behind the news

I Heard It While in Grapevine

Stories abound at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference
July 28, 2009

It was 3:24 a.m. in room 617 at the Hilton in Grapevine, Texas, the sort of cushy, two-pooled joint that recalls the old Henny Youngman hotel joke about the towels being so fluffy he could barely close his suitcase. There were, by my count, seventeen journalists packed in the room, telling stories and swilling Shiner Bocks that had chilled briefly in a bathroom sink full of ice. Toasts were mustered for Nashville Scene reporter Brantley Hargrove, who’d just won $2,000 in a writing competition and bought rounds of beers at the bar but would soon find himself sacking out on a king-sized bed with three other fully clothed writers (disclosure: this freeloading correspondent among them)—none of whom paid for the room.

At this late hour, the young writers concluded their second day at the fifth annual Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference by raising a glass to the conference’s architect and muse, George Getschow, the writer-in-residence at the University of North Texas. He answered the toast with one of his own to those gathered, whom he calls the “Mayborn tribe.”

Those words were a theme of the conference: here we are, defiant, a clan for whom stories are no less vital than breath or blood. This tribe, after all, has closed ranks in the past year, as papers shuttered, magazines imploded, and thousands of storytellers went from employed to un-. Friday’s keynote speaker, travel writer Paul Theroux, who writes books at the speed most people write thank-you notes, began his talk by telling the 300 registrants that “everything is changing,” but that “good times follow bad times.”

The registrants, most of whom paid between $200 and $275 to attend the conference, were a mix of academics, cub reporters, mid-career newspaper people, agents, established authors, and (this sense was unshakeable) a cadre of older dilettantes who were gathering tips on how to write that book everyone allegedly is capable of writing. More power to ’em, those buyers of books and applauders of presenters. The career journalists, though, have to ask: Will any of us have jobs in twenty years? In two? Yes, came the answer again and again—or, at the very least, the world will always enjoy a rousing anecdote. It is unlikely that doctors at medical conferences reassure each other so constantly that, job market be damned, people will always need surgeries. But here we were, a tribe whose members hope to live long but not die last, for then there would be no one left to talk to. “A lot of writers’ conferences are like mental illness theater,” Theroux said, without needing to explain why.

Solutions abounded for how to approach the so-called future. Bill Minutaglio reminded the audience that telling narrative stories is “a sacred mission,” while hyperkinetic memoirist Stephanie Elizondo Griest proposed that, “in this economy,” writers ought to “join one another.” The Wall Street Journal’s Roger Thurow advocated passionate reporting to see us through “a bizarre time.” Forgive me for thinking Julia Reed was most correct when she said of the profession as a whole, that “most of us are just not that interesting.” Then she and, subsequently, Roy Blount Jr. went on to prove themselves in the raucous, joyous minority.

To make a living telling stories, it helps to be obsessed with craft, to work relentlessly, to be a native Southerner with strong East Coast media ties, and to have begun your writing career before the advent of cable. Or you can make like Ira Glass and veritably invent a method of storytelling. “We are inundated with narrative like no people who have ever lived,” he told a packed ballroom banquet during his keynote Saturday. “I feel like this is a fantastic moment to make work.” A journalism professor of mine once claimed that most writers of a certain generation would have picked Joan Didion’s career to relive, among any. These days I’d take Ira Glass’s, just as long as he also lives within cold-beer-tossing distance of Julia Reed’s porch.

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Most of us scribes would settle for far less than that; maybe just some concrete assurances that the human lust for story still can support professional writers. The dissonance between the storytelling ideal and the storytelling reality ceased with the final speaker of the conference, Alma Guillermoprieto, a MacArthur Fellowship winner and Latin America correspondent for The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, who by cosmic convergence discussed her memoir about being a dancer in Cuba on the fifty-sixth anniversary of the Cuban revolution and the final day of Merce Cunningham’s life.

Here was an enormously successful sixty-year-old reporter who claimed to have health insurance that covers her only in case of calamity, and freelance contracts that allow her to see no further ahead than six months at a time. In other words, she wasn’t too far removed from the twenty-something writers who had gathered upstairs the night before, with warm beers and stories that rang through the walls. “You want to risk failure every single time,” she told the current and aspiring writers. If that’s truly the case, we really will be just fine.

Sam Eifling has won national and regional awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his sportswriting.