August 26, 2022 § 12 Comments
By Michèle Dawson Haber
Three weeks away from the terrifying milestone of putting my draft memoir in the hands of a developmental editor, I started to question the wisdom of registering for Hippocamp, the annual conference for creative nonfiction writers sponsored by Hippocampus magazine. I was in the final stretch of getting the manuscript in as good a shape as possible and attending the conference would mean five days off task at a time when I could least afford to get sidetracked.
But I was stuck in a self-hating rut, weary of chapters and sentences that led nowhere, scenes dark and serious, and reflections so shallow not even a snorkel was required. The few remaining “[xxx]”s where more research was needed only paralyzed me further. I needed a break—I needed to stand on my tippy toes, reach my hands to the sky, wriggle my fingers, and lift my face to the warmth of the sun.
To draw up (one’s body) from a cramped or stooping position
And so, I left the house, boarded a plane, and took myself to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Once at the hotel, I wandered the maze of halls, weaving between wedding parties, bodybuilders, and young parents attempting to lift the spirits of travel-weary children. Revolving glass doors, four fluffy white pillows, endless escalators, mac and cheese with pepper jam, phantom elevator bells, herb and flower market scents, and giving in-person hugs for the first time to all my zoom writer friends—how good it was to get away from my keyboard!
But changing scenery by itself wasn’t going to alleviate the guilt I felt about not working on my revisions. Would the content of the conference sessions help me overcome my inertia?
To reach out (extend)
Opening the conference menu of deliverances, I scanned the options, my subconscious looking for comfort and safety—sessions that would affirm I was on the right path. What was I thinking? This was a writers’ conference, hadn’t I come to challenge myself? The session choices were all a stretch, each representing an alternative approach to my well-worn perspective: Second person POV, writing about religion, writing like a musician, the art of the interview, writing about trauma, recognizing implicit bias, adding humor to your writing, choosing your voice, or structuring your memoir like a novel. They all excited me, I wanted to attend all these and more. The offerings promised to extend my writerly comfort zone and that was exactly what I needed.
Over the next two days I knocked off as many sessions as my attention and energy allowed. The presenters of these sessions gave me fact-checking and research tips to help me fill in knowledge gaps, awareness of implicit biases that may worm themselves into my writing, strategies to lighten up my more serious chapters, and ideas on employing different voices to heighten the realism of my narrative. Other sessions provided me tips on querying, networking, editing, and getting my essays into literary magazines. There was such a variety in the presentations that no emerging writer’s questions went unanswered.
To go as far as or past the usual limit of something
Attending a writing conference involves a kind of stretching—I reached beyond my comfort zone and opened myself up to new ways of thinking, learning, and doing. Supported by the friendliness and generosity of the presenters and my fellow attendees, I was reminded that progress and growth are possible. Nothing underscored that conclusion better than the keynote address by Carmen Maria Machado. I didn’t expect that hearing this brilliant writer’s experience of writing her memoir, In the Dream House might increase my confidence, but when she talked about her struggles with processing, structuring, and revising, I felt I could make peace with my own floundering. All writers wrestle with similar things—struggle does not equal failure. As she said to a rapt audience, “Writing a memoir isn’t simply recording what happened—that’s called a diary—writing a memoir is fundamentally an act of shaping real life into a meaningful, beautiful, interesting story. And that is fucking hard.” In the moment I needed it most, Carmen Maria Machado validated my effort and my art.
I could have stayed home and had five days more with my manuscript (well, maybe a bit more if you add the time it took to write this essay), but I’m certain it wouldn’t have had the same impact as attending the Hippocamp conference. It wasn’t just the acquisition of knowledge that I gained—being and learning in a community of writers gave me the clarity and inspiration to come back home and attack my work-in-progress with fresh vigor. I have new strategies to call upon now and clearer insight into what needs fixing. Will I finish revising by my deadline? Who knows—but I’m more ready than ever to work hard and lean into that stretch called writing.
Michèle Dawson Haber is a writer, potter, and proud Canadian who currently resides in Toronto. She is working on a memoir about step-adoption, family secrets, and identity. Her writing has appeared in Salon.com and The New York Times. More at www.micheledhaber.com.
February 9, 2022 § 3 Comments
By Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione
The Editors of Hippocampus Magazine’s Getting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative Nonfiction had me hooked from the very beginning when it asks readers which type of Imposter Syndrome they most identify with. Having earned two writing degrees and worked as a freelance story analyst for over ten years in the film industry, I found myself with one foot in The Perfectionist column and one in The Soloist column with a small puddle of self-sabotage as gurgling quicksand below. In Athena Dixon’s essay, she gives grounded questions to help any writer work with this Imposter that lives within, stands in front, pulls from below, and any other form of obstacle it creates, including her own that she has fondly named Derek.
I have never asked myself, what are my aversions to networking, but I am eager to discover more tangible solutions to help me get out of my own way (or at least move my Imposter aside). With Getting to the Truth, The Editors of Hippocampus have given writers in every stage of the writing life a gift. Chocked full of pragmatic tips, how-to’s, creative exercises, and priceless information, Getting to the Truth is the first creative nonfiction craft book I have read that has left me with pages of ideas for future essays, memoirs, and hybrid visual essays I had never considered. What sets Getting to the Truth apart from many other CNF craft books, is its emphasis on the practice of writing creative nonfiction. The Editors of Hippocampus successfully debunk the myth that words just appear when a writer sits down by dissecting the precious challenges that writing creative nonfiction brings. When writing creative nonfiction, our mind can be a most difficult guest at the table.
