The Greatest Writing Conference in the History of Events Planning

Tears pushed against the backs of my eyes, bumping into the laughter. It hit me that this was more than just another writers conference where you go and sit for a long time and listen to speakers and then go home and try to apply what you learned. I felt a sense of community here. I sat on the couch in Room 203, drank a glass of wine, held a napkin with a W on it for Wessman (NancyKay), and picked out the cashews from the jar of assorted nuts. I shared, and I listened to the stories of others, and I heard us all saying the same thing. We have a fire in our guts to write our stories and publish our books.

This core group gathered in #203 has come together more than once. We have lifted glasses of wine not only in Oxford, but at other similar creative nonfiction events in towns nearby.


Neil White

The 2013 conference was the third one in Oxford headed up by Neil White, the Godfather of Creative Nonfiction in the South, I guess. In 2008  Neil brought some of the biggest names in the genre to lead workshops and panels in the quaint and charming Mississippi town of Oxford, and Susan Cushman of Memphis and I were both there. Susan and I had met five months earlier at a Saturday workshop Neil put together. He’d invited Lee Gutkind, the so-called Godfather behind the genre, to speak. Lee, a charismatic man with tousled white hair, white scruffy beard, and a tiny round turquoise earring in his left lobe, told us he wanted to bring creative nonfiction to the South because it was the most widely published genre in the world—everywhere, but in the South. Lee has been to all the conferences.


Lee Gutkind

The second Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference was in 2010, and Susan and I went back as co-directors, assisting Neil. Susan then hosted a creative nonfiction workshop in Memphis, and last fall I led a workshop in Clarksdale at the Shack Up Inn.

A handful or two of writers have been to two or three or more of these events all connected to Neil White. We have come from coastal Alabama; Georgia; Mississippi—Meridian, Jackson, Madison; Tennessee—Memphis and Nashville. Deep South writers. We have shared stories, both written and personal, because our written stories are personal. And we will come back to the table for more sustenance and inspiration. We are the core of the community of Creative Nonfiction in the South. And we are community. And we are at the center of something big.

We’re calling ourselves a tribe.


Room 203, after the final party

Tribe: an aggregate of people united by community of customs and traditions and adherence to the same leaders.



Dan, Emily, me

And this year there were new friends and new faces from all over: California, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Washington, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Kansas, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Coast to coast, top to bottom, writers made their way to a little Mississippi town with a great big voice and a tribe. I talked to many writers, and they have that same earlier-mentioned passion for their work — deep, significant, intimate stories — true stories.  The tent is now wider; the tribe is bigger!

Harrison Scott Key, winner of Creative Nonfiction’s Southern Sin contest says, “Neil White has put on maybe the Greatest Writing Conference in the History of Events Planning.” 

We all left Oxford-town knowing it takes sacrifice and persistence to get where we want to go. We left saying stuff like “better than ever,” “does anyone want to be an accountability partner?”, “can’t we do it every year instead of every other year?”, and “sure I’ll give Clarksdale (CNF workshop) another go.”

Thanks, Neil White and Susan Cushman, and Carroll (wow!), Maggie, and Genie, and to everyone — attendees, speakers, workshop leaders, panelists, River Jordan for her fabulous historical rant — “go to sleep, baby, Nana’s got a deadline,” scorpions on the manuscript and pillow, and completing a book before a sure-death within six months after a mammogram (oh yes, it’s true, men, and I don’t open my results for three days after I get them in the mail and one time it was three months!) — photographers, shuttle drivers, Inn at Ole Miss staff, everybody, and the tribe. I love you all!




The campus of the University of Mississippi was on fire with fall, and more than 100 writers there for the 2010 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference were on fire with a passion to write and publish their stories. We all took stories to Oxford with us.

Susan Cushman and Kathy Rhodes at Thacker Mountain Radio

Walking from the Inn at Ole Miss to Overby Center to the student union over a quilt of leaves, I couldn’t help but feel a pull. Leaves red and orange above me, yellow and brown blowing around my feet, like times were changing, cooling, settling down to winter, yet I felt that struggle, like a birth or rebirth, like things are ratcheting up, as if it were spring with new life. Others felt it, too.

By the end of the weekend, we were all ready to go home and write.

Neil White talks about the personal essay.

The Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference was an outstanding success from my perspective as a participant, as well as co-director of the event. I left the quaint Mississippi hill-town with a clear picture of where I need to go with my memoir. I heard so many others say the same thing.

Kathy Rhodes, Carroll Chiles, Susan Cushman in Overby Center

We all left Oxford inspired to focus on the writing. It is all about the writing, we heard over and over. The writing must be good. Books get published because they are well written. As I drove home up the Natchez Trace from Tupelo to Nashville, I kept pressing the accelerator harder as I reviewed the weekend, trying to figure out just what made this conference so super-above-all-the-others-I’ve-attended.

Lee Gutkind talks about reflection, real life, and research in CNF.

First of all, everywhere I looked while on campus I saw smiling, happy faces. What a bunch of positive, upbeat people, all determined to take their projects to success.

Secondly, this conference seemed to go straight to the irreducible minimum of writing, being creative. Be patient, write, get it right before you do anything with it.

