November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Once Upon a Time in Minneapolis: A Librarian Attends NerdCon

nerdcon bannerThe first NerdCon, the brainchild of Hank Green and the successful team who have produced the video blogger convention Vidcon for the last six years, was the hot ticket convention for storytellers and story consumers this fall. Held in Minneapolis October 9–10, the convention focused on storytelling. As outlined by Green himself in the opening Main Stage gathering on Friday morning, NerdCon aims to celebrate a craft that is of vital importance, but often underappreciated.

01: Excited NerdCon attendees Emily Roycraft and Lauren Pack show off their style.

Excited NerdCon attendees Emily Roycraft and Lauren Pack show off their style. Photos by Robin Brenner

From the first sessions, it was clear that the NerdCon developers had anticipated the interests of the attendees and how the panelists would be able to adapt and interact with the audience. Rapid-fire references to “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the Shakespeare authorship conspiracies, and the beauty of Charles Darwin’s writing were greeted with cheers. Each day included two 90-minute Main Stage sessions in which variety-show high jinks were interspersed with impassioned five-minute monologues on why stories matter. Before, in between, and after the Main Stage sessions, attendees had the chance to sit in on one of three simultaneous in-depth panel discussions. The ran the gamut, from how to make money from creative work to how to curate an online presence without losing one’s offline sanity. Signings were held along with the panels, allowing one-on-one time with the invited guests, including novelists, playwrights, comedians, video bloggers, podcast producers, and musicians.

John Green weighs in on adaptations during the Adaptation into Alternate Media panel, with John Scalzi, Maureen Johnson, Holly Black, and Matt de la Pena.

John Green weighs in on adaptations during the “Adaptation into Alternate Media” panel, with
John Scalzi, Maureen Johnson, Holly Black, and Matt de la Peña.

The NerdCon experience created a strong synergy between presenters and attendees. On the Main Stage, attendees roared with laughter while watching Sarah Mackey (director of community engagement for NaNoWriMo), Lev Grossman (author of The Magicians), Desiree Burch (Welcome to Night Vale voice actress), and M.T. Anderson (author of Symphony for the City of the Dead) play the Superfight game, refereed by its creator Darin Ross. The game invites players to draw characters and attributes from a deck of cards and then argue which created contestant would triumph in a fight. Would Burch’s Batman inside a giant robotic two-horses-inside man suit defeat all comers? How about Grossman’s 10-foot-tall Martha Stewart? Other lighthearted events included a suitably disgusting round of “What’s in My Mouth?”, a round of creators reading unedited versions of embarrassing prose written in their teen years, musical performances by wizard rockers Harry and the Potters and author Steven Brust, and a puppet show led by Liz Hara (Sesame Street).

Discussions gave the speakers the opportunity to engage with more thorny topics and attendees the chance to pose questions. Session after session raised awareness about whose stories are told and who is struggling to be heard. Discourse was respectful and optimistic, and the level of debate had a more scholarly bent than typical fan conventions.

Members of the Welcome to Night Vale cast tackles advice for female artists: Cecil Baldwin, Meg Bashwiner, Kevin R. Free, Desiree Burch, and Mara Wilson.

Members of the Welcome to Night Vale cast tackles advice for female artists: Cecil Baldwin,
Meg Bashwiner, Kevin R. Free, Desiree Burch, and Mara Wilson.

Dylan Marron, who Welcome to Night Vale fans know as the voice of Carlos the Scientist, is the actor behind the Every Single Word YouTube project. He has edited popular feature films to include only the lines spoken by people of color. This endeavor, for example, shortened the 12-hour “The Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy to a mere 30 seconds. Marron used Home Alone, one of his favorite childhood movies, as a powerful example. “The movies that I use in the Every Single Word series have universal stories. They’re not about whiteness…. Home Alone is not about a boy who is grappling with his white identity.” Drawing from cultural anthropologist George Gerbner, he continued, “If you see yourself represented in a fictional world, you feel that you exist, and if you don’t, that is symbolic annihilation. What message are we giving to people if in the movies we keep producing, if in the universal stories we keep telling, we only use white bodies to tell those stories?”

The “Tropes, Misinformation, and Stereotypes” panel featured a similarly robust discussion led by moderator Mary Robinette Kowal with panelists M.T. Anderson, Jeffrey Cranor, Liz Hara, Téa Obreht (The Tiger’s Wife), and Maggie Stiefvater (“Raven Boys” Cycle). At the beginning of the session, while waiting to see how many more eager attendees could find seats in the full hall, Kowal collected questions from the audience. A rumbling hum of approval went through the audience with each provocative query, which included topics such as how creators can learn to see stereotypes and blind spots that unintentionally arise in their own writing. This panel did not aim to be comfortable but demonstrated the strong desire of creators to listen and to learn.

Harry and the Potters (Joe and Paul DeGeorge) rock out on the Main Stage.

Harry and the Potters (Joe and Paul DeGeorge) rock out on the Main Stage.

The other major theme that unified guests and the audience was the affirmation that all stories, everyone’s stories, matter. In his introduction to the event, Green told the audience that while he had organized the con, he was handing it over to the attendees to actively shape the event. Burch, a comedian, writer, and actress, inspired the audience during her “Why Stories Matter” segment. She encouraged everyone to remember that personal stories can be the most powerful tool in fighting ignorance and prejudice. Paul DeGeorge, of the Wizard Rock band Harry and the Potters and cofounder of the charity the Harry Potter Alliance, celebrated the power of fans during the “Connecting Through Stories” program. “When fans feel empowered in doing something, give them a focus, and then they can do amazing things…. Young people [can] learn leadership skills, and they become community leaders.”

Attendees at NerdCon were engaged and friendly—and library fans. There was a parade of nerdy T-shirts, but only a handful of folks arrived dressed as their favorite characters. Many of the convention goers were drawn in by the presence of one or more of their favorite creators, but the focus of the event was on the art of storytelling, not any individual story. Many participants were creators themselves, including a young storyteller and charity organizer who had traveled all the way from Birmingham, England, to attend his first convention ever. Others came to watch their favorite authors interact. The conversations at panels were sharp, good-natured, and intended to provoke discussion more than provide answers.

Maggie Stiefvater regaling the crowd during Friday’s Main Stage festivities.

Maggie Stiefvater regaling the crowd during Friday’s Main Stage festivities.

There is room to expand, but as a first-time event, NerdCon was professionally run, intimate in scope, and immediately inviting. Presenters zeroed in on the underpinnings of telling stories in a wide range of media, with emphasis on craft. As professionals with a keen interest in how stories begin, reach readers, and are retold, the creators of NerdCon hope to provide a refreshing and rejuvenating time for participants. Even if John Green and Maggie Stiefvater don’t drag race every year, which was one of the many highlights of the two-day convention, NerdCon is an exciting conference for fans of stories.

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Comments

  1. Jim Holder says:

    An attentive, thoughtful review.