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.
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.
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!