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2017 Mayborn Conference helps young writers hone their craft

2017 Mayborn Conference helps young writers hone their craft

James McGrath Morris author of "Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press" asks questions during the closing keynote address. Morris was one of the speakers for the 2017 Mayborn literary nonfiction conference. Cameron Roe

2017 Mayborn Conference helps young writers hone their craft
July 27
23:35 2017

Katherine Boo sits at the front of the room, scribbling and revising her keynote speech up to the last second. She skipped dinner, wanting to get her wording perfect before she addressed “the tribe”.

Her speech covered 15 rules she made for herself throughout her Pulitzer Prize winning career. It was initially supposed to be just 10 rules, but she wanted the crowd at the 2017 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference to get their money’s worth.

This year’s theme, “the power of words,” was meant to help detail the impact writing can have on the world. In pursuit of this, the conference covered a variety of topics that pertained to not only the industry, but the world as well.

From a round table on freelancing to the Syrian refugee crisis, the topics addressed problems facing everyday citizens, as well as journalists trying to find their footing in the industry.

“I think our subject matter has come together,” said Cornelius Foote, co-director of the conference and a principal lecturer for the Mayborn School of Journalism at UNT. “The speakers have addressed not only the craft, but they’ve addressed some really topical issues.”

Boo, Sebastian Junger, a New York Times best-selling author and Charles Johnson, an author and philosopher, were the three keynote speakers for the event.

After Friday’s dinner and speaker Saturday held eight sessions and a formal dinner, emceed by WFAA news anchor John McCaa. The night was capped off with an award ceremony and a speech by Sebastian Junger.

Sunday was a half-day that closed the conference with two sessions and a speech by Charles Johnson.

Young writers learning the craft

One of the conference’s key purposes is to trade secrets and help teach the craft to those learning.

“Mayborn is all about sharing tips,” said James McGrath Morris, author, journalist and a presenter at the conference.

Morris said he believed the conference was a great opportunity for young writers, noting its our job as writers to help create the next generation of the craft.

“We don’t have apprentice programs like plumbers do,” Morris said. “So the closest thing we have to it is to do things like this.”

Others, such as Dorothy Bland, the dean of the Mayborn School of Journalism at UNT, said the conference helps provide an opportunity to gain experience in not only writing, but other areas as well, such as advertising and PR. SWOOP, UNT’s student-run advertising and PR firm helped with marketing for the event.

“We had students handing out awards this evening,” Bland said. “So they got to get a feel for what event marketing is all about and what it takes to pull off a major event.”

Mike Mooney, a co-director of the event, said he has gone to all 13 conferences. He described it as being the single biggest effect on his career.

“The people I’ve met and the lessons I’ve learned, have helped me more than any other single factor I can think of right now,” Mooney said. “It has been the biggest influence in my career so far.”

Outside of providing young writers and journalists a way to get their foot in the door, the conference offers programs that writers can compete in, such as the Young Spurs program and a high school workshop. George Getschow, conference co-founder and Pulitzer Prize finalist, and Shirley Hammond, the director of education at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, helped create the Young Spurs program back in 2010.

“[Getschow said] he really wanted to have a way of inspiring young storytellers who were interested in literary non-fiction,” Hammond said. “It’s a way to garner young people who are interested in writing.”

Hammond talked about the workshops offered by the program, and how they provide a way for students to have their work critiqued and help improve their skills.

“We spent all afternoon critiquing,” Getschow said. “And a lot of these students had never had their work torn apart. And it was torn apart.”

Despite being new to workshopping at this level, students such as Henry Boedeker, 17, and Miranda Lowrance, 17, both high school students in the Young Spurs Program this year, said the workshops were constructive.

Daniel Hernandez, 17, said the workshops taught him he needed to work on his narrative storytelling.

“I’ve mostly focused on the realm of science and research papers,” Hernandez said. “I need to work on my narrative and be more descriptive about the imagery of the individual instead of cold hard facts,” Hernandez said.

As far as advice offered, Morris said the best thing a young journalist can do is get out of town.

“There are jobs in journalism out there that are not glamorous in places that people don’t really want to move to,” Morris said.

His last piece of advice was to read nonstop.

“You have to read,” Morris said. “You should be reading the back of cereal boxes.”

The history

The conference was started in 2005 and was the brainchild of Getschow and Dr. Mitch Land, the founding dean of Mayborn. Getschow said Land wanted to create a regional conference, to which Getschow declined, saying every university did something like that.

“I said I would be interested in putting on a national conference,” Getschow said. “Where we bring in the best writers.”

Getshow wanted to make something that nobody else had, saying there was only one conference at the time like that. Getschow wanted this to be better than that one.

Compared to other years of the conference, Foote spoke on how this year’s conference compared, saying he felt like the energy was a lot higher this year.

“I’m in the bubble so it’s hard for me to say,” Foote said. “It seems like the number of people is more. I think the energy level and the level of our conversations have been very engaged.”

In terms of the people who attended, Getschow described the attendees as a sort of “tribe,” hitting off the title of keynote speaker Sebastian Junger’s book.

“This is very special. What you’re seeing is special,” Getschow said. “We really believe it’s a tribal gathering. We have this likeminded mentality about storytelling. That it does rise to the level of art. That we can make a difference. That our words matter.”

Featured Image: James McGrath Morris author of “Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press” asks questions during the closing keynote address. Morris was one of the speakers for the 2017 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. Cameron Roe

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James Norman

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