Observer Writers Weigh in on This Year's Mayborn Conference

Attendees at this year's Mayborn Conference did more than just drink. They swear.
Attendees at this year's Mayborn Conference did more than just drink. They swear.
Catherine Downes

Every year, journalists, writers and readers gather at the Hilton DFW Lakes Executive Conference Center in Grapevine for the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. Dozens of influential and popular writers speak to the crowds, and attendees partake in writing workshops and contests. Observer writers Anna Merlan, Brantley Hargrove and Leslie Minora were at the conference this past weekend, and here are their thoughts on this year's Mayborn.

Anna: So, Mayborn. Brantley's a veteran, so do you want to explain what it is? Brantley: The first thing you have to understand about the Mayborn is that the setting is unremarkable. Very unremarkable. We're talking about a Hilton conference center near the DFW airport. Anna: It's remarkably depressing Brantley: Yes. But it's what happens inside that sets it apart from just about every conference in the country. Leslie: It's like band camp but for journalists.

Brantley: Not only are there Pulitzer-Prize winning journalists, best-selling book authors, but the audience itself is filled with swinging dicks. And a healthy helping of hopeless memoirists. Anna: Yeah. That was awkward. I was walking into the hotel the first afternoon, and this lady said to me, "God, there's so much stuff about newspaper reporting at this conference!" and I said, "Yeah, a lot of us are reporters." She paused for a second and then replied, "I should be a reporter! That's a good way to get people to read my memoir." Brantley: Diane Ackerman was the token memoirist. There's always one to appease that demographic. Anna: I wasn't there for that. I heard it was.... well, anyway. The first panel I went to the next day was two fellow VVMers, Sara Fenske and Gus Garcia Roberts being interviewed by Michael Mooney. Good god, they were funny. And smart! Brantley: I was still passed out drunk for that. Wish I could chime in. Leslie: They were really good -- tales from the trenches sorts of stuff, but from the most hilarious, semi-uncomfortable trenches. Brantley: How about Frank DeFord? That was the first speaker I was semi-coherent for Saturday. How awesome was he? And how many times did you want to rush the stage and hug him as he spoke about his book, Alex: The Life of a Child, about his young daughter who died of cystic fibrosis. Leslie: I'd never read anything he wrote, and I left with his book. That pretty much sums it up.

There were plenty of toasts at Mayborn.
There were plenty of toasts at Mayborn.
Catherine Downes

