Every August, I drive to Lancaster, Pennsylvania for one of my favorite writing conferences. Equal parts writer reunion, learning lab, and opportunity to discuss all things creative nonfiction, HippoCamp offers new and established writers a chance to meet and exchange ideas. Attending the three-day conference feels like coming home.
On the drive back to Charlottesville, I thought about what I’d learned at this year’s conference. While I’ll be processing my thoughts for weeks to come, I wanted to share a few golden nuggets with you.
For those of you who don’t write creative nonfiction, I’ve translated my highlights into wisdom for any genre.
The Writing Life
Writing About Trauma without Retraumatizing Yourself
Lisa Ellison (Hey, that’s me!)
Best Quote (Tweeted by a participant): “If you’re forcing yourself to write about trauma when you’re not ready, you’re retraumatizing yourself. Emotional wisdom is knowing when the time is right.”
Writing instructors frequently tell us to write about what keeps us up at night. But what if those stories keep you up all night? Or what if those stories make you want to throw up, leave the room, or quit writing altogether? To safely write about trauma, you must P.A.C.E yourself.
P = Prepare for self-care
A = Activate internal wisdom
C = Choose wisely and keep it contained
E = Explore with curiosity and compassion
During my session, I described some of the ways you can P.A.C.E. yourself. In the coming months, I’ll publish a workbook that describes this model and includes exercises designed to help you complete your most difficult projects. Online
In the meantime, check out my new class: Story Matters: Forgive Your Characters, Empower Yourself.
Doubt by Any Other Name: Combatting Imposter Syndrome and Finding Your Voice
Best Quote: “Determine your kryptonite. If you can identify the issue, you have power over it.”
Imposter Syndrome is a problem that plagues writers of all genres. It’s the source of our “not good enough” feelings. But did you know there are five different types of Imposter Syndromes? You can be a Perfectionist who has to get everything right, an Expert who must know it all, a Natural Genius who would be a total failure if she put in any effort, a Soloist who can never ask for help, or a Superman/Superwoman who has to be the best at everything. Understanding your Imposter type and giving your Imposter Syndrome a name can help you combat it.
When it comes to difficult stories, readers need moments of relief. These pauses help the reader recover from emotionally fraught scenes and prepare for new ones. In her presentation, Lara used Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water and Krystal Sital’s Secrets We Kept as exemplar texts. In Chronology, Yuknavitch opens with her daughter’s stillbirth. Her beautiful language plunges you into this terrible moment. Just when you can’t take anymore, she propels you to the surface with sentences like “girl swimmers are hairy.” Each opening line resets the timber of the prose and expectations regarding the emotional intensity of her chapters.
Secrets We Kept is a story of brutal domestic violence that’s passed down through the generations. To allow readers a chance to breathe, Sital created a unique structure where horrific scenes from the past are balanced by conversations in the kitchen between Krystal and her mother or Krystal and her grandmother. Meals serve as a grounding force, reminding you that while this family has suffered, it has also survived.
Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, among others
Best Quote: “Every project has its own closed image system that may be contained in a character, object, or landscape. We find the system through the writing process.”
Sometimes we don’t know what we have until we’ve written it. As you begin to examine your work, look for patterns in your prose. Perhaps you always write about the same things or include the same images. An examination of these patterns can deepen your narrative arc. To find the pattern, create a collage of the images and topics that appear in your scenes. Notice the trends then ask yourself what the story is trying to tell you.
Don’t Call Me Brave: Three Memoirists on Writing and Publishing Hard Truths Before, During, and After the #MeToo Movement
Krystal Sital (moderator), Lynn Hall (panelist, author of Caged Eyes), and Amy Jo Burns (panelist, author of
Krystal: “Understanding the importance of what you’re writing and what you can lose are critical considerations when publishing your work. And remember that publication is completely worth it.”
Lynn: “I look forward to a world where survivors can tell their stories without someone calling them ‘brave.’ Brave perpetuates the divide between those who share publicly and those who don’t.”
Amy Jo: “You are not your trauma. You are not your book.”
When someone brings a difficult story to a writing workshop, they’re not looking for pity or props. They want you to assess their writing based on what’s on the page not the contents of their heart. While I could talk at length about how to do this, I want to stick with the points these speakers made. Sometimes calling a person brave is a way to communicate sympathy and pity. The term can also be used to elevate those who publicly share difficult stories above those who don’t. Be mindful of what you say to your fellow writers about their work. When you’re thinking of calling someone brave, ask yourself if this is a way to compensate for your own discomfort. If it is, see what you can do to soothe yourself. If
Building Your Platform with Instagram
Allison K. Williams
Best quote: “You do not work for social media. Social media works for you.”
Someone at HippoCamp said this session was like willingly drinking from a firehose. There was so much good water, and unlike most firehoses, the water was good. My biggest takeaway from Building Your Platform with Instagram was around engagement. When it comes to platform building, many of us obsess about follower numbers, but real engagement is more important. Likes and comments demonstrate that readers are interested in what you have to say. Instead of growing your numbers, find ways to authentically engage with your current audience. Ask them questions. Promote other people. Tell a story other people will care about.