Tailored specific to CNF writers, Getting to the Truth dives right into what is stopping so many of us from telling our stories: ourselves. The book delves into the neuroscience of memory, the shapeshifting of our traumas, the difficulties of writing about family, and the importance of a faulty memory. In Wendy Fontaine’s essay, she unpacks her own experience of writing a detailed scene about her divorce in the dead of winter only to discover that the court date she references actually happened in the summertime. She asks herself, “What right did I have to render this scene to the page if I couldn’t even recall it correctly?” Fontaine weaves research, science, and the discoveries and observations of other memoirists, to arrive at the well-scavenged advice: “Don’t be afraid to explore your own memory mistakes…. You might find more truth, more meaning in the distortion itself.” It is this search for meaning that The Editors help map for any writer trying to get a story out.
In Kate Meadows’ essay, she confronts the conflict of a “quiet” life and how changing the idea of conflict to one of movement helped her unearth a deeper conflict within, one she had not excavated for the page. She posits, “If we think of an EKG line as a metaphor for story, we want to see a line with lots of rises and falls. In other words, we want a trajectory, a record of movement throughout the story.”
Jenna McGuiggan’s brilliant essay touches on the feeling of overwhelm—a feeling extremely dear to me—about the mountain of stories that can overwhelm the writer, leaving the words buried. She introduces the concept of the One-Moment Memoir, and gives inspired exercises to help writers push through the overwhelm and grant themselves permission to write about one single moment instead of the entire story. As a writer who spent a year traveling around the world and then came home and wrote nothing about this experience, this essay found a home in my heart. But more importantly, a flood of one-moment ideas spilled out on the page. There is beauty in omission and editors of Hippocampus Magazine help writers find the stories that really matter to them. They do this through pinpointing meaning. To sit down and attempt to write about my nine-month adventure around the world is daunting to begin with, boring and self-serving at best. To write about the sheep that was bleating outside of my window in Marrakech for three days, waking me in the early hours of the morning, aggravating me to no end until the absence of the noise sent me off to discover its body strung, its head apart, in preparation for Eid Al Adha, is a moment perhaps worth examining. Speaking to my cinephile heart, McGuiggan compares this mining for meaning to a scene in a movie and asks the writer: “What does this moment mean to you?” Meadows asks “How does your main character interact with their environment?” In Melanie Brooks’s essay she asks, “What are the pieces of the family story that only you carry?”
For those of us who find it difficult to find the words to express meaning, have no fear, Nicole Breit’s essay takes CNF writers down the exciting path of the Visual Essay. In her essay, she leaves no stone unturned and gives writers a wealth of knowledge supported by moving visual essays such as Vivek Shraya’s photo essay “Trisha” or Shirley Harshenin’s quilted essay “When a Jack Fails.”
Getting to the Truth is not only a book where writers can galvanize inspiration, but it is also an incredible teaching tool, a by-product of the successful HippoCamp conference held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, each summer. The collection of essays from different editors and writers makes for a collaborative reading experience, one of shared writing experiences and an encouraging dialogue among writers. In addition to the ideas and inspirations, I collected a page full of magazines and literary journals I had never heard of, essayists and memoirists I had not yet discovered. I created a checklist of actionable items to take in the forward direction of my writing life, one that is often mired in feelings of overwhelm, underwhelm, and a deeply seated fear that despite the writing degrees and work experience, perhaps I’m just not good enough. The Editors of Hippocampus know this mind. They are this mind. Getting to the Truth not only tells us all that there is enough space for all of our stories, but it shows us how. The craft book ends with a bonus section with lists of places to submit CNF work and how to find other homes, as well as an Endnotes section with reading recommendations and all of the essays I scribbled down before discovering the Editors had already graciously done this part for the reader. The Editors of Hippocampus say we can do this, one moment at a time.
Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione writes creative nonfiction and book reviews. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles and a BFA in dramatic writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her work can be seen at About Place Journal, Sentience Literary Journal, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and a book review forthcoming in The Rumpus. She is currently working on a memoir and can be found on Instagram @thingsivelearnedfrommydaughter and Twitter @LABacchione.
October 2, 2011 § 2 Comments
Beverly Donofrio, author of Riding in Cars with Boys, talks memoir, Frey, and how memory is shaped into story over at Hippocampus magazine:
What are your thoughts on how the genre has changed over the years?
Bev: I think it’s become more and more artful; it’s constantly stretching its boundaries, morphing into new structures, blurring the lines between genres. I used to think of memoir as the novelization of one’s life. But I don’t think that anymore; the form expands and bends and, although it’s about telling the truth in a narrative form, there’s much free associating and poetry, reportage, essayistic writing, history outside of one’s own that can be woven, or plopped or jack-hammered in.
Amye: What do you think of writers like James Frey, who was discovered to have invented much of his memoir? How important is absolute truth in memoir?
Bev: I think James Frey should be shot. And his editor imprisoned or at least fined. I read that book and knew within fifty pages it was fiction. I do not believe his editor didn’t know that too. I think he should be made to give every penny he earned to Pen International or some worthy writers organization for making us all so embarrassed at how easy it is to lie and have it be perceived as true—and for shamelessly portraying himself in his book as such a macho. Please. On the other hand, like all shit storms, it has its positive side. It’s forced a discussion about what one can legitimately do in a memoir. Although one tries to tell the truth in order to make a story readable, one must choose what is told and what omitted, enforce a structure, a story arc, impose meaning on raw life. One compresses time and recreates scenes from memory, and whole swaths of dialogue. At least I do. I may remember a key line or two but for the rest of it, I ask myself, “What did I and everyone else there probably say?” Once I begin writing, I believe that what I wrote is very likely what I now remember. I realize this may be delusional but I don’t tell out and out lies, and I don’t make scenes up from whole cloth, and I try really hard not to make myself into someone better or worse than I am and not to make others different from how I truly see them. But, as we know, vision, perception, memory are all selective whether we want it to be or not.