UTPB student, faculty member attend creative nonfiction conference

Dr. Chris Girman addresses participants at the 2017 Creative NonFiction Writers Conference in Pittsburgh.

Dr. Chris Girman addresses participants at the 2017 Creative NonFiction Writers’ Conference in Pittsburgh.

Harlan D. Whatley , Guest Writer

On May 26 and 27, Dr. Jason Lagapa from the University of Texas of the Permian Basin Department of Literature and Languages and I spent two days in Pittsburgh exploring the art, craft, and business of creative nonfiction with authors, agents, book publishers, and editors from some of the most respected magazines in America, including Esquire, Harper’s, The New Yorker, Paris Review, Creative Nonfiction, and other literary publications.

After a bountiful summer shower, the conference attendees descended upon the Phoenix Park University in downtown Pittsburgh for a presentation by the “Godfather of Creative Non-Fiction,” Lee Gutkind. He entertained the conference attendees with the origin of his literary nickname, which came from a 1997 Vanity Fair article by James Wolcott. Gutkind is the author and editor of nearly thirty books and is the founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine. Currently, he is the Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University and a Professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. Gutkind is also a dedicated practitioner of yoga and holds writing retreats around the world that incorporate creative nonfiction with yoga.

There were two presenters at the conference who were ex-Texans. One was a former attorney in South Texas named Chris Girman, who is an Assistant Professor of Literary Arts at Point Park University. Prior to teaching writing, Girman worked with undocumented children detained at the U.S./Mexico border for the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project.  As part of the On Craft series of workshops, he conducted a session on Characterization. Seated at round tables in a large room, groups of six were given prompts to enhance characters in our nonfiction stories including family, profile subjects and strangers.

There were photocopies of short segments from women’s fashion magazines describing handbags, shoes, dresses and other items. By appropriating the description of a clothing item, we could apply that to one of our own “characters” in a nonfiction story. The copy in the fashion pubs was quite clever and included words like “hombre,” “smoky” and “radiant.” We wrote it down and later shared it. Another prompt came from small pieces of paper with excerpts from poems. Phrases like “the cool brick of a brownstone” and “the fruit ripened rapidly” were two that I found helpful in my writing. These prompts were fun and could be useful in the future.

The other Texan is a native of Beaumont, Texas and is a writer living in Manhattan named Jamie Brickhouse. His memoir, Dangerous When Wet: A Memoir of Booze Sex and My Mother (St. Martin’s Press) includes topics like “smother love,” his battles with alcohol and being gay. Brickhouse is a comedic storyteller who is quite entertaining. He said that “memoirs begin with ‘I remember’ and novels begin with ‘Once upon a time.” His prompts were simple but productive. The first one was “I Remember” and the second one was “I Don’t Remember.” The workshop attendees created lists of short sentences for each topic and read them to the group.

Overall, it was a great conference with an opportunity to pitch book ideas to an agent and some interesting panels with editors from literary publications. Also, Pittsburgh is a lovely city to visit.