Last month at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in Grapevine, Texas, I received the organization’s annual fellowship in biography.
The award provides an “emerging biographer” with writing time during a short-term residency in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, north of Santa Fe, N.M. I’ll be working on my biography of Eliza Scidmore.
The best part of the prize is a period of mentoring by the prize-winning biographer James McGrath Morris. Jamie sponsors the award along with his wife, Patty. They make a casita adjacent to their house available to the fellowship winners.
Besides supporting this fellowship, Jamie started a program at Mayborn to coach high schools students in the skills of writing biography.
One story Jamie tells captures, delightfully, the mastery he brings to the craft of writing biography, including an acclaimed biography of the newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer. During research for the book, Jamie flew off to Paris, on a moment’s notice, to track down a lead on a long-lost diary of Pulitzer’s brother, Albert. The trip involved meeting Albert’s 85-year-old granddaughter Muriel, a sculptor with a rooftop atelier at Saint-Sulpice church. I love Jamie’s description of how he bent his tall frame into a chair in the cramped attic room as they sat and chatted over tea.
The Mayborn Conference is affiliated with the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism of the University of North Texas. It features a packed two days of presentations on storytelling techniques and the craft of nonfiction writing.
I’d vaguely heard about the Mayborn Conference because Steve Weinberg, one of my journalism profs at the University of Missouri, has been a panelist. Steve wrote a biography of “muckraker” Ida Tarbell and how her reporting brought down John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil trust. (I’ve discovered that Eliza Scidmore and Ida Tarbell overlapped on the masthead of National Geographic Magazine for a short time as associate editors.)
When possible, I try to attend at least one writers conference a year. I like attending different ones. The Mayborn program this year had several activities that appealed to me, including an essay critique workshop, an agent pitch session and three impressive keynote speakers: Pulitzer Prize winners Luis Alberto Urrea, Richard Rhodes and Isabel Wilkerson.
The Mayborn Conference also sponsors a writing competition that awards $15,000 in cash prizes and publication of the best essays, reported narratives and book manuscripts submitted by those attending the event.
The vibe is energetic, the atmosphere highly collegial. And unlike most conferences, the Mayborn had consistently great food! All part of the legendary Texas hospitality, I guess.
A great conference overall.