I’m still getting back to normal after the Hands On literary festival and masked ball in New Orleans–an amazing time.
The Hands On Festival is a four-day writing conference, now in its second year, which my wife and I run with the help of friends and the remarkable New Orleans writing community. At this moment, we’re back in Knoxville, trying to relax and rewind, excited to start the planning for the next festival, scheduled for the last few days of 2015. My role in the festival is largely technical: I do the design work for the posters and brochures, write a lot of the promotional text, troubleshoot the website and so on. The heart of the festival–and all the really hard planning and administration–comes from Jeni. She has a genius for this kind of thing. The festival is her vision, and it’s a remarkable experience, these last two years, to watch it unfold.
Here’s how I would explain that vision, and the festival’s purpose:
It’s hard to be a writer alone. Part of wanting to write is the desire to share one’s spirit and individuality with others. While, of course, that’s the end goal with publishing novels, plays, essays, and poems–to make what is inside my consciousness, my being, join someone else’s consciousness and being–for most of the arts, this process of creation and publication is very slow. Years go by and you feel like you have nothing to show for it. So it’s enlivening, en-spiriting, to meet with other writers, and to meet more people who love books, and see in them the same long, wonderful process you’re going through.
On a practical level, too, it’s good to make friends with people like oneself, and this isn’t always easy. Particularly in America, everything is so spread out, and distances are so vast, it can be hard to form specific, intentional communities among the miles of freeway and Taco Bell.
Writing conferences offer a way to do this: to meet up for a few intense days, and forge a community that can then live on through the Internet until the next meeting. And one particular conference that many writers want to go to, or feel they should want to go to, is AWP. AWP is the largest conference for certain segments of the US writing crowd, and it’s unparalleled for hearing your heroes speak, for listening to great craft talks, and for discovering exciting small presses and literary magazines in the enormous book fair.
However, AWP is so big now, with upwards of 10,000 attendees, that it is also exhausting and overwhelming. Some years, to get a seat in the audience of the more popular panels requires such a struggle and advance planning that it’s hard to really feel receptive once the talking begins.
I’m delivering a talk at a panel at this year’s AWP, and I’m really excited about it. I imagine there’ll be a few hundred people in the audience, and I hope I’ll get to talk to lots of them afterwards. But there is an undeniable truth that when a conference reaches that size, not only does the scale itself become daunting, but everyone starts to feel like there is a hierarchy of attendees. One feels injured and irritated by the feeling of not being high up enough on the writing totem pole, and this feeling limits the opportunity for the en-spiriting I talked about earlier.
Alternatively, there is another kind of conference, a retreat where the focus is on sheer writing, on getting pages drafted in a judgement-free zone. From my very limited experience of such conferences, they can be amazing chances to get work written. You have no choice but produce something when your seven classmates are also in the hotel library scribbling away–the muse is kicked into gear and surprises you with how much she has stored away. Plus, because everyone is doing the same thing–writing–you feel a great sense of community as the festival proceeds.
Yet, while I love attending that second kind of conference, I think it’s okay say that it’s not quite what the Hands On Festival is aiming at. At the Hands On Festival, it’s more about presenting finished, or halfway completed work, than about starting something new — although that does happen. We arrive, we share the work that best represents us, we explain what we’re struggling with in our current projects, and form new friendships based on the art and arguments we have shared. Jeni’s vision is to create a writing conference where writers share their best work and ideas, where scholarly papers sit happily alongside a reading of family memoirs, but where everyone has a really great time, and where everyone feels like an equal, able to talk to and befriend anyone else in the festival they choose. How she achieves this result is partly her own magic, but from what I can tell, it also involves hosting receptions most evenings, with food and wine, where the whole festival gathers to hang out. And it involves choosing key note speakers who contribute to that “Hands On” feeling, who seem excited to be around the energy of other artists. The first year, Dinty W. Moore was brilliant, and, for this latest festival, Joy Castro was kind of dazzling. She wowed everyone with her keynote address and with her willingness to talk to everyone and ask questions. That spirit of the festival also seems to be connected to New Orleans. NOLA is a dangerous, troubled city. Yet it seems interested in beauty in a way that few other American cities appear to be. Its architecture and cultural traditions appear to the newcomer like an embodiment of the artist’s inner self, and so it’s natural, if you are a creatively-inclined person (i.e. that you are a normal human being), to suddenly feel at home there.
As a result, you experience the festival’s readings, the book launches, the introductions to several authors of a specific small publisher, as well as the discussions of craft and politics and history in a relaxed, encouraged, at ease state, eager to talk more with the participants once the hour is up.
The festival ends with a masked ball on New Year’s Eve. This is a chance to have a drink, eat tasty food, dance to classic 80’s hits, to dress up and look good in a mask. Then, on New Year’s Day, when everyone is feeling tired and grateful, the whole conference has (or has had the last two years, at least) a standing invitation to visit the house of local writer and historian Nancy Dixon, where she serves up food to get you started for the year in the right way.
You realise, all of a sudden, that you’ve made firm friendships with exactly the sort of people you were looking for, and then you travel home, recharged.
I think the festival’s third year, 2015, will be the best yet. I’m looking forward to watching Jeni start planning it, and hope to meet you there.