On August 12-14, Hippocampus Magazine brought to the Lancaster County Convention Center: 3 keynote speakers, 42 presenters, 216 attendees (representing 28 states and 4 countries), and infinite stories and conversations shared over plentiful meals, cocktails, or snacks of milk and cookies. Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon, this group engaged in panel discussions, author readings, and breakout sessions. Some elected to participate in a workshop or a pitch session with industry agents and editors. This second annual event managed to top the inaugural gathering in number of attendees as well as the increased number of offerings.
Photo credit: Lisa VanMark
I would be mistaken to go any further without telling you that Mary Karr, award winning memoirist, was the featured keynote on Saturday evening. Poet and nonfiction writer, Mary Karr is a professor of literature at Syracuse University, but her stories are rooted in her tumultuous childhood in the desolate oil-refinery town of Leechfield, Texas. Her memoirs include The Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit, and in fall of 2015, Karr released The Art of Memoir, the nonfiction title on which her talk was based. Karr was utterly disarming in her easy, intimate address, a tangible extension of the familiar persona from her work, yet somehow impossibly more vivid and endearing. In person, she embodies her poetic, spiritually reflective voice, whose sensitivity sometimes feels jolting in contrast with her frank, unapologetic diction—reminding us that authenticity means more than consistency.
Karr jokingly proposed that memoir is not a genre of “guys who wear deck shoes and use ‘summer’ as a verb,” but one that is “about being a human and feeling the beauty and difficulty of it.” She remembered her reading of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as an experience that made her feel less lonely, and it is that human connection that inspires the rigor with which she pursues her both her craft and her teaching career. She describes her writing process in a way that sounds nearly as traumatic as her childhood:
“Writing memoir is knocking oneself out with your own fist… It’s like pounding on a corpse and breathing into its mouth and getting it to rise up…. I cry every day. If I haven’t cried, then I haven’t had a good day. It means I’m not paying attention.”
Most memorably, Karr encouraged her audience: “Don’t write how you suffered. Write how you survived.” It is with this brave spirit that Karr stares down her life events as she writes six hours a day or 10,000 words, whichever comes first, a discipline she collegially advised her audience to undertake. In that same generous spirit, Karr tweeted later that night: “At hippocamp nonfiction conf, I finally met my posse—so many brave people telling stories—singing all the way home.”
In addition to Karr’s Saturday keynote, Ashley C. Ford provided an opening keynote on Friday afternoon, and Dave Cameron wrapped up on Sunday with a final keynote address. Ford, a writer, editor and speaker, is currently co-editing with Roxane Gay an anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. In her keynote, entitled “Don’t be a hero,” she addressed the importance of truth in memoir and not revising history to fit an ulterior motive of our narratives. Cameron delivered an apt topic for the conclusion of a writing conference, challenging attendees to implement writing goals and optimize writing production. Each writer needs to develop an urgency in writing that commits to putting hours in the books and words on the page. An award-winning speaker on the topic of sustainable work productivity, Cameron spoke from his 12 years experience at Ithaca College as a content marketing strategist. Elements of these two topics were resurfaced in other HippoCamp 2016 breakout sessions, along with discussions of voice, point of view, humor, writing community engagement, publishing, book proposals, and self-promotion.
A developing writer, I was personally challenged by Friday night’s Debut Author Reading, in which first-time published authors read excerpts from their work and responded to the audience. Their stories allowed each listener to peer into the dark folds of their past as they shone a thin beam of light with their craft. These excerpts revealed abuse, shame, defeat, tenuous human connection, systemic generational tragedies, but also the beauty, tenacity, and triumph of survival and voice. Creative nonfiction is authentic experience in artistic expression, and the thick empathy in the room reminded me why we showed up to HippoCamp 2016.
Lancaster’s own Donna Talarico, creative mastermind of Hippocampus Magazine and host of the annual Hippocamp conference, announced that Hippocampus will be expanding into the medium of print, from its original online publication of memoir, essays, flash nonfiction, and articles. Its first print title Selected Memories will feature selected stories that were originally printed in its online forum. The Hippocampus press division is now soliciting for publication: memoirs, essay collections, literary journalism, travel writing and craft and creativity books. You can learn more about the press at the Hippocampus website.