Guest Contributor: Thoughts on Nerdcon: Stories

Hello Geekettes! I am a long time follower of the Geekette and a first time contributor, but after I got back to my East Tennessee home from Nerdcon: Stories in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I knew I wanted to share about my experience.

Nerdcon: Stories is author Patrick Rothfuss and Vidcon creator/Vlogbrother Hank Green’s bid at establishing a conference to celebrate storytellers and their stories, in all their many forms. Hank Green is one of my favorite people on the internet to date, so as soon as he announced the conference on the Vlogbrothers channel, I bought a ticket and enlisted a friend’s guest room that same day.

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Fast forward to a couple weeks ago, I arrived early on a brisk October morning, spent a few hours in the Mall of America, and hopped on the Blue Line train toward the Minneapolis Convention Center downtown to register. Once I was presented with a physical program sporting panels with titles like “So You Wanna Change the World: Activism & Narrative” and “Connecting Through Stories: Communities and Fandom,” I sat down to begin my plan of attack. Nerdcon was my very first professionally-run con (second overall to a tiny student-organized Anime con at my university a few years ago), and I naively expected to have no trouble managing my time or getting into panels with thirty minute breaks between each round.

Walking into the convention center the next morning wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as I expected, despite the crowd. It became increasingly apparent over the weekend that the attendees of Nerdcon: Stories were almost entirely made of awesome. For example, while we were all waiting in the dizzyingly steep auditorium seats for the first panel to start, the woman next to me pulled a large Tupperware container out of her backpack, said she was a local, and started passing out homemade chocolate chip cookies. At this same panel, I also met Aric, who was making a video of the attendees of Nerdcon: Stories telling their own stories. (Afterward, I told his camera all about C.S. Lewis’s Discarded Image and the societal effects of the medieval conception of the universe.) On Saturday, a girl in the vender room briefly interviewed me for a Periscope stream of the con. People were collecting book recommendations instead of signatures, and many of the conference’s featured guests could be found on the main floor between panels, continuing discussions and answering questions. All told, without a doubt one of the best parts of the con for me were all of the people I met waiting around for panels to start.

Hank Green at Nerdcon (photo from the official Nerdcon: Stories Facebook page)
Hank Green at Nerdcon (photo from the official Nerdcon: Stories Facebook page)

And the panels! Nerdcon: Stories was a brand new con this year, but that didn’t stop them from setting up an amazing lineup of panelists, who together have probably doubled my To Be Read list. To give you an idea of the level of awesome, these are some of the panels I caught:

  • “Telling the Truth,” moderated by Hank Green and featuring Paolo Bacigalupi, Leslie Datsis, Jacqueline Woodson, Ana Adlerstein, and Nalo Hopkinson

This is the only panel for which I actually took any notes, and I didn’t do that great of a job, as I cannot confidently put a name to this truly awesome quote: “The best way to make telling the truth to people you know interesting is to live a weird life.” This seems to me not only like good storytelling advice, but just good life advice. This panel was also my first introduction to Nalo Hopkinson, whose insight about diversity in stories and literature made her one of my favorite panelists and earned her the top spot on my afore-mentioned TBR list.

  • The “Nerdfighter Q&A,” moderated by Maureen Johnson, featuring Hank and John Green

As a self-identified Nerdfighter since 2012, this was honestly one of the panels I was looking forward to most, and it did not disappoint. Maureen Johnson is a hilarious human treasure, and of course, the Brothers Green were clever, distractible, and wonderful. By the end of the hour, my face hurt from laughing so much.

  • “Connecting Through Stories: Communities and Fandom,” moderated by Leslie Datsis and featuring Sarah Mackey, Cecil Baldwin, Paul Sabourin, and Paul DeGeorge

I had hoped to hear about the development and activation of the particular fan communities represented by the panel members (National Novel Writing Month, Welcome to Nightvale, Paul and Storm, and The Harry Potter Alliance, respectively), or possibly a more conceptual discussion of the factors within stories that can inspire engaged fandom, but mostly what ended up being discussed were the differences in interacting with and building up fans now as compared to the dark pre-Internet past. The overwhelming conclusion? Things are way better now, and we all love the Internet.

  • “No Pressure: How To Keep Creating Once You’ve Technically Succeeded,” moderated by Patrick Rothfuss and featuring Téa Obreht, Dessa Darling, Rainbow Rowell, and John Green

I really had no interest in going to this panel, but the “Life Online: Putting the Meme in Memoir” panel was full, and this one still had space. I was pleased to catch a panel with Dessa, but as all of the other panelists were novelists, I didn’t hear from her much. All of the panelists seemed genuine and candid, but I didn’t find this discussion of press junkets and the overwhelming pressure to produce more stuff particularly inspiring. I bailed on it early, feeling a bit concerned for John Green’s health as he had a harried and unshaven look, but very little sympathy for the plight of the successful creator.

