NerdCon: Stories (NerdCon 2015)

I made the trip to NerdCon: Stories, the first year of this new convention originally created by Hank Green and then done with Patrick Rothfuss and a whole lot of other authors. As they put it:

Nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff. When people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all.  — John Green

NerdCon is here to celebrate the enthusiasm of the Nerd! We want to capture some of the most important and exciting cultural institutions in physical spaces. We started on this goal in 2010 when we launched VidCon, but it just wasn’t enough for us. Now, NerdCons celebrating all sorts of important, fascinating, and vital things will arise. We are starting with NerdCon: Stories.

Story-telling is as old as humans. In fact, it might be one of the things that helped us become humans. NerdCon: Stories is here to honor that institution with a diverse gathering of story tellers.

I heavily debated whether I would go when I heard about it, because it was expensive ($100 for tickets) and I wasn’t sure. But my friend and I were both interested, and I thought it would be cool to be there the first year of something that might take off in the future, so we went.

I am so incredibly glad we did. It was amazing. Amazing. Seriously, it was my favorite convention I’ve been to in… as long as I can remember, actually.

It was so intelligently done for the most part. For one thing, the main panels were only 11 am – 3 pm, so it allowed for people to sleep in or travel or explore the area or whatever they wanted to do. But if you wanted to go early you could, as they had a variety show-type of thing early in the morning. And they had other things later in the afternoons/evenings too, so you could stay late if you wanted. But you didn’t have to. Also, it was only two days (Friday and Saturday) instead of dragging across the weekend and further like these usually do.

The first two panels I attended were worth the cost and more of the tickets. They were Adaptation Into Alternate Media: But They Changed The Thing I Love!, and Nerdfighter Q&A. They were both so incredible. There was another that was amazing that I made it to on the second day that I’ll explain later, too.

Below, I’ve overviewed my three favorite panels and why they were so meaningful to me. I also wanted to mention before I get into those stories, that one of the other things I really loved about the convention was everyone was so friendly and awesome and amazing. I got into conversations with random strangers more than once, because someone would overhear what someone else was saying and pipe up to help them out or add to the conversation or more, and it was just… this wonderful feeling of camaraderie. I really feel like that’s exactly what they were going for in this con; that people could unironically genuinely love and enthuse about a topic without anyone questioning it. All of us were there because we love stories in whatever form, and frankly I would go to a convention about stories every year for the rest of my life and probably still find something valuable and important and amazing every time. I’m sad that it sounds like future NerdCons won’t be focused on stories, because I feel like it would be amazing to have that every year.

This is why I say that– these three panels alone were enough to be memorable to me far beyond this weekend:

Adaptation Into Alternate Media: But They Changed The Thing I Love!
The first was amazing because it was really entertaining, had a lot of funny moments, but also it had some seriously good information about the process of books being licensed into movies and other adaptations, and how little control the author really has, and how different Hollywood views stories, and how a book vs a movie or a tv show are not the same thing at all, and not owned by the author; that they become completely different things at that point, because the media is so different that the story itself inevitably must change. Matt de la Peña was one of the authors on that panel. I’d vaguely heard his name before but never read anything by him or knew anything about him. He talked about how his book had been made into a movie but then never released so it completely fell apart at the end.

One of the things they ended up mentioning in that panel (and which was explored further in other panels later) was the limitations of casting in Hollywood/visual media. One of the things that really stuck with me was something Matt mentioned. He said how one of his characters in this book is half-Vietnamese, and he was there when they were looking at the auditions. He said there were a number of Asian women auditioning for the part, and one of them was absolutely incredible at the audition. She was perfect for the character, and had all the best nuances. But she was also the most “Asian” of the group, so she wasn’t chosen. They went with the “whitest” of the girls. They talked about how it could be difficult to sort of be involved in the process of the adaptation but that they aren’t really that involved. That the companies don’t listen to them. That they have no control at all over anything like casting or the writing or directing or anything of the story. The voice that’s heard the least in this process, they said, was the author of the book.

