Gimbling in the Wabe – Having Fun With Stories

by Sharon Browning

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I had the good fortune last week of attending the first ever NerdCon: Stories, a two day convention dreamed up by “internet guy” Hank Green (half of YouTube’s popular Vlogbrothers) and author Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man’s Fear), held right here in my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Undoubtedly I will be posting more about my experiences at NerdCon: Stories in the days to come – I have to admit that I’m still processing some of it, not because it was so draining, but just the opposite – it was so energizing and so incredibly affirming that I’m still basking in the glow.  To break it down right now would almost feel trivializing the experience.

But there is one observation that I keep coming back to, when looking back over the weekend.  It’s not something that was immediately obvious to me, yet something that I’m recognizing was the very best part of the conference:  how wonderful it was to be able to celebrate stories.

Stories.  Not books, not authors, not writing or performing.  Just…. stories.


For me, it was wonderful to experience this from a respectful distance.  I love books, I love reading, I love listening to and tacitly participating in stories.  But I don’t consider myself a storyteller.  I am a commentator, an analyst, just not a player.  And I find great satisfaction in this.  It was exactly because I was able to sit back and just watch – absorb – what was going on around me, that I had so much dang fun.  Because I was the other side of a great story:  the audience.

Now, perhaps what I experienced at NerdCon: Stories is common to other literary conferences or geek-filled conventions.  And maybe my enjoyment was, in part, due to NerdCon: Stories being smaller than other mega-conventions such as Comic-Con or the World Book Expo.  It could be that the people coming to this convention (many of them “Nerd Fighters” – the fan community that developed around the Vlogbrothers and who go by the rallying cry of “DFTBA”, which stands for Don’t Forget to Be Awesome) were already predisposed to be, well, awesome.  But I’ve been to a couple of fan conventions and a handful of author signings, and they were nothing like what I experienced at NerdCon: Stories.

The emphasis at this fledgling convention was not to be seen, but to see.  Even those who came in costume, or who spent hours “picking out the perfect nerdy t-shirt” to wear, did so – or at least it seemed to me – not to trumpet their fandom as much as to immerse themselves in it.  It felt less a spectacle and more a celebration of belonging.

There wasn’t a lot of emphasis on merchandising, either.  Perhaps it was just chance, but having the Harry Potter Alliance’s “Apperating Library” – where anyone could bring a book in on Friday and receive a token they could use on Saturday to select a different book to take away – situated next to the NerdCom: Stories merch booth in the rather small exhibitor’s hall made it feel less like commerce and more like opportunity.  Featured guest signings were stationed at tables sans merchandise;  authors and online celebrities just as cheerfully signed free convention programs or posters as they did copies of their own books.  From the attendees, there definitely was a sense that being able to speak to an admired author or internet celebrity and come away with a token of that meeting was more important than obtaining a valuable signature on the facing page of a book.

But most of all, everyone seemed to be having a fun time.  Everyone.  Attendees and featured guests and staff and volunteers alike.  (Heck, even the security personnel assigned to the Convention Center always seemed to have smiles on their faces.)

Why?  Because everyone was focusing on a love of stories.  Not plots of their latest novels, high points of their podcasts or touring schedules.  Not in outshining other attendees with the cleverness of their costumes or their commitment to a character.  Stories, about life, about craft, about interactions.  Stories, sometimes as prepared speeches, sometimes in panel discussions, but just as often as spontaneous outpourings.  Often heartwarming and open.  Often hilarious.  And all shared with a sense of excitement, and fun.

They came in moments such as Hugo Award winning author John Scalzi (The Old Man’s War, Redshirts, Lock In) making a slightly tardy entrance to a panel with his best Captain Kirk shoulder roll (which actually was more a cuddly rolling around on the floor) with a “pew pew!” of imaginary phasers and a proud “hero pose” before taking his seat.

Moments such as a keynote address on “Why Stories Matter” by John Green (author of such celebrated YA novels as The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, and Looking for Alaska) wherein he walked on stage before realizing he was in the midst of an, um, wardrobe malfunction, and then turning it into a hilarious story about how he once had gone through an enthusiastic and highly animated speech followed by a Q&A session where the first question was, “Mr. Green, did you know your fly is open?”.  And then following that up with a very endearing talk about feeling trapped in your own body (as he does with his OCD), and how stories can give you the escape you need from whatever is holding you back, and how this is a good thing.

Moments such as a mainstage “production” of “Baron Munchausen”, where onstage guests, in the persona of snooty aristocrats hobnobbing over drinks, spontaneously spin stories based on impromptu – and ludicrous – prompts given them by the person sitting to their right, while the others try to sabotage the already ridiculous stories by interjecting challenges as to the veracity of said story (“Oh,  forgive me if I am wrong, but I thought I heard that….”); hilarity ensued.

Moments such as mock debates, with teams made up of luminaries debating the heady issue of “sock-sock/shoe-shoe, or sock-shoe/sock-shoe?”  Or an onstage game of SuperFight, where imaginary heroes are “created” based on randomly drawn character and attribute cards, with each celebrity player having to convince the audience that their oddly assembled superhero would prevail against the others (9-foot-tall Batman inside a mechanical two-horses-in-a-man suit, or an Illuminati made of guacamole who exploded if it stopped moving?).  Again and again, hilarity ensued.

Moments such as a “Why Stories Matter” address by the amazing Sarah Mackey, Director of Community Engagement for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), who told of how becoming a participant in the program in 2002 and actually writing “an absolutely awful” first draft of a novel gave her the sense of accomplishment she needed to tap into a flagging confidence on who she was and where her life was going.

Moments such as National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson, when sitting on a panel entitled “Telling the Truth”, was asked, “How can you write a character when they are outside your experience?  For example, if I want to write a character who is a Latino man from New York when I’m a white girl from Peoria?”, responded, “First off, you would not say ‘Latino male’ because that’s redundant.   If you don’t know that ‘Latino’ is male and ‘Latina’ is female, then you need to go back to  your story and pick a different character.”  She and the other panelist then went on to talk about authenticity and how to find it, even at the risk of having to abandon your original idea if that’s what’s needed to keep it genuine.  (Stories aren’t always easy.)

There were so many more moments – touching moments, insightful moments, honest moments, human moments, and side-splittingly hilarious moments – that all came from celebrating stories.  And when the overall feel of the experience is one of great satisfaction, energy, and exuberance, you can only guess how wonderful the individual and personal experiences were!  Those will be the focus of upcoming NerdCon: Stories stories here at LitStack.  Told by me.  /smiley face

I hope they are stories you’ll all want to hear!

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