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.