Bringing Together Writers at Every Level: The Hands On Festival

In December 2013 I had the pleasure of attending the first annual Hand On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball hosted by Burlesque Press in New Orleans. This intimate festival (about 100 attendees) was a welcome change after going to the enormous AWP conference for a couple of years in a row. Unlike some larger conferences, The Hands On Festival was laid back and friendly; I could talk to the keynote speaker (Dinty W. Moore) and befriend some of the more established writers without feeling overwhelmed or out of place.

The founder of Burlesque Press, Jennifer Stewart, wants writers at all levels to get involved in the literary community. I sat on my first panel at the festival, and a group of MFA students had their first public reading. I also attended some incredible sessions. Moira Crone’s workshop on magical realism got me writing, and the excellent panel on plot with Daniel Wallace, Lynne Barrett, and Bill Loehfelm gave me new ways to look at the structure of my novels.

And did I mention that the festival culminated with a masquerade ball on New Year’s Eve? By the time the ball rolled around, I had gotten to know the other writers, and we had a great time eating, drinking, and dancing at The Prytania Bar in the beautiful Garden District of New Orleans.

The 2014 festival is set for December 28th - 31st in New Orleans, with keynote speakers Joy Castro and Lee Gutkind. As always, Burlesque Press is hoping to get writers of all levels involved and has put out a call for papers, panels, and readings. The theme this year is Silver & Gold: Wealth and Economics in Literature and Creative Writing, but all proposals are welcome and encouraged. 

Here are a few words from Jennifer Stewart, director of Burlesque Press, about the upcoming festival:

What is Burlesque Press exactly?

Burlesque Press is a literary enterprise. We host the annual Hands On Literary Festival, and we will bring our first book into print this summer. We also host the occasional writing retreat, and, in general, seek to promote the work of writers at all levels in a relaxed and egalitarian format.

We also have an online component, The Burlesque Press Variety Show, and are always seeking creative pieces to publish on our blog.

Why is New Orleans the best place for the Hands On Festival?

To me, New Orleans is the ultimate city for writers. We writers tend to deplete our creative sources. New Orleans, with its food, its cocktails, its history of hosting great writers, is a place that can refill those creative coffers. New Orleans is also a city on the edge - on the edge of poverty, chaos, and maybe even anarchy. The writer John Connolly once said that writers are like magpies. And the chaos of New Orleans provides a lot of shinies.

What makes the Hands On Festival different from other conferences?

I think our focus on creating an engaged and convivial atmosphere among writers helps us stand out. Because we are dedicated to bringing together writers at all levels with publishing professionals in a relaxed, egalitarian format we are a lot less intimidating than something massive like AWP. I think the size helps provide for a more intimate environment.And, of course, I don’t know of any other literary festival that has a masked ball on New Year’s Eve.

What is your fondest memory from last year’s festival?

At the very end of the festival, keynote speaker, Dinty W. Moore, and I took a group of people across the street for 25-cent oysters and beer. It was a group made up of writers at every level and genre from student to well-established. It was relaxed, laid back, and congenial. It was about writing, and it wasn’t. It was more about a sense of community and camaraderie and THAT is exactly why I started the festival. I think, as writers, we are all in it together, but we need to be reminded of this, and also reminded of the fact that we aren’t alone in our oddities.

What do you want to say about this year’s festival?

I am super excited about this year’s festival. We have an expanded schedule, with two keynotes, one from Joy Castro, and one from Lee Gutkind. We’re helping Creative Nonfiction host their 20th Anniversary Celebration. We are also offering a variety of Master Classes, and even some agent consultations. We’re hosting a couple of book launches, and we’ll have an expanded book fair. And our theme this year is Silver & Gold: Wealth and Economics in Creative Writing, which means we’re having a silver and gold themed ball on New Year’s Eve, with live music and dancing, and a champagne toast at midnight. All of that sounds delightful to me!

For more information about attending this year’s festival, or proposing a paper, panel, or reading (tentative deadline of August 31st), head to the Burlesque Press wesbite.