At 4:03 a.m. early last Sunday morning, no matter what floor you got off of the elevator at the Hilton DFW Lakes Conference Center in Grapevine, you would see D Magazine editor Tim Rogers. On the second floor, Tim was inexplicably engaged in the task of rearranging a yellow wet floor sign in the hallway; on the fourth floor, he was just outside the elevator, slouched over in an easy chair; and on the ground floor, Tim dashed around a corner only to somehow vaporize into the stale air of the Hilton’s two-story atrium lobby.
Where did he go? And how had Tim managed to un-tap the fantastical ability to translocate? You might blame the occurrence on the fanciful imagination of the witness, submerged for too long in the theme of this year’s Mayborn, the intersections between nonfiction and fiction, whose own faculties of perception were gonzo-enhanced by a healthy dose of Old Grand Dad bourbon whiskey. But how, then, do you explain the corroborating witness, People Newspapers’ Brad Pearson, who also saw the phenomenon?
For a literary nonfiction conference dedicated to nonfiction’s uneasy relationship to fiction — in technique and style, in questions of ethics and truth in storytelling – it was ironic just how much that happened at the Mayborn bordered on the surreal. Did Esquire’s Tom Junod confess to having sex with Nicole Kidman while she was still married to Tom Cruise? Did a seemingly benign panel on city and regional magazines suddenly turn into a semi-lynching of the editors of Our State? Did one Pulitzer Prize winner ask another Pulitzer winner about process? Were there impromptu readings of James Joyce and Flann O’Brien in the hotel lobby after the bar closed? Who was the batty purple woman with a bouquet of flowers in her hair, the Sante Fe sky on the back of her blouse, with a knack for turning question and answers sessions into question and statement sessions? And how was it that after a run to the restroom during Saturday night’s Literary Lights dinner I suddenly found myself drenched with sweat, deep in the woods, forging a path through a barbed wire fence in pursuit of a Texas-sized sunset over Lake Grapevine with Sports Illustrated’s Thomas Lake, Gangrey.com’s Ben Montgomery, Southern Living’s Kim Cross, and two scribes from the Dallas Morning News that I’ll leave unnamed because I never confirmed whether or not their well-represented superiors condoned skipping the conference’s centerpiece event?
The after-hours antics at the Mayborn are not surprising. Writers are, stereotypically, cocksure, socially-starved, self-destructive sorts; booze ignites egos and loosens tongues. But I suspect the revelry at the Mayborn is born of a more desperate fervor, the product of long hours each day spent in front of and surrounded by some of the best practitioners of your craft alive today. It is the type of conference where two-time National Magazine Award Winner Tom Junod tweets after the event that the Mayborn, “has reminded me how much I don’t know and how much I haven’t done. The great thing is that it has made those deficits inspiring.”
Inspiration came from people like Mark Sundeen, who provided a lean and cogent contemporary history of nonfiction in his speech that touched on the writer’s sometimes conflicting duty of telling the truth while making the story beautiful. And Donovan Hohn, whose pursuit of a flotilla of rubber ducks, recounted in his book Moby-Duck, draws parallels between the madness of Ahab and the journalist’s obsessive desire to track even the most obscure of subjects to the ends of the earth at great personal and familial cost.
Sure, the Mayborn features its share of wonky, insider-y topics, panels that discuss topics ranging from crippling outlines to interview strategies to entertaining war stories from industry vets. But what makes the Mayborn more than just the writer’s equivalent of a conference of vacuum salesmen – all hoorah and tips of the trade – are the speakers and conversations that connect the concreteness of the craft with its lasting cultural and historical value. There was Roy Peter Clark’s challenge for writers to, in light of a number of controversies in recent years, recommitment themselves to strict truth-telling, taking, as he put it, a “vow of chastity.” Then there was the fitting capstone of the weekend, the keynote address by Isabel Wilkerson, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. Wilkerson told of her 15-year pursuit of the subjects whose personal stories eventually became her history of the epic 20th century migration of African-Americans from the South to the cities of the North and West Coast, The Warmth of Other Suns. Wilkerson’s experiences represent the best of the profession, one that aspires through self-sacrifice and dedication to tell stories that stitch together the larger narrative of our history in an effort to make sense of our lives and the deeper question of human existence.
These are wilderness times for just about every literary field, particularly the ones represented most strongly at the conference: journalism and publishing. For those who attend, the conference toughens both skin and resolve. It is also an argument for the relevancy and importance of the craft, regardless of the profession’s continually eroding economics. Perhaps most significantly, though, it is a reminder that those who consider themselves storytellers do so not merely because of the mystique, the romance, the sex-appeal, and the occasional bouts of drunken excitement, all of which are tempered by the more common experiences of exasperation, frustration, loneliness, failure, financial desperation, and exhaustion. Writers write because, as journalist, memoirist and novelist Alisa Valdes said during her talk, they are born with “a curly cue on the brain.” It is a profession one can’t help but practice; you are marked with it.
And so as the lot of us scattered back out into the bright afternoon sun on Sunday, into the charmless, highway-ed landscape outside the conference center, conference organizer George Getschow’s favorite hokey metaphor of the Mayborn-as-tribal-gathering seemed apt. Here was the Mayborn as a temporary reunion of a literary Diaspora. Now that it was over, the tribe was scattered everywhere at once.