James Irwin is a global marketing communications leaders for business services giant Deloitte, and is a published essayist, media critic, and journalist. He’s headed to Lancaster to talk to HippoCampers about brand strategy. James was kind enough to answer a few questions about his upcoming session and trip to Lancaster for our annual writing conference:
Q: Tell us a little about your involvement this year at HippoCamp.
A: I’m running a breakout session titled “Building a Reputation Framework: Personal Brand Strategy for Writers.” When I decided to return to fiction and creative nonfiction a few years ago and was scoping out the current publishing landscape, I was amused/horrified by the expectation that writers should have a “platform” before being considered, that through some magical process they should already enjoy a substantial digital following. I thought what was demanded from an individual writer—one with a family and a life and responsibilities and a job and barely carving out enough time to write—was silly at best (but for many no doubt felt like cruel or even debilitating pressure).
My professional role is producing global marketing communications for the world’s biggest business services firm; digital platforms, engagement, and brand strategy is what I do. I thought I could bring my knowledge and experience in that world and adapt it for the individual writer, to give them some weapons to guard their time and energy, to focus on the right activities for them. To give them some simple and fundamental, yet powerful, tools to feel more in control of their public identity.
Q: Our motto is “memorable creative nonfiction.” Tell us about one of the more recent memoirs, essay collections, or individual essays you’ve read and why it was memorable.
A: By coincidence I’ve recently read several essays by Sarah M. Wells: “Genotype” in Hippocampus; “Not-My-Husband and Natural Habitat” in Ascent; “Field Guide to Resisting Temptation” in Brevity; “Careful Intimacies” in Full Grown People. Obviously I was pleased to see she’ll also be a presenter at HippoCamp ’22!
I read them because I know they’re gathered in her memoir-via-essay-collection American Honey and I’m interested in the approach: creating puzzle pieces that, sometimes, nearly but don’t quite connect, other times overlap or tell much the same story but from different angles. I recently read the Brian Doyle collection One Long River of Song and he would do similar things with his most important topics. I am probably – maybe? – going to use a comparable strategy on something I’m grappling with.
Q: What made you decide to participate in HippoCamp this year as a speaker?
A: In my professional life it is something I’ve often done—conduct a session at a conference where I’m also happily an attendee. As I mentioned earlier, I thought I could add value by sharing some of my day job knowledge with others, in a way that they could embrace and put to good use. I knew my perspective on personal marketing might be a bit different. Instead of telling writers how to be more successful, I wanted to show them how to protect themselves.
Q: What’s going to keep you busy between now and HippoCamp?
A: I just got back from Nashville, a no-reason-other-than-to-do-it little trip with my wife and son and his girlfriend. Later in June there’s an international business communication conference in New York City. I’m seeing Phillip Glass’s opera Akhnaten at the Met, the reboot of Funny Girl on Broadway, and the night before I drive out to Lancaster I’m catching Lady Gaga in a football stadium in the Meadowlands, so clearly I have catholic tastes. I have several essays I’m working on. Meanwhile, I’m querying a novel therefore I expect a vein of rejection and disappointment will thread through my summer (and beyond).
Q: Since you’ll also be attending the conference, when you’re not wearing your “speaker hat,” what are you most looking forward to learning or doing?
A: I know I have good stories to tell. I need to be sure I want to tell them, then I need to figure out the best way to tell them, and finally I need to know if I have the courage to tell them. I’m hoping the other presenters and the other attendees will inspire in me the insights and energy and fresh perspectives I need to move forward with confidence and not veer off the road and crash in a ditch.
Q: We love introducing Lancaster to attendees. If you live here or have been here before, what would you recommend to other attendees? And, if this will be your first time here, what are you looking forward to?
A: I love the landscapes in that part of Pennsylvania, the rolling farmlands, the forests, the old towns. I shot two short films in that region. I grew up in Norristown outside of Philadelphia, I lived in Chambersburg for a couple of years, and had family out that way, so I’ve crisscrossed through and around Lancaster often, but not for some time. I’m Pennsylvania Dutch on my mother’s side, so Lancaster County is the Land of My People. It will feel a little like returning to an old familiar place that I no longer remember well.
We can’t wait for James to join us this year! HippoCamp 2022, a creative nonfiction conference sponsored by Hippocampus Magazine and Books, is Aug. 12-14 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. For more information or to register, visit our official conference website here.
(Learn more about the conference and see details of all previous years at our magazine website’s HippoCamp page.)