When you are driving to Dallas in July, the last thing you think will happen is that the temperatures will be below the high nineties. But when I pulled into the DFW Hilton in Grapevine, the Dallas suburb near the airport, it was only 82. In Texas, in July, this constitutes a minor miracle. It was the first of many pleasant surprises, and you might even be a little shocked to hear that I, Miss Lit on Lit-Er-Ah-Ture, was there for a conference to hear all about science writing.
Strange, but true.
I brought my son Christopher with me because he wasn’t named after the Patron Saint of Travel for nothing, and when we drove the long way from Houston, he read to me from a book called Ambush about Bonnie and Clyde. He had visited the Bonnie and Clyde museum in Louisiana, saw where they were shot dead, and wanted to disabuse me of any romantic notions I might have about them. He told me that Bonnie was really a waitress, (although he used the more politically correct “server,”) and that “she was just a tag-along, although they were in love.” When we walked into the hotel, the first thing we saw was the restaurant called “Bonnie and Clyde’s.” We looked at each other and laughed. Well, you can’t reach everyone.
The conference I was attending was The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, and I have been there before. This is the conference where I have heard Paul Theroux, Diane Ackerman, Susan Orlean, and this year, National Geographic star David Quammen, and The New Yorker’s Seth Mnookin, who now runs MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. This is the conference where one year I heard Joyce Carol Oates’ lecture on the history of non-fiction interrupted by agent Nan Talese defending James A Million Little Pieces Frey against Oprah and the world, a story that went viral. You don’t see that every day.
I really wanted to go this year because they also have workshops where you take a class with a literary star and have your own writing critiqued, and I always do something like this as I have a profound distrust of professors who stop going to class. I was lucky: my leader was Doug Swanson, investigative reporter for The Dallas Morning News and author of five, count ’em five, novels, a fact that he downplayed, he is that modest. I also wanted to go to honor George Getschow, Conference Director and Writer-in-Residence for the Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism–he has built this conference up to be the best nonfiction conference in the nation, and this year was the tenth anniversary of his efforts. He worked for years for The Wall Street Journal, and now does things like sit on the committee that picks out Pulitzer Prize winners. But when you meet him, you are pretty sure you have met the nicest man in Texas, he is that down to earth, that approachable, and that is how he runs this whole enterprise. No sooner have you heard Pulitzer Prize winner Sheri Fink, (who is also an M.D. and Ph.D from Stanford), talk about her NYT bestseller Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, then you see her sit down in the audience and hear the next speaker, who has also won a bucket of prizes. Everyone learns together–no one is too big-time to speak to you, and that is why this conference has produced so many success stories: everyone is still learning something. It is something to see.
I hear Carl Hart, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Columbia University, tell me that everything I think I know about addiction I learned from Nancy Reagan, and that I am dead wrong. I realize he has all the facts on his side, and I remember vaguely that Nancy Reagan consulted astrologers from time to time. I believe him when he says: What does the data say? He has a point: we need facts. He makes you want to become addicted to them, they are so compelling.
I hear Brad Stone talk about his book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. It was amazing how he pulled the curtain away and revealed what goes on behind the scenes at Amazon.com, and the excruciating personal stories that are always already intertwined even with stories about the business of business. He is funny and disarming, and I can see how he could make even the highest walls separating him from Jeff Bezos lose a little height, and I sort of marveled at how he got this book done in the face of such a daunting subject.
But one of my favorite panels was when Brian Sweany, from Texas Monthly, talked about what he looks for in writing and how writers should not be so easily discouraged. Brian is funny, but not kidding around, and that is the hardest thing to do when you are speaking. Texas Monthly always has a big presence at this conference, as they should, they have won so many National Magazine Awards and are meticulous with fact checking as well as the art of the narrative story. I admire Brian because his graduate work was actually in literature, and I cannot tell you how happy it makes me that one of the best editors (and writers) did not necessarily go to J-school, but read literature, and understands the importance of not only a swell story, but of the well wrought urn that an essay, or even a sentence, can be.
His colleague, Skip Hollandsworth, also an editor and writer for Texas Monthly, sat in the audience listening like everyone else, even though he has been nominated countless times for National Magazine Awards. In fact, he recently won for his moving story of a football player in Dallas who was paralyzed from an injury and was cared for by his mother with the kind of quiet heroism that would have been relatively unnoticed had not Skip written this story. He also wrote the story and screenplay that eventually became the movie “Bernie,” and so let’s face it: he’s famous now. But what I love about this conference is that no one acts like it. I ask Skip how it feels to be famous, but he just shrugs and says something nice right back to me. He has been in the end-zone before, and he will be again. It is a certain kind of wonderful when someone becomes famous and does not slide right into insufferable: it makes you all thrilled for them that they are gifted and talented, and you just want to be happy for them because they really, really deserve it. And then instead of getting ready for a photo-shoot or something, they are sitting there in the audience, listening to other writers, and then you kind of figure out why they are so good: they never gave up learning for Lent, or ever. It is part of their “normal,” and I like to think that is why they still act normal, and not like Miley Cyrus or a Kardashian. Yay for fame–it does not ruin everyone.
I see writers I already know, like Joan Donaldson, and Amanda Griffith, and Erik Calonius. I meet new writers–lots of stuff is going on. My friend Sarah Junek is writing about the Last American Cowgirl–it is a project I cannot wait to see when it is finished. It is hard not to catch the writing fever here–and when you look around the room, whether in a workshop or the big auditorium for the speakers–the thing that stays with you is the feeling that everyone wants to be here. Writing well is that important to them, and I think of how I hope I can channel this feeling into my classes in the fall. Like falling in love, it is a hard phenomenon to replicate.
During the evenings, Christopher and I have dinner with my friends from college. I don’t know how scientists write about time, but all I can say is that college seems far away and close by all at the same time: a hundred years ago, but then again my friends look so much the same to me, as if little time has passed. On Sunday I take Christopher on an old diesel train that travels from Historic Grapevine to the Fort Worth Stockyards, but I know the Wild West has been tamed, and we only have words to resurrect it. He turns 13 in July, and I want to stop the train he is on, keep him twelve a little while longer, but I have about as much chance of that as stopping science and all the writing that is being done to capture its advances. If you think about it too deeply, you will be paralyzed, and no one wants that.
I may never write a prize-winning piece on science: but I can see the poetry in the language scientists use to translate their discoveries. I think of Melville, in his chapter in Moby-Dick called “Cetology,” in which he labels and classifies each and every whale known to man. He is satirizing our obsession with classification and making everything scientific, but is also reminding us that that is exactly how we keep from going insane: we have to name things to know them. But when that white whale is moving swiftly toward your ship, let me tell you: a whale is a whale is a whale. So we need science and poetry to keep us straight, each language needs the other. Heaven help the poet who resents science: so don’t go all Edgar Allan Poe on us, it never ends well.
Christopher and I leave Dallas and fly down the white highways back to Houston. We listen to The Killers, and I have to tell you, no matter how absurd or lyric the words, they are all worth hearing; it is all in the delivery. I will never tire of Brandon Flowers and his exquisite, perfect voice, whether he is singing about Miss Atomic Bomb, the tragedy that follows one single kiss, or how he doesn’t want another girl. I am sure science can explain how he does this, and I can’t wait to know the secret. Until then, I am okay not knowing, grasping for the perfect word to describe the alchemy of his perfect voice, transforming me again and again, making me love songs even more than can be quantified, no matter what, no matter how many times I hit “play.”