Book town of Archer City inspires University of North Texas writing class

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

What better place to learn about writing than the West Texas town that inspired a Pulitzer Prize-winning author?

Students from the University of North Texas will leave the classroom behind July 9-27 and head about 100 miles northwest of campus to learn about literary nonfiction writing in Archer City - the hometown of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry, a 1958 graduate of North Texas State College (now UNT).

Offered by UNT's Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism, the class allows students to explore Archer County's ranches, cafes and McMurtry's "Booked Up" - billed as the largest antiquarian bookstore in the country - while searching for inspiration for stories.

"Archer City provides the ideal setting for students to explore the place and life of Larry McMurtry and to discover their gifts as storytellers," says George Getschow, instructor of the summer course and former chief of the Dallas and Houston bureaus of the Wall Street Journal.

He describes the town of less than 2,000 people as a "writers' colony."

"I want each student to see himself or herself as the next Larry McMurtry or the next Joyce Carol Oates. I don't look upon them as students, but as young writers finding their place in the world of storytelling," he says.

On the weekend of July 27-29, the students will end the class by attending the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers Conference of the Southwest in Grapevine, where they will meet some of the nation's greatest authors, editors and publishers, including Oates. This is the third consecutive year for the class, as well as the third year for the conference.

Michael Mooney, a Dallas Morning News intern who plans to graduate from UNT with a master's degree in journalism in August, took the class in 2005 and 2006. He wasn't sure what to expect that first year, he says, when students showed up one by one on a Sunday night at Archer City's historic Spur Hotel.

"It's dedicated completely to reading and writing away from all the other messes of the world - just quiet, secluded and focused," Mooney says. "Twenty-four hours a day, you are dedicated to thinking about writing and reading some of the best writers in America."

Mooney's work in the class paid off. He won the 2nd place Hearst Corporation Award and $2,000 at last year's Mayborn writers conference.

David Wallis, who taught in the Denton schools until his retirement in May 2006, used to enthrall students with stories about his childhood days in East Texas hauling hay or picking blackberries with snakes sneaking across his feet. After he retired from teaching, he decided to pursue his passion for writing by enrolling in the Archer City class.

"We would read our work, and George would talk about setting and characters, making your characters whole and round," Wallis says.

Wallis plans to make a career of writing. One of his stories was selected as one of the top 10 submissions for publication in "Ten Spurs: Best of the Best Literary Nonfiction of the Mayborn Conference." He's now working on a story about a once-homeless cowboy he met in Archer City.

Getschow, writer-in-residence of the Mayborn Conference, says the Archer City class gives students a chance to immerse themselves in a place, to see how it shapes and defines the characters who inhabit it.

"Just look at Larry McMurtry," Getshow says. "Archer County made him into the world-renowned writer he is today, and gave rise to two of his greatest works, ‘Horseman, Pass By' and ‘Lonesome Dove.' Being there in Archer City, connecting to real-life characters we see in the cafes, on the ranches, traveling on the road - all of these characters provide the grist for anyone who has a fertile imagination to tell an amazing story."

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108