I’m back from the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in Grapevine, and what a weekend!
The conference, sponsored by the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas and now in its 13th year, gathers giants of the nonfiction field to discuss storycraft, reporting and the art of a good yarn.
Reporters covering foreign wars, sports writers profiling some of the biggest athletes in the world, philosopher-authors specializing in the craft of storytelling — needless to say, I was awestruck.
I compiled a few tips of the trade for all the aspiring writers, storytellers and everyday people out there from some of the best in the business. Here’s my list:
1. Stay curious
This key piece of advice was, perhaps, the takeaway of the weekend.
The Sunday keynote speaker, artist and novelist Charles Johnson, said the beauty of writing is in the mysteries in the world around us. That can be a tall task.
In every career, the key is to be curious about your field and strengthen your mastery of it. I took my current position as City Hall reporter with the Herald in September knowing little about the beat or the issues involved with it. However, I told myself early on to maintain my curiosity because my writing would be better served by learning everything I could about my field.
For writers out there trying their hand at fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, really anything: Never stop asking questions. If you’re writing about yourself, find out more about yourself by keeping a journal or discussing your thoughts with a close friend.
Your personal life, like any subject, is a bottomless well to draw from. So keep drawing.
2. Stay connected
Like the first tip, this piece of advice suits writers as much as anyone looking to better their careers and personal lives.
We live in an increasingly isolated and digital age where interhuman connection has become “mediated” by phone screens or messaging apps. The sense of “connection” — looking into a person’s eyes, shaking their hand, reading emotions on their faces — is part of an emotional response mechanism built through human evolution.
That connection, free of mediation, is what makes bland and contrived writing great.
Everyone could stand to put their phones down and ask a stranger how they’re doing. Great writing is built around insightful exploration of real or fictional characters — it’s not difficult to tell the difference between a “cardboard character” and one with depth, emotion and relatable human flaws. It benefits writers to get to know people!
So next time you go to the store, put your phone in your pocket and say hello to the lady at the register — you never know what she will have to say.
3. Stay strong
Writing — particularly as a hobby — can often feel like a zero-sum game, but keep that pen moving!
I write for a living here at the Herald, but I often go home and continue to write for myself. The reason? It keeps my mind on the goal of writing my novel and frees me from the mundanity of the daily grind.
Every writer has experienced a strong bout of writer’s block, but strength comes in breaking that wall despite work deadlines, family issues, financial concerns and anything else that gets in the way.
If you have a project you would like to start but have never found the time — it’s time to start today. No time is as good as the present.
And most importantly, seek out support! Find writers and creatives in your sphere, bounce ideas off each other and offer encouragement.
Who knows, maybe I’ll be seeing your name at a future Mayborn conference.
Kyle Blankenship is city editor of the Killeen Daily Herald and interim editor of the Copperas Cove Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 254-501-7567.