We sat in a small, barren classroom with approximately twelve standard table desks, in three rows of four. A green chalk board spans the length of the front wall, and a small wooden podium sits off to the side at the front of the room — it holds handouts and chalk, but it won’t be used as a presentation platform this hour.
There are two dark blue plastic chairs to each table. Students dot the room with their informal, after-lunch presence.
Two girls in the back wear bikinis under their tank tops, either preparing to head to the waves right after class for a surf session, or having just returned from the water.
The table tops hold notebooks, pens, coffee cups and water bottles, snacks and parts of lunches stolen from the caf — what Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU) students and faculty call the cafeteria (always “the caf,” never “the cafeteria”).
The class room is seated on PLNU’s picturesque campus by the sea in San Diego, though the room itself is unimpressive, sitting in the shade by the parking lot, the caf and the music building it’s only view.
This is where Intro to Journalism is held Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, from 1:30-2:20pm in the Fall semester of 2007. The class is led by Dr. Dean Nelson, head of the journalism program at the university, author, journalist with bylines in places such as the New York Times and the San Diego Union Tribune. His students know him by his first name.
Dean would get up, most often wearing khaki slacks, a generic button down t-shirt, and either Vans or Converse shoes, and he would joke with us in brash ways as everyone filtered in. “Alright,” he’d begin, and either launch into a current events quiz (Mondays), an Associated Press Stylebook quiz (Fridays), or just straight into the lesson, either about ways to write an article, ways to get sources, or case studies that teach important journalistic lessons such as ethics, libel, or handling a tough story assignment.
My whole life I’d had this inclination toward English literature and English classes. But I am a painfully slow reader, so I knew I would drown quickly in the workload of a literature student, so I entered college majoring in broadcast journalism. I had experience anchoring, script-writing, videoing, editing, and producing news broadcasts for my middle school, and for our church’s hurricane relief efforts in Louisiana when I was in high school after Hurricane Katrina, so I thought maybe that would be a good fit. That’s how I landed in Dean’s Intro to Journalism class my first semester.
It only took that single class to make me decide to ditch the “broadcast” portion of my major, and to sweep me off my feet into the world of nonfiction writing. I’d been in love with stories told in any medium since as long as I could remember, but aside from the Little House on the Prairie books we read aloud in my young childhood, I didn’t have much experience reading non-fiction. Dean’s class changed all of that. Our assignments were sometimes to read non-storied non-fiction about the techniques of writing, but even those resources were often written with stories entwined. In a swift unveiling, I saw a world of true stories, written as captivatingly as fiction, and I knew I wanted to write like that.
One of the lessons Dean honed in on several times, however, is a writer’s temptation to make a story better than it is by embellishing, creating bias, under-emphasizing, and other tactics that would make the story more compelling or interesting.
I wouldn’t say I’ve struggle with this a lot, but I know that before this class, sometimes as I would tell stories, I might leave out the measuring details, to make something sound more grand. Or I may embellish my already poor skills of estimation. But the more Dean honed in on this lesson, the deeper it embedded its conviction in me.
Dean put it this way, and I’ve always remembered these words: “The truth is interesting enough.”
It is one of my mantras to this day. I’m not always perfect at this. But when I falter, I try to come back (often right away) and correct myself. It’s a matter of integrity as much as it is a matter of accuracy.
It’s the foundation of my assurance in the idea that everyone has a story, and that every story matter.
Because in the midst of photoshopped models, movied plot-lines, and social media platforms that allow us to edit our lives, I want to be someone who continually believes and lives out with conviction the idea that the truth is interesting enough. And if I want my life to be more interesting, it’s up to my living, not my writing, to make it so.
This is real life. We all live it, with its few glamorous and many monotonous moments. And it’s freeing to accept the truth for yourself that the true reality of your life is interesting enough.
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Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.
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