“To Your Health:” This Year’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference Explores the Healing Power of Narrative

What began as a conversation over lunch more than 17 years ago has now become one of the nation’s premier annual gatherings of writers, journalists, authors and storytellers: The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

George Getschow, retired Writer-in-Residence and Principal Lecturer at the Mayborn School of Journalism, was chatting casually with Bob Mong, now retired editor of The Dallas Morning News about the need for a way to celebrate the power of the written word and the magic of great narrative storytelling.

This year, the theme for the 2021 conference is: “To Your Health: Healing the Nation, Healing the News, Healing Yourself.” The event will feature speakers and panels focused on exploring how journalism and storytelling have impacted (and been impacted by) the many events unfolding over the past year – healthcare, trust in news, mental health, social justice, and the times have affected us all.

Keynote speakers for this year include DeNeen Brown, award-winning journalist for the Washington Post, Major Garrett, CBS News’ Chief Washington Correspondent, bestselling author Nicole Chung, Pulitzer Prize winner Eli Saslow, Seema Yasmin, Emmy Award-winning journalist, medical doctor and author – among many others.

“Every year we pick a theme that reflects some of the core issues that people are talking about,” says Mayborn Conference director and Principal Lecturer Neil Foote. “This year we’ve really tapped into the mood of the country.  There are so many stories to talk about – and we’ll be probing into the stories behind the stories, too, looking at how journalists and storytellers have navigated one of the most challenging years in history.”

What’s magical about The Mayborn Conference is that a dedicated group of avid supporters has sprung up around the Mayborn Conference, many attending yearly – at least until the Covid-19 pandemic pushed the conference into online mode in 2020. As many as 350 attendees gather for several days each year to hear from some of the most well-known names in the nonfiction world: Susan Orlean, Lawrence Wright, Charles Johnson, Diana B. Henriques, Ira Glass, Carol Oates, Bob Shacochis, Sebastian Junger, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and James McGrath Morris, among many others. More than 40 Pulitzer Prize winners have presented over the years. 

Mayborn Conference writing contests have also grown popular, with categories for Personal Essay, Reported Narrative, and Book Manuscript. Contests are judged by committees representing the best in the industry, including many agents, editors and publishers. As a result, we have a number of published book authors as a result of our book manuscript content. 

Writing Workshops. Photographer: Kara Dry

“I live for the writing workshops that come along with the contests,” says Lindsey Bertrand, a perennial entrant and winner of several coveted “Ten Spurs” awards. “It’s a chance to share my writing with other great writers and truly work to make it better – along with tears and laughs along the way.”

As a signature event of the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, it has been a gateway opportunity for high school and college students, who not only network with widely recognized journalists and authors, but have the chance to learn how the business of newsrooms and publishing work. As many as 50 Mayborn students are awarded registration fees from donors and sponsors in exchange for creating blogs, managing social media and generally assisting with the event.

“It’s an amazing learning opportunity,” says Amber Gaudet, a student volunteer – who also, incidentally, earned First Place in the conference’s “Baby Shoes” six-word story contest. Modeled on Ernest Hemingway’s legendary “For sale, baby shoes, never worn” story, conference attendees spend the weekend submitting entries based on the year’s theme.

Although the 2020 conference was moved completely online due to the pandemic, this year’s event will be a hybrid, with an October 15 Friday evening speaker event hosted by the conference’s bookseller partner, Interabang Books, in Dallas. The event will continue via Zoom Webinar all day on the following Saturday, October 16. The evening will be capped by the usual awards presentation, hosted – again virtually – by Sam Baker, host of KERA’s Morning Edition news program.

“The Mayborn Conference has been called a ‘crown jewel’ of all the great things that go on around the University of North Texas,” says Andrea Miller, dean of the Mayborn School. “Not only is it a tremendous gathering of working professionals and afficionados of everything we teach and do at the Mayborn, it’s something that gives us recognition far outside the world of academia. When our students graduate and go out into the working world, the name ‘Mayborn’ gets attention from people who matter.”

Chances are that when George Getschow and Bob Mong gathered for lunch so long ago lamenting the need for a focal point, a nexus, a ground zero for fans and practitioners of great writing and storytelling, they couldn’t have envisioned what their brainchild has become. Or, maybe they actually did.

Registration is open for the 2021 Mayborn Conference, to be held October 15 & 16. The cost is $99, which includes complimentary attendance at the Friday evening Interabang Books event. For a complete listing of speakers and schedule, visit www.themayborn.com.

Jim Dale is the Marketing Director for the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas and manager of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. He also teaches advertising as an adjunct professor.

Jim Dale

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