The 2019 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference

The 2019 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference

I wasn’t sure what to expect.

This would be my first time attending the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference and, as in any situation where I’m faced with the unknown, I was excited yet a bit nervous to be face-to-face with storytellers I’ve admired for years.

The Mayborn

For other reports from this year’s Mayborn, see notes from a conversation about righteous rage as a fuel for journalism, and an interview with Pamela Colloff about covering failures in the justice system.

The great news? My anxiety didn’t last long. I felt comfortable among those who share my passion and interests. I was home. Over the course of three days, I spent time listening and processing solid pieces of advice. The conference theme was “Justice in America,” but the take-away gems can apply to all of the work we do. Among my favorites:

  • ·      Tell the F—-n’ Story. Writer Jeff Maysh keeps this friendly reminder in a frame pinned to his wall in order to remind himself to keep it simple. It’s easy to get lost in details, and even easier for the audience to lose interest when the story’s purpose is unclear. Just tell the story, Maysh encouraged attendees, and “don’t get distracted by the craft.”
  • ·      I have excellent stationery. Maysh also said that handwritten notes on beautiful stationery can help potential sources become more comfortable with the idea of being interviewed. Who’d have thought?
  • ·      Always keep sources involved. When dealing with hesitant sources, especially stories with sensitive subject matter, writers Laura Beil and Pamela Colloff feel it’s important to keep sources involved during the process. Let them know what you’re doing with the information they’ve shared with you, where you are in the process, and never hesitate to fact-check information.
  • ·      Get lost in research.When author Margot Lee Shetterly began writing her book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” the story didn’t truly come alive until she began unearthing tidbits of information that had been long forgotten. Because of her experiences, Shetterly encouraged writers to get lost in the research, including books, documents, websites and databases: “Turn every page.”
  • ·      Writing should be read out loud. We always take into consideration that our words look and feel differently on the computer opposed to our mobile phones, tablets, or in print, but author Hampton Sides reminded us that reading our writing out loud is also a great way to get a feel for our pieces. Writing should be read out loud to have sound, not just a visual component.
  • ·      Just start writing. It’s a simple yet important piece of advice that we sometimes forget. Waiting for the right moment or to complete all of our interviews and research before writing can sometimes slow us down, lead to procrastination and cramming words on a page just to meet deadline. Let the words flow freely, and worry about structure later. That’s what drafts are for.

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