Clark reflects on writing career, shifts vision during pandemic


Photo by Valerie Kibler

On Tuesday Dec. 1, Valerie Kibler’s AP English class got the opportunity to ask author and writing coach Roy Peter Clark questions after reading his book, Writing Tools.

Maya Waid, Editor-in-Chief

“I’m in a peculiar character category. I’m supposed to be an expert on writing, but sometimes I feel like a dentist with bad teeth.” 

That’s what world renowned author and writing coach Roy Peter Clark had to say about using his own tools in his writing. Dec. 1, Valerie Kibler’s Advanced Placement English class received a surprise visit from Clark. Over his career, Clark has written and edited 19 books. However, he followed an untraditional path to where he is today. 

“I’m the product of Catholic elementary school, middle school, high school and college, and then I did four years of graduate work at a public university. It took a long time for me to think of myself as a writer, but I very much thought of myself from early childhood as a reader. I was one of those kids back in the 1950s and into the 60s who could be curled up with an adventure book or something kind of funny or wacky or satirical. That was my doorway to literacy. I know I did some occasional writing even as a child, but I have to say that I never thought of myself as becoming a professional writer or that I had the talent that would allow me to write books,” Clark said.  

As an avid reader, Clark exposed himself to many genres of literature and styles of writing. However, Clark’s experiences in his advanced education allowed him to realize what was missing and develop a genre of writing that would allow him to coach others.

“Every once in a while, something would happen to me, and I would feel an impulse to write about it. Sometimes, at least in my 20s, I would try to get [my work] published somewhere in a newspaper or magazine. As I was trying to become better at the craft, I realized two things. One is that I never had a single teacher in graduate school sit down next to me with something that I had written and worked with me on how to make it better. The other thing was that I realized that writers did have strategies. It wasn’t just random creativity, you were sitting down and getting your hands moving, that they were being purposeful. [In my education] there were two areas where I could have gotten more. One was to have direct coaching relationships with my teachers and the second is getting very specific writing advice. That defines my career as a writing coach and as an author,” Clark said. 

Due to Clark’s perception of himself as a reader, he is now able to reflect on the culture surrounding reading and writing and how our society perceives the two. 

“Our culture doesn’t treat reading and writing the same way. We treat reading as we should, as an essential social literacy. We see all these benefits to reading, but we sometimes treat writing as something like musical ability or fine art. We think that it is something that only a few people can do. Ultimately, if you’re a student, a worker, a citizen, a parent, and a spouse, that all of those roles that we play in life are greatly enhanced by the ability to communicate and write,” Clark said. “We say that in America, we believe in freedom of expression, but what good is freedom of expression, if we collectively lack the means to express ourselves?”

Similar to the rest of the world, Clark was forced to adjust his career due to COVID-19  which struck the U.S. in early March. Clark has taken on new writing roles, but he has also come to appreciate what he otherwise would have taken for granted before the pandemic. 

“One of the things that has happened is that it’s made me appreciate the territory that before the pandemic I took for granted. I’m talking about my house, my yard, my front porch, the oak tree that’s shedding about 100,000 acorns in the last three or four weeks, the [birds and], the color of the sky. I’m not a scientist, but I’m attributing [the pandemic] to less traffic on the roads [than] there used to be. Tampa Bay looks cleaner than it ever has, you can actually look and see the bottom of the water where the rocks and the shells lay. My wife and I have lived in this house for more than 40 years, [and] we discovered a city park that’s less than a mile from our house that we didn’t know existed,” Clark said. “It’s like when I got my first pair of glasses. I went to the eye doctor, and he put the lenses in, I could not believe suddenly the world looked just completely different and sharper and brighter. From a writer’s point of view, good stories are about good people overcoming bad things, and 2020 is a year of bad things. To be a writer at a time, we should know that this is the time. This is the moment.” 

As the author and editor of many books, Clark is able to acknowledge that the hardest part about continually writing is being able to recognize that there is always something to learn. 

“For me, shortcuts almost never work. It’s really learning the lessons of the past, and that’s hard. [What is] easier for me is learning new things every day,” Clark said. “Which is to say that sometimes I forget the good sharp tools or useful habits that I recommend to others, and when I do forget, I have to relearn them.”

According to his portfolio, throughout his career, Clark has coached and taught everywhere from news organizations, schools, businesses, nonprofits and government agencies. Although he has catered to different styles and purposes of writing, Clark consistently preaches what he believes to be the core elements of literacy. 

“One thing that bonds everything we’re talking about  is the word literacy. It’s the ability to work with words and language. One of the goals of education at any level should be to encourage people to become more literate. There are three big behaviors , and the first is reading. [People] learn to read critically. Reading wide, reading deep reading high, reading low…  it is all reading critically. The second thing that literate people do is they write purposefully. They learn to write for different audiences and in different genres. The book report is not the same as the newspaper report. Your voice may be the same, you may use some of the same techniques,but it’s in a different package. The third thing, which is often left out, is knowing how to talk about reading and writing about how meaning is created by the reader and by the writer,” Clark said. 

At the beginning of the year, Clark was not expecting to be a contributor to the Tampa Bay Times. However, the pandemic has caused him to change his mindset and write columns in addition to his coaching books. 

“I didn’t intend to be a weekly columnist for a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper in the Tampa Bay Times, but right now I am. I’m donating my services to the news organization because they’re under economic stress and it’s been a highly gratifying experience. I attach [my email address] to every story I write. I have a lot of readers expressing their appreciation and enthusiasm for my work. I’m writing stories in the age of COVID that are uplifting, humorous, practical, funny and [encouraging], rather than stories of frustration, anger and despair, of which we’ve had quite a few,” Clark said. “ At the end of every year, I talk to stakeholders, and we think about what next year will look like. I think in my heart, I’m prepared to write 50 essays in 2021. I want to continue the work I started earlier in the year. In addition, I have [my] 20th [book] in mind for next year.”

Throughout his extended time at home in the past few months, Clark has come to appreciate and understand that his interests are all interconnected and benefit him in more ways than the obvious. 

“I have these different interests, as we all do and I thought they were all separated. I was interested in music, reading, writing, sports and coaching. One good thing is maybe to us, to the extent that we’re limited in the pandemic, is to look at the story potential in learning something new. I guess I’ve specialized in the teaching of writing, but I haven’t specialized in life. I’ve developed diverse, passionate interests. Every time I do that, I get rewarded for it in some great way. [It’s] good karma,” Clark said.

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