Two (2) Words

I came away from the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference with two words I heard in Sunday’s panel. Sacrifice and persistence.

I know them well. They are what we do as writers.

We sacrifice doing things with friends or spending time with family, all of us to different degrees, but yet, there is always sacrifice of some sort. We may sacrifice a clean house, ample groceries, clean clothes, a mowed yard, or needed exercise. Or sleep. Sacrifice — giving up something in order to have something else with a higher value.


Persistence. Continuing steadfastly in some course of action even though there is opposition. We writers have persistence through shitty rough drafts, rejections, dejection, put downs, red marks, interruptions, pulls on our time. Even if we don’t have editor or publisher deadlines, we make our own goals and set our own deadlines and hold ourselves to them.

We are determined to carve out our time, leave the dirty dishes in the sink, turn off the phone, apply the butt glue, focus on the project, and keep the end product in the forefront of our minds.

Remember. Sacrifice and persistence.


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!


Lee Martin: Teaching at Writers’ Conferences

I’ll be headed out later this week to the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi. This is the third conference I’ve attended, and there was also a creative nonfiction workshop in 2007, and this is the second conference I’ve co-directed with Neil White and Susan Cushman. I’m familiar with the returning faces–Dinty W. Moore, Lee Gutkind, Michael Rosenwald, Jessica Handler–and I’ve known River Jordan, who’s new this year,  since she came to Tennessee and read from the galley of her first novel at the Barnes and Noble Writers Night prior to the Southern Festival of Books where she was to be on a panel. And Lee Martin is new this year. I haven’t met him yet, but I like what I hear.

Lee’s blog today is titled “Teaching at Writers’ Conferences” and gives a glimpse of what we can expect this weekend in Oxford. He writes:

“At the end of this week, I’ll be in Oxford, Mississippi, teaching a memoir workshop preceding the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference and then sticking around to be on a panel during the conference proper. Thus begins the season of writers’ conference teaching with other visits to Rowe, Massachusetts; Yellow Springs, Ohio; and Montpelier, Vermont, to come. I love teaching at these conferences where folks are generally passionate about their craft and eager to pick up some little tidbit to help them along their writers’ journeys. I also love meeting folks I otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to know, and getting to have some small part in the work that they’re doing. If I can share what I know in a way that will be helpful, maybe I can save someone a bit of time in the development of his or her craft. By so doing, I can pay back all the wonderful teachers who did the same for me. Like the handyman character, Red Green, used to say on his television show, “Remember, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.”

I was first drawn to creative nonfiction by memoir. I was a fiction writer who decided to turn his skills with narrative into storytelling about the self. I quickly learned that I loved being able to dramatize moments from my life and arrange them in a narrative thread of cause and effect. I also loved being able to reflect upon those moments, interrogate them, use them to think more deeply about the person I was/am and the people around me. This is all to say that I’m very much looking forward to my trip to Oxford, and the conversation I’ll have about memoir with the folks in my workshop…” Read more:

It’s not too late to register! Join us for a full and inspiring weekend on the Ole Miss campus. The creative nonfiction community in the South is growing. Come join us!

Leaving the Writers Conference

My friend Julie Gillen attended the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, totally immersed herself in the classes, panels, people, and charm of the town, and then like the rest of us, had to say good-bye. She got to do one thing I didn’t get to do — go to Rowan Oak at night and linger near where Faulkner wrote, and soak in the spirit on the porch of the tall white house. I did get to eat at Ajax with Julie and others of the Nashville Writers Alliance–catfish and black-eyed pea cakes. Julie captures her feelings in the following Guest Blog.


Leaving the Writer’s Conference

by Julie Gillen

The single-cup coffee maker drips into my cup, as if to say goodbye – see you next year – or maybe never.  There is always that possibility.

I compare and contrast the then and the now … the then of the perfect fall day on the Ole Miss campus – college kids scurrying  about like squirrels – sun filtering through the Grove – and me skipping school to boot.

Ahhhh, the reminder of the newness of the old, waiting in the car while Katy [daughter] drops off her application for grad school – waiting, watching, remembering.

Later that evening, alone at the writer’s conference, I meet someone – four people in fact — and suddenly I am in love.  These people understand me and there is talk … and laughter and drinks and hors d’oeuvres,and mingling and jingling and the spouting off of your best lines and life experiences.

The reminder of the newness of the old.

There’s dinner and drinks with your new love – a walk through the magic of the college town at night – still warm, still autumn, still perfect, still young and still new.

And the next day it rains, just a tad.  Your new love does not dwindle, but it looks around a bit and goes in its own direction, just like you.

You sit together during the sessions, a couple here and there – skipping a bit or two – but you all hook up and go to dinner again in the one car and the drizzle of the night.  You eat, you drink, and you wonder if they are thinking about their old loves, back home.

Romance is short and sweet, for sure.

Still, you are in love – your relationship is maturing.  You all hop in the car and drive out to Rowan Oak at night like a bunch of kids – banging on the door looking for Faulkner.

God, Faulkner is sick of this.  You all go back to the Inn and say good night and go to your own rooms because you are tired, you are old.  The clock on the nightstand says 8:30 p.m.

You pack your things so you won’t have to do it in the morning – it’s always worse in the mornings – the sound of goodbye – the absolute closure of the gathering – the parting of the ways.

So here you sit in your white bathrobe from that last conference in L.A. – drinking a cup of coffee and getting dressed and writing all at the same time.

Was it 7 or 7:30 you were supposed to meet them?  You really should write this stuff down, Julie.

So it’s time to step into your final outfit and zip up the suitcase.  Haul your stuff out to the car, meet your new love for breakfast before returning to your old one.

It’s okay, it’s all good.  You are a changed person and you have new friends.  You just dread that checkout , like a shot in the butt that will sting but will ultimately make you stronger, better, and more immune to the dark realities of life.

~ Julie Gillen

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Snapshots of Oxford

Sometimes a picture can capture the spirit of a place or event, and here are a few that give it that old college try (Ole Miss, that is), showing who was there and what they did — some memories of the 2010 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi.

Lee, Steve, and Dinty at Off-Square Books

Lee Gutkind relating the 5 Rs and the 2 F-words

Ellen Ann Fentress and David Little at the Saturday night reception

Heather (center) timing Pitch Fest participants

Half of Dinty’s Dozen, the name I attached to the 12 people in Dinty W. Moore’s Friday manuscript critique class;
Allison Green and Carol Wandrey in front

Neil White on a Sunday panel about the Writer’s Life Off the Page

Dinty W. Moore signing a book for Julie Cantrell at Off-Square Books

Lauren pitching to Lee at Saturday’s Pitch Fest

Lindsey, Julie, and David at a reading/signing at Off-Square Books

Neil White and Lee Gutkind at Off-Square Books after Thacker Mountain

Role Playing in Friday’s “A Day with Agents” session

Tense moments — waiting to pitch!

Robert Goolrick read from his novel A Reliable Wife and his memoir The End of the World As We Know It at Off-Square Books Saturday night —
blew us all away!

See you all in 2012!


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.