That was really interesting and surprising to me, because I guess I always assumed that there’d be some say the author would have, even if maybe it would be overrun at times. But it sounds like that isn’t at all the case. Which really sucks because the success or failure of the movie/tv show/etc adaptation is reflective upon the name of the author as well. On the other hand, they pointed out, even the shittiest movie will get your name out there for people to find the book. And if the book you wrote is genuinely good, it can still help spread it through word of mouth.

Nerdfighter Q&A

I cannot even begin to tell you how completely, utterly, ridiculously effing hilarious this Nerdfighter Q&A was. I laughed so much that at one point I got tears in my eyes. It was completely amazing, especially considering they got very little Q&A done XD Ok so super quick overview if you don’t know: Maureen Johnson was the moderator, and is an author. I’d actually never heard of her before, but I’d seen her in the previous panel as a panelist and she seemed kind of interesting/funny. I had NO IDEA how fucking hilarious she was until she was moderating for John and Hank Green. Hank and John Green are known for a lot of things, two of the most well-known things being that they’re famous Youtubers, and John Green is the author of The Fault In Our Stars, Paper Towns, and more. They’re also brothers. Find more info here.

There were so many hilarious parts in the Q&A that I can’t even begin to explain it. Hank was terrified of Maureen so he was on his best behavior, John kept messing around, and Maureen was so deadpan the entire time that it was out of control and made SO MANY funny moments. If I could have one thing recorded to rewatch, it would be that.

One of the really touching things was that there were a number of questions tweeted by the attendees that were asked of John and Hank. Before the panel started, I heard a woman talking about a lot of things that had happened in her life and how she’d been trying for 7-8 years to be able to see John Green but she’d never been successful. She’d gone anywhere she could to try to meet him but it always fell through or she couldn’t talk to him. She kept saying she just wanted to be able to say one thing to him.

Toward the end of the panel, Maureen said, “This one isn’t a question but I’m going to read it because it was touching to me.” And she read a tweet which basically said, “I want to thank John Green. He saved my life with his works.”

And John said, “I want to answer that.” He looked out at the audience, and he said how he was really grateful that his works could be meaningful to someone in such a way that it could aid them in their life, but, he said, “Don’t discount your own work.” He stressed that whoever had tweeted had been the one who had done all the work, who had been the one to get through whatever it was that had plagued them, and that it wasn’t his works that did it– it was them finding strength in something they saw reflected in his works. He put all the onus, all the power, back on the person, and basically said how strong they had been, and that it was really nice to hear his works sparked any of that, but that they should see that they were the ones who saved themselves, and not ever take away the hard work they had done to get through it. He basically said that they needed to thank themselves, and see in themselves the power they were putting into his works.

It was such a beautiful, touching answer. We all applauded loudly. I had never heard such a wonderful answer to that sort of comment, and I thought about that woman I’d heard and hoped she got some sort of happiness from hearing that answer. After the panel was over, I heard her say that she had been the one who had tweeted that and that his answer had made her cry. She said that now she didn’t need to try to talk to John Green anymore; that she was satisfied with the interaction.

It was so sweet and sad and amazing and I just really loved knowing that back story. It was lucky I happened to be somewhere I could hear it since there were hundreds and hundreds of people in the auditorium.

