My Mayborn weekend

Posted on July 27, 2009


I’m talking about the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in Grapevine, sponsored by UNT’s Mayborn Graduate School of Journalism. I attended Friday and Saturday’s events, but I decided to skip Sunday for a variety of reasons, among which were not because the conference itself lacked gems and good times.

The conference came at a great time in my professional life. I quit my web production job at a magazine about two weeks ago to venture back into writing, and the 31 hours of lectures, literary ambiance, old friends, new contacts and an always-available supply of coffee and cheeses gave me a needed shot in my writing hand (and my brain’s motivation lobe).

Highlights. This is from memory — my personal notes are over there in the dining room.

Friday night’s Southwest Soiree kicked things off. Well, for most of us it did — friends Marissa and Joanna spent the day at writing workshops getting feedback on their contest entries, and friend Stella traveled to Archer City with a Mayborn entourage to spend time with Larry McMurtry. Later at the soiree, the opening comments of “Welcome to Texas!” clued me in that this conference now drew writers from a much wider geographic boundary than last time I attended, back when it was still a little North Texas gathering.

The night’s keynote: Paul Theroux, a big deal in travel writing and author of books like Mosquito Coast (I vaguely remember the ’80s movie made of it starring Harrison Ford). Things he said about himself, his travels and writing-in-general that grabbed me:

  • Growing up as a Boy Scout in rural Massachusetts made him as much of a writer as reading books did.
  • His father taking him and his six siblings to places of local historical interest gave him a sense of place and belonging.
  • Spending most of the ’60s in Africa with the Peace Corps gave him an extraordinary view of the U.S. during that tumultuous decade.
  • When people don’t travel, they can end up with a perverse idea of what is normal.
  • Writers are deeply-affected people. Conferences like the Mayborn are often like “Mental Illness Theater.”
  • Writing the truth is prophetic. When he was in China, he simply wrote about the feelings, effects, and the players in the scenes of what he experienced. The truth. A year later, Tiananmen Square happened. Looking back, it reads as if he was writing the opening chapter of this time in Chinese history. In a way, he was. Truth will do that.

Time with the girls — Marissa, Stella, Beth, Joanna, Leila — at the Hilton’s Bonnie & Clyde bar. We tried to get the DJ to play “Smooth Criminal” but apparently it was against Bonnie & Clyde policy. Split a big, comfy room with Beth.

On Saturday I only woke up in time to be late to the third of 10 lectures of the day. DMN’s Alfredo Corchado and Dianne Solis. Their beats render fiction completely unnecessary. Notable:

  • Alfredo and photog Erich Schlegel had a bet about who could find the most interesting story from the Texas/Mexico border. Erich later called Alfredo on the phone, trying to communicate against loud singing in the background. Alfredo told Erich to turn the radio down. Erich replied, “Man, that’s the damn story!” Story: Nov. 2007, The Dallas Morning NewsMexican balladeer sings to save vanishing village
  • Alfredo talked a lot about the drug trade between Mexico and the U.S. He showed a photo of a man in one village kneeling at a shrine to Santa Muerte, which communicated everything about the danger and death Mexican drug culture has created.
  • He told about being in a village eatery and hearing what sounded like two men discussing their next murder, in Spanish. It dawned on him that it was someone’s cell phone. He thought it was someone’s sick, isolated idea of a funny ringtone. The next time he went to Mexico City, he heard the exact same ringtone on another person’s phone. Drugs are affecting Mexican life and culture in some unexpected ways.
  • The headline to a similarly-themed story he wrote for DMN read “Wasting Away in Margaritaville,” which one attendee pointed out during the Q&A as evidence that the media still isn’t taking this topic seriously, and that it’s even evidence of latent racism.
  • Alfredo said about a half-dozen sources for his stories have been assassinated. That weighs heavily on him.

A lighter respite: Houston Chronicle‘s beauty and fashion writer, Joy Sewing. She talked about how fashion is a decision everyone makes every day, and how newspaper journalists have gone from feeling like we’re selling out to advertisers to giving up and just selling out. Documentary filmmakers Allen and Cynthia Mondell showed footage from a doc that tells the story of how Dallas, despite of its lackluster contribution to state history, scored the Texas State Fair, thanks to the Lone Star can-do (and money) of Mayor R.L. Thornton. The doc also reminds us of another state mystery: The fond place deep in our hearts for the Creepiest Texan Ever — Big Tex.

Skip Hollandsworth and Mike Hall of Texas Monthly. They were entertaining, but really only one nugget jumped out at me. Mike, a music writer, told how someone asked him why he also writes about ex-cons and other stories from the criminal justice system. His answer made sense: As a music writer, he enjoys doing stories about lost causes, like DJ Screw and Townes Van Zandt. It was natural to be interested in lost-cause people caught up in the criminal justice system, too.