  • The “Welcome to Nightvale Panel and Q&A,” moderated by Kate Jones and featuring Joseph Fink, Jeffery Granor, Dylan Marron, Cecil Baldwin, Meg Bashwiner, Kevin R. Free, Desiree Burch, and Mara Wilson

One of the most interesting discussion points that came up during the Nightvale panel was the show’s laissez-faire treatment of sexuality, especially its portrayal of Cecil and Carlos’ relationship as, well, normal. In the midst of all of Nightvale’s weirdness, the fact that they are together is simply accepted, and despite the fact that the story has never really been about the struggles of the LGBT+ community or coming out specifically, the fact remains that two of the main characters are in a gay relationship. The panelists made the point, and I agree, that that representation is all the more powerful because of its simple acceptance.

  • “But It’s Just a Story: The Moral Responsibility of the Storyteller,” moderated by Patrick Rothfuss and featuring Paolo Bacigalupi, Nalo Hopkinson, Lev Grossman, and Kimya Dawson

Patrick Rothfuss, who I had only encountered as a recommended author before Nerdcon, particularly impressed me on this panel. He was insightful and thoughtful, as were all the other panelists. He made the point that it is the responsibility of storytellers to at least be aware and cautious of using potentially problematic tropes in their stories, but that if such tropes must be used, they need to be examined or balanced out later in the story. My new favorite, Nalo Hopkinson, added that she addresses this problem by focusing on how many types of experiences she does show, rather than restricting certain ones that she can’t.

Interestingly, no matter the topic of the panel or who was on it, the same thing kept coming up the whole weekend in almost all the panels I saw: we need more diversity and representation in our stories. Stories are the best vehicle we have for creating understanding and empathy for those who, in some way or another, seem different from us. (I do feel that it should be mentioned here that, while the panelists and other guests assembled were a fairly diverse group, attendees were overwhelmingly and almost uniformly white.)

The author with Jackson Bird
The author of this post, Anna McGill, with Jackson Bird after the HPA 10th Birthday Party

There were two mainstage events each day, featuring musical performances and poetry readings and games and mock debates and, best of all, different featured guests presenting their own idea of “the importance of story.” (These 10-minute talks are beginning to appear on the Nerdcon YouTube channel, and I highly recommend them.) After the evening mainstage on Friday I was completely shattered and totally uninterested in waiting around for an hour for the next event to start, so I went back to my friend’s house and crashed, despite the fact that Nerdcon events, such as a storytelling circle and open mic night, were carrying on until 10 o’clock that night. On Saturday though, I was prepared for the long haul. After a long day of paneling and mainstaging, I went to the Harry Potter Alliance’s 10th Birthday Party, hosted by Jackson Bird and featuring an impromptu musical performance by Hank Green in which he forgot the lyrics to his own songs, an interview of human treasure Maureen Johnson, and house music from Harry and the Potters. I caught the last half of Saturday’s open mic night, hosted by the ever-charismatic Dessa Darling, but the overwhelming star of the night was the New York Neo-Futurists’ Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, a timed attempt to perform 30 original plays in 60 minutes.

The New York Neo-Futurists are a collective of performers who, individually, some Geekettes might know as writers and actors of the Welcome to Nightvale podcast. As described on their “menu” of brief plays, the rules for the show were as follows: “We are all WHO WE ARE; We are all WHERE WE ARE; We are all DOING WHAT WE’RE DOING. The time is NOW.” Along the back wall were papers numbered 1 to 30, corresponding with the numbered short plays on the menu, with titles like “8. Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color in the Blockbuster Film Adaptation of Into the Woods” and “12. You’re an asshole, Charlie Brown.” The plays were funny, sad, brutal, or political, sometimes all at once, but the reality imposed by the rules meant that they were all honest, and at the end of each the huge crowd called out numbers to choose the next play, meaning that no two shows are ever the same. The Neo-Futurists made me rethink what has to make a play a play in all the best ways.

I left the con feeling so encouraged that people are still doing different and fascinating things with their art and stories. Nerdcon: Stories was a new con this year, and it experienced some pretty standard new con hiccups, but overall my experience was hugely inspiring. I’m already looking forward to going back next year!

Anna McGill is a recently graduated English major who sees almost as much magic in YouTube and the Internet as she does in her beloved books of olde. She is currently working in her hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee to save up for a months-long backpacking adventure in Europe before returning to academia.

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