Most of us have heard of, listened to, watched videos of, or, if they were lucky, saw the musician Prince in concert. I never saw him live in concert, but I did grow up in the same town and listen to his music. And even though he produced hundreds (thousands?) of songs in his short lifetime, there are so many more in the vault in Paisley Park studios in Minneapolis that his music will continue to be released for decades.
And no, we never had him at the Writer’s Symposium By The Sea. My bad.
Similarly, most of us have heard of, read, been moved by the writings of Charles Dickens, whose books and movie adaptations continue to be released more than 150 years after his death.
And no, we didn’t have Dickens at the Symposium either – we’ve only been doing this for 29 years.
But do you know who has drawn amazing parallels between Prince and Dickens? Nick Hornby, that amazing British author and screenwriter (About a Boy, High Fidelity, Fever Pitch, among others), did exactly that in his book Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius.
And… wait for it… we ARE having Hornby at our Writer’s Symposium on Feb. 23 in Brown Chapel. So, if you use your imagination, that’s kind of like having Prince and Dickens here.
But wait – that’s not all. Hornby will be appearing with one of my favorite journalists, Susan Orlean. She writes for the New Yorker, and she has also written nonfiction books that you’d swear were novels – books such as The Orchid Thief, The Library Book, Rin Tin Tin, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, and others.
The cool thing about having them together is that Hornby is adapting Orlean’s book Rin Tin Tin into a movie.
And the other cool thing is that they’ve never before met in person. Until now, on the Brown Chapel stage, at the 29th annual Writer’s Symposium By The Sea.
Other cool things are going on during the Symposium week as well. Elizabeth Gilbert, who started out in journalism, got famous for her memoir Eat Pray Love, and now writes books and gives Ted Talks about creativity, perseverance and spirituality, will be with us on Feb. 22. She’ll be doing a seminar on campus for our MA in Writing students in the morning. That evening she’ll give a talk at the Balboa Theater downtown and I’ll interview her after her talk on that stage.
On Feb. 20 we’re hosting the writer Paulette Jiles, whose novel News of the World was made into a movie starring Tom Hanks. She writes about indigenous people in the South, and her time is sponsored by the PLNU Honors Program.
And on Feb. 19 we’re hosting the annual Driftwood Film Festival, where student films will be screened and analyzed by Jon Lowenstein.
You saw what I did there, right? I worked backwards, starting with Friday and moving back to Monday. That’s something Dickens or Prince might have done.
The reason we do this Writer’s Symposium is to celebrate great writing and encourage our audience to be moved to do their own great writing – for themselves, their families, and maybe the public. We’re hoping to model writing that says to our audience, “aspire to this.”
But it’s more than that. As David Brooks recently wrote in an essay titled, “How to Save a Sad, Lonely, Angry and Mean Society,” being exposed to great literature has an eternal value.
“We know from studies by the psychologists Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley that reading literature is associated with heightened empathy skills. Deep reading, immersing yourself in novels with complex characters, engaging with stories that explore the complexity of this character’s motivations or that character’s wounds, is a training ground for understanding human variety. It empowers us to see the real people in our lives more accurately and more generously, to better understand their intentions, fears and needs, the hidden kingdom of their unconscious drives. The resulting knowledge is not factual knowledge but emotional knowledge.”
The theme for this year’s Writer’s Symposium is “Writing That Inspires.” Inspires us to do what, though? To write better, we hope. But even more important, to live better.
It would make Dickens and Prince proud.
Dean Nelson is the founder and host of the Writer’s Symposium By The Sea. He is also the founder and director of the Journalism Program at PLNU. His most recent book is Talk To Me: How to Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers, and Interview Like a Pro, published by HarperCollins.