Thursday, October 15, 2015

My NerdCon Story

Last weekend, I had the incredible opportunity to engage with other book nerds and fans of the spoken word. The event was the inaugural NerdCon:Stories, created by Hank Green and Patrick Rothfuss. They wanted an event that celebrated stories and the way we tell stories (print & audio books, podcasts, performances, spoken word poetry). Sure, there's Comic Con and VidCon, but nothing like that existed for stories and storytelling.

Can I say how incredible it is that Hank and Patrick decided on Minneapolis for this first ever event? You see, I live right outside the city. When I first heard of NerdCon:Stories last spring, I signed up right away. The initial vision and potential lineup itself would have been enough encouragement, but it was more than that for me. I could tell that this had potential to be something life-changing for everyone involved. Yes, the location couldn't be beat, but I would have traveled a great distance (as many people did) to engage with these masters of their craft. Plans for author panels, live performances, author signings and storytelling circles sounded intriguing, and I couldn't quite envision how it would all work out. Judging from Hank Green's welcome on Day 1, neither could he.

I was star struck when Hank took the stage at the Minneapolis Convention Center on the morning of October 9th, but what he said about this innovative idea showed his humility. Hank bemoaned the fact that many creators tell their users exactly how to use their new product or idea. That's ironic, since it was creativity that led to that product or idea in the first place. NerdCon:Stories is a new idea. Neither Hank nor Patrick Rothfuss were certain how the two days would play out. They knew that this filled a void in the "Con" world, and they compiled a varied schedule and an enviable lineup. However, as Hank explained, the experience of NerdCon:Stories would be created by the lucky people (like me) who took a risk and signed up. That "here's my idea, and now I'll stand back while you make it into something better than I imagined" philosophy shared by Hank during that Day 1 welcome set the tone. This would be like no other convention. However I chose to experience NerdCon:Stories would be the way I was meant to experience it. My way.

What was my experience? Let me tell you my story...

Day one started with that humbling welcome by Hank Green (who I'll admit I knew best as the brother of John Green...sorry Hank).

Wait a day actually started with an "out in public" sighting of Storm DiCostanzo, half of the comedy/music duo Paul and Storm (who I had not heard of, but who my colleague Leona was thrilled to see). Yes, she took a picture of me holding up my program, and just HAPPENED to include Storm in the photo. Unfortunately (which reminds me of one of the storytelling games in the opening session), we were not that close to storytelling celebrities during the rest of the convention. However, I had 3rd or 4th row seats for many of the events. Closer than I would have thought I'd ever be to such brilliance.

Back to that first session. What a treat to see Paul Sabourin (the other half of Paul and Storm) share a brief history of storytelling, complete with visuals, humorous anecdotes and a plethora of "inside joke" literary references. It was the first of many "Why Stories Matter' episodes. Very entertaining, and I think I even learned a few things. Next up was a game called "Who Said That?" including Jacqueline Carey, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. I'll use the cliche "hilarity ensued" to describe the audience reaction to this activity, which required the three participants to determine whether Kanye West, Donald Trump, Hank Green or Mindy Kaling uttered random (often nonsensical) quotes. I immediately thought of ways (as I always do) to use this idea with my 6th grade students. Maybe I'll use their pop-culture icons.

More "inside my head lesson planning" occurred during the storytelling game that followed. The host, Desiree Burch, assembled quite a lineup of creative storytelling minds for a few rounds of Fortunately/Unfortunately. I have no doubt that we'll be doing a lot of this in my classroom since I love teaching speaking and presentation skills. What an engaging way to do both. The final activity was a Celebrity Artemis, which I had no idea about. A panel, led by captain Patrick Rothfuss, comedically piloted a spaceship (projected on the large screen) in a video game of sorts. I've since viewed a few others on YouTube, and feel lucky to have experienced a live version. Storm DiCostanzo wrapped up this opening session with another compelling "Why Stories Matter" monologue.

Here's where my NerdCon:Stories experience became uniquely mine.

While my colleague Leona left for a different auditorium for Telling the Truth and Honing Your Craft sessions, I moved to the third row and remained there for the remainder of the day. You see, John Green, Holly Black, Matt de la Pena and Maureen Johnson were going to chat about book adaptations. I couldn't miss hearing and learning from these incredible authors. It was an insightful panel, but also one that helped me remember that these celebrity authors are real people. How refreshing. While waiting for the panel to start, I had a great chat with a high school English teacher from rural Arkansas. We swapped ideas. I told her about Erik Palmer, an incredible speaker/author of books that help educators teach speaking and listening skills. She followed him on Twitter @Erik_Palmer and added his book to her list. I learned about C-Span's StudentCam competition. How fitting that we shared resources for helping our students share their voices at a convention celebrating storytelling.

I moved even closer for the next session, which was a Nerdfighter Q & A with John and Hank Green. It was hosted by the hilarious, but extremely-skilled-at-not-laughing-herself, Maureen Johnson. I don't know what was funnier: Maureen's post-it questions that contained variations of spiders (which John shared with the crowd), the brotherly banter between John and Hank, or the repayment of a $1.00 debt owed to Maureen after winning a bet from John that she wouldn't cry over The Fault in Our Stars. I'm not surprised that she didn't cry, since like I mentioned above-she's like an emotionless stone statue. An extremely hilarious emotionless stone statue.

