By George Getschow
I spent God knows how many hours thinking about, writing and rewriting this report. But with every draft I found myself blocked trying to express what made our 2012 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference so special and so different from our eight previous conclaves.
In frustration, I put the writing of this report aside, hoping that my muse would eventually return to help me get the report written and into the hands of our conference manager, Jo Ann Ballantine, who kept sending me “friendly reminders” how far behind we were in publishing the report.
Finally, my muse appeared in the form of a letter from John Parsley, the executive editor of Little, Brown and a member of the Mayborn Conference’s Advisory Board. “The 2012 Mayborn Conference,” he wrote, “was as unlike any other as it was exactly the same. Just as it addressed some of the most urgent questions in journalism and narrative nonfiction writing, with a completely fresh, powerhouse schedule of talks, the heart of the conference was as unchanged as ever: the wealth of deep and specific talk about craft; the shared experience of talks, panels, meals, and conversation; the real connection among the growing Tribe of those who have discovered and love the Mayborn--that’s why there’s no better place for nonfiction than Texas in July.”
John’s insight – “the heart of the conference was as unchanged as ever” – reminded me that what has made the Mayborn the preeminent narrative nonfiction conference in America is that our focus is not about change, it’s about our love of craft, our shared experience, about creating “real connections” among our conferees and speakers who want nothing more than to help each other become better storytellers.
Our Friday night keynote, Luis Urrea, spent a few days reflecting on his round-the-clock conversations revolving around the narrative craft with the Mayborn Tribe. “The concept of The Tribe of Writers is brilliant,” he told me, “in that it not only promotes camaraderie but instills a sense of ownership and belonging to this genre. Many of us disagreed on hundreds of sticking points, yet all of us left somehow united in our drive to create real literature.”
As always, our tribe filled their notebooks and journals with valuable lessons on how to “create real literature.”
From Luis, we learned that searching for humor even in the most inhumane places makes for real literature because it “infects us with humanity.” In writing about the migrant deaths he chronicled in The Devil’s Highway, Urrea said “humor helped me move the story along and it kept me from losing my mind.”
From Richard Rhodes, our Saturday night keynote and author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, we learned that the word “verity” is a far more accurate term for our genre than “nonfiction,” which was coined by a librarian in the 19th century to deal with the problem of categorizing long-form narrative. Verity—the literature of truth – is a hybrid craft, he said, that draws on the skills of journalism and on the techniques of fiction: plot, character, language, point of view, narrative voice and more.” Writing verity involves “a life of ongoing, profoundly satisfying investigation, with discoveries, mysteries, resistances and breakthroughs along the way.”
From Isabel Wilkerson, the first black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize, we learned not to settle for second-rate characters. She spent 15 years interviewing more than 1,200 people to find the three characters that she felt best suited to tell her epic migration narrative, The Warmth of Other Suns. To feel one character’s sense of terror and deprivation during his migration from Louisiana to California in 1953, Wilkerson rented an ancient Buick and retraced his sleepless, harrowing drive in every detail. By the end of the drive, Wilkerson said she felt more “empathy for what he and millions of other Americans had to endure because they had not had the option of stopping” as she did. The result: “real literature” carved out of the common experience of 6 million segregated and subjugated blacks leaving the Jim Crow South in search of a better life in America’s northern and western cities.
From Amy Harmon, a Pulitizer Prize winning writer for The New York Times, we learned how to look for narratives at the intersection of science and everyday life, and when to stop reporting and begin writing. From Thomas Lake, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, we learned that investigative reporting techniques apply to “uncovering good deeds” as well as bad. From Chris Jones, a writer at large for Esquire magazine, we learned how the pain and misery of rejection can – if we pick ourselves up - make us better storytellers.
From Donovan Hohn, an editor at GQ and author of Moby-Duck: The True Story of 2,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalist and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them, we learned that questions can be like ocean currents. “Wade in a little too far, and they can carry you away,” Hohn said. “Follow one line of inquiry and it will lead you to another, and another. Spot a yellow duck dropped atop the seaweed at the tide line, ask yourself where it came from, and the next thing you know you’re way out at sea, no land in sight, dog-paddling around in mysteries four miles deep.” What do you do when your questions don’t lead to answers but to more questions? The answer, we learned, is to turn the search into the story, allowing the unknown to become the narrative.
From Debbie Applegate, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, we learned how reading mystery and suspense novels can make us better storytellers. Applegate’s biography of Henry Ward Beecher was at first rejected by her publisher. It was boring. So she began studying the literary devices used by great novelists to build suspense, create tension and leave “cliffhangers” in every paragraph to keep readers reading. Twenty years later, her rewritten biography won the Pulitzer Prize – offering all of us a lesson in perseverance and the value of using fictional techniques in our nonfiction prose.
Indeed, at our 2012 conclave we learned a great deal about how reading and studying great fiction, plays, poetry, documentary film, memoir and other literary forms can lift our nonfiction prose to new heights. Speaker after speaker spoke about the need to employ more “creative innovation” in our nonfiction stories, even if our creations don’t measure up to the quest. At a time when newspaper readership is dropping, “how can we be brave enough to get even interesting failures into print?” asked Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute, one of the most influential writing coaches in American journalism. In sum, we learned at this year’s conference that “to create real literature” takes a lot more than talent. It takes gumption, perseverance and self-sacrifice. That message, says Chris Vognar, a film critic for The Dallas Morning News, is exactly what he needed to hear. “Hearing from professionals who have worked hard to find satisfaction by writing substantial and meaningful stories helps remind me why it’s important to fight hard to do the same…I always leave (the conference) inspired to find a better balance between tidbit journalism and actual writing.”
Mike Merschel, the book editor of The Dallas Morning News, also left our 2012 gathering “awed” and “inspired. “It was one of the best,” he said. “And it did make me feel lucky, again, that a conference of this caliber exists and brings such great talents to our area every year.”
George Getschow is the writer-in-residence for the Frank W. Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism and founder of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. This essay was drawn from the 2012 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.