Back on track to the funny parts, I was so happy and excited about NerdCon last night (Friday night) that I enthused about it to my friend Ashley. Here’s a part where I was trying to explain a really funny part of their interactions, as an example of why I was laughing so hard throughout the panel.

hank and John Green did this Q&A
and the moderator was Maureen Johnson, who I’d never heard of before
i wish i’d recorded it because it was fucking hilarious
they just had the best interactions
and idk like
ok so at one point someone asked Hank how his book was going
hank is not a writer, he’s really only recently tried writing at last nano
and he was like “oh it’s good… i did nanowrimo. i just won nano. it only took me 9 and a half months, which i think is TOTALLY in line with the spirit of the thing” and we were all like haha and then he was like “they don’t tell you that once you hit 50,000 words, that isn’t the end of the story! there’s still more story beyond! ….anyway, the problem is that the computer i had my 50,000 word book on stopped working.”
“i never had problems with it in the past but one day i opened it up and it was a black screen”
you could see the visceral reaction of horror from the writers as hank described how he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get the book off his dead computer XD
and then john was like “wait wait wait. you mean to say you DIDNT BACK UP A 50,000 WORD MANUSCRIPT?”
and hank was like “well i had it in folders!”
and they were like JUST ON YOUR COMPUTER?!?!
and then it got into a whole thing where they were horrified and he was like well i guess we plebs who aren’t ACTUALFAX WRITERS don’t know how to do this so come to think of it what is your process of data management?
and they were like BACKING IT UP OMFG
it was just really funny
because hank was like “well but how do you back it up?”
“just use google docs?”
and john was like “…… every week i email myself the manuscript.” and hank was like “OHHHHHH.” and john was like “…the reason i never thought to tell you this is i didn’t think it was groundbreaking news”
and maureen was like “you have to use autobackup!” and hank was like “but my laptop is all on its own T_T” and she was like “i use an external harddrive” and hank was like “but…. but when i walk around with my laptop then it won’t be attached and it won’t back up.” and she was like “OMG THERE IS A CLOUD”
and then john  pulled out his wallet and gave hank $60
and was like “here. i’ve bought you an external harddrive”
and hank was like “wait, is this the right amount for that?” and john was like “For what you need its enough”
and then hank did THE WORST make it rain with the money ever XD
and then a lot of other things happened and somehow in the process of all of this, john ended up taking back his $60 but also accidentally taking $5 of Hank’s, and then Maureen was like WAIT JOHN GET OUT YO DAMN WALLET and we found out Maureen had bet John if she went to the Fault in Our Stars movie and didn’t cry he would give her a dollar (he wrote the book) and then  he was like BUT I HAVE ONLY TWENTIES until he found a dollar, and he tried not to give it to her
and there was a long thing that was hilarious until finall yhe gave it to her
and she was like all super proud
and then was like, “Well John. It’s been a year that you’ve owed me this dollar. I am very satisfied to have this dollar. But. There’s a thing called interest.”
and we were all laughing and then John was like, “OH WAIT. As it happens, I have a $5!”
and gave her the $5 he’d stolen from Hank XD
and Hank was like WUT
and Maureen was like YASSSSS
and Hank was like, “But that was my money! how does this work! you gave me $60, and then took my money when you took it back!” and John was like, “I don’t know. All I know is, for my generosity I was up 4 bucks! :D”
it was so funny

My friend and I both agreed that the two panels I described were absolutely totally worth going to the con.

Today (Saturday) I have to be honest, I wasn’t as interested in the panels. They weren’t bad panels; it’s just that the ones I wanted to get into, we couldn’t because the rooms were filled. I was really upset about it in the beginning, actually, because the one we really wanted to attend was about where to draw the line with what personal information should be put out online. But we couldn’t get in there, so we ended up in the one in the main auditorium which had plenty of room. That one was called:

No Pressure: How To Keep Creating Once You’ve Technically Succeeded
This one was about the struggles people have after “making it” as a creative professional. I really thought I’d wanted to be in that other panel, but I have to be entirely honest. I’m very glad we were pushed into this one, because it was very, very good, and gave me so much advice I hadn’t known I’d needed. It was one of the most honest talks I saw on the panels, and thus it was one of the most helpful conversations I could have heard.

