In our "Been There, Done That" series, Literary Mama editors and readers share their experiences at conferences, workshops, classes, and residencies. Former Literary Mama staff member, Rae Pagliarulo, recalls her time at HippoCamp 2018 in Lancaster, PA.
HippoCamp 2018. Though, if I’m being fair, I also attended HippoCamp 2017, 2016, and 2015 (the first one ever), too.
2. Where was it and what was the time requirement?
HippoCamp takes place right in the center of Lancaster, PA over a single weekend, usually in late August. Friday morning to Sunday afternoon. HippoCamp 2019 will take place on August 23-25, 2019.
3. What were the course offerings?
The conference offers keynote speeches (this year we heard from Beth Kephart and Abigail Thomas, and in past years we’ve welcomed Lee Gutkind, Mary Karr, Beverly Donofrio, and Tobias Wolff), 3-hour pre-conference workshops all day Friday (that are more intensive and focus on a single topic, like book proposals or memory science), 1-hour session presentations all day Saturday (there’s a choice of 3-4 different ones every hour that cover a myriad of topics from managing a writing practice to learning the ins and outs of small press publishing and writing about family trauma), and panel discussions all day Sunday (that provide insights from agents and editors, as well as flash sessions about writing tips and tricks). On top of all that, there’s also usually an open mic or story slam, breakfasts and lunches with special topic tables so you can talk to people with similar interests, and morning and evening outings around Lancaster. Oh - and everything from top to bottom is focused on creative nonfiction. Sorry, poets and fiction writers. This one’s just for the memoir-obsessed.
4. How did you spend your time?
How didn’t I spend my time? I reconnected with writers I had met at other conferences, including prior years of HippoCamp. I hustled from one session to the next because I didn’t want to miss anything. I perused the book table in between sessions (featuring titles from past and present HippoCamp presenters and keynote speakers) and maxed out my credit card. I talked to freelance journalists, award winning authors, and people who had just begun to write their own stories. I wrapped myself in fuzzy sweaters because they keep the conference hotel really, really, really cold. When I got bleary-eyed and overwhelmed from all the information I was taking in, I snuck away to the Prince Street Cafe, just down the street, for a London Fog latte and a little solo writing time. I organized a dinner to introduce my writing friends and make connections with new people. I told a story at an event hosted by the Lancaster Story Slam. I drank wine with new friends in the hotel bar. And I got the absolute bare minimum of sleep I needed to function in the perfectly fluffy hotel bed, because there were too many good things going on and I didn’t want to miss a single one.
5. What did you take away from the experience?
It's impossible for me to overstate the impact that attending HippoCamp has had on my writing life. The first year, I felt like a guppy in the ocean, totally out of my depth, but still super excited because I was around so many other amazing fish! That year, I was simply interested in creative nonfiction and curious about learning more. The next year, I attended the conference again as a contributor to the magazine, and my piece had recently been named Most Memorable in its issue. The year after, I was also a presenter, over the moon about sharing my research on addiction memoirs. And last year, I came as not only a magazine contributor and past presenter, but also as a conference volunteer and magazine staff member, as I am now the editor of the magazine's Writing Life monthly column. Just being in the HippoCamp universe puts you in the way of so many incredible people, and opens you up to new opportunities and discoveries. Each year, I leave the conference with a handful of new friends, at least ten new books, and a notebook full of quotes, notes, reminders, and prompts that keep my writing going for months afterwards.
6. Did you have the opportunity for a writing critique? Was it helpful?
HippoCamp is not designed to accommodate individual or group workshops or critiques. I will say that I always end up meeting someone who wants to share work and trade notes, but to be honest there is very little time within the weekend to get that accomplished. I met two of my most dedicated and honest readers at HippoCamp, and we still trade drafts, story starts, victories, and rejections with each other year-round.
7. Would you attend this event again?
I've said it before and I'll say it again - as long as HippoCamp exists, I will be there. No question in my mind.
8. Share some helpful tips for a writer considering this experience. (Tips may include transportation, lodging, food, classes/instructors, or anything you think future attendees would benefit from knowing.)
A few tips to make the most of HippoCamp, should you join us in 2019...
- Do your best to stay in the conference hotel! It sells out fast, and to be fair there are a ton of nearby options (including other hotels and lovely Airbnb's), but during a weekend that is packed to the gills with amazing programming, it is such a great option to be able to sneak up to your room and take a 5 minute cat nap or make sure your face is still in the right place.
- Don't feel like you have to do it all - pace yourself! Anyone who's been to a larger conference like AWP knows that you're not going to retain anything if you push yourself, don't take care of your needs, and get no sleep. I like to carefully review the weekend agenda before I go and identify portions of the day when, if I really need a break, I could afford to run off to the coffee shop (Passenger Coffee and Prince Street are favorites!) or my hotel room and take a breather. Taking an hour to read, to work on my own writing, or just to wander the streets of Lancaster and take in the local flavor (like Building Character, Central Market, or one of the city's many second hand boutiques) gives my brain just enough time to recuperate and get ready to enjoy the rest of the weekend's programming.
- Be open! So many writers are self-declared introverts, but year after year I've heard that this conference is perfect for even the most shy - you're guaranteed to meet people who have the same interests as you, and perhaps who are just as nervous about making new connections! However, what's most remarkable about HippoCamp is that it completely lacks ego - there is no hierarchical design meant to keep the talented authors and presenters separate from the attendees. Everyone mingles and merges and it's not uncommon to find a successful author, a novice memoir writer, a newspaper journalist, and a literary scholar sitting together over breakfast, talking about their favorite books or what session they're planning to attend next. Anything can - and will - happen at HippoCamp, as long as you're willing to walk up to someone and say hello.
- Have a London Fog latte at Prince Street Cafe, an americano at Passenger Coffee, a stiff Manhattan and a cheeseburger at The Pressroom, a stack of pancakes at Max's Eatery, literally anything at Central Market, get a commemorative Lancaster t-shirt at Foxduck, and check out local crafts and wares at Building Character. Whew!
Have you attended a conference, workshop, residency, or class? We'd like to hear about your experience. Email us at lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com.