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Learn to Write Something Compelling, on Deadline, with Cat Warren

Cat Warren
DURHAM—New York Times bestselling author Cat Warren will lead the session “To Tell the Truth” (creative nonfiction) at the North Carolina Writers’ Network 2021 Fall Conference, November 19-21, at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in Durham/RTP

Conference registration is open.

Cat Warren just retired from North Carolina State University, where she taught science journalism, editing, and creative nonfiction. Before joining NC State, Warren was a newspaper reporter. She’s covered bombers holding a school hostage, a physician who sexually assaulted dozens of patients over decades, and the deep poverty in Connecticut cities. Cat has also been a national education magazine editor and a communication director for a non-profit justice organization. Her first nonacademic book, What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World (Touchstone) became a New York Times bestseller and was long listed for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.

This year, NCWN is asking authors for “one good piece of advice,” either something they were once told that they never forgot, or something they wished they could go back and tell their younger selves. Here’s what Cat offered:

“I was a young reporter in California in the early 1980s. One day, Frank McCulloch, who was then executive editor of our newspaper chain, came to our newsroom to chat. He was a towering figure, who looked like Daddy Warbucks and managed to pull off wearing a flat gold chain around his neck. His reputation as a reporter and editor was international. His prescient reporting about the war in Vietnam when he was Times magazine’s Saigon bureau chief had enraged Lyndon B. Johnson. He inspired generations of young journalists. Frank was also warm and personable.

“How, I asked him, do you write something compelling and true on a tight deadline?

“His answer was simple and memorable: Think about the lede on the way back to the newsroom as you’re driving. Once you’re in front of the computer, keep your notebook filled with details and exact quotes closed. The most important and compelling material comes naturally. Notes get cold fast. Staring at them just clutters your mind and keeps you from seeing the story. Once you’ve got the story nicely flowing? Of course, open your notebook and check everything.

“I still channel that advice when I sit down to write today.”

Lee Gutkind, dubbed the “Godfather behind creative nonfiction” by Vanity Fair, described fine nonfiction succinctly, “True stories, well told.” John McPhee took a little longer to describe it. That’s because he’s been a contributor to The New Yorker since 1963 and gets to go on as long as he wants: “Things that are cheap and tawdry in fiction work beautifully in nonfiction because they are true. That’s why you should be careful not to abridge it, because it’s the fundamental power you’re dealing with. You arrange it and present it. There’s lots of artistry. But you don’t make it up.” In “To Tell the Truth,” we’ll look at how great narrative nonfiction writers, from Truman Capote to Rebecca Skloot to Ta-Nehisi Coates, combine deep reporting and researching with fictional techniques. And you’ll practice some hands-on exercises in creative nonfiction, where you’ll steal cheap and tawdry fictional techniques to create your own true stories. Well told, of course.

Fall Conference attracts hundreds of writers from around the country and provides a weekend full of activities that include lunch and dinner banquets with readings, keynotes, tracks in several genres, open mic sessions, and the opportunity for one-on-one manuscript critiques with editors or agents. North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green will give the Keynote Address. Additional sessions that might be of interest to creative nonfiction writers include “Creative Nonfiction 101” with David Menconi; “The Art of Work” with L.C. Fiore; and “The Power of Mindset for Your Writing Life” with Michele T. Berger.

Register here.

The nonprofit North Carolina Writers’ Network is the state’s oldest and largest literary arts services organization devoted to all writers, in all genres, at all stages of development. For additional information, visit