October 24, 2016 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
I spent the weekend before last at NerdCon: Stories.
I went with my friend Ann Reay. Both of us attended its first year, at a point when each of us was particularly in need of a new experience. Neither of us would be considered part of the Target Audience for such an event. My son and his girlfriend, who also attended, were more in that ballpark. They listen to podcasts, watch a lot of YouTube, play video games as well as board games, go to other cons (when time and finances permit), and are voracious readers of science fiction and fantasy.
Ann and I are both, however, representatives of what I once heard called “Old Guard Storytelling.” I suppose one might call us ElderNerds. We have performed stories in various settings, occasionally for pay. Both of us have been on the board of Story Arts of Minnesota, a local, volunteer-run organization; I was President and chief grant writer for several years, and produced a local festival for them during part of that time. I’m also currently a member of two other such organizations, one regional and one national. All are membership-based nonprofits that produce storytelling events. For two out of three of them, that event is a conference.
NerdCon: Stories is not run by a nonprofit.
It is a for profit, entrepreneurial venture of Hank Green, Internet Guy, who has been successful at a number of things in his young, 30-something life, all things he loves and is passionate about. Some of these things, like the very popular vlogbrothers and the Dear Hank and John podcast, he does with his brother, writer John Green, whose The Fault in Our Stars I finally read this year. NerdCon: Stories was also a collaboration with fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss.
Like last year, there was much new experience for the ElderNerds.
Neither of us signed up for the lottery of kaffeeklatsch spots, which were new this year. There were twenty-one of these, at which featured guests like John Scalzi and Nalo Hopkinson agreed to “hang out” with small groups of attendees and just chat “about anything and everything.” This was a great idea for people who really knew the guest and their oeuvre well – for lack of a better word we’ll call them “fans.”
And there was a lot of other “audience-driven programming,” including three open mics and two story circles (at one of which I participated, and read this), a couple “yoga adventures” (don’t ask, because I seriously don’t know) and a collaborative ‘zine. But the variety shows and the panel discussions, for the most part, were where both of us got the most bang for our buck. It’s also where you got to see the featured guests have the most fun.
Like in the Lip Sync Battle, which (outside of a picture from his hotel room) is the only thing from NerdCon: Stories that made it to John Scalzi’s blog this year – although his review of the 2015 NerdCon: Stories still comes up on the first page of a search.
Both of us went to see what the young – and those who appeal to the young – were saying about story.
They were saying a lot. Much of it was very different from the sort of thing you would hear at a traditional storytelling conference, where boundaries between the oral and written word are more tightly drawn, and the focus is on storytelling as performance or in various applications: education, corporate work, therapeutic settings, health care.
You might have a panel discussion on Musical Storytelling or The Moral Responsibility of the Storyteller at a traditional storytelling conference, as NerdCon Stories did. You might have Patricia Wheeler, The Moth’s Michigan StorySLAM Producer, who has a Master’s in Storytelling from East Tennessee State University, moderate a panel on Telling a Story. But the panel would not be likely to include a rapper and hip hop artist (Dessa), a poet from the cast of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam (Rives); an Indian American comic (Raghav Mehta), a union activist and podcaster (Javier Morillo), and an audiobook narrator (Kate Rudd).
For better or for worse, you’d probably never have a conversation about gaming as a storied experience, or the relationship between illustration and narrative in a graphic novel, or adaptation of a written work into a film or a game. You’d certainly not have Kate Gorman’s workshop on locative fiction, which uses Smartphone GPS technology, headphones, and your local landscape to turn stories into “augmented immersive reality experiences.”
People who make their living telling stories on stage, in schools, or in other settings need a definition of storytelling that accurately describes what they do. That explains why it is different from writing or acting or giving TED talks. I get that. But for those of us who don’t, the cross-pollination at events like NerdCon Stories is pretty rad too.
Ironically, what NerdCon Stories had most in common with traditional storytelling conferences this year was not what I would have expected it to be.
A lack of profit.
Ann and I could both tell attendance was down just by being there – the balcony in the main auditorium was closed. There was a feeling in the air as well that I couldn’t quite pinpoint the why and wherefore of. And although the materials still said “2nd annual,” the Twitter conversation kept making references to the fear that this might be the last NerdCon.
It wasn’t until I started looking for press on the 2016 conference that I came across this post, which Hank actually recorded in September:
While I appreciate his honesty and self-scrutiny, I can’t imagine it was easy for people who were presenting at NerdCon: Stories 2016, and otherwise putting energies into making this conference happen, to be confronted with a post mortem on the Tubes and Wires a month before it took place. Even if you thank them while you’re doing it.
Nevertheless, as an old hand at failure, a couple of things warmed my heart about this video. Hence the Dear Hank.
First, though I had a great time at NerdCon 2016, I really wouldn’t urge Hank to repeat it if the time and energy is not there to invest in making a profit. And it’s clear there is not. Look at the sponsors for Vidcon. Look, in vain, for the sponsors for NerdCon. Heck, I couldn’t even find a press kit on the site to grab a good logo from for this post.
So I want to say THANK YOU, Hank Green, for knowing your limits. For not being so passionate about what you love that you destroy yourself and the people you love in the process. Enjoy that new baby when it comes. That’s what it’s all about. When you try again at a new thing, you will indeed “fail better.” Whether it’s something like NerdCon, or something else. But don’t spread yourself too thin. The world needs you, not Silly Putty you.
The other thing I really loved about this video (despite the fact that post mortems before an event are REALLY bad for morale) is the “something very different and much bigger and also probably totally ludicrous” tangent he goes off on at the end. Because I don’t think it is a tangent, really. I’ve seen too many artists, young and old, fail at business. I’ve seen too many passionate people, nerdy and otherwise, live lives of quiet desperation because they cannot connect their passion to any viable source of income.
It is no accident that Crushing Student Loan Debt ended up being an attribute of one of the characters in the Friday evening Superfight.
When my children were in college, I still thought of student loans as good debt. After the recession, they became the only type of debt besides taxes that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. It scares me to see this generation so burdened, and revolts me that at the same time we have a presidential candidate bragging about the savvy way in which he uses bankruptcies to make money.
Model good business acumen, Dear Hank. God knows there’s enough bad models around. Help young people build compassionate, socially responsible enterprises. Help them afford babies, and enjoy those babies, if babies they want. Help them take smart risks early, when there’s time to recover, fail better, and also succeed. Talk more about it online if you want to, and can.
Who knows. You may even teach some ElderNerds new tricks