Over the weekend, I attended the 2022 HippoCamp Writing Conference. HippoCamp is THE BEST Creative Nonfiction Conference I attend. Each year I arrive with four goals: amass new wisdom, meet new friends, network with colleagues, and most importantly, reinvigorate my writing life.
This year, I met those goals while also having the great joy and privilege of seeing many of YOU, my dear newsletter readers.
My mind is packed with great writing advice—some of which I’ll be processing for the next few weeks. Fortunately, I’ll also be able to check out the slides for the sessions I wanted to attend, but couldn’t because too many great things were happening at once.
Because not everyone has the privilege of traveling to events like this, I plan to share some conference highlights over the next few weeks.
Here’s what I learned during the flash sessions.
Brandon Arversen’s Fact Checking the Family Story:
Brandon shared a few ways you can fact check items in your memoir or narrative nonfiction project, including newspapers.com, peoplefinders.com, and checking property plats—an underused strategy he found to be exceptionally helpful. When you find someone who can corroborate a story, Brandon says to let them talk, then fact check their stories. I was so impressed by what he found when working on his project.
Vicki Mayk’s Tips for Writing Book Reviews:
Vicki Mayk is the reviews editor for Hippocampus Literary Magazine and a fantastic person. While Hippocampus doesn’t currently accept unsolicited pitches for reviews, Vicki is always looking for strong reviewers. A great way to get on her list is to read reviews on their site, then write some for some of the venues on this list or places like Barrel House and The Rumpus Literary Magazine.
Book reviews are a great way to boost your literary citizenship and platform. Here are a few of Vicki’s stellar tips:
- Consider your audience. For example, will mostly writers or readers see this review?
- Use the review to showcase your voice and the writer’s work
- Create the kind of critique you hope your book gets
- Get personal by using your voice and sharing your connection to the material
- Begin with an elevator pitch of the book so we know what it’s about
- Write a clear, well-written, balanced critique
- Focus on the craft of writing
- Use brief quotes to back up your work
- Use the following words: compelling, poignant, muse, craft, intriguing, whip-smart, or lyrical
- Simply list the craft elements that work (or don’t work). Instead, show how they’re used and why they’re effective
- Watch out for the “and then” syndrome. This is an essay, so it should flow seamlessly from one idea to the next
Kate Meadow’s Five Ways into Your Literary Essay:
During this compact session, Kate shared five essay forms you can explore, defined them, and shared some examples. Here’s her list:
- The Meditative Essay: The purpose of a meditative essay is to contemplate and ponder rather than opine. As a result, these essays tend to meander. They don’t take a stance, and they’re not bound by formal structures. A great example she shared was “The Death of a Moth” by Virginia Woolf
- The Collage Essay: A collage is a patchwork of thoughts that collectively point to a whole. These essays take a piecemeal approach to making sense of an idea. If you’re wondering what this looks like, check out “Going to the Movies” by Sue Allen Toth, an essay that shares her movie-going experiences with five different people as a way to tell a greater story.
- The Braided Essay: In a braided essay, multiple strands or stories are woven together to create a cohesive whole. This form can help writers navigate highly emotional material in a meandering way that keeps you from confronting things all at once. If you’re looking for a great example, check out Brenda Miller’s essay “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” or “The Braided Essay as Social Justice” by Nicole Walker.
- The Counterpoint Essay: While the braided essay explores how its strands are related, the counterpoint contains strands that conflict with one another. In counterpoint, the author includes a back and forth between the two opposing sides. “The Search for Marvin Gardens” by John McPhee executes on this masterfully.
- The Hermit Crab Essay: This essay fits your material inside a nonliterary form that helps it tell a bigger story—sort of like how a hermit crab takes on the shell of another creature. A few examples of nonliterary “shells” include a police blotter, syllabus, grocery list, or even a map. Hermit crab essays can create distance between you and an emotionally difficult subject. They’re also a lot of fun to write. Two examples Kate shared are “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged” by Dinty W. Moore, and “The Friendship Tarot” by Nancy Willard. Also check out Randon Billings Noble’s fantastic blog post filled with some of the best examples out there, including her amazing essay “Heart as a Torn Muscle.” Randon was yet another fabulous presenter at HippoCamp.
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