One of the things I really loved about this panel was they talked about how difficult it was to figure out what the right path was in life for what they wanted to do. They talked about how people make all these assumptions that a person must be happy once they’ve achieved “the dream” but that it can still be very difficult if it isn’t their dream. For example, everyone assumes that the ultimate goal is to have a movie made of a book, or a tv show or whatever, but that in truth there is a lot of pressure and anxiety and everything else that comes with that. And it can be very difficult to reconcile the truth, that while from the outside everyone assumes they must be ecstatic because of the money and fame and marketing… if it isn’t their own dream to be in that position, then it isn’t a happy place to be. Even though logically it is because of the money or privilege or whatever that comes with it, that still doesn’t mean they stop being a human being at the point that their name becomes synonymous with fame. And the naturally reclusive aspect of a writer, to want to be able to retreat from the real world into their imaginary realm where they can build the stories they want to tell, inherently clashes with the public lens that gets turned on them, and everything that is expected of them after that point.

They talked about how many peoples’ lives utterly and completely fall apart after the first book they do which becomes popular, when they’re going into writing the second book. They said how serious it was; that people divorced or had serious mental issues or other things which completely fucked with their health– mentally, physically, any of it.

They talked about the difficulty of saying no to offers in the beginning, because it’s still so surprising that their book took off. They talked about the bad advice they were given, and how stressful and confusing and frustrating it can be to try to figure out how to gain or continue with success when compared to their own personal moral compass, or ethical boundaries, or anything else. They also talked about how, in the event of really making it big, a person ultimately had to make a choice between private life and public life; between family and fans. That it was impossible to be able to do all of it perfectly.

And they talked about how all that stress of the success of the first book could throw them so off their game that they couldn’t concentrate on writing more. How they might go into everything assuming they could power through it all, but ultimately that was much more difficult said than done. They talked about how all the extra stress/pressure caused all these extra health issues, but that if they made it then they also had the resources to try to address that. Therapy came up as a good choice to make at that point.

They also talked about what it was like being just a normal human being who is suddenly thrown into the limelight, in a manner in which they may not have even wanted or been ready for. Because everyone was being so genuine and honest and because they were talking about very serious topics like mental health, I don’t want to go in detail about everything to respect their privacy, even though this was a public setting. But one story I’ll mention is something I think is okay to say, because it involved Twitter.

Patrick Rothfuss talked about how he thought it was important to have this candid conversation, both to help anyone who might be in the process of wanting to publish a book, but also so that fans/others knew the context with which to interpret interactions with people they love like authors. He told a story about how one day he was in an airport, and he was on his phone texting/figuring things out. A guy came up to him and was excited; said, “Are– are you Patrick Rothfuss?” and Patrick said, “yes.” And the guy said, “Can I please get a picture with you?”

Patrick said he told the man, “I’m kind of in the middle of something right now…” and the guy said, “Oh, okay.” And left. I think Patrick mentioned how he thought maybe the guy would come back later but he didn’t.

Later, he saw that guy tweet out to the world, “Saw Patrick Rothfuss at the airport. Asked for a selfie. Got ‘I’m too busy’ for an answer.” — implying that Patrick was a dick for not stopping everything to take a picture with him. Patrick said that he was really upset about this, so he decided to tweet back to the guy with the answer. Which was something like:

“I heard my friend died while I am on this tour. I’ve been trying to plan his funeral via the phone. Sorry if that was inconvenient to you.”

At that point, it looked like Patrick was holding back emotion; like if it were another situation, another place, he could have cried. But he didn’t. He said that he’d done something wrong there, by getting tetchy at one man. Because it wasn’t that guy’s fault. He’d had a moment; he’d seen Patrick Rothfuss and had wanted to speak to him thinking he’d never have another chance. At the same time, the difficulty is that authors are just people. They will have bad days, they will have days where something really shitty happened, they will have times where they’re emotionally in a place where they just can’t take that picture or sign that autograph or speak to that person. Not because they don’t care, but because they’re internally overwhelmed by something else. And if the readers, the fans, can understand that then it will help everyone in the end.

