A seaside celebration of writing: Doerr leads list of top authors sharing their craft

Two chairs facing each other overlooking the sea at Point Loma Nazarene University.
The 28th annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea takes place on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University Feb. 20-24.
(Courtesy of Marcus Emerson)

Twenty-eight years ago, Dean Nelson had an idea. He wanted to bring the best and brightest literary minds to the seaside campus of Point Loma Nazarene University to talk about their lives and, within the process, hopefully inspire local audiences to do the same.

The annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea started humbly enough, booking notable local writers to come and speak in a small conference room. But the school soon expanded the outlook of the symposium to bring in professional writers, authors and journalists of the highest caliber to speak at the university’s auditoriums. Nearly 30 years and dozens of writers later, the symposium has become one of the premier literary events in the city.

“It’s been a big evolution, but I still adhere to the original roots of what we wanted to do,” said Nelson, a journalist and founder of PLNU’s journalism program. “We want to bring in people who have a body of work, not just someone who did a one-off or a celebrity who had someone ghost write their memoir. Those are valuable, but what we’re trying to say to the audience and to our students is ‘aspire to this.’ We want it to be elevating and inspiring.”

Dean Nelson headshot
Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University
(Courtesy of Marcus Emerson)

An important aspect that Nelson is always keen to point out is that the symposium, which takes place at the PLNU campus beginning Feb. 20, isn’t just for writers, but rather for anyone who has an appreciation for groundbreaking writing and journalism. Essentially, anyone who wishes to be inspired by the words of others.

“You don’t have to be a writer, an aspiring novelist or a poet, or even a frustrated screenwriter, you don’t have to be any of those things to appreciate what storytelling does for society,” Nelson said.

Nelson points to this year’s writer’s symposium theme (“Writing that Celebrates”) as not only a prompt for this year’s lineup, but as a central tenet of the event itself.

“We’re a storytelling species and it’s how we pass values down to one another,” says Nelson. “This is a symposium that celebrates storytelling and acknowledges that. So we bring in great storytellers who are going to tell some great stories. And through that, they’ll help everybody to understand the role that storytelling plays not just in our culture, but in our personal lives.”

The symposium also includes a Student Short Film Festival, now in its third year, which will kick off the symposium events on Feb. 20. The writers events follow Feb. 21 through 24.

Here are the celebrated writers who will be speaking at this year’s symposium:

Author Anthony Doerr in plaid shirt.
Anthony Doerr, author of “All the Light We Cannot See” and “Cloud Cuckoo Land.”
(Courtesy of Deborah Hardee)

Anthony Doerr

7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21

Dean Nelson calls the Pulitzer Prize- and Carnegie Medal-winning novelist someone who “celebrates the existence and the value of a well-crafted story.” Known for his impeccably fluid style of writing and for his inimitable ability to weave together the multiple perspectives of his characters, the Idaho-based writer is likely best known for his acclaimed 2014 novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” which is told from the perspective of a German orphan boy and a blind French girl during World War II. The book is being adapted into a Netflix limited series starring Mark Ruffalo and Hugh Laurie. His most recent novel, 2021’s “Cloud Cuckoo Land,’’ was his most epic story yet, interconnecting multiple characters from 15th-century Constantinople to a spaceship in the distant future.

Author William Finnegan
(Courtesy photo)

William Finnegan

7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22

The multihyphenate writer and journalist has covered a variety of topics since becoming a staff writer at The New Yorker in the late ’80s. From Mexican politics to U.S. police unions, there’s nary a topic that Finnegan hasn’t tackled. His 1998 book, “Cold New World,” which documented impoverished families in four U.S. communities, now seems downright prophetic in its hard look at the continued rise of income inequality. A lifelong surfer, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for his autobiography, “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.” “His writing is celebrating nature in a way,” says Nelson. “People who have read ‘Barbarian Days’ almost feel like it’s reading Melville — he’s so in awe of the ocean.”

Author Maria Hinojosa
(Courtesy of Martha Stewart)

Maria Hinojosa

Thursday, Feb. 23

An accomplished reporter, journalist, essayist and talk show host, Hinojosa has a resume so accomplished and distinguished, she won a Pulitzer Prize in 2022 for her work at Futuro Media Group, a nonprofit she founded in 2010 that is devoted to news and programming that explores “the complexities of an increasingly diverse and connected world.” Also known for her groundbreaking work at National Public Radio (“Latino USA”), CNN and PBS, Hinojosa has also found time to co-host a podcast (“In the Thick”) and write a number of nonfiction books and poetry collections. Her acclaimed memoir, “Once I Was You,” also took a hard look at the United States’ treatment of immigrants and was recently adapted into a book for young adults in hopes of inspiring future journalists. Her work “celebrates people who live out in the margins or who are otherwise invisible,” says Nelson. “She celebrates that life.”

Author N. Scott Momaday
(Courtesy photo)

N. Scott Momaday

Friday, Feb. 24

Momaday is the only speaker at the symposium whose talk will be pre-recorded. Nelson traveled to New Mexico (along with a camera crew) to capture the author and poet in his element. Momaday is perhaps best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1968 novel, “House Made of Dawn,” which is often cited as a classic of Native American literature (Momaday is a member of the Kiowa tribe). He is also the author of several books of poetry, short story collections and several anthologies on his Kiowa heritage. Nelson calls him “a treasure” and a writer who “celebrates ancestry, myth and the value of how stories get passed down over the centuries to shape people and culture.”

Writer’s Symposium by the Sea

When: 7 p.m. nightly, Feb. 20 through 24

Where: Point Loma Nazarene University, 3900 Lomaland Dr., Point Loma

Price: Free-$50.50

Phone: (619) 849-2200

Online: pointloma.edu/events/28th-annual-writers-symposium-sea

Combs is a freelance writer.