This year’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference focused on ‘Bridging the Great Divide.’ Journalists, teachers and students alike gathered at Hilton DFW Lakes in Grapevine to hear award-winning storytellers tackle issues regarding race, gender and economic class.
In addition, the conference served as a host for the Young Spurs, a group of 10 high school and community college students selected to work alongside prestigious narrative nonfiction authors. Each Young Spur submitted a factual narrative essay, which was selected by a group of jurists.
“The Mayborn’s Young Spurs competition offers aspiring journalists and biographers a remarkable opportunity to hone their craft,” author Debby Applegate said. “It could be the world of difference in a young writer’s life.”
Also, 15 of Texas’ best and brightest high school journalists across Texas attended the conference as part of the Mayborn Multimedia High School Journalism Workshop. The students split into three production groups to film and interview some of the speakers.
“It was a great opportunity to be elbow to elbow with professional writers because you like to think you might be among them one day,” student Joshlyn Thomas said.
Culture critic Chris Vognar and journalist Jeff Chang spoke in the presentation “Writing About Race.” According to Chang, social media in recent years has raised conversations about racial injustice that the public might not otherwise be aware of.
“We need to come together and raise these discussions [about race,] because out of discussion change happens,” Chang said.
According to Chang, his goal as a writer is to shed light on unexposed stories in order to spread understanding and encourage change.
“We have not resolved these long term problems about race,” Chang said. “Having diversity in the newsroom and publishing industry will give a more accurate reflection of what the U.S. is all about.”
Biographer James McGrath Morris continued the theme of racial divides in his presentation, “Crossing Gender and Race Lines: Can One Write About the Other?” Morris wrote Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press. According to Morris, he learned through the writing process to respect stories different than his own.
“Journalism is writing about someone or something outside of your own experience, and doing so with empathy,” Morris said.
He said that black writers are often confined to writing stories about blackness, while white writers have the freedom to write about whatever they choose.
“The media is still overwhelmingly white in perspective,” Morris said.
To fix this, Morris called for a civil rights movement in the newsroom.
Managing Editor Kevin Merida, Pulitzer Prize winner Eli Saslow and journalist DeNeen Brown presented “Unchartered Waters: How Do You Storify a Sprawling, Abstract Subject Like Poverty and Income Disparity?”
Saslow identified the importance of writers bonding with their story subjects in order to tell complex, engaging narratives.
“[People using SNAP] have more to say in their life than just being victims,” Saslow said. “They’re not stereotypes or one dimensional characters.”
According to Brown, whether rich or poor, everyone is connected because everyone is human, and it is important to tell human stories.
“If you tell a good story it can help change someone’s life,” Brown said.
Saturday night’s Literary Lights dinner featured many awards and speakers, namely keynote speaker Barbara Ehrenreich.
Ehrenreich spoke on the division between economic classes, which she discussed at length in a dissection of structural inequality.
“Since when is writing about poverty the privilege of those who have assets to do so?” said Ehrenreich. “Societies that become gravely polarized don’t last. I’m not promising a revolution, but it becomes untenable.”
Ehrenreich took the time to give advice to the young journalists in attendance.
“The main thing to prepare to do if you want to be a writer is to suffer,” she said. “Whatever you’re told, ask, ‘why?’ Don’t accept stuff.”
Mayborn Conference founder George Getschow shared Ehrenreich’s sentiments, also discussing the future of journalism. Getschow highlighted the power of the narrative structure through non-fiction writing.
“We’re all flawed,” he said. “It’s important to point out the flaws in a community. The best narratives don’t look at landscape as mere background. They are often the very epicenter of significance.”
Story by Sara Schleede and Liam Gaughan