By Edward Nawotka
DALLAS, TEXAS: While it seemed like everyone else was at Comic-Con in San Diego fighting their way into preview screenings of Iron Man 2 and GI Joe, this past weekend I attended the fifth annual Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers Conference at the University of North Texas in Dallas. It was the third time I’ve gone and I am already looking forward to next year.
Since the focus is on nonfiction, the conference is refreshingly free of — in the words of presenter Paul Theroux — the “mental illness theater” of lesser writing conferences.
The writers at the Mayborn were a combination of bold-faced names, such as Theroux, Ira Glass and Alma Guillermoprieto all of whom offered keynote speeches, and lesser known luminaries (except perhaps outside the Southern United States), such as Roy Blount Jr., Julia Reed, Gordon Grice, Roger Thurow and Stephanie Elizondo Griest.
Paul Theroux opened the conference with a speech that was, in the words of one online commenter, “meandering” (something that is somehow appropriate for a travel writer). After beginning with the wry proclamation, “I can’t wait to hear what I’m going to say,” he ended with a succinct bit of advice: “Leave home. Tell the truth.”
Glass offered a truly moving presentation that marshaled lighting effects, audio clips and music to replicate the experience of producing his weekly radio show This American Life. Referencing Scheherazade, he asserted that storytelling “is a back door to a very deep place in us…A place where argument and reason don’t really hold sway” and something that might just “save your life.” (He’s also looking for an alternative to the term “literary nonfiction,” which he doesn’t like. Any suggestions?)
Guillermoprieto, who has been the long serving South America and Mexico correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, began her event by barking orders to a ballerina standing on stage. It was an imitation to the brutal tough love of Martha Graham, who taught Guillermoprieto dance in the writer’s youth.
“We don’t do pretty, we do tough and we do true,” she scolded, before launching into an hour of alternately terrorizing and seducing the audience. Her message was simple: Risk everything in your writing. “How can you know how far you are willing to go unless you fall?”
If you’re looking to have some great conversations about writing, with top practitioners and without pretension (or folks dressed as superheroes), this this is the conference for you.
For a running commentary on the conference from me and others, search for #Mayborn on Twitter. A thorough recap of many of the presentations is online at the Texas Pages books blog of the Dallas Morning News.
READ: More about what conference director George Getschow calls the “Mayborn Tribe.”