Atlanta Magazine reporter Thomas Lake recently hosted an unusual narrative conference at his family’s homeplace in rural Ludowici, Georgia.
The Auburn Chautauqua—named for the educational movement that brought cultural and entertainment programs to rural America—drew a dozen or so reporters and editors from a half-dozen states to Auburn, a rambling old house filled with family photos and mementoes. The house sits on 170 acres at the head of a teardrop driveway, nearly hidden from the highway by the greenery that grows so well in the sandy soil of that part of Georgia.
Thomas e-mailed us links to a fascinating range of work submitted by participants, who ranged from writers still developing narrative voices to veterans with decades of storytelling experience. And in what may be a first in the history of narrative conferences, his e-mail warned us not to wander off into the swamp at the back of the property without a pistol, on account of the feral pigs.
My husband and I arrived that Friday morning hoping to catch a glimpse of the pigs and eager to talk about something other than the fresh buyout offers we carried in our backpack. The others trickled in for breakfast, having had a most excellent time singing into the wee hours of the morning.
We spent the next two days discussing reporting and storytelling, and devouring Brunswick stew, homemade biscuits, and other feasts prepared by Thomas’ family. We retired to the back yard each evening to play guitar and sing.
In the following e-mail Q&A, Thomas writes about how the Auburn Chautauqua came to be—just in case you’re inspired to launch your own narrative conference. (If you do, Storyboard readers, please let us know about it.)
Why did you decide to hold your own narrative writing conference?
This was something that Michael Kruse, Ben Montgomery, and I had been talking about for years, pretty much ever since we started trying to out-write each other at the St. Petersburg Times around 2006. We had gone to other conferences together, and we found that we had our best times outside the formal conference sessions. Like when a bunch of us all sat around a long table in a bar and took turns reading our favorite passages from Richard Preston or Hunter Thompson or whoever. Later, the three of us took a road trip to Alabama—almost a pilgrimage—to meet Rick Bragg, and the talks we had in the car were some of the best I can remember having with regard to what makes a good nonfiction story.
Then, we all got the chance to attend a conference in North Carolina called Word. This was put on by the narrative team at The Virginian-Pilot—Lon Wagner, Diane Tennant, and company—and held in a rented beach house in the Outer Banks. They had the idea of asking each participant to submit a story in advance, getting everyone else to read about it, and then talking in turn about each one. Sort of a roundtable, only without the table, and with a boat-sized cooler of beverages. What we found is that each story sent us on any number of useful tangents and got us talking about craft-related issues that mattered to all of us. I left there feeling energized, and I thought maybe we could try something similar.
Part of what made the weekend so interesting was the atmosphere of your family’s homeplace in Ludowici, Georgia. Talk about the conversation with your family when you said you wanted to have more than a dozen people over for the weekend?
Well, my mom, Elizabeth, is a writer herself, so she was sympathetic to the cause. And that old house in Ludowici has hosted any number of extended family gatherings much larger than this one. So I figured it was possible. But of course the preparation was a phenomenal amount of work, most of which I didn’t do. My mom and dad (Robert) and brother William and sister Liddy put in an unbelievable number of hours getting that old house ready. Months of preparation. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a family like that.
What kinds of reactions did you get when you invited people to attend?
To begin with, I kept the invitations as low-key as possible. Here, essentially, is what I wrote to potential guests:
“Basically it’s going to be about a dozen writers from newspapers and magazines having various roundtable discussions about the craft. The program won’t be very formal. It’s actually going to be at my old family homestead, a 19th-century farmhouse in what my mother likes to call ‘a comfortable state of disrepair.’ Anyway, we’ll sit around, talking about various storytelling techniques and that sort of thing, and we’ll eat some food that my mom cooks, and my dad will probably get out his guitar, and we’ll have a drink or two, and it should be a pretty good time. Accommodations will be a little rustic. There will be beds for some, but some others may end up crashing in what we call the Screen House, a nifty open-air structure that lets in the breeze and keeps out the mosquitoes.”
And this approach seemed to work. The whole thing felt sort of underground–the opposite of being overhyped. Anyone who couldn’t come seemed to really wish they could, and the others found a way to get there.
My main regret is that I couldn’t invite more people. I limited it to writers who are actively working on narrative journalism right now. Even then, there were quite a few I wish we’d had space for. But we had only so many beds, and the discussions would have gotten unwieldy with more than about twelve people. As it was, some of us had trouble getting a word in edgewise.
Participants took the conversation about stories seriously. They asked good questions and if they disagreed, they did it in ways that furthered the discussion. That can be tough to pull off. Why do you think it worked so well?
It probably helped that many of us were friends already and that most or all of us felt connected by the common goal of telling true stories as well as possible in a world where the craft is becoming more and more difficult to practice and still make a living. I think we all wanted the same thing: to be just a little bit better at doing the job we love, and to help others do the same.
What were you hoping to get out of the weekend? What did you learn, and what surprised you about what happened?
Mostly, I wanted everyone to have a good time. And based on the comments I got, that seemed to happen. There was an amazing collective energy all around the land that weekend. By day we talked about the craft, and by night we played guitars and sang. I wish I had the musical talent that some of our guests had. But I was happy just listening.
I guess I was surprised by how much this weekend meant to people by the time it was over. We all need some recharging every now and then, and our guests seemed to get that here. I know I did.
Any advice for others who might try something similar?
Begin planning several months or a year in advance. Start with the location. If you can have it on private property in the country, you’ll save a lot of money. Even then, the costs will add up. Consider charging a nominal fee just to cover expenses. Think hard about your mixture of guests–it may help to have some established writers along with some of those who are a little bit newer to the field. That way you’re not wall-to-wall egos. Make sure to buy enough beverages. And hire my sister to cook for you.