Deciding to Go: A HippoCamp 2017 Pre-cap By Elizabeth Mackenzie Biedell

Nat Book Festival 2017
Headed to National Book Festival in the rain L-R, Lisa Tully, totally normal children, author and guest blogger Elizabeth Mackenzie Biedell

She said it very casually. In the middle of two other thoughts. And I’m glad she did.

“So I’m not even sure…there’s this thing…I want to go, it’s called Hippo Camp…I don’t know, Ken really wants to go to this other thing…”

I wasn’t sure what my friend Lisa was talking about. It didn’t matter. I talked like this too. In bits. She’s an extrovert having a conversation in her head. Out loud. If I waited, pretty soon it would definitely start to make sense.

“Have you heard of Hippocampus, the magazine?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said, not sure that I did. My secret identity, ‘always-an-expert,’ was out of the gate. I mean maybe I did. It sounded familiar. I’m sure I’ve come across an article published in that magazine. Yep, that was probably it.

“Well there’s this conference thing,” Lisa was still talking. She was building toward a crescendo for something she clearly was excited about. “It’s for creative nonfiction. It’s called Hippo Camp.”

“I wanna go,” I blurted. “We’re going.” She had me at nonfiction.

I ripped out my phone, took in the details; next weekend (I’m available…check), Lancaster, PA (not too far from DC…check) $400 (what?!).

“Oh, I can’t go,” I sighed. Four hundred dollars plus hotel was going to take this to another level with my husband Jeff who, God love ’em, was starting a new job the following week. And he was known to wonder aloud, more and more frequently these days, whether the work-world would be welcoming another newcomer one of these days, now that her children were in school full time.

“I wanna go,” I blurted. “We’re going.” She had me at nonfiction.

“You’re the brains of this operation,” he told me more than once. “You know that right? You’re our super achiever. Hey, I’m just doing my best here. We are counting on you for our millions.”

I used to nod along to these words, it was true after all. But lately I’ve started to see this compliment parade for what it is: a sweet yet sly attempt to resuscitate my workaholic ways so that he can reintroduce some elements of leisure back into his life. He casts himself as the zen, balanced partner, but he’s no schlub, after all, by any measure. Along with his MBA, which he received with a 4.0 GPA on a full scholarship for his perfect entry exam GMAT score, he scored in the top 1% of all high schoolers on the PSAT and received a National Merit Scholarship for being in the top half of 1%! How dare he call me the brains of the operation?

“You know what, one hundred of this total is for food,” I reasoned to Lisa, “and I have to eat anyway. So let’s do it!”

I registered that day for HippoCamp. And I spent the next day talking Marriott into giving me a rate closer to Jeff’s systolic tolerance for discretionary expenses, and only then started to think about preparing my two kids for their mother’s absence for a weekend.

“It won’t be that that bad,” I thought, “The kids are 7 and 9 and could get used to some time away from me.” Plus they get very excited about my book project.

This past Saturday we attended the National Book Festival in Washington DC, an event chock-a-block with famous authors, and my daughter turned to me and said, “One day, mom, this will be you.” This would have been heartbreakingly cute if she hadn’t also said it to me two years ago when we went. Needless to say, the book was taking a while.

Initially I had had a notion of writing while also being my children’s primary caregiver, but for so many reasons, some obvious, others less so, that was not so easy. For one, not only did my heart break wide open when my kids were born, so did my mind. Not in a cliche, ‘scrambled’ kind of way, but in a gentler, ‘never will I ever easily be able to think about only one thing at one time’ kind of way. I will always be ‘aware’ of my children; where they are, what and how they are doing. Deep work was challenging. Concentration would come again, I figured, but it would take practice to master again after the reactive, sometimes life and death, but definitely moment-to-moment, reality of a daily caregiver of young children. Maybe not everyone’s experience, but definitely mine.

But the project keeps luring me back. It is about the realizations I had while serving in the government during the build up to the Iraq War. I had concerns about how easily a President can take us to war. I sought and received a fellowship to research and write a book about it not long after my first child was born, but when baby number 2 came along a little quicker than planned, the book was ‘shelved’ for a while.

Now, Jeff was game to have me attend the conference and focus on my writing for more than a few hours, though he later referred to the writers conference as my ‘birthday present’–a bold move I thought for a man holding a phone at that exact moment open to a list of Mercedes convertibles, albeit used, on Cars.com. “No worries,” I grumbled. “I believe you just saved me some money on souvenirs for the family.”

On day 3 following registration, I finally turned to HippoCamp’s great workshop choices and quickly identified my top choice for each time slot. My mind was spinning thinking about being “better at speculation,” and “blending my genres,” and “illuminating my memories!” There was so much to learn!

I hope to practice grounding my ideas in my experience and real life. I hope to better learn how to reveal to the readers how my ideas were born and have them experience that revelation as I did.

It won’t be easy. This essay was my first attempt at creative non-fiction. My natural style, as honed by writing daily briefs for the President of the United States, is explanatory, information-providing, and persuasive. But not experiential.

And it’s concise. Dreadfully concise.

On my very first day in the library after hiring my very first babysitter several years ago I remember sitting down to write. I was done in fifteen minutes.

“Great,” I thought. “A brochure. I have written the world’s best brochure.” I was stuck; each year desperately hoping this would be the year they created a Pulitzer category for pamphlets. No such luck.

I knew then that I needed to learn how to flesh out my ideas. I wanted to do that in ways that go beyond more explanatory prose because I want a broader audience for my book than the typical national security reader.

“Great,” I thought. “A brochure. I have written the world’s best brochure.”

I am hoping HippoCamp will help with that. I am very excited.

And there are people to meet! I know very few people writing nonfiction. Previous writers conferences and classes I’ve attended were always filled with mostly fiction hopefuls. Thankfully there is Lisa with her stunning first draft memoir about Spain. Her talent for dialogue and sheer speed at writing wow and motivate me. We love talking about writing. It will be fun to attend with her.

“I’m truly as excited to meet the participants, as I am the presenters,” I told her.

So, please do stop and say hello at HippoCamp. Here we come Lancaster, give us what you got. Hope to see you all there.


Elizabeth MacKenzie Biedell double majored in Leadership Studies and International Studies and minored in Women’s Studies. She also earned two masters degrees, one in International Peace and Conflict Resolution and the other in Comparative Theological Studies. She is a former intelligence analyst at the CIA. After leaving government service, she received an Open Society Fellowship and is writing a book on how the public can be better informed on national security issues that involve classified information. She has written two OpEd pieces for CNN (the first, the second), as well as a piece on creating a book club for kids (she is all over the map!). On top of all that, she is an amazing mother and wife, caring friend, and community organizer.

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