Behind the Scenes

Tyrese Boone works the camera during the Saturday panels at the Mayborn LitCon July 22, 2017.

A group of Workshop attendees after interviewing Jeffrey Weiss. From left to right: Jennifer Zhan, Lauren Bannister, Lauryn Jones, Dylan Benson, Jeffrey Weiss, Molly Chambers, Alexis Rosebrock, Tanya Raghu, Juliette Strope, Sanjana Reddy, Nina Melishkevich, and Kayla Davis. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark
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Tanya Raghu (right) and Maddie Badowski (middle) set up the group’s multimedia website with the help of Marjorie Asturias (left), Happiness Engineer at WordPress. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark
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The High School Multimedia Workshop students gather in the Hilton DFW Lakes lobby to rundown the next day’s activities and receive assignments on July 21, 2017. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark
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Dylan Benson takes a much needed break after a long day of interviewing panelists. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark
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Sanjana Reddy (left) and Dylan Benson (right) experiment with a professional camera for the first time. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark
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A group of Workshop attendees and chaperones at the Mayborn LitCon Literary Lights Dinner on July 22, 2017. From left to right: Kayla Davis, Leah Waters, Molly Chambers, Tyrese Boone, Dylan Benson, Alleyah Brown, Olivia Betka, and Lauren Bannister. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark
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Tanya Raghu (left) speaks with Mike Wilson (right), Dallas Morning News editor, after he moderates a panel on Sunday morning. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark
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Tyrese Boone works the camera during the Saturday panels at the Mayborn LitCon July 22, 2017. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark
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Bryan Lochhead, UNT Journalism Professor, shows students how to set up the camera before they interview speaker Jeffrey Weiss. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark
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Juliette Strope (left) films Dylan Benson (middle) and Molly Chambers (right) for the workshop introduction video at the Hilton DFW Lakes Executive Conference Center on July 22, 2017. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark
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Sanjana Reddy asks personal narrative author Jia Tolentino how she deals with the reactions of family members to her stories. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark
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Recent UNT graduate, Troy Guter, shows Lauryn Jones and Alexis Rosebrock how to handle and work a camera during interviews. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark
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Dylan Benson (left), Sanjana Reddy (middle), and Lauren Bannister (right) prepare to interview journalist Jeffrey Weiss on July 22, 2017. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark
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Dylan Benson (left) and Lauryn Jones (middle) interview Jeffrey Weiss about his life as a journalist and how brain cancer has affected it as Juliette Strope (right) films. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark
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Alleyah Brown asks Scott Farwell how he remains impartial when investigating sources. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark

Sarah Hepola

Hepola believes that the beautiful thing about literater is that it opens what you thought was personal to a communal experience.

Sarah Hepola shares her story about her struggle with alcoholism at the Mayborn LitCon 2017.
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After many “delicious complications” Hepola has overcome her demons through her first book “Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget.” Photo by Alexis Rosebrock
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Skip Hollandsworth moderates a discussion with Hepola about her journey to sobriety. Photo by Alexis Rosebrock
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“You deserve to have a life you feel good about,” Hepola said. Photo by Alexis Rosebrock
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Hepola believes that the beautiful thing about literature is that it opens what you thought was personal into a communal experience. Photo by Alexis Rosebrock

 

Remembering that we are one

While the world is trapped in the regimes of emotional detachment, war, and disloyalty, Sebastian Junger is advocating for the indulgence of human relations. In his book ‘Tribe’, Junger travels into American Indian territory in order to record and understand the importance of brotherhood with the hopes of spreading their traits[…]

By Alleyah Brown

While the world is trapped in the regimes of emotional detachment, war, and disloyalty, Sebastian Junger is advocating for the indulgence of human relations. In his book ‘Tribe’, Junger travels into American Indian territory in order to record and understand the importance of brotherhood with the hopes of spreading their traits into our nation.

“You can’t indulge in the illusion that you’re okay in the world on your own,” Junger said during the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

I was impressed with the devotion he acquired for the welfare of people and their relationships between each other. Through growing up in a safe neighborhood in Boston, the journalist gained a passion for adventure and exploring the world of consequences outside of his own.

