Several months back someone asked me to respond to some questions about HippoCamp, the creative writing conference I’m planning with Hippocampus Magazine. The interview never ran, and I was a bit bummed. But I also know that things like this happen in the writing world; heck, that’s why kill fees exist, right? (Out of respect, I’m not mentioning the name/outlet.)
However, I spent so much time and care crafting answers that I didn’t want this effort, my shared passion, to go to waste, so I am sharing this email interview here, on my blog. You know, kind of like lost footage finally being aired! The (anonymous) writer’s questions are in bold. I know this might seem a bit odd, but I hope that as you read on, you’ll see why I didn’t want this info to just stay hiding in a ‘sent’ folder in Gmail.
Thanks so much to Person-I’m-Not-Naming for the thoughtful questions! The interview focused a little more on the behind-the-scenes part of conference planning rather than the content of the program. I hope you enjoy this little glimpse into HippoCamp!
So, HippoCamp is mentioned on the website as an extension of Hippocampus Magazine, which you began developing during your time at Wilkes University’s MFA program. Could you speak to how the mission of the magazine and the conference dovetail in goals? Additionally, what do you hope to accomplish toward those goals with the conference that you could not within the medium of the magazine?
“Engage” is one aspect of our three-part mission. We do a great job engaging with our audience through social media, email, story comments and other virtual ways. This conference will be that part of our mission on steroids. “Entertain and educate” are the other two parts of our mission, and a professional development conference with built-in reading and social events serves that mission to a T. What the conference adds to our existing missions is doing all of this in person, and bringing a community to together for a shared experience.
How has organizing the conference differed from organizing and running the magazine? Were there any challenges you had not planned for? Care to share an anecdote?
Our magazine is a monthly publication, and we’ve become a well-oiled machine after about five years of publishing creative nonfiction. It’s absolutely a blast, but it’s routine, so what this conference adds is a little refreshing. Rather than fitting stories into places, we’re fitting people and events into spaces. It’s a big-scale event, and there are so many things to consider from the fun part of finding guests to the more monotonous parts such as printing name badges. There is also a larger budget to work with, which also is the main challenge: money. The idea is that the conference will fund itself with registration fees and sponsorships.
Are you modeling this conference on any other conferences? How do you hope to narrow or expand the scope of HippoCamp differently from other conferences you’ve attended or researched?
My favorite conference in the world is HighEdWeb. I’ve attended it (and have been a speaker) since 2011 and, this year, I am on its communications committee. This conference is a total blast and is filled with some of the most talented, fun, warm and welcoming people in the industry. I absolutely love the format of this conference and that it gives everyone, no matter their position or length of time in the industry, a voice. Plus, the vibe is casual, cool and fun. The backchannel chatter seriously lasts all year until the year changes. I’ve modeled HippoCamp somewhat after that, even with the name–we affectionately refer to HighEdWeb as ‘geek camp.’ I have not been to many other writing conferences, but I imagine this is a little different than, say, a format like AWP, where everything is a panel discussion. Our format offers a variety of programming: panels, workshops and 45-minute sessions that allow a professional in a field to show his or her stuff. We also opened up for proposals to capture a wide array of talent.
Looking at the list of panels, it seems like some of them are helpful topics for any aspiring writer. Do you think that’s the case, or will the panels be geared to the specific needs of someone writing in a nonfiction genre?
To get the terminology straight, we offer three panel discussions and then about 20 break-out sessions. There’s a difference, and that’s one of the things that I love about our format. The sessions and panels are mostly geared toward creative nonfiction, but I know that writers in other genres will be able to take away a lot from sessions and panels too, especially the Share (marketing/publishing) and Live (writing life) tracks. Some topics that have broader appeal beyond the genre include podcasting, online marketing, setting, writer’s block, and a writing and movement workshop. Also, the literary citizenship panel will apply to all genres and, in fact, its panelists are mostly cross-genre.
Furthering that, how do you think building a platform for a nonfiction writer varies from building one for a fiction writer?
Oh, I do PR and marketing for a living so I could go on and on about this question! The biggest difference is that a nonfiction writer can be a subject matter expert, which lends itself real well to becoming a thought leader or to get press around a certain topic. I think there’s more of a chance to build a bigger platform in nonfiction, at least with a broad audience. This is especially the case for those writing prescriptive nonfiction, but even on the memoir side, someone could build a platform around the main theme of the book—especially if it can have a unique spin.
The conference is scheduled to have sessions along three tracks. How are these tracks organized?
Our mission is three-fold, so we went with three tracks as well. Create is sessions related to the art of writing creative nonfiction. Share offers sessions related to promoting and publishing work. Live offers sessions about work-life balance and, in general, the writing life. Each time slot offers two craft options, and the Share and Live alternate.
What do you hope to be the individual experience for an attendee upon leaving the conference?
I want people to be overwhelmed, but in the good way. I want them to have so many new ideas and/or perspectives when they leave—but I also want them to be able to have a clear sense of focus on what’s next. I want them to feel inspired and motivated to take the next steps in their work, whether that is starting a new project, getting on the ball to submit work, finding representation, etc. I want attendees to have made new connections and confidants—we all know that a support network is crucial to our success as writers, and often we need to go beyond our regular social circles to find that. I want people to leave, waiting for #hippocamp16. The bottom line is that if someone leaves the conference and makes just one change in their writing life that leads to something they’d consider a personal success or milestone, then we were a success!
What tips can you share for those planning to attend the conference: which sessions to attend, how many, how to organize time, etc.?
From my experience at conferences, I would definitely suggest getting enough sleep and eat breakfast. I’ve been to conferences where I want to socialize with all my new friends until the wee hours of the morning, and then I drag the following day. I sound like a complete mom saying that (and I have no kids!), but being alert during the sessions is good advice—you want to feel at your best. I always suggest, as was suggested to me by conference veterans, to conference-goers in my industry (web/marketing) to go to a session that gets them out of their comfort zone. For example, I work in the “front end” of the web, but sometimes I’ll go to a more technical session just to open my mind and see something I don’t normally see. While we don’t have such a drastic range of sessions, I’d encourage people to try something they might not usually pick. Finally, someone I know from HighEdWeb, always says to not try to implement every single thing they wanted to from the conference once you get back to work—find that one golden nugget to tackle first.
Do you think the size of Hippocamp will lend any particular benefits that a conference of a different size might lack?
I think that attendees will have more access to talk to presenters and panelists one-on-one, during breaks, etc. Larger conferences aren’t all bad, but I think there’s something to be said about not being so crowded… including a shorter line to the cash bar!
Given your experience with social media platforms and marketing, how do you plan on promoting the conference and its mission before, during, and afterwards?
The conference is promoted heavily via grassroots efforts. We attended AWP this year with the intention of promoting our own conference, and it went over really well. There’s lots of buzz. I did Facebook advertising, letters, postcards and other more personal outreach efforts. We’re also doing blog post previews. I’m trying to reach people in many different ways. During the conference we’re using the Twitter backchannel (#hippocamp15) and, afterwards, we’ll likely do follow-up blog posts and possibly share abbreviated session content.
So, there you have it! An interview that didn’t get to see the light of day, revealed!