Recap: 2015 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference


As part of my job and life, I write any number of documents, reports, PR materials and numerous other pieces, so it’s important that I try to learn as much as I can to develop my skills. Luckily, I love to learn and when I was offered the chance to attend a prestigious writing conference near Dallas, I jumped at it.

The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference is an annual event organized by the Mayborn School of Journalism (or J-School as it’s known) at the University of North Texas. It’s been going on for quite some time, and has evolved into a pretty important literary event for those in the world of nonfiction (especially narrative NF, creative NF, long-form NF, literary NF or any of its other permutations). The conference’s theme was “The Great Divide” which covered, as the conference brochure says, “the great divide between the Haves and the Have-Nots in America and the social, economic, racial, cultural and political fissures created by this divide.”

Speakers were heavy hitters in the world of lit NF: there were keynotes from Anne Fadiman and from Barbara Ehrenreich, there were editors and writers of all levels from places like the Washington Post, New York Times, and The Atlantic magazine, and there were Pulitzer Prize winners talking about their work.

There were panel conversations about the ethics of writing someone else’s story (as happens with lit NF many times): should a writer appropriate the life story belonging to someone else and if so, what is the obligation (if there is one) of the writer to that someone during the process and afterwards (in terms of literary success etc.)?

There was one particularly interesting panel about a young journalist (actually on the panel) who had made a colossal mistake with a story, an error which may have played a role in the source’s eventual suicide. Who should have stopped the error? The journalist himself? His editors? In the end, twelve people read the story prior to print and no one said anything to stop it being published as it was written. How did that occur?

Another panel discussed the rights and wrongs involved in Rolling Stone’s wrongly reported fraternity rape case at a Virginia university. So many people were involved in the process, but somehow the source’s story didn’t get fact-checked… How? Why?


It was a very thought-provoking two days and I learned a great deal, one of the biggest being that every lit NF (whether it’s a book or a short-form article) has a formal structure to it (thanks to good editors if you have one) and I’m slowly deconstructing essays and other documents to see how they are built within these structures.  I think that you have to know the rules to break the rules (re: grammar and other writing bits and pieces). This deconstructing process reminds me of diagraming sentences so if you liked to do that, then you’ll probably enjoy deconstructing essays. It’s great fun on long plane rides, if you ask me.

So – not only was the conference worthwhile, but being in Dallas meant that I was pretty close to lots of friends who live in the area so I managed to catch up with some of them in the scant free time there was. I might also have found a bookshop very close to the hotel. I can neither confirm nor deny that books were bought on this trip.

Anyway, a good trip and well worth the time and effort. You should look it up if you’re interested in lit NF, reading or writing it.


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