How can we expect a generation to understand the principles of wisdom, equality, and togetherness without teaching them the importance of sacrifice? Granted, there are people like Junger who grow up without having to experience hardship or sacrifice, but what makes Junger an outside-the-box thinker is the fact that he uses his passion for writing to paint the pictures of those who struggle for those of us who do not, thus, allowing them to experience problems other than their own.

Humans are meant to thrive in this world together, to need and help each other, even if their struggles are separate than those of others.

“I don’t care if someone’s black or white, rich or poor, I care that they’re hurting more than I am,” Junger stated. “It’s that quality in human beings that brought us to where we are.”

I enjoyed listening to Junger because his views compare to that of mine: that the world needs to think communally and objectively if we plan on being the United States we built our foundation on.

At the end of Junger’s keynote speech, there was time for questions. A man asked Junger a question any human would be befuddled to answer: “Are there any winners in war when people die on both sides? And is war justified?”  

Junger responded with what I believe is a very mature perspective.

He explained that war, of course, is not the answer to every problem. However, when our nation’s patriotism is threatened, it is our job to stand up for the very foundations we were created on. War is not so much about winning as it is about obtaining respect for your country.

Do we allow outside threats to perpetuate against us or do we come together towards a single understanding? That’s the point Junger was trying to get across. Not that hardship is necessary to congregate us, but that it aids in distracting us from our personal lives and allows us to come together for a cause.           

“Sacrifice is healthy in withholding the value in our country,” Junger said.

Sebastian Junger delivers a powerful speech on how the American society needs to do more to make soldiers feel needed and productive after coming home from war at the Literary Lights Dinner on July 22, 2017. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark

Jeffrey Weiss

“I have always tried to write with compassion if the people who I’m writing about are entitled to it.”

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“I have always believed that journalism, if done properly, is at least an incremental benefit to the world,” Weiss said. Photo by Alexis Rosebrock
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Weiss, who has has been a reporter since 1981, now considers himself partly retired after the discovery of his cancer. He continues to write for The Dallas Morning news in his spare time. Photo by Alexis Rosebrock
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Jeffrey Weiss explains to his audience how he used his reporting strategy to learn about glioblastoma, his form of brain cancer, and continues to apply it to treatment plans. Photo by Alexis Rosebrock
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Tom Huang moderates Jeffrey Weiss’ session on telling his personal narrative in the midst of cancer. Photo by Alexis Rosebrock.
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Veteran reporter Jeffrey Weiss shares how he remains positive in the face of cancer at the Mayborn Literary Conference on July 22, 2017. Photo By Alexis Rosebrock

 

Words I won’t forget

Silence envelops the room as I sit here reflecting on my experiences from this weekend at The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. As the journey back from Grapevine began, I thought about my assignment: what would I write about? With so many possibilities to choose from, I struggled with how I would put […]

By Lauren Bannister

Silence envelops the room as I sit here reflecting on my experiences from this weekend at The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. As the journey back from Grapevine began, I thought about my assignment: what would I write about? With so many possibilities to choose from, I struggled with how I would put my experience into words.

This year at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference there were an array of speakers, journalists and authors. There were stories about war, blackouts, slums and much more.

Overall, there were writers who have been there, done that and gave some pretty good advice.  

I love quotes. I call myself a quote hoarder because they are great to use for any occasion. Quotes can be a catalyst for inspiration and motivation. They accompany a long list of things that will travel through time and be universal among generations to come.

This weekend, I listened to many speakers give advice, so instead of trying to focus on one specific speaker, I compiled a list of quotes I believe are useful in writing, but most importantly, also in life.

1. “It doesn’t really matter what it is that trips your wire, just go on high alert when it’s tripped.” – Katherine Boo

Boo says going against something essentially can motivate you to understand what you are fighting for. The world is full of different sides and opinions, and trying to navigate what we believe isn’t always the easiest process. Paying attention to the things that irritate you rather than motivate you can lead you in the right direction.

