Writer's Symposium By The Sea 2009, Interview with Dean Nelson

Now in its 14th year, the Point Loma Nazarene University Writer’s Symposium By The Sea has become a great resource to learn about the craft of writing from some of the country’s premiere authors. Host Dean Nelson gives up the inside scoop on 2009’s theme of “Writing Beyond Boundaries.”

UCSD-TV: The focus of the 2009 Writers Symposium is “Writing Beyond Boundaries.” How do the authors featured this year exemplify that idea?

DEAN NELSON: They all take a different approach to something that is pretty common and universal, whether it be life and death, or national borders, or traditional music genres, or faith or politics. Each writer in this series took a familiar topic and turned it so that we saw it differently. That’s what writers do — the good ones don’t just perpetuate what we already think about something. They turn it and make us see it differently and challenge our ideas about how things are.

UCSD-TV: How do you define where the boundaries are in creative endeavors?

DN: I suppose boundaries are cultural constructs that, when repeated often enough, get accepted as the truth. Creative people by definition don’t accept that proposition, and push the boundaries out.

UCSD-TV: Can boundaries be helpful to the creative process?

DN: Maybe at first, in that they can define the arena we’re in. Boundaries such as good grammar and syntax are helpful, but then a writer like a David Eggers comes along and writes sentences that are impossible to diagram, and you know what? They communicate very well! Why? Because we have something for this new work to bump up against. We understand things essentially because we can say, “compared to what?” The boundaries are what we compare new ideas to. I think boundaries are crucial initially because they teach us forms and patterns. Wallace Stegner said that we live by forms and patterns, and if they are bad, then our lives are bad. But that doesn’t mean we can’t create new ones.

UCSD-TV: Are boundaries in the arts created for critics or artists?

DN: Critics need boundaries so that they can say something they’re evaluating is “like this,” and “not like that.” It’s a measurement tool for them. Artists need them at first so they can know when they’re breaking those boundaries. Jazz is the greatest example. It might sound like chaos to some, but jazz musicians know music theory — a very important boundary within which most musicians work. Jazz is so great because it knowingly turns music theory upside down. There is an order to that disorder.

UCSD-TV: Was there a common thread that drives these writers to push the boundaries?

DN: Maybe in that they all, in their own unique ways, said “there is another way to consider this.” Pauline Chen’s writing says there is another way to think about death and dying and proper medical practice. Luis Urrea’s writing says there is another way to think about identity and race. Richie Furay and Greg Laswell’s music says there is another way to think about love and life. Brian McLaren’s writing says there is another way to think about God and faith. Christopher Buckley’s writing says there is another way to think about traditional politics and the structures it perpetuates.

UCSD-TV: Several of these authors work in strict systems with well-defined expectations – Pauline Chen in medicine, Christopher Buckley as a political speech writer. Is it harder to push beyond with those types of constraints?

DN: It is harder for them, I think, because the traditional views of medicine and politics are so entrenched. All the more reason why we need Chen to make us see an alternative — somewhat spiritual — view of what we assume is strictly physical, and why we need Buckley to make us see how laughable these gasbag politicians really are.

UCSD-TV: The past few seasons have featured musicians. How do they fit into the landscape of creative writing?

DN: Good writing is good writing, whether it’s music, drama, screenwriting, fiction, poetry, journalism or creative non-fiction. We’ve had hip-hop poets perform at our Symposium. That’s a kind of music. It’s not really a departure from what we try to celebrate — good writing. Last year we had Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, and I believe he is a true poet. Put his poetry/lyrics with Richie Furay’s and Greg Laswell’s, and you’ll understand better what the human experience means. That’s what any great writing does. If we can inspire, encourage and model great writing in our audiences, we’ve pushed out some of their boundaries, too. That makes us all better.

Behind the Scenes Photos from Writer's Symposium By The Sea 2008

Enjoy these photos from the 2008 season of Point Loma Nazarene University, Writer’s Symposium by the Sea.

Anchee Min discusses her bestselling memoir, Red Azalea,
with host Dean Nelson.
Photo by Bronson Pate, Bauman Photographers

UCSD-TV’s Alan Thwaites adjusts Jon Foreman’s mic
before his unplugged performance.
Photo by Bronson Pate, Bauman Photographers

A view from the stage.
Photo by Bronson Pate, Bauman Photographers

American icon Gay Talese talks about his life as
a writer with host Dean Nelson.
Photo by Bronson Pate, Bauman Photographers

The audience listens intently for tips
on the craft of writing.
Photo by Bronson Pate, Bauman Photographers

The UCSD-TV crew is on hand to capture all the literary goodness.
Photo by Bronson Pate, Bauman Photographers

Dean Nelson and author Philip Yancey having an animated
conversation about writing and faith.
Photo by Bronson Pate, Bauman Photographers

Interview with Dean Nelson, Host and Director of Point Loma Nazarene University's Journalism Program 2008

Photo of La Jolla Nazarine UniversityFor more than a decade, the Point Loma Nazarene University Writer’s Symposium By The Sea has become a great resource to learn about the craft of writing from some of the country’s premiere authors. We asked host Dean Nelson to tell us a bit more about the series.

UCSD-TV: How did the Writer’s Symposium by the Sea begin?

DEAN NELSON: Many schools and regions have what are called writer’s workshops, and we thought we could do something that would attract great writers, but didn’t want it to be about “how to write,” or about “getting published,” or filling would-be writers with false hope. There is a place for those kinds of gatherings, and we didn’t want to duplicate what was already out there. So we thought we’d try to focus on bringing in role models who could enlighten, encourage and inspire great writing.

The interview format was something we did from the beginning, but we did it as sort of a fluke. I was begging Joseph Wambaugh to come, and he refused,saying that he didn’t give lectures. But he added that if I wanted to ask him questions, he would come and answer them. His interview was such a smashing success that we stuck with it, and many writers actually prefer this format, because it takes the pressure off of them to try to prepare something profound.

UCSD-TV: How did the partnership with UCSD-TV come about?

DN: I met Shannon [UCSD-TV Producer Shannon Bradley] when I was a reporter for The New York Times, and she was running a UCSD summer school program for high school journalists during the Republican National Convention here 1996. I contacted her about the symposium and she was interested in working with me to turn it into a series of programs for UCSD-TV.

UCSD-TV: How do you prepare for your role as host? Does being an author yourself help?

DN: It helps that I am a writer because I can ask about technique and craft a little more pointedly. The secret to the interview is that I try to read as much as I can of what they have written, but I try to read their stuff in chronological order so I can see how they have changed over time. So I usually can point out some examples of how I think they have evolved. I don’t pay much attention to what other interviewers have asked them.

UCSD-TV: What insights have you gained on the writing process after picking the brains of so many authors?

DN: One of the recurring themes of virtually all the speakers has been in regard to how hard it is to write well. I take perverse pleasure in hearing them say this year after year, because it’s still hard for me, too. Every writer has his or her quirks, some have gotten a little lucky, but most great writers have become great writers because they were willing to commit to it and pay the price. Students don’t get that because they’re young and used to abandoning things that are difficult.

UCSD-TV: The past year has seen the demise of several magazines championing long-form journalism. How do we get people excited about the craft of writing again when technology seems to demand sound-bite simplicity?

DN: People will still read good writing. My daughter eats bowls of Froot Loops for a few days, then decides what she really wants is a great salad full of all sorts of stuff that’s good for her. Readers do similar things when they come across something good. I am not worried about the future of long-form narrative, as long as it’s well done.

UCSD-TV: The Writer’s Symposium gives the live audience a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with their favorite authors. Each session generally ends with a question and answer session. Any memorable interactions with the audience?

DN: The Q&A with Anne Lamott usually turns into a love fest. Other writers say some profound things about writing during those interactions. Probably the best was Ray Bradbury telling everyone to go home and write a story. It wasn’t a suggestion. It was a demand. I think everyone did it, too.

UCSD-TV: What is your current favorite book? What book could you read over and over again?

DN: This is going to sound like a cop-out, but it’s usually true — my favorite book is usually the one I am reading right now. So that would be The God of Small Things by the Indian writer Arundhati Roy. There is also one book that I find myself re-reading whole sections of, so maybe it’s my favorite as well, and that is Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. He’s one of the most profound, elegant craftsmen I have ever read.