Anna: Yeah, and I'm going to steal that book from you once you're done with it. He was phenomenal. Leslie: You're right, I really almost hugged him, still would like to. Anna: I think at this point we need to discuss the pie. Leslie: He walked that line of sensitivity and bad-assery. Brantley: Wait, wait, wait. The pie can wait. We gotta talk about DeFord signing that breast. Anna: Oh yeah. God, how could I forget? Brantley: So Frank DeFord is interviewing Jerry Jones. Jerry Jones won't shut up. Finally, a waitress comes up to the table and "proffered her breast" for Jerry to sign. Jerry gladly obliged, but on one condition: She had to let DeFord sign the other. And how did DeFord reply when asked by an audience member later if he signed that boob? Anna: "You bet I did!" Classic. Brantley: Applause. Raucous applause. Other gems from DeFord: "The Internet is a buzzard." "Interviewing is really just a high-school date taken to a higher power." Put succinctly, DeFord is old, really tall, and really bad ass. Leslie: I'm happy you jotted those down -- just as good the second time. Anna: Also, I feel like we need to give props to Tom T. Huang from the Dallas Morning News, who led a great panel and was funny, modest and talked about Harold and Kumar a whole bunch. While we're hugging people, I'm going to run across town and hug him. Or not, but I totally would. Brantley: I think I was in the bar during that one. Leslie: He was by far the most thoughtful storyteller I've ever heard. Anna: And he kind of waded into the audience to keep everybody engaged, which I liked. He must be a great teacher. He had a lot to say about finding stories by going outside your comfort zone. As opposed to the "write what you know" bullshit we always hear. Brantley: The theme of this year's conference was loosely about immersion journalism. Saturday night's keynote was Ted Conover. This is appropriate because Conover does immersion like nobody does immersion. Anna: Newjack is the first immersion reporting book I ever read. I was 15 the first time I heard him speak. I had no idea what I was going to do with myself. It was pretty amazing to hear him again, ten years later. Brantley: For the uninitiated, Newjack is immersion in its purest form. Anna: The man became a prison guard at Sing Sing to write a book about it. Brantley: He worked for a solid year as a prison guard in Sing Sing. As he told the audience, his first impulse had been to find a way into the other side of the bars. Leslie: Short of committing a crime to get in, this was the clearest method. So, notebook in breast pocket, he went to work and couldn't even tell friends what he was doing. Brantley: Pretty much just his wife and his editor. Conover is one of those speakers who can simply get up on the stage and tell war stories, and we'll all sit rapt. Leslie: True, and that's saying something because the panels tend to take a while. It's kind of the same reaction from the audience when Brantley sings karaoke. Anna: Which he did at Mayborn! Brantley: Ma, ma, ma, My Sharona! Is that even how you spell that? [Editor's note: Yes, Brantley.] Anna: More importantly, when Brantley sings karaoke, he fucking commits. Wholeheartedly. He and Paul Knight from Texas Monthly tore it up. Brantley: Don't forget Dave Tarrant of the Morning News. Man was in it to win it. Leslie: Got to respect that level of commitment. Brantley: Microphones were swung, much to the dismay of the karaoke DJ. Leslie: The Backstreet Boys don't sing solos.   Brantley: Shall we discuss the polar opposite of drunken debauchery and buffoonery? Like the many journalistic puritans in the audience? Anna: Oh Jesus, yes, let's talk about that. Leslie: Like Gene Weingarten's detractors.. Anna: So, basically, Gene Weingarten gets up there on Sunday and tells this amazing story. Brantley: He's writing the story of the non-voter, which comprises more than half of the country, I think. Leslie: First of all, his speech read like the perfect narrative -- spot-on transitions, little surprises, engaging tid-bits and a bunch of juicy rewards Anna: So he's writing about this guy who doesn't vote, an electrician, maybe? Brantley: No, he's a concrete guy. Anna: Ah, right. Brantley: Loves his wife, loves his kid, feels pretty meh about 'Merica. Anna: So there's a pretty big lack of connection between reporter and subject. Concrete guy is not into being condescended to by Gene Weingarten, and he's hesitant to open up. Leslie: A gap that can only be bridged by one thing: drugs. Brantley: Gene's whole theory is that non-voting is a form of "intellectual cowardice," so there's a gulf. Anna: So at some point, Gene and the guy are in the backyard, barbecuing with some of the source's buddies. Brantley: And out comes a pipe filled with opiate hash. This is some shit Weingarten's being offered. The night will clearly devolve into giggly intoxication. So does he take it, or doesn't he? A second and a half passes. If he doesn't take the pipe, the story is OK. But he will have committed a faux pas that will further ostracize him from the group. Leslie: "Would you take it?" he asked the crowd. Brantley: I raised my hand. Anna: I did too. Brantley: But I think it was like 80 percent puritan in the audience. Anna: Because the flip side of the coin was that it was a piece for Washington Post, his editors would be mad and he shouldn't do anything illegal in pursuit of a story. Blah, blah, blah. Leslie: I was debating with someone as to whether it's different case by case. I can't handle pot like Gene. Anna: But seriously, Mayborn attendees were acting like he had shot heroin into his eyeballs with this guy. Brantley: Like a champ who puts the story first, Gene took that fucking pipe. Anna: Hell yes he did! Brantley: And they got super baked. Leslie: And he got a way better story. Brantley: He learned that his subject was very afraid of the dark. Like, slept with the lights on and everything. Leslie: But the non-voter was also way more comfortable, which is pretty key. Brantley: The walls came down. Anna: It really strengthened the piece. Now Gene's doing a poll online about what other people would do in a similar situation. Brantley: Scatological humor. Gene's sort of a scatological obsessive. But that's neither here nor there. His Twitter profile image is a pile of rubber poop. But anyway, he proceeded to get lambasted by the straight-lacers in the audience for not disclosing the fact that he got high. And for quoting his high source. Anna: "Did you use quotes after you all TOOK THE POT?" in the words of one horrified attendee. Brantley: Frankly, I didn't see what the big effin' deal was. Leslie: And for not telling his editor, which spared his editor from what would be a frustrating ethical dilemma with company policy and all. Brantley: So the story was published, it was good and his source ended up liking it. No harm, no foul. Leslie: No BFD. Anna: Maybe it's because we're loosely moral-ed alt-weekly writers or whatever, but seriously, it seemed like a non-dilemma to me. Brantley: That's probably it. Leslie: True. Maybe some commenters will chime in, who knows. Anna: Speaking of getting high, what's with all the pie and candy and cookies and ice cream at Mayborn, dudes? Leslie: It's snack time all the time at that place. Anna: It was ridiculous. And by ridiculous I mean totally awesome. Brantley: On a final note, speaking of awesome, I'd just like to point out that in the wee hours of Sunday morning, I witnessed a former high poobah of the Mayborn School of Journalism wearing a glow stick on his head. It was given to him by a certain National Magazine Award-winning writer. That glow stick came from a trashcan. Leslie: It was a sight to behold for sure made more hilarious by the copious amounts of warm coconut rum making rounds in the lobby Brantley: It tasted like Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion. Anna: I missed the warm suntan lotion beverages, damn. Leslie: Got to work with what you've got sometimes. Brantley: In summation, this is why the Mayborn is such a great time. And why my body still hates me a little. Leslie: Smart speeches, lots to drink, and an overall pretty amazing time. I felt like a kid at Disney. Anna: Mayborn: fun for everybody! Unless you're trying to write a memoir, in which case you may have your delusions crushed a little bit. Or you're me, and you get overwhelmed by large groups of people wearing plastic name tags. So, would you smoke weed with a source? Weigh in on this crucial issue in the comment section, everybody. Leslie: And if you were there, weigh in on other things. And if you weren't go ahead and run your mouth anyway.

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