One of the things they talked a lot about was how, ultimately, it was really important to be true to yourself as far as you are able to do. They talked about how it was terrible advice to do things like Rainbow had been told: go on twitter and tweet at a bunch of more famous people than her, with the hopes that her name would get out there and people would read her books. Or what Patrick had been told: go on MySpace (at the time) and make a character profile of his main character and pretend to be him and talk to people like he was Kvothe so that people would get interested in the book and read it. Well-intentioned advice by agents and publicists who know nothing at all about the media they are recommending, nor how utterly problematic those recommendations are.

What made me feel very thankful for that panel, for those honest stories and that honest advice, was that a lot of my internal discord and angst was reflected in them. I realized that I wasn’t alone, and that if I should ever “make it” and feel these things, then I was in good company with the feelings, and it’s perfectly normal to feel that way. That even very talented, very funny, very kind people I greatly admire feel the same way.

The most important part of that was related to an existential crisis I had the other day. I didn’t talk about what it was about, exactly, and I guess I still won’t go fully into it. But what it pared down to was this: I have always wanted to be a writer, because stories have always been in my blood. I have also always been more interested in telling the stories I want to tell, in the way I feel is best for the characters or world, within my own control inasmuch as I can. As nice as it would be to be a writer full time, I’ve also often thought that it seemed as though such a situation brought with it its own difficulties and pressures, and I’ve thought how I wasn’t certain I wanted that. As fun as it would be to have a tv show made of a story, if it wasn’t done the way I imagined then it would be really stressful to have this world I’d created be pulled away from me and completely twisted, and for that to be the thing everyone else imagines first instead of my book.

But mostly, I worry about the possibility of having to become inauthentic. I don’t like doing things if I can’t fully support it. I mean, ffs, I quit my job as a bookseller of many years because I felt it was morally wrong to be required to push the bookstore’s membership program even in situations in which it would be an unnecessary extra cost for the person.

There are things that seem so small to everyone else that feel massive to me, so I was greatly relieved when they gave the story about that twitter advice and how horrible that advice was. I worried that I would be forced to publicly “like” posts or articles or books or whatever that other authors did, simply because I stepped into a world where authors are out there marketing themselves. Simply because I was participating in something that they participated in as well. But I have a strong moral disagreement with “liking” something if I don’t believe in it, or support it, or the person. I didn’t want to have to repost/like/etc things other people did just because they were involved in something along with me, not when I didn’t know if I actually liked what they represented or said– and yet I didn’t want to be rude to them or others by not doing it if it was a required expectation.

I had a moment of thinking, if being a writer means I have to throw my name behind anything inauthentically then I don’t want to be a writer. Because that isn’t me and that goes against everything I believe in. My moral compass is to not do that and walk away. But what’s also very much me is to be a writer. It’s at the core of my identity; the only thing I’ve known my entire life, even when there were so many other pieces of me I didn’t understand.

I thought, if in order to be a writer I have to be someone who isn’t me, then at the core of me is a stance that I won’t do it. I will abandon writing in order to preserve who I am as a person. I’ve been at odds with mainstream far too often in my life to be willing to be anyone other than who I am, just to make other people happy. But I am a writer. That’s just as fundamentally who I am.

So if I have to abandon writing in order to authentically be me, how can I authentically be me if I’m not writing?

Who am I, if not even that?

That is what became my existential crisis a few weeks ago, and it was difficult to have to deal with. I really had to figure out what I would do if that was required. How I could walk away from writing without walking away from myself, and yet how I could walk forward with writing if it meant walking away from who I am and what I stand for.

I really, really appreciated knowing that the existential crisis I had over what is probably seemingly very small to anyone else, something very unimportant and blown out of proportion, felt reflected in what they discussed and what they experienced and how they felt.

And then I felt even better knowing how slow I had been to write the books I’ve been working on, because they’ve been slow too. Because they’ve experienced the same difficulties, although on a much larger scale.

