WRITING LIFE: How A Lit Mag Can Grow You By Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

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One day you’re in class listening to Donna Talarico’s voice on Zoom. Your teacher suggests you get involved with Hippocampus Magazine as a reader. That summer you’re at HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers, meeting Allison K Williams. She hugs you. You are surprised to discover this new community.

Inside you is a writer but also a battle. A child-like part wants to cocoon and hide. An adult part—the part in charge, you often remind yourself—craves growth and connection.

You apply for a position. Somehow, you get it. You stand a little taller. You are a Lit Mag Editor. You can’t believe it when you win the opportunity to do your first presentation at HippoCamp. It’s 10 minutes long. Your name tag flutters with multicolored ribbons. You feel special and, also self-conscious about all the weight you’ve gained. You remember when it was too difficult to let your true self show, and you vow not to turn back. A friend comes to your hotel room.

“OK, let’s practice your presentation,” she says. It’s hard for you to accept her generosity, but you do. When you see her before your talk, she says, “you look beautiful.” Despite your lack of professional attire, and your weight, a confidence starts to light you up. The talk goes well. You are now a Speaker.

People who have listened to you speak get in touch after the conference. They invite you to speak at their conference, to their students. “Yes,” you say to two opportunities.

The following year your pitch for a longer session is accepted. This is how a lit mag can grow you. You are grateful. You accept this new challenge and prepare, making sure to incorporate the previous year’s feedback. You refuse to let the people who believe in you down but also are secretly afraid of fucking up the tech.

Before you present, a woman in the same session at HippoCamp 2022 turns around. As you chat, she learns you are a presenter. She has spent her career coaching presenters. You feel like the universe is saying, “you got this.”

“Should I memorize my presentation?” you ask.

“No,” she says. “It will sound too rehearsed.” You’ve always felt uncomfortable improvising. You’ll try it.

Twice before your session you run into Talarico. “Good luck!” she says, both times. “Thank you,” you say. You feel humbled and grateful that the person who runs this conference and magazine supports your efforts.

Before your session you hear Allison K Williams presenting. You are glad and hope someday for her level of presence. You come early to your session. You have handouts. You don’t go a minute over time. You did it! People came and learned and even enjoyed the session. Maybe, someday, you may even feel a tad more relaxed about presenting. After, you thank Talarico, whose voice you first heard from a screen, in a classroom. “It means the world to me,” you say, “to have had this opportunity.” Your voice breaks, and you hug each other, and this is how a lit mag can grow you.

When you get home, one rainy night you teach your first in-person class at GrubStreet. You’re surprised so many came during the storm and half-hoped they wouldn’t. After a writing exercise, none of the students want to read what they’ve written. You sit in silence. You hadn’t planned for that. You improvise. You feel the great good fortune of being in this classroom, around a bright table, in community, listening to a student read a poem. You listen to pens scratching in notebooks, fingers swift and musical on keyboards. You daughter, 12, is reading a book in the lounge, with a view of Boston Harbor. Maybe someday she will even read the memoir you’ve written. You are an Instructor. This might be the best night of your life. That’s how a lit mag can grow you.

Kristen Paulson Nguyen

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

Articles Editor, Writing Life

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Memoir and Essay Incubators and has taught courses in flash and the memoir proposal. She edits the Writing Life column for Hippocampus. Through her service Title Doctor, she has titled 17 works of fiction, nonfiction, memoir, a craft book, a memoir-in-essays, and The Writer’s 2021 contest-winning essay. She is querying her memoir

Email for Pitches:writinglife@hippocampusmagazine.com.


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