How to Embarrass Yourself at a Writing Conference
July 5, 2022 § 12 Comments
By Eileen Vorbach Collins
Let’s go to this! I typed, along with a link to HippoCamp21’s website. Within minutes, Anne said, okay.
An impromptu decision to attend a nonfiction writers’ conference made late one night on a Messenger chat. But I wasn’t serious. Not really. It cost money, and there’d be airports and there’s a pandemic, and well, I’m not a real actual author…
This was not the first time Anne had nurtured my impulsivity. One day near the end of our years at the Baltimore Experimental High School, Anne stood up at a hall meeting and asked if anyone wanted to join her hitching around Europe. Hell yeah. I sold most of my belongings: the guitar I was never good at playing, some books and records, odds and ends. We were seventeen and ready for adventure. It was the days of bogus charter flights, when unscrupulous travel agents provided clients with counterfeit credentials for membership in an ever-increasing list of imaginary “affinity groups.” We joined our esteemed colleagues on a packed flight, all of us card-carrying chiropodists.
Now we were at it again, our HippoCamp nametags displayed on lanyards, much as our chiropodist credentials were on that long-ago flight. I was feeling good about my stack of published essays (a bigger stack unpublished); a couple of exciting, ego-boosting awards; two Pushcart nominations. But look at this table of books for sale! Books with actual cover designs and narrative arcs. Books with titles I’d seen many times over the past year.
And here were all those amazing writers I’d met online. As if I were Miss Nancy on Romper Room: I see Allison and Ashleigh, I see Jeannine and Lilly. There’s Lisa. And Irene and Brian and Ellen. There’s Casey and Mimi and Barbie, and by some miracle there are even a few extra Eileens. And there’s Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, Dinty W. Moore.
Everyone is so friendly. I’ll just go and say hello.
But no. I don’t do that.
I don’t say gracefully, “Hello Dinty, it’s such a pleasure to meet you. I’ve enjoyed your webinars.”
Of course I don’t say that. It would be too normal. Not something a person like me, born without that filter keeping embarrassing comments trapped behind the glottis (where they can’t vibrate vocal cords) would ever say. Instead, I gush and blush and I’m my 12-year-old self, meeting Paul McCartney, turning the other two members of my critique group into clichés. Oh, Dear Goddess, did I really just tell Dinty W. Moore that my friends are green with envy that I get to be in the same room as his famous, revered self? He smiles a humble, uncomfortable smile and I escape to the veggie table to distract myself with loud celery crunching.
And I’m not Miss Nancy—not the grownup pixel-person looking through the TV screen at all the real children in their homes. I’m the kid she never sees, jumping up and down on the worn linoleum, waving at her, I’m here! Say Eileen! I’m here!
But that’s all going to change. Because the night before my flight to that conference, I’d followed the virtual advice of a virtual friend and made some business cards with my five-year-old headshot and all my social media handles and had them printed on cheap floppy cardstock at Office Depot. That’s all. But maybe next year, instead of the old headshot, there’ll be a picture of my book cover. And I’ll have Miss Nancy to thank. Because she never saw me in her magic mirror, I learned to jump up and down and wave. I had to.
At last year’s conference, I learned one thing from all my new writerly friends, both virtual and fleshy: you have to believe yourself real. You have to know that your words matter. To take risks, to stand up and wave, to feel your face flush with embarrassment but go back and do it again, to turn cartwheels across the floor if that’s what it takes to see your reflection in that coveted magic mirror of published authors.
The 2022 Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference is August 12-14 in Lancaster, PA.
Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Columbia Journal, Reed Magazine, the Brevity Blog, and elsewhere. Her essays, have received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction. the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award, and two Pushcart Prize Nominations. Eileen is working on a memoir about bereavement by suicide. Follow her on Twitter here.