Saturday, July 31, 2010

These Folks Have the Write Stuff

GRAPEVINE, TEXAS — Near the DFW airport, close enough to examine the underpinnings of the airliners taking off overhead, more than 300 writers and lovers of writing have gathered, as we do each July. Some of us enter an essay or manuscript competition and subject ourselves to an all-day workshop in which we critique each other’s work under the watchful and gentle counsel of a big-city editor, usually from the Dallas Morning News or Texas Monthly. The remaining two-and-half-days are devoted to soaking up wisdom from some of the nation’s best nonfiction writers, eating good food and then renewing acquaintances at the Bonnie & Clyde Bar.

The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, sponsored by the University of North Texas, by its sixth year has emerged as one of the premier events of its type in the country. I recharge my writing batteries each summer by attending, entering the competition, hanging out with folks who love writing as much as I do, and listening to authors whose works fill my bookshelves.

Speakers in the four years I’ve attended include famed novelist and essayist Joyce Carole Oates; raconteur nonpareil and National Book Award winner Bob Shacochis; reporter and harmonica player extraordinaire John Burnett of NPR; and Ira Glass, founder of “This American Life,” one of the quirkiest, most interesting shows on public radio.

This year’s lineup included Mary Karr, memoirist and poet, author of the “Liar’s Club” and her latest, “Lit,” about staying drunk and finally getting sober. Karr, who grew up in what we used to call Deep Dark East Texas when I was running a weekly paper near those parts, has that rare ability to write about a wretched upbringing without being maudlin or self-pitying. She is flat-out funny, both in print and in person. That’s tough to do when writing about a momma who once piled up all her toys in the front yard and set them on fire with gasoline, or once came at her with a butcher knife.

Still, Karr and her mother hung together until her mom died; her sister and she split the cremated remains — Mary’s half coming in a ziplock Baggie marked with a Sharpie: “Mom: ½.”

Another headliner this season was Mark Bowden, who wrote “Blackhawk Down,” the story of the failed attempt to capture a Somali warlord that led to a protracted and unexpected urban battle after two helicopters were shot down and nearly two dozen U.S. soldiers killed. Bowden, then a Philadelphia newspaper reporter, always hastens to explain that he is not a military expert but simply a reporter. In this case, he was trying to explain the images he saw in television in 1993 of this failed mission.

The Pied Piper of this conference is George Getschow, a former Wall Street Journal writer and editor who serves as writer-in-residence for the Mayborn Graduate School of Journalism. We have become friends over the years, because of a mutual love for good writing and stories. George refers to those who attend or otherwise participate at the conference as members of the Mayborn tribe. After four years I’m a member of that tribe. Returning each summer is akin to attending a family reunion, without the drama.

I am one of those poor souls who feel out-of-sorts if I’m not working on a writing project. Besides filling this modest space and writing editorials five days a week, at least a few nights a week I spend time trying to work on something more substantial. It might not amount to anything when all is said and done. But I feel incomplete if I
don’t try, as if a limb is missing.

When I hang out at the Mayborn each summer, I am among people who feel the same way. Plus, I get to talk to folks who are actually getting paid to write books full-time, a relative rarity — sort of like making it in the NBA. Here there are giants, I think.

I listen and learn, both from these literary rock stars and my fellow conferees. I always head home inspired and jazzed. Further, what strikes me is the humility of these writers who are household names, at least among those of us who actually read books. The authors are invariably gracious, self-effacing, funny and clearly grateful to be among the chosen few able to make a decent living writing books.

As for me, I keep slogging away most nights, my bank account a bit lighter after each Mayborn. You can’t go there without buying an armload of books, signed by the authors, after all. I have an entire year to read them before returning to buy another armload.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, July 31, 2010.

1 comment:

  1. Hey folks. I'll be part of a book-signing of East Texas authors from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 7 at Barron's, across from Longview Mall, peddling my latest collection of columns, "The Loblolly Chronicles." Stop by and say hello and buy a book if you are so inclined.
    Gary B.