We had the good fortune of connecting with Dean Nelson and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Dean, what role has risk played in your life or career?
Taking risks is the only way you’re going to get anywhere, break new ground, learn anything, achieve anything. One of the best questions I can ask is, “I wonder if I can do this?” If there isn’t a significant possibility that the answer is going to be “No,” then it’s probably not worth doing.
I am not making the case for doing something dumb. You actually do need a parachute if you’re going to jump out of that airplane. I am saying that if you play it safe throughout life, you might live a long time, but you’ll be boring and bored.
I took a risk by moving to San Diego to start a journalism program at a university. I had never taught anything before. There was a chance I would crash and burn. But I knew that if I didn’t try it, I would eventually wonder why I didn’t at least give it a shot, and I would regret the fact that I didn’t try.
Every time I work on a story I take a risk on not getting it right. Every time I interview a famous writer I look for a question that will give that person a reason to pause and get authentic. It doesn’t always work. But most of the time it does.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I am drawn to good stories — I love to hear them, read them and tell them. The good stories always point to truths bigger than themselves. Stories are how we understand our world and ourselves. Once I realized I could participate in the storytelling world, I realized I needed better education and experience. I wanted to immerse myself in great nonfiction storytelling. I got accepted at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, and that’s where the lights started to come on in my craft. I had amazing professors and was surrounded by an atmosphere of great storytelling. Then I just did it as often and wherever I could. I said yes to everything (something I still do). No assignment was too small or trivial. I could learn something in the telling and I could hone the craft.
Eventually I started teaching storytelling by directing a journalism program. And then I was able to surround myself with some of the greatest storytellers of all time when I started the Writer’s Symposium By The Sea.
The challenges are the same for me as for anyone in the creative world — time, resources and discipline. Journalism pounded discipline into my head so that I could write under any circumstances, whether I felt like it or not. So I’m okay on the discipline part. You don’t wait for inspiration. You get to work and the inspiration emerges.
Time and resources, though… Those are tough. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you usually have to have a day job to support your art. For me, the day job is teaching. Luckily I like teaching, but it takes the majority of the hours available. Then, if you want to be a good husband and father, well, there aren’t many hours left. So you get up earlier in the morning. You stay up later. You don’t waste time.
I read somewhere that if you wait until all the conditions are right before you can write, you’ll be a waiter, not a writer. Just a one letter difference in the spelling, but a big difference in the practice! If you want to do this, you find a way.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
If you’re going to come to San Diego, you need to go to the beach. My favorite is in Coronado, where there is lots of room, even when there are a lot of people. An early morning walk at La Jolla Shores beach will cure whatever ails you.
San Diego is not known for it’s great food or entertainment — at least not in my opinion. But if you want to enjoy the outdoors, it’s spectacular.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
The undying faith of my wife, Marcia, gave me the confidence and room to continue my creative pursuits. My kids, Blake and Vanessa, continue to be my cheering section even into their adulthood.
Paul Miller was my first magazine editor. He saw my ability before I did.
Any good story has an “inciting incident” that drives the character’s action. Ed Blair’s encouragement for me to pursue journalism was my “inciting incident.”
Linkedin: Dean Nelson
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Photos by Marcus Emerson and Garrett Richardson