2. “Getting it right matters way more than whether or not you can make people care.”- Katherine Boo

In journalism, facts are everything. You have to back everything up with facts. But, this is also true in life. Focus on being true to yourself and your authenticity will attract the right people.

3. “I believe that journalism empowers people.”- Scott Farwell

Journalism is the gathering, analysis, creation, and presentation of news and information. It is an essential form of communication. When done correctly, stories have the ability to connect people on all platforms and get a message across. True journalism is powerful in its ability to reflect the truth and display what is occurring in our world.

4. “I think the things that matter the most are the hardest to talk about.”- Sarah Hepola

As human beings, we often find it difficult to sit down and talk about how we truly feel. We often forget how to simply talk. No yelling, arguing or disagreeing. We need to focus on talking about the things that matter most to us.

5. “Other people’s opinions of me are generally not my business.”- Jia Tolentino

This quote has stuck with me the most since I heard it.  As a person that has struggled deeply with caring about what people think about me due to being self-conscious, hearing this gave me a new outlook. It is impossible to make everyone “like” you. The more you focus on being yourself, the more authentic you are. Life is too short to worry about pleasing everyone.

6. “Do not define yourself in ways that are limiting.”- Charles Johnson

People tend to limit themselves in what they believe they are capable of doing and what they can do. It never hurts to dream. Dream big. There are endless possibilities to throw out into the universe. The more you confine and define yourself in ways that are limiting, the less you potentially believe you can achieve. Believe in yourself and anything is possible.

7. “I always remind myself, I’m not the sum of my best or most difficult circumstances, and neither are the people I report on.” – Katherine Boo

Life is too short to sit around and dwell on the past. But, it isn’t always easy to stay focused on only the future. It’s an easy concept to talk about, but hard to put into effect. Remembering that our past does not define us is essential. We have to remember to not be so hard on ourselves, and that the people we talk to are just like us in some way.

8. “The creative process, to me, is about two things: discovery and problem solving. And, no two things that you do are ever the same, so it’s always exciting.”- Charles Johnson

Very seldom do we do two things the exact same. When it comes to the creative process, you can approach it in any way. I encourage everyone to get in touch with their creative side. Be curious, ask questions, solve problems, and do it all over again. Keep creating, and keep storytelling.

9. “Part of your life as an artist involves endless curiosity and being inquisitive and wanting to know.”- Charles Johnson

Artist or not, life is about creating. Everyone can create. I love waking up every day being curious and wanting to learn more. Never stop asking questions. The world is always changing and our job as human beings is to be curious, to ask questions and to learn.

I am very grateful for this past week at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction workshop. My love for storytelling feels renewed, and I am stepping away with a fresh outlook. I will keep every line I heard this weekend close to my heart and continue to use it as I progress forward. I have never been more excited to discover, create, and tell my stories to the world.

Featured Image: Mayborn LitCon “The Power of Words” Program. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark

 

Katherine Boo

Katherine Boo urges fellow storytellers to “be serious about being accurate, not trying to make people care.” 

Katherine Boo urges fellow storytellers to “be serious about being accurate, not trying to make people care.” Photo by Alexis Rosebrock
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Katherine Boo encourages fellow journalists to expect more from their readers at the Mayborn Literary Conference’s Southwest Soiree Dinner on July 21, 2017. Photo by Alexis Rosebrock
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“The public is more hungry than given credit for,” Boo said. Photo by Alexis Rosebrock
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Moderator Chris Vognar and Boo answer an audience member’s question about the current political climate. Photo by Alexis Rosebrock
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An audience member questions Boo about her journey to the slum of Annawadi for her book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” Photo by Alexis Rosebrock
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Katherine Boo shares her 15 injunctions for writing narrative nonfiction.  Photo by Alexis Rosebrock

Exploring the ethics of nonfiction writing

In journalism, sometimes the hardest question isn’t what to write. It’s whether to even write it. Defining the amount of ethical responsibility journalists have to their sources is no easy task, so it’s no surprise the topic was a popular one at this year’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference[…]

By Jennifer Zhan

In journalism, sometimes the hardest question isn’t what to write, it’s whether to even write it.