I heard Lee speak about his writing schedule. I’ve heard him tell this before, but this time, he seemed to punch the point home. Lee Gutkind, the “godfather” behind the genre of creative nonfiction, gets up at 4:30 AM and writes until he has to be somewhere. It’s a ritual for him; he works every single day, even Sundays and Christmas — you have to write to be productive, he says. It’s like practicing the piano. You can’t expect to be an accomplished pianist unless you stay at it, spend consistent time with it. Many of our presenters were university professors, and they are all dedicated to rigid writing schedules built around their daily classes. I devote my early mornings — from 5 till 7 — to writing, as well, and am wondering if I should feel guilty about not writing on Thanksgiving or Christmas, and as I’m feeling this twinge of guilt, I’m thinking that maybe I have written on those special holiday mornings.

Many of the presenters mentioned that in the evening before they go to bed, they prepare for the writing they will do when they wake up the next morning. I’ve done this, too, and my days are so organized and productive.

I am inspired by the quality of writers and writing represented in Oxford. The people who attended have a passion for their work, a passion for storytelling, and they are committed to seeing the writing process through to being published. All of them, every single one. They were all anxious, but eager to pitch their projects to the eleven agents and editors/publishers at the Pitch Fest.

Pitch Fest

I am uplifted by the positivism shown by the presenters in light of a publishing industry in turmoil. Things are rapidly changing on all fronts in the book world. Davis Kidd in Nashville is closing. Barnes and Noble is up for sale. Independents are evaporating at the rate of 20% a year. Three days ago, the New York Times announced that there is now a best-seller list for e-books. David Magee says that hardcover books are the most romantic things in the world, and I agree, but we’re moving to electronic readers — the Kindle, the Nook, the IPad. We must embrace that; these are opportunities, not evils. The death of a book does not mean the death of literature.

I am assured that in one venue or another in this changing industry, all the concepts and stories that went to Ole Miss for a four-day conference and floated on air waves above leaves crunching on campus sidewalks and sidewalks on the Square downtown, in Off-Square Books above a sleeping Mamacita — all will find a home.

Pitch Fest — Gillian MacKenzie

Pitch Fest — the lines for Dinty W. Moore, Walter Biggins, David Magee,
and Jeff Kleinman

Panel — The Realities of Publishing

It’s Upon Us.

Five days. In five days I will drive to Oxford. All the months of planning, promoting, and posting about it — and it’s finally here. Four days of creative nonfiction … bringing Lee Gutkind back to the South, bringing the top leaders in America in this genre to one quaint town in the Mississippi hills, bringing agents, editors, and publishers to share their knowledge on the state of publishing today.

As a co-director of the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference (Nov. 11-14), it has been my job to talk it up, to tell about it at every venue I have attended, every speaking engagement, and every workshop I’ve led. People who follow me on Facebook know it’s all I’ve talked about for months, except for an occasional motorcycle ride with 12 men, the grandtwins in their pumpkin costumes, and the one-thousand-dollar oil change.

All that talk — and with the other co-directors doing the same and even more of it [Neil White and Susan Cushman] — has paid off. Nearly 100 people — more with volunteers and presenters — will descend on Oxford later this week for workshops, panels, social events, Thacker Mountain Radio, and a pitch fest. Writers are coming from every corner of America…from Maine to Washington, from Florida to California. Seventeen will attend from my state of Tennessee.

One of my tasks (and what a pleasure!) as a co-director has been organizing Dinty W. Moore’s workshop on Friday. It’s manuscript critiquing, and all 12 people in the class have submitted ten pages to workshop; the essays and memoir excerpts all came to me, and I disbursed them to Dinty and to each class member, after, of course, reading a bit myself, only to discover the quality of writing we’ll experience at this conference and the passion of the writers for the genre. The class has gotten acquainted online; folks have shared about themselves in emails and many of us have friended each other on Facebook. I call them Dinty’s Dozen. The Dozen will meet for dinner before the critiquing class and will walk into the classroom knowing something about the others.

This will be my third experience with creative nonfiction in Oxford. I attended “The 5 R’s” in 2007 when Lee Gutkind first came to the South to teach. My blog started as a result of this: Lee said to start one, that blogging is creative nonfiction. I also attended the first Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford in 2008, similar to this one — Lee as key speaker and many of the same presenters returning. These have been mountaintop experiences, and I have high hopes for this week!

Five days. Five days. A week from tomorrow and it will all be over. How can that be? How much can I absorb between now and then? Got to make every moment count. Network, connect, listen, learn, lift my writing to a higher level, stretch myself, take in more and more, hang on every word, grow in the genre, love it even more.


Five ten this morning and I strike a match and stick it to rolled up newspaper in the fire pit on my patio, and it lights the small hackberry branches from Cedar Ridge, twigs gathered from my own backyard, and hickory logs Ken gave me yesterday. I pull on my RHODES TAVERN sweatshirt because it’s a little cool out there, and I sit in my Adirondack with a cup of coffee and a chapter from my memoir, revising. And then it happens.

I get my title.

I cry. And it all falls into place. The structure. The ending. What I need to do to pull it together.

