A conference full of tips, insight and inspiration.

Many months back I decided to invest in attending a conference. I use the word invest because it didn’t come cheap and I was going in blind, not knowing much about what it is or how successful it was.

From the website: “The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction  Conference is a forum for journalists, writers, readers, students, educators and the general public to listen to, be inspired by and practice their craft at the highest possible level.”

Located just a few miles away in Grapevine, Texas I knew I would be missing out if I didn’t go. I also knew I should use this opportunity to its fullest and submit a book manuscript to the conference competition. I pushed myself to get my manuscript done in time and was ecstatic to have the finish product submitted. It was great to have a timeline for myself. It forced me to get organized and figure it out. Turns out it was one of 20 accepted into the Friday workshop at the conference.

The Friday (9-4:30pm) workshop was two groups of ten people with a knowledgeable moderator to lead us. I ended up with a great mix of people in my group with a vast diversity of stories and writing talent. Prior to the conference we all read and critiqued the other nine manuscripts. We ended up with the winner of the contest in our group and we secretly all knew it. I even admitted to the author I had a bad attitude going into reading hers.  The winning piece was one of my last ones to read and just knowing it was about classical music I assumed I wasn’t going to be interested. After a few pages in, I was hooked and fell in love with it. I can’t wait for the book to come out!

The rest of the conference was full of talented inspirational, knowledgeable, down to earth, amazing speakers. I felt a sincere sense of community in the nonfiction writing world. Everyone wanted to tell their story and answer any questions to provide you with the inspiration to follow your passion and do it well.

The conference theme this year was Science, Technology, Medicine and Innovation. I was in awe of the not only the speakers but all of the conference attendees. You never knew who you would be sitting next to!

I wanted to go back through my notes and list out some of the tips, messages, books and tidbits that really hit home for me. This will be a great blog to go back to, to remind ourselves of the “why not you, you can make it happen.”

David Quammen – So he kind of became a hero to me at this conference. I knew he worked with Nick Nichols (a National Geographic photographer) and admired his work from afar. Hearing his story to success, writing processes and willingness to share great tips to anyone starting out made me excited to become part of this community. My favorite class in graduate school was Biogeography and felt ashamed I had never bought his book about it. So I bought it while there, stumbled through saying hello to him, and had him sign it. I’m 70 pages in so far and finding the same love in it as I did in the classroom.


In his presentation he listed out 23 tips to be a good science writer. I won’t list them all out here but will pick three that I loved the most: 8. Research till you drop. 9. Structure. Make it organic, not orderly. Allow reader to experience surprise and your thought process.  22. Take a risk. Risk is art. Safety is craft.

But the best tidbit was an answer he had for a question from the audience. The question was something along the lines of how do you remain objective while writing? He said in my quickly writing down notes, “I’m not. I do the research, and have an unapologetic opinion with conviction. I don’t have to tell both sides of the story.” I loved that. Science isn’t about making people happy with saying what they want you to say, and science writing shouldn’t be either.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the weekend. These were spoken by speakers and conference attendees. Forgive me for the lack of identifying all of the who said what – wish I tape recorded the entire conference!

  • “Hunt through footnootes.” Sam Kean
  • “Make people see the world in a different way.” Sam Kean
  • “Forced discipline to write a book.” Bill Streever
  • “All writing is rewriting.”
  • “It’s going to work out better than you can imagine.”
  • “90% is showing up. Always go.”
  • “Keep trying!” Brian Sweany- Brian had some great inspirational lines and stories regarding building relationships. He said something that I loved yet didn’t write down. It was to the point of you will be a writer today, in six months, and in ten years, so make sure you build relationships as you go. Also to remember you will be a better writer as time goes on so keep trying.
  • “Don’t make it a tower of facts, it’s a quest!”
  • “I don’t care if a scientist thinks I’m dumb.” – in regards to ask scientists the questions over and over and make them explain it at a level you can understand and translate to the public.
  • “Writers block is a reflection of not having exactly what you need. It’s not in your notebook yet.” Sheri Fink
  • “Have a beginners mind, try to come in as fresh as you can, no assumptions.” Sheri Fink
  • “Counter-intuitive thinking. If you follow the data it will lead you to the story.” Carl Hart
  • “1. Work hard. Not for idiots or followers. Blaze your own path. It’s a lonely journey. 2. Learn how to be an outsider. 3. Always let the data dictate your position.” Carl Hart
  • “I want to spend time with you, what you do interests me.” Seth Mnookin
  • “Leads can take long time to develop, don’t force the answer to come to you.” Seth Mnookin
  • “Just because it’s interesting to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting to your audience. Just because it’s interesting to your audience doesn’t mean it’s relevant to the story.” Seth Mnookin
  • “Books are miracles, personal triumphs.” Bob Shacochis
  • “Be open for the story to change.” Sheri Fink

Next – on my “take full advantage of the conference” mode I had scheduled a meeting with a literary agent. Yikes. Fifteen minutes in a room to pitch your project to an agent. Knowing nothing of the writing world and what to expect out of the conference I was literally typing into google, “should I meet with a literary agent at a conference”. All the articles pointed to yes, you will always get something out of it. So I signed myself up, researched the four agents and prepared. It turned out, I had a great first agent meeting. Fifteen minutes went by incredibly fast. I asked questions, he asked questions, gave me tips and was gracious. After hearing some horror stories, mine was awesome. His best advice was to eliminate the idea that writing about your topic in articles or sharing it with people will “give it away”. If nothing else it will build your base, connect you with more people and create a strong platform for your book. I was excited to hear that after worrying a bit about that very problem. But just as my masters was my work and no one knew it better than me, my research and my story can only be told by me.

In my nervous frantic state I managed to snap a picture of the meeting room. Tell me that doesn’t look scary!


The risk of attending this conference turned out to be a great decision. I came out the other side with a wealth of knowledge, loads of inspiration and having met some pretty fantastic people. I’m excited for the future and ready to take more risks and follow my passions.

Lastly let me leave you with my Must Read Books from Mayborn 2014:

  • The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean
  • Spillover by David Quammen
  • Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink
  • The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright
  • The Fight to Save Juárez: Life In The Heart of Mexico’s Drug War by Ricardo Ainslie
  • High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society by Carl Hart
  • The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy by Seth Mnookin
  • Cold, Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places by Bill Streever
  • The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone

So much of writing is reading, so let’s get on it! Where do I file an extension for more hours in a day?

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