Defining the amount of ethical responsibility journalists have to their sources is no easy task, so it’s no surprise the topic was a popular one at this year’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, where writers from across the country gathered July 21-23 to share their experiences and insight. 

Audience members brought up the issue at Q&As throughout the conference. Although the questions posed dealt with different situations, they asked the same thing: What do we owe the people we write about, and to what extent?

The ethics of a source withdrawing consent

The discussion of ethics was present from the first day of the conference. Opening keynote speaker Katherine Boo was asked what personal guidelines she followed when interviewing people for her nonfiction book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.”

Moderator Chris Vognar listens as Boo gives her thoughts on the way journalists should treat their sources.

It was one of the last questions of the night.

“You’re writing about people who are dispossessed,” the audience member said. “How much of a say do they have in how they’re represented in your copy? For instance, do they get to see what’s being quoted? Do they get to see how you’re treating them in that work? They’re not public figures.”

He paused, then clarified, “It’s not an accusation, it’s a question of craft.”

“No, no,” Katherine Boo responded seriously. “I think it’s the essential question.”

Boo’s book follows the story of a family living in a slum called Annawadi in Mumbai. Three years of living alongside people who had nothing provided the research for the narrative nonfiction work, but not everything Boo documented made the cut.

“If a private subject doesn’t want their life to be in your work, even if they decide that at the last minute, I feel they still have the right to pull out,” Boo said. “I feel like I don’t want to do a book that features people who don’t want to [be in it]. People have to be involved in that, they have to know about it.”

Although it may not be convenient, she doesn’t see any way around it ethically. If you can’t go back and stand in front of the people you’ve written about post-publication, she said you’re doing it wrong.

“I can’t write about someone’s head lice without them saying it’s okay,” Boo said. “But that’s part of the fact-checking process. You need to make sure that people understand that.”

Still, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” doesn’t read like its subjects have carefully reviewed it to remove character flaws. Its pages hold stories of corruption, resentment, desire, shame and crime.

“And they don’t have to like every single thing that you write about, but I think they have to recognize that what you’re writing about is true,” Boo said. “In my book, Abdul recognized that what I wrote about Mirchi was true, Mirchi said what I wrote about Abdul was true. You have to have it be recognizable to people who are close to you.”

Boo said that the people featured in the book took many risks to participate, including physical risks from police who were angry about the publication. That was part of the reason she decided to share the profits with the Annawadi community.

“It just seemed right to me,” Boo said. “But again, you certainly can’t go into a project saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to pay you guys later.’ It would just destroy everything.”

She believes sources must go into the interview process with the understanding that it is unpaid. However, after a work is printed and nothing can be done, she considers it ethical to give money back.

Other journalists disagree with that viewpoint. But to Boo, that’s okay.

“I let other people decide what they want to decide,” Boo said. “It’s your choice, you know, you have to live with yourself.”

The ethics of what is due to others when writing personal essays

Charlotte editor Michael Graff thinks he’s a boring person. When he goes out, he generally prefers to sit aside and listen.

But he said he’s able to write personal essays because he surrounds himself with interesting people who make him laugh, and can then write about himself “through them.”

Although the central figure of a personal narrative is the writer, in many instances, other people play important roles.

In a panel on the last day of the conference, writers took questions on deciding how much concern to give to outsiders who were instrumental in personal narratives, or even those who were less influential but still present.

Tolentino, with Graff and moderator Sarah Hepola, explains how she ensures that she’s comfortable with the content she publishes.

It’s something New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino often thinks about when writing about her own life.

“I give myself a quick check of, ‘Would this register as bulls— to someone that was roughly adjacent to this?’” Tolentino said. “And if it would, then I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing.”

At the panel, both Graff and Tolentino agreed that when telling your own story, there shouldn’t be worry about the response from those who weren’t involved. Tolentino went as far as saying that other people’s opinions are “generally not [her] business.”

