her money.
Each of us, whether we put ourselves out there physically or emotionally, understands that taking chances can be seductive. While Murphy is more of a daredevil than some, she isn’t suggesting we line up to skydive or that we have to be risky her way. On the contrary, she advocates for risk-taking in whatever way makes sense for the reader, claiming it has brain benefits. (See the term “neuroplasticity” in the closest dictionary, then bring the word with you to your next dinner party.) Murphy has limits. She couldn’t believe her daughter Hope wanted to bungee jump for her twenty-first birthday or that, as I write this, her partner Edmund is realizing his lifelong aspiration to climb Everest. Her openness to chance is elastic, moldable, and reader-specific. The beauty of this book is that we don’t have to be exactly like its author to appreciate the universal story here, which, at its core, is about personal transformation—for some of us, the biggest risk of all.
Murphy’s journey toward self-acceptance comes on the dawn of her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and follows her father’s death. “Staring down the barrel of fifty,” she finds herself at a crossroads: “me or the fear?” As it turns out, her marriage has become uninspired, and the fear feels inescapable: divorce. Making strategic decisions that are in line with self-care, the narrator carves out a new life for herself, but with change comes discomfort: tiny guesthouse quarters, table set for one, empty bed. Her motorcycle becomes the companion she picks up entirely by accident while researching the hobby for a fictional character she planned to write about. On the motorcycle, she learns to make peace with her messy present.
This push-pull between the life imagined and the one lived resonated with me on a visceral level, and not surprisingly. Murphy’s ability to reach a diverse audience makes her the successful writer she is. You see, I live at home, in my mother’s basement. And by basement, I actually mean downstairs. And by downstairs, I really mean my mom’s room is directly beside mine with a mere decorative curtain separating our two doors (and that’s mainly on account of my dignity). Could I spend all of my time obsessing over my unmarried, childless, condo-less reality? Believe me, I could. And if I’m honest, most days I do: I choose unhappiness. But I have another choice: I can embrace my life exactly as it is and practice humility. And in reading Harley and Me, I suddenly found myself wanting a way in to this alternate path—to grace and acceptance. I suddenly wanted to be a little more like the bad-ass narrator, who, while not entirely fearless, is at least “open to the idea of yes these days”; whose new mantra is “Be. Here. Now”; who is finally experiencing her “wildness fully…[who is] willing to evolve or die”; who leans in to what scares her with all her might—throwing her body into that turn, even when it feels like it will kill her.
Melissa Greenwood has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, where author Bernadette Murphy is both an alumna and a mentor. In her past lives, this LA-native freelanced for various entertainment magazines and local papers, taught middle school English, and even custom-fit women for high-end bras. When she’s not writing book reviews, Melissa can be found working as the communications officer at a local private school or taking and teaching Pilates.
May 12, 2016 § 4 Comments
When I was a theatre director, students and actors asked me all the time, “how did you get to be a director?”
They always looked a little disappointed by my answer: “I printed up business cards and started introducing myself to people as a director.”
I’d elaborate for people who stuck around. “I directed high school productions as a guest artist for very little money, and taught at high school conventions. Then I taught workshops at colleges, for a little more money, and then I started getting hired at colleges to direct. From there I got professional gigs.”
Looking back, it’s a little glib. I skim over the hundreds of no’s. I don’t mention sleeping in my truck, or coasting on my then-husband’s credentials until we built our reputation as a team. But it’s also true. I showed up and insisted I was qualified–or at least, that I’d do something new and interesting and hey, it’s cheap enough that if it’s a failure, no biggie, right?
A lot of my writing success–such as it is–comes from showing up. Thinking, “Sure, I’ll drive three hours to Chicago to hope my name gets picked out of a hat for The Moth storytelling show.” And when it did, being ready with a winning story. Thinking, “Why shouldn’t I speak at a conference?” and having a wonderful experience both teaching and learning at Hippocamp. I’ve absolutely had big, embarrassing failures, too–when I misjudged my abilities, or got over-extended (like being absent from this blog for four months). But the important part, every time, was showing up. Acting like I had a right to be where I was–even when I didn’t feel it.
Sculptor Joshua Diedrich thinks of this as “going into the kitchen.”
…most people who want to start a business, or make a living as an artist…aren’t so much working toward that goal, as they’re waiting for permission to receive it. If the world is a restaurant, they’re sitting at the buffet, eagerly watching as new dishes are brought out, hoping the next one will be their novel, or their one-woman show, or their cafe… They’re waiting to be found.
And they never will be.
They never will be because the mystery of creation doesn’t happen in the dining room. They will never be given permission there, or discovered, or recognized…There’s no point waiting for magic in the dining room. All the real magic happens in the kitchen.
Most of us spend our lives either assuming we can’t touch the kitchen door, and never even thinking to go near it…Very few of us ever have the guts to just kick down the door. Usually, only the very entitled, or the very desperate even think to do it.
Diedrich writes about his going-into-the-kitchen moment, and why it’s important to know you can, too. Read the whole post (with a nod to Maurice Sendak) here.
May 10, 2016 § 2 Comments
Our new issue features powerful essays from Jaquira Díaz, Gretchen E. Henderson, DeWitt Henry, Annalise Mabe, Christine Byl, Darius Atefat-Peckham, Alyssa Quinn, Tiffany Hitesman, Keema Waterfield, Jason Arment, M. Sausun, Joanne Lozar Glenn, Kristina Moriconi, Rachel Tolliver, and Ellene Glenn Moore; three new craft essays: Joe Oestreich on balancing narrative and reflection, Amye Archer on the power of emotional distance, and Amy A. Whitcomb on the struggle to prioritize writing in our otherwise busy lives; and wonderful photography from Frank Dina.
May 6, 2016 § Leave a comment
With just weeks to go until submissions are closed, we’ve woken up to the disconcerting fact that some of our earlier blog posts contained erroneous e-mail addresses for certain entry categories. So here we go again. The addresses listed below are up and running and correct (and the gremlins in the interweb pipes have been soundly chastened):
Brevity is excited to announce a special issue to be focused on experiences of race, racialization, and racism … we are looking for work that considers all aspects of race: what it is, what it means, how our understanding of it is changing. We want flash essays (750 words or fewer) that explore how race is learned during childhood, lived over the entire course of a life, and how our changing understanding of race shapes the way we experience ourselves and others. We are very excited to announced that our anchor authors for this issue will be Claudia Rankine and Roxane Gay. The guest editors for this special issue will be Ira Sukrungruang and Joy Castro.
Submissions will be open until May 31st, 2016 and the issue will be published in mid-September. Essay submissions should be sent through our Submittable page.
However, because we are committed to showcasing a variety of lived experiences in this issue, we want to be certain that everyone is able to submit their work. If Brevity’s small submission fee of $3.00 would keep you from submitting, you may submit your work to firstname.lastname@example.org without paying the fee.
We are simultaneously running a student writing contest. For student work, we ask that writing program directors encourage students enrolled in their creative writing program to address our special issue theme and we invite each program to choose the best work (or two best entries if you have both undergraduate and graduate students) from among those submitted. The one or two finalists should be forwarded by the program director directly to email@example.com by May 15, 2016.
May 6, 2016 § 11 Comments
By Peter Selgin
I’m a lucky man. I paint, and I write. The two blessings seldom visit me simultaneously; usually I have to choose between them, like choosing between two lovers. One of those two lovers is of a sentimental and playful disposition, brimming with joy, light, and sweetness; the other is dark, brooding, at times even forbidding. Although she smiles from time to time, her smiles are laced with irony and often with bitterness and despair. She can never stop thinking.
Before I ever started writing I was a visual artist. I say “visual artist,” though that’s too highfalutin a term for drawing pictures of ships and skyscrapers. It seems to me that I could always draw, from the very beginning, that I never had to learn, not really. I was born (so it seems) with the ability to “see” perspective; although my father tried to explain it to me in technical terms, he didn’t have to explain to me what I could very well see with my own eyes, that the rails of the train tracks converged at the horizon, while the tops of the telegraph poles grew shorter. Where other people saw straight lines I saw angles and curves. Not long ago, a well-known author tried to explain to me how, prior to the invention of the camera obscura, the artist Van Dyke could never have “gotten” the perspective of a chandelier in one of his paintings, that such things could only be grasped by the photographically trained eye, which in turn could only exist with the invention of photography or its equivalent. To this I thought (but didn’t say) humbug: in Van Dyke’s or any other time I could have drawn that chandelier.
I don’t mean to brag. My ability to draw is nothing to brag about. It’s just something I happened to be born with, the way some people are born double-jointed, or with perfect pitch. That said, I can’t deny the great joy that drawing has always given me, how often a pen or pencil and paper have rescued me from boredom and ennui (how would I survive those monthly university department meetings without doodling on my legal pad?). When traveling, I’ve considered a sketchbook and watercolors as indispensable as my toilet kit, credit cards, and passport. Don’t leave home without them. There were times when, having set out to do a watercolor in the morning, hours later in the middle of the afternoon I’d awaken as if from a trance, my face sunburned, my back sore, having lost myself completely in my painting-in-progress. I count such hours the happiest of my life. The painter in the midst of his work is impervious to suffering. He or she is a truly happy person. I can think of no place I’d rather be than in the realm of constructive oblivion that is painting a picture.
