GRAPEVINE — Illuminating, instructional and inspiring were the three words used by Dorothy Bland to sum up this year’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.
In her first year as the dean of the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, it was Bland’s first time attending the conference, which is produced by the school’s graduate program. She equated the event to a revival for writers.
“I’m inspired and I hope you all are as well,” Bland said to close the three-day conference Sunday afternoon at the Hilton DFW Lakes in Grapevine.
Nearly 40 writers held sessions focusing on this year’s theme, “unearthing history.”
After all, journalists are said to write the first draft of history, said George Getschow, conference director.
“That idea of journalists being America’s greatest narrative historians is interesting,” he said. “Every story is shaped and defined by history.”
Addressing this theme Saturday evening was keynote speaker and three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Atkinson.
As a military historian, he has written a three-book series on World War II, a book on the U.S. Military Academy and a book about his time embedded with the 101st Airborne Division for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and under the command of then Maj. Gen. David Petraeus.
“The first duty is to remember, whether you’re a writer or not,” Atkinson said of writing about the military. “My ambition as a narrative nonfiction author is for the reader to feel that heavy arm (of history). To feel the presence of those who risked everything, and in some instances, gave everything for us.”
Part of his ambition, he said, is to write about the campaigns and battles as a historian would “without forfeiting the essence of the soldier’s war that is fundamentally experiential.”
“I write about war because war is a great revealer of character,” he said. “Some soldiers are classically heroic. Most are not heroic, and I find myself drawn to those who are not. Even those who at times are a bit ridiculous.”
In addition to Atkinson’s compelling 35-minute speech, many awards were given out as part of the conference’s writing competition.
Melissa Crowe, a reporter for the Victoria Advocate, said she was definitely leaving the conference inspired. A graduate of the Mayborn journalism school, she said this was her fourth year to attend.
“I always go back to work feeling refreshed and inspired and ready to add another layer to my stories,” Crowe said.
The Mayborn Conference began in 2005 with the help of Killeen Daily Herald and Temple Daily Telegram editor and publisher Sue Mayborn. More than 300 people attended this year’s event to learn from some of the best in narrative nonfiction writing.
“Writers of narrative nonfiction … have a tacit agreement with the reader that what you have written was true and unembellished,” Atkinson said. “The narrative nonfiction writer is seeking to provoke and empower the reader’s imagination. Not in pursuit of the willing suspension of disbelief, that a novelist or a playwright seeks, but in the hope of a commitment of belief. You want the reader to do the heavy lifting for you. It’s the reader’s imagination that provides the voltage that brings a tale to life.”