“But I always feel if I’m writing something and it’s going to either wound or register as deep bulls— to someone who knows, then I shouldn’t be writing it,” Tolentino said.  

According to Graff, that’s why it’s important for writers to be confident in the truth of their content, using whatever method that might require.

“We all have checks,” Graff said. “My check is to treat my story like any other story, and just report the hell out of it like I would anything else.”

The ethics of when a source might be at risk

The final ethics scenario that was brought up was the case of reporting on a subject who might be at risk when their story is made public. What should be done to ensure the person understands the full consequences of their consent to be interviewed? What should be left out?

Reporters and editors from the Dallas Morning News sat down at the last panel of the conference to talk about how they made those decisions with Scott Farwell’s multimedia work, ‘My Aryan Princess.’

Farwell talks with moderator Jeff Whittington about staying professional with Blevins to ensure she understood there could be consequences from her participation in the story that would become ‘My Aryan Princess.’

Farwell’s reporting had him arriving home at 4 a.m., taking rides with drug dealers, and at times, facing personal threats. But while he may have put himself in dangerous situations to tell the story, after it was published, his subject was the one whose life was potentially at risk.

The investigative piece’s title refers to Carol Blevins, a confidential informant whose intel on the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas led to the arrests of over 1,000 criminals in the North Texas area. The gang issued a greenlight, or an order to kill on sight, on Blevins for her betrayal.

As the story developed, editors and writers at the Dallas Morning News began discussing the ethics of publicizing her story.

“She had made a decision to come back into the North Texas area after having been given an opportunity to disappear to Colorado so she put herself at risk,” DMN editor Mike Wilson said. “In some sense I was concerned about our putting her at further risk by telling the story. I also considered the possibility that telling the story would protect her, that it would give attention to her situation and give her enemies a disincentive to come after her.”

Ultimately, however, it was concluded that as an adult it was Blevins’s responsibility to monitor her own safety and decide whether to participate.

Farwell presented Blevins with the information to make that decision.

“That’s a serial conversation that you have,” Farwell said. “Not just, ‘I’m doing a job and my role here is to tell the truth.’ All the way along, not just [defining] the relationship, but also, ‘Why are you doing this? Are you sure you want to take this risk? What about this scenario and that scenario?’ That’s an important part of it.”

This process is called Mirandizing, and Farwell said there are probably 50 or so conversations on record where he “pressure tested” Blevins’s assumptions and assertions, bringing up hypothetical situations that might occur after the story’s publication. The procedure gave Farwell confidence in Blevins’s awareness and acceptance of the possible consequences.

But there were other circumstances to consider as well. Blevins is heavily dependent on drugs. Farwell knew from reviewing her medical records that she also had several mental health issues.

“The fundamental question is how did we trust her, how did I know this woman who had delusions was someone who we could offer her story as a narrative truth?” Farwell said. “The answer to that is I spent a lot of time with her. I interviewed her hundreds and hundreds of times over months and months and months when she was sober, when she was high, when she was in jail, when she was in the middle of a delusion, when she was with family.”

DMN editor Leona Allen said that going into the story, there were many conversations about whether Blevins was able to provide informed consent to exposing herself as a witness.

“There were times where she was completely sober, there were times when the sources Farwell was talking to about her handlers gave her a lot of credit for helping them bring down this organization,” Allen said. “At the end of the day, that won out, the story won out, the greater good won out.”

Farwell felt he was justified in writing the story partly because he is a “true believer,” someone he said believes that journalism empowers people.

“There are not very many pieces of journalism that you get to see inside these relationships between confidential informants and federal agents, their handlers,” Farwell said. “I think that there’s public value to that. I guess there is some measure of risk that is attendant here, but I believe in telling the truth. I believe that at the end of the day, this is a great public good.”

As Katherine Boo put it, how we treat sources as writers is “the essential question.” The kinds of ethical conversations heard at LitCon won’t be going away any time soon. As long as we continue to write, we must question and discuss how to be fair to the people whose stories we tell.

Featured Image: Scott Farwell states his belief that journalism empowers people. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark