Writing coach Roy Peter Clark reflects on 4 decades at Poynter
Editor's note: After two years as a writing coach at the St. Petersburg Times and 38 years as a teacher at The Poynter Institute, Roy Peter Clark has announced his retirement from Poynter, effective Dec. 31. He will continue to serve the Institute on a contract basis, working on key projects and doing some writing and teaching. In this interview with Poynter, he reflects on his legacy and looks to the future.
I once thought about retiring at the age of 72 (four years from now). I love the work. I feel healthy. I’ve had a productive year. But 40 years is a long time. I’m not the future of Poynter, I’m its noble past. I feel an absolute duty to step aside, to make way for my amazing younger colleagues to carry the torch. To quote my mentor Gene Patterson: “It’s your turn now.”
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What influenced your thinking?
I am an old school writer and teacher who has been led by younger colleagues into the digital age. My editor — you — are 44 years younger than I am. Not only could I be your father (by the way, clean your room), I could be your grandfather. To have brilliant young colleagues has been an immeasurable blessing for me. It has allowed me to lead a life as a relevant author and teacher. But there is only so much money in the vault and so much oxygen in the room. It’s time to go.
What will be your continuing relationship with Poynter?
Poynter is my heart and soul. It’s my license plate. I will help my dear friends and colleagues as much as I can for as long as I can. For 2017 I will continue to work in my office, I will retain an emeritus title as senior scholar, and I’ve signed a contract to work on four projects for which I have special expertise and a deep passion. I am grateful to Tim Franklin and Kelly McBride for helping me shape my departure in a way that offers a transition and keeps me working on things I care most about.
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Is there a plan to replace you?
I look forward to helping Poynter find the next person who will serve as “America’s Writing Coach,” leading the march toward great writing and powerful storytelling in journalism. I appreciate friends who have said, “No one can replace you, Roy.” But it’s not true. Mickey Mantle did a pretty good job of replacing Joe DiMaggio. I know more great writing teachers than anyone. I could make a list of 20 candidates who could step in tomorrow. I predict that Poynter will hire a top writing teacher in 2017 and that this person will revitalize the writing franchise and carry it to new heights.
Will there continue to be a place for good writing in journalism, in an age of visualization and automation?
I met a woman last year — a journalist — who read War and Peace on her cell phone while riding the New York subways. God or Darwin (or both) gave us a brain of a certain size. And that brain gave us language. And that language gave us the ability to communicate with others and to tell stories. I’m persuaded by the argument that those stories enhance our survival: they identify dangers, but also inspire our empathy and teach us to work with each other. If they shipped me to another galaxy and I returned to Earth in a hundred years, I have confidence I could get lots of work as a writing coach.
Of all your work at Poynter, what are you proudest of?
That Gene Patterson, a truly great man, trusted me to help build Poynter from the ground up. We went from a tiny storefront next to the Emerald Bar to one of the world’s most influential journalism teaching institutions. I’m proud of the work I have been able to do over 30 years with young students and their great teachers in the public schools. I’m proud of so many of my students who have grown to become successful and influential writers. I’m proud that a significant number of those students – like our Deputy Mayor Kanika Jelks Tomalin – are people of color.
What was it like in the early days?
This may be the last time I tell this story: There were four of us in a converted bank building at 556 Central Avenue. Our budget was tiny. The building was a mess: termites in the walls, pigeons in the ceiling, drunks passed out on the sidewalk. In that environment we were inspired to outperform our resources, and that remains part of the Poynter spirit. I worked in that building for six years – until we moved into one of the great buildings in Florida. I was given new challenges along the way as the first full-time teacher, the first dean of the faculty, the first senior scholar, the first vice-president.
Any memorable moments or people?
The great writing coach Donald Murray, who taught me so much about teaching and writing. My first colleagues and friends: Don Fry and Mario Garcia. Tom French, my little brother who let me in to his writing process. Dr. Karen Dunlap, the Poynter president, who would usher me into her office when I needed to cry or pray. Jim Naughton, the merry prankster of journalism. I was humbled the day at an ASNE convention when Elie Wiesel, Holocaust witness, called me his friend. I was a guest on one of the most controversial episodes of the Oprah Winfrey show, the one that revealed the fabrications of author James Frey. Just before they led me into the studio, a security guard noticed that my fly was open. Maybe the most inspiring moment was last March 31 at the Palladium Theater. We were hosting an event to mark the Centennial of the Pulitzer Prizes. At the end of an emotional evening on civil rights and social justice, I found myself onstage with a gospel choir singing “We Shall Overcome.” When I looked to my left, I realized I was holding hands with our keynote speaker, Congressman John Lewis, one of America’s most courageous leaders. I still get chills thinking about it.
How have you been able to grow as a writer?
I thought of myself as a teacher first and then a writer, but along the way I felt a shift. So, yes, I am a teacher who writes, and a writer who teaches. I am lucky to have been able to make a living from my vocation, which is learning something new about the craft of writing every day. When I did have an opportunity to write for a newspaper, I always wanted to take a risk, to have people read my story and be delighted and surprised that they found it in a newspaper. I have three favorite forms of writing, at three different lengths: the tweet, the essay, and the book. Over the last decade, I’ve written five books, which seems amazing to me, and it is a great joy to hear from a reader across the globe who testifies that one of my books helped him get a writing job, or helped him publish his first novel.
What are your plans after Poynter?
Nothing specific. I want to play a continuing role in making St. Pete a city of writers. We are blessed with a growing number of creative people in all fields. I want to help them and learn from them. I want to experiment with new forms of writing for me, working on poetry, maybe writing for the theater. I’ve been thinking about a musical about Alexander Hamilton…oh, yeah, that’s been done. I want to play more music. And maybe more golf. And, who knows, maybe I’ll get a phone call.
Any going-away parties planned?
I have three little words for you: Toga, Toga, Toga!