Stephanie Elizondo Griest — what a trip. She’s a gorgeous vagabond memoirist (with a journalist’s standards, JAMES FREY) who’s excitable by nature, smiles freely and has traveled and written more in her young life more than most people — shoot, writers — will during their entire lives. Bullets:

  • Being a memoirist means you’ll lose friends.
  • It also means you’ll lose your privacy. You’re bearing your life to the world, so readers think they know you. Like, really know-know you.
  • As a memorist, you become a really good expert at … you. It’s hard to specialize in any one topic like most other writers/journalists.
  • “All writers need to do their ‘New York’ time.”
  • She always jumps on an opportunity. Fodder for memoirs comes from the stuff of life. She’s always thinking in terms of “this would be great for a memoir.”
  • She ended with a really funny, high-strung story that involved her naked, the Adolphus Hotel in downtown Dallas, a fire, her laptop, a stairwell, Ira Glass, her copious hair going berserk right along with her, and her assessment in a robe that this was “going to make a really great story.”

Next was the sleeper of the conference, I think: Roger Thurow, foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Wrote the book Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty. His lecture was called “Consumed by Hunger” — and he is. A fairly subdued temperament couldn’t suppress the missionary spirit inside this author. I’ll have to do a whole post alone on this lecture and the ways in which it struck me. He didn’t talk much about the mechanics of writing but about the conviction he felt to reverse the injustice of hunger. The desire to change the world for the better through writing — we as journalists get that. He’s bleeding-heart + hard-core — a powerful combination. His mission to expose the causes of world hunger is an example of what this journalism thing is all about. It’s exactly what earned him the only standing ovation of the day.

Vogue/Newsweek contributing editor Julia Reed and Atlantic Monthly contributing editor Roy Blount Jr. — folksy, fun, insightful lectures.

  • She said that all disasters in the South happen to guys named either Donnie or Dwayne. She keeps a “Dwayne” file for literary anecdotes in her Southern writing.
  • It’s ok to digress. Sometimes you have to. Once she had to write about iceberg lettuce, and it would have been boring as all get-out if she hadn’t included an old funny anecdote that had only slightly something to do with iceberg lettuce.
  • Southerners have an interesting penchant for accepting life as a mysterious force that doles out unexplained happenings. Like, instead of a man having a heart attack because he didn’t take care of himself, it’s because “His blood just up-and-backed-up on him.” It’s a subtle, almost charming evasion of responsibility. (She could say these things. She’s from Mississippi and has the drawl to prove it.)
  • Roy Blount was a riot. Heavy accent, too, (“we were standing there in our tux-eeduhs”), but paired with a heady subject: give your readers’ mental tongues something pleasant to caress, to play with. Something with texture.
  • He gave the word “piss” as a good example of how a word’s phonetic sound and the sound of the word’s active experience feel interrelated. The physicality of words — give readers something mentally crunchy, something to wrestle with. That was fine and well, but then the point devolved from there. The adorable elderly man with the thick accent went on and on with it — “piss” this and “piss” that and vividly describing orifices and sphincters and the audience cracking up into giggles and me wondering “OMG are we really talking about this?” He didn’t bore while making his point, for sure.

Then a trip to the hotel room for a quick rinse and change for the Literary Lights Dinner. Sleeveless black satin cocktail dress with slight boat neck that shortened when I sat down (forgot to do the sit-down test in the dressing room, ugh). Good thing I paired it with flats. Heels would have turned me into the Literary Tramp Fest.

Squealing-, screaming-girl moment of the night: the announcement that Marissa won first place in the writing competition’s research and reporting category for her Blue Angels story. I’m really proud of her.

The keynote: Ira Glass of “This American Life” fame. Yes, he’s a radio guy, but we didn’t care. We love his show. Hearing that famous voice in person was so … pleasantly weird. He told some great stories, gave some great insight.

Later during the author book signing, I stood in line with Leila so she could get his sig (latest book, The New Kings of Nonfiction). I was struck by how warm he was with each and every person, chatting them up, offering a story, writing lengthy, personal ditties in every book. And I was surprised about how hot he is, too. Don’t tell Brian I said that.

We spent the rest of the evening at Bonnie & Clyde’s. I talked with DMN arts/lifestyles editor Mike Merschel about the paper, family, adoption. Marissa and I got upside-down outside, trying to find her cell phone underneath the driver’s side seat of her car. I resisted calls to share a bottle of champagne with the girls (I needed to leave!). I announced to the table on multiple occasions that “Yes, I’m coming back tomorrow — I’m saying this out loud, so I have to do it.”

It’s been a great weekend, even if I did cut it short. Looking forward to reading the two books I bought: Mosquito Coast and Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us.

Shoutout to my sweet husband for driving my new business cards that just came in all the way to Grapevine for me Saturday. Mwah.