It is so obvious, beautiful, miraculous, meaningful, just perfect, and I cry some more.

I’ve been working on a title for this for five years. Nothing has been right. This is it.

And as the sun nears in the east and the few birch leaves left get nudged by the breeze, I sit there and look at the sky and feel the healing wash over me. Because in a memoir you write to discovery, and I have. I have something meaningful.

Something honest. I’ve wanted to write my subject with honesty since Dinty W. Moore in his workshop at the first Oxford creative nonfiction conference, when asked what he wanted to see in writing, said he wanted to see honesty … in the very thing I am writing about. I’ve been trying to get there for over two years, and I finally am.

And I cry some more. And I breathe in smoke and sniffle and realize that it just takes a little fire to get there.


Thanks to the Southern Literary Review for its heads-up on the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, Nov. 11-14, in Oxford, Mississippi.

The slate is full of pre-conference workshops with some of the best teachers and speakers in the field in all the world. The conference will feature Lee Gutkind, who taught the first ever university course in the genre in 1973 at the University of Pittsburgh … and who also indirectly came up with the name “creative nonfiction” … and who also is known as the “godfather” of the genre (there’s a story behind that!). So I definitely believe he is one to hear if a writer is interested in this genre and wants the scoop directly from the top!

Dinty W. Moore will be there. I plan to take his all-day Friday manuscript critiquing workshop. He is one of my favorites. I think he’s one of the best teachers in the field, and I look forward to a day spent in his tutelage … with Sherry Walker from Colorado Springs — we were together in Dinty’s class at the 2008 Oxford conference. Our friend Sarah Einstein, also there in 2008, won a Pushcart for her story we critiqued in that class.

The 4-day schedule is packed full of classes and panels and receptions. And in between, I know there will be networking, talking about writing, about life, about what we’re gonna do next, dinners in darkened restaurants over glasses of wine, and lunches in quaint downtown Oxford.

To sign up for this conference, go to the Creative Nonfiction Conference website.

Earlybird Deadline Looms

Sign up now!

Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, with the editors of Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Pinch, writers from The Washington Post, memoirists, journalists, in Faulkner’s Oxford, Nov. 11-14, 2010.

Featuring Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore (Brevity editor), Mike Rosenwald, David Magee, Kristen Iversen, Neil White, Beth Ann Fennelly, Jeff Kleinman, Stella Connell, Laurie Chittenden, Robert Goolrick, and more.

Early bird discount if you register before August 1.

More info here:


Kathy Rhodes (

Susan Cushman

Neil White

Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference

Yes, it has a brand new name! Instead of Mid-South, this big gathering of creative nonfiction writers from all over the country will honor the town that is making it all possible! A town rich in writing tradition. Oxford, Mississippi.

Neil White, Kathy Rhodes, Susan Cushman

Neil White of Oxford, Susan Cushman of Memphis, and I (Kathy Rhodes of Franklin TN) met yesterday at Neil’s beautiful office at Nautilus Publishing in the Plein Air development of the artsy community of Taylor, south of Oxford, near Thacker Mountain, to plan, to develop a schedule, to determine our guest speakers.

Charming Artsy Downtown Taylor — the famous grocery and art galleries

Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference
November 11-14, 2010
Ole Miss Campus, Oxford MS

The conference will begin Thursday afternoon with a 4-hour class on creating scenes in creative nonfiction, taught by Neil White. Then Thursday night there’s the Thacker Mountain radio show. All day Friday, there will be four different manuscript workshops, led by Dinty W. Moore, Kristen Iverson, Neil White, and one other, TBA later. Saturday — Lee Gutkind will teach from 8-12, and in the afternoon, there will be a panel of 6 agents, editors, and publicists on the realities of publishing, moderated by Dinty W. Moore. Then, one-on-ones with the agents and editors! Sunday morning, there will be two panels: Writers Off the Page (markets for CNF) and Writers On the Page (the craft of CNF). A detailed schedule with costs for each day is forthcoming. But for the whole conference, the cost is $350 — and there’s an earlybird special of $325 for those who wish to sign up now! Checks can be mailed to Oxford CNF Conference, PO Box 40, Taylor MS 38673. (A website with PayPal is being set up for those who wish to pay by plastic.)

Confirmed staff to-date: Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore, David Magee, Kristen Iverson, Neil White, Stella Connell, and Jeff Kleinman, with 6 others in the wings but not quite yet confirmed.

Conference Co-directors Neil White, Kathy Rhodes, Susan Cushman

Watch for more details and for a new Facebook fan page and in the meantime, if you have questions, please email me! For now, mark your calendar if you have not done so and consider reserving your spot early! Space is limited in some of the classes.

Neil, Susan, and I had a great planning session, lunch at Emileigh’s (thanks, Neil!), and then browsed at the Tin Pan Alley antique shop, where Susan and I shared a fun moment on a swinging bed. Yes, a swinging day bed! How I would love to have that on my porch! (How I would love to have a porch!) Alice who owns the shop wants to attend our conference and write her real life stories — and how we hope she will!

We hope you will sign up, too! I am so pleased and excited about our lineup and look forward to sharing ALL the details with you!