There—in that realm bounded by four points on a single plane—I exert total, dictatorial authority; I’m in charge. I get to achieve something close to perfection, or at least to aim for it. Within that circumscribed realm no one else can tell me what to do, or whether what I’m doing is wrong or right. When it comes to painting, I consider myself above and beyond criticism. When people like my paintings, I’m pleased. On the other hand I couldn’t give a damn what the “experts” think. I already can guess that most “real” painters would find my work superficial if not entirely irrelevant, that they would dismiss my paintings as products of a technically proficient amateur, one entirely unversed in the protocols (and politics) of the academy, who doesn’t “get it.” Of course these days the very notion of an “academy” in art is frowned upon, especially by those who belong to it. Once, at a communal dinner at an artist’s colony on an otherwise deserted island in Maine, at a table full of conceptual artists (one of whom, I remember, was constructing a clock from the carcasses of dead lobsters) I dared to invoke Picasso’s name, eliciting jeers and head-shakes: did I not know that Picasso was “out”? “He’s just a painter,” one of the artists remarked disparagingly. Painting was Out; Dada was in. But they didn’t belong to any academy.
Never mind. I like to paint and I paint what I like. I paint to give and receive pleasure. When I mix tint into a gesso ground, when I size a board or a canvas, when I paint shape over shape, color next to (or into or over or around) color, when I thicken the paint to a heavy paste, or thin it so it runs and bleeds, when I add sand or ink or sawdust or chalk, when I scrape one color away to reveal traces of the color underneath, when I butt up a delicate line against a heavy form, or a heavy line against a delicate form, when I key the colors so close and low it’s as if they are whispering secrets to each other, until I add a splash from beyond their range, a high-octave red or a blazing yellow that adds a piercing scream to all those mumbles and whispers . . . all done in the spirit of play, the spirit with which children make mud pies or build sandcastles on the beach. There’s no pain in painting, not for me. None at all.
I can’t say the same for writing. Writing hurts. It distresses me. You have to think when you write. (You have to think when you paint, too, but it’s a different kind of thinking, it’s thinking without words; it’s a purely physical process void of any language other than that of colors, textures, shapes, values—closer to dancing than to what writers do).
There are days when I wonder why, given a choice between painting and writing, do I choose to write? Why would any sane person, given that choice, choose that way? What on earth compels me to forsake the joyful realm of pigments and shapes for the stilted black and white universe of words and so-called “meanings”—when deep down inside all of us know perfectly well that, assuming meaning is to be found anywhere in life, language is surely the last place to look for it.
Why, then, do I bother writing?
The only answer I can give is that I write because writing is so hard, that the challenge of drawing (I use the word advisedly) meaning from words is irresistible precisely because it’s impossible, because after all words can only express thoughts, ideas, concepts, symbols—man-made and artificial things. Whereas paint is color; shapes are shapes; lines are lines; textures are textures. They don’t stand for anything (they can stand for things, but they don’t have to). As much as we take words into our hearts and love them for themselves, for the way they look and sound, in the end they can only stand for things beyond words. They are not the ends but only a means.
But then that ‘s what makes them so achingly beautiful. Because they are so difficult, so clumsy, such an inconvenient, inefficient means toward expressing feelings and creating beauty, like trying to build the Taj Mahal out of chewing gum and toothpicks. Pigments and grounds were given to us; we dug them out of the ground. Words we had to invent from scratch. As clumsy, inefficient, and inelegant as they are, for better or worse, words are the only medium we can truly claim as our own.
That makes them irresistible.
Peter Selgin’s essays have earned a dozen Best Notable Essay citations as well as two inclusions in the Best American series (Best American Essay 2006; Best American Travel Writing 2014). He is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, a novel, two books on the craft of fiction, and two children’s books. His work has been published in Colorado Review, Missouri Review, The Sun, Glimmer Train, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and other reviews, and has won the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, the Dana Award, and many Pushcart Prize nominations. An essay collection, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, was published by University of Iowa press and short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Selgin’s second novel, The Water Master, won the Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner Society Prize. Of his first memoir, The Inventors, published in April, 2016, the Library Journal said, “It is book destined to become a modern classic.” He teaches at Antioch University’s low-residency MFA program and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.