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15:02

Tidbits from this year’s Mayborn Conference: how deep is too deep?

Hanging out at orgies with people who smuggle lizards in their pants. Befriending a convict with an Anne Frank tattoo. Doing drugs with a source. You never know what you’ll hear about – or which writers will surprise you – when you go to Texas for the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

Immersion journalism was the theme of this year’s Mayborn. Attendees heard accounts of journalists being pushed, falling or jumping into stories, courting the unexpected consequences that make immersion narratives riveting – and sometimes problematic. We’ll be writing up several of the sessions in the coming days and weeks, but here are a few highlights:

Gene Weingarten presented the audience with real-world ethical case studies, using moments from two stories in his own career. In one he said he was offered (and took, and smoked) a source’s hash pipe, which he knew constituted a firing offense. In the other, he extracted evidence of corruption and bribery from a delusional patient in the hospital, a man who believed Weingarten was a doctor even after he had explained that he was a reporter.

Joshua Foer entered a memory competition for a story he was working on – and unexpectedly won the contest. “I had been approaching it thinking I was writing about this bizarre subculture of weirdos,” he said. “And now I was their king.”

Mandalit del Barco played an NPR piece that rose out of her carrying letters and gifts between Haitian and Los Angeles County schoolchildren after the 2010 earthquake. Using storytelling soundscapes, she showed how audio paired with a story script can carry listeners into another world. “If you close your eyes now, what can you hear?”

Ted Conover talked about traveling an unpredictable path from observer to participant: riding the rails with hobos, crossing the border with coyotes, and getting slugged by an inmate during an undercover stint as a prison guard. “This doesn’t require an advanced degree,” he said, “just the willingness to do something crazy.”

We think the subtitle for this year’s conference should have been “When Things Get Messy.” Stay tuned for in-depth posts on these presentations and more.

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