I really can’t say enough of how important that conversation, that candidness, was to me. And how much it both made me feel better currently, and made me wonder what I wanted for the future. It made me feel better that I don’t really care if I ever become super famous… that I’d be happy enough writing books that some people like a lot. And if that means I never have the chance to lose my day job, if I always am only writing on the side… then maybe that’s better. Maybe that’s, ultimately, the best place for me to be.

After all, my measure of success isn’t, probably, what it is for others. I’ve always thought that if I could have anything in the world for my stories, I would just like to know that they’re interesting or entertaining or meaningful to even one other person. That I would feel very accomplished if any sort of fandom, no matter how small, could bloom from my words. And I would love the chance someday, in the future, to be able to speak on a panel or speak at a convention about whatever topic it is that others might find interesting for me to explore. That’s, honestly, my measure of happiness and success. I don’t need to become JK Rowling with millions of books sold around the world and millions of people being diehard fans and dozens of adaptations being made from my stories.

I just want a small group of people to care about the story, the characters, in whatever capacity fits their lives. And I want a chance to give back by talking to people, by answering questions or giving advice or anecdotes to others… to be part of the meaning this sort of panel had to me, to someone else in the future.

That’s, honestly, my goal. Not money, but human connections and a chance to be meaningful.

They said how they had a lot of stress over deadlines, until eventually they found out they could skip them. Patrick said he had missed many, many deadlines, after he’d spoken to an author he admired (Tim Powers) who had told Patrick that he’d never made a deadline in his life. Patrick hadn’t realized that, because the books he so admired of Tim’s were ones that had been out for decades before Patrick had read them, so he hadn’t had context of the timeline of the release. All he knew was how much he loved them.

When Patrick had asked Tim how he did it and why; how he could miss those deadlines and not feel bad, what Tim responded was something I thought was really an important distinction, and what I’ll use to close this post.

“It’s late once but it sucks forever.”

Also, in pulling out my notes for that I saw another quote I liked I wanted to share; this one from Rainbow Rowell, when they were talking about the pressures others put on them, and the worry that they have to say yes because if they don’t people might stop liking them or their works, and how they ask all these other people to put faith in them but they need to remember to do that on their own, too. She said:

“It’s important to bet on yourself. I’m not going to assume that things will get worse.”

Actually, this is really the last thing. I just remembered something Dessa Darling talked about, in another panel. She said:

“Who has temporal control?”

She was referencing how a song is only so long, or a movie was only so long, so the creators of those are in control of how long this thing will be. But anything that’s read is in control of the reader; be it a poem or a book or a magazine or anything else. Same with a painting. How long is a painting? That’s in the control of the viewer.

I thought that was a very interesting way of looking at creative differences in songs vs art vs words.

Another thing Dessa Darling said in a panel that I really liked was below– I know I got the quote written down verbatim except the last word, which I’ve forgotten but if it wasn’t what I put then it had that same meaning:

“Distinguishing the urgent from the important becomes increasingly necessary.”

One thing Patrick said was how he plays these board games like Settlers of Catan, and he’s fantastic at winning those resource games but is bad about handling the resources in his own life. So he said that what he eventually realized was that he has to figure out the worldbuilding path he wants for his own life the same way he does in those games. In those games, you can’t have the best road and the best military and the best this and that. You have to identify what you want to focus on, in order to reach the points you need in order to achieve the victory you set out to find.

He said how it would be good to use that metaphor for your own life– do you want to be a good dad to your kids and spend time with your family? Do you want to be on tour all the time and very accessible to fans? Do you want to write more books and never go too long in between? You can’t do all these things, so you have to find the priority that’s right for you and commit. But you have to be willing to give up on something in order to get the thing you want.

As Dessa said:

“Somewhere in my head there’s an accountant of sacrifices.”

And as Patrick said:

“Your most valuable commodity is time. That’s the only thing you can’t buy more of.”

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