Walking into a room filled with people I did not know, I scanned the area quickly and headed for my safe spot—a back corner. Right or left doesn’t matter, but having the rest of the room in front of me does. For me, the corner means safety. No one looking over my shoulder or staring at the back of my head; no one approaching without me knowing. I have been in school a long time, and I cannot remember a class where I did not beeline for the corner.
Until HippoCamp. Although I was fulfilling the role of “sponsor” and representing Wilkes University and Etruscan Press at the inaugural HippoCamp15 Creative Nonfiction Conference, I was also excited to be an attendee—especially as this was my first writing conference.
Friday afternoon, after the rest of the crowd had meandered into the “Heritage C” conference room for the early reception and I felt it was safe to leave the booth, I sidled into the room and glanced at the back rows; both back corner seats were filled. Since this was just an overview of the weekend, however, the room was less than half full so I went to the right and chose a seat in the second-to-last row. I reminded myself that if I wanted that back corner seat, I needed to scope it out sooner; however, when I walked into Heritage C for the readings later that night, I skimmed right past the corners and edged up the right side to slide into the second row.
The opening reception that evening found me back in the hall at the Wilkes/Etruscan booth; I’ve worked booths like this before, including once in the recent past for the Holocaust and Genocide Studies degree I was taking at the time. Then, I spent the majority of the event chatting with a French history professor and wondering if he had a girlfriend; few people were interested in the topic I represented, and conversion was far from my mind. At HippoCamp15, however, I felt no nerves, no concern for my ability to make small talk, no fear that I would force someone into a conversation. I soon realized that no writer engages in a conversation they wish to avoid; indeed, we tend to welcome the sharing of books, interests, and writerly news.
It was luck that for my first writing conference I worked behind the scenes as well. I’m not the “reach out and grab” type and I’m not a salesperson. In this atmosphere, however, I didn’t feel like one. Everything I said that weekend came from a well of sincerity within me—a well that only refilled with the conference’s atmosphere.
When I searched for an MFA program, a low-residency program was not on my list. Uncertain how I would fair in an online class, I also wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the extra eighteen months getting another MA—I had earned a Masters in English in 2004 and was just finishing one in history (although anyone who knows me knows this weak argument is sophistry…I love school). What won me over in the end, however, was the relationship Wilkes had with agents and editors and the realization that I would leave Wilkes with a completed thesis. The MA is a vital portion of the entire program Wilkes has to offer. I don’t feel like I’m trying to make a sale when I tell someone that—and I’m pretty sure they don’t feel as though I’m feeding them a line. I honestly admit the first “boot camp” residency was both the best and worst week of my life, but would repeat it in a heartbeat if I could. Explaining the foundations classes and the one-on-one semesters with a mentor doesn’t come from a manuscript I’m obliged to memorize; it comes from my enthusiasm to share what I’ve discovered.
I engaged in conversation with those who wandered up to the table. We talked about their writing interests. I spoke with students in MA programs in American literature, creative writing, and English; with attendees interested in their memoirs or their family histories; and with Wilkes alumni recalling their time in the program. Without realizing it, I managed to pepper each conversation with positive attributes of the program; as usual, my passion for something bubbles up and overflows.
As I drifted into the first panel Saturday morning, I once again found my back corners taken. Dropping my bag at a somewhat secluded spot and stepping out for a moment, I returned to the room to find a man sitting next to me, and my hackles rose. Who dared sit next to me? There were other chairs available—although it was filling up—so why sit next to anyone? I shrugged my instinctive protections off, however, and turned my attention to the topic at hand. As part of the takeaway, we each drew a map—the panel was on place in our work—and after about four minutes we were directed to discuss our map with our neighbor. Since the wall was my only other option, I turned to the man I had—only forty minutes earlier—been mentally castigating. Sharing our maps and our stories engaged us in each other’s work and brought us together as writers; my mental images about his upbringing were quite unfounded.
Wasting no time to get to the next room for the second panel, I strode right to the front and (since habits do die hard) chose a corner seat in the front row. I wanted no head in front of me, and didn’t care who was behind me. The other attendees melted away; no longer strangers of which to be wary, we were all writers eager to add to our repertoire.
After the third panel—standing room only—as I was collecting my things, the woman to my right turned to effuse about the flash nonfiction exercise we had just completed. There was a time my nervousness would have precluded my engagement in conversation with this woman—who had read the night before and been part of that morning’s debut author panel—and yet our mutual excitement over the panel brought us together for a brief moment.
In one short day I’d evolved from wary observer to active participant. I no longer considered myself an outsider watching the “cool kids” hang out, but thrust myself into their party and sat down at their table, where they welcomed me with uncapped pens.
Dale Louise Mervine is a current MA student and graduate assistant at Wilkes University. When she’s not writing, she’s arguing with her cats to please not step on the computer, listening to her pet skunk roll empty jars of baby food in the room above, and looking for excuses to take a nap. She lives in York, PA, whether she likes it or not.