At 2:00, the third panel began, and my colleague joined me to hear from Jacqueline Woodson, Dylan Marron and others about the benefits of diverse stories. I have been a fan of Jacqueline Woodson, and adore her autobiographical book, Brown Girl Dreaming. She shared amazing insight and commented on diverse books that helped shape her as an author and a human. Jacqueline shared that books can be windows or mirrors, an idea that my friend Jess shares with her students (and I plan to share with mine). I'm still amazed to have been in her presence. Surprising for me was Dylan Marron. I had heard of the Every Single Word project, but didn't connect that to Dylan until this panel. I was mesmerized by his passion for telling more than one story of race and more than one story of LBGTQ. Dylan's comments and pleas were heartfelt, and came from a place of hurt and healing. All stories matter, and the members of this panel championed that fact. Blessed to have been there.

Again, like I mentioned, I stayed right where I was for the afternoon full group session. There was the hilarious Juvenalia, with authors Holly Black and Matt de la Pena, David Nadelberg (creator of Mortified) and Mara Wilson (lifelong storyteller, but best known to me as Matilda and the adorable little girl in Mrs. Doubtfire). Each of these talented storytellers read from their childhood writing, in all its embarrassing horribleness. Although Matt's writing was actually good (according to his peers), Holly's was a humorous fantasy romp, complete with fairies and amethyst. Last up was David Nadelberg, who had the entire crowd ROFL with his erotic bagpipe poem, including the ASL interpreter. One of those, "you have to be there" moments that I'm so glad I was.

I was sad that I had to leave after that session, since I missed the evening storytelling circle, super fight, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen and open mic. Fortunately, word on the street is that NerdCon:Stories will return. I'll try not to miss out next time.

Day two began with a timely "Why Stories Matter" welcome by John Green. I had seats in the 4th row, and was engaged in John's story about his OCD being like a prison for his body. The idea that stories are a release from that prison resonated with me. I thought of my many students, who use books to escape. Stories are powerful that way. How fitting that John shared these thoughts on World Mental Health Day.

Following John Green, was another incredible speaking activity called Rapid Fire Q & A. Of course, I immediately thought of how I will use this in my classroom as a speaking warm-up. Participants lined up and answered random questions, with an original goal of answering them quickly (like the rapid fire part of the activity's name). However, when you assemble a crew of creative storytellers (and a giant squid), it's no surprise that they needed to wait for laughter to die down in between answers.

The poetry readings came next. As entertaining as Kevin R Free's French poem performance was, I was struck by Jeffrey Cranor's first-time-in-public emotional poetry reading. Haunting. Perfectly paced. Great use of pauses as a dramatic effect. Memorable! Then, we were all fortunate to hear Dylan Marron speak about why stories matter to him. First, he showed a few examples of his Every Single Word project (where he removes every word spoken by white actors, leaving very few lines spoken by people of color). Shocking, to say the least. He also shared an earlier experience of his desire to be in the remake of Home Alone, but realizing that he would not have the opportunity because of his race. Although that's not what was written on the casting call, Dylan's experience that day said otherwise. He is a champion for the rights and voices of everyone.

My first break-out session on day two was a panel of amazing authors and writers, who shared their experiences with post-success. This panel included: Tea Obreht (I ordered her best seller The Tiger's Wife after hearing John sing its praises), John Green (no introduction necessary), Rainbow Rowell (again, no introduction necessary, but I also ordered her latest book, Carry On), and rapper/writer Dessa Darling. They shared their struggles with learning to make choices and deciding whether to say yes or no to projects based on which will lead them in the direction they desire. This coming after a time when they were desperate to receive any offers at all. John Green referred to theirs as "privileged problems," yet he lamented about the difficulty many successful authors/performers face when trying to stay true to themselves. I appreciated their perspectives.

After a session on storytelling through song, I returned to the main auditorium for a panel on Serial Storytelling, moderated by John Scalzi. Featured storytellers were Holly Black (blue hair, blue lipstick and all), Leslie Datsis (One Time Stories), Joseph Fink (creator of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, which I had not heard of before this) and Darin Ross (creator of Find the Starlight). From their collective experience, I garnered many nuggets of wisdom to share with my young writers, like Holly Black hooking her readers by leaving little untold stories that she can return to and elaborate. Joseph Fink talked about having a partner (or co-writer) who can check your writing for inconsistencies. Another great focus for peer editing in my classroom. Being an English teacher, it was impossible not to consider my students when hearing this writing advice.

After checking out the vendor area and purchasing a NerdCon:Stories poster signed by both John and Hank Green, I sadly left the convention to head back home for my daughter's dance show. I missed out on another open mic, and the highly entertaining Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind performance, presented by the NY Neo-Futurists. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this personalized experience, thanks to Hank Green's promise to back away and let us make this convention our own.

Next year, I hope to attend once again and add the evening experiences to my itinerary.

 I know that there will never be another inaugural NerdCon:Stories for me, but each year I have the opportunity to create the experience I need and want at that time.

As Hank Green said, "we are made of stories," and in the words of Patrick Rothfuss, "without words, we die."

Thank you, NerdCon:Stories, for honoring the art of storytelling and giving all who attended a place to be nerdy and proud.