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Creating a nation of writers

By Roy Peter Clark, Special to the Times
Roy Peter Clark Festival of Reading author mugs,

My dream for the Times Festival of Reading is not to meet a famous writer, but to create one. In this dream an aspiring author — maybe young, maybe old — comes to my session and hears me talk about the writing craft. I will speak about reports and stories, clarity and narrative power, periods and semicolons, and, most important, mission and purpose.

Learning how to write gives you power; learning how to be a writer make you powerful.

I have made more appearances at the Times Festival of Reading than any other writer, with the possible exception of Florida poet laureate Peter Meinke. (I dare PolitiFact to waste its time trying to disprove this!)

There are reasons for this: 1) I write lots of books — five in the last decade with a sixth on the way. 2) I’ve been teaching writing in this town for a long time, 40 years, to be exact, so book folks know me. 3) I almost always play music during my sessions, which makes them more entertaining than those where the author spends 45 minutes with his nose stuck in his latest masterpiece.

Along with an electric keyboard, I bring something else to the stage: a passion for the craft in which writing is made visible as the necessary prerequisite to reading. The introduction to my book Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer envisions America as a "nation of writers." With that as my asymptote (that line on a graph you can get closer and closer to without ever reaching) Florida has to become a state of writers, St. Pete and Tampa have to become cities of writers, and the public schools have to become hothouses where young writers are nurtured. We need classrooms of writers. And board rooms of writers. And newsrooms full of writers. And households of writers.

Here’s the problem: Reading is a social literacy, but not writing. In school, in church, in the workplace, in our lives as citizens, we come to understand the importance of reading. Not everyone reads, we know, but everyone should, not just out of duty, but for the surprise of joy. Those who do not read are in some ways impaired. Reading, especially the encounter with stories, expands mightily our experience and guides us toward empathy. Everyone should read!

But we do not think about writing that way. We act as if writing were a fine art — like portrait painting or playing the piano. A teacher may go up to a student in a language arts class, tap her on the shoulder and say, "This is excellent. You know, you could become a writer."

What a wonderful gift for that student. But what about the other 29 students in the class? Do they not have the "write stuff"? Are they banned from the writing club forever? In my America, every student, every person of any age, should be encouraged to write. Aspiring writers should be nudged along until they reach that tipping point where they see themselves as writers.

After 40 years of teaching and writing, I ask America one question as often as I can, a question that should have a special force at a time of national confusion and acrimony: What good is freedom of expression if we lack the means to express ourselves? See you at the festival, and I will be taking song requests.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, the school that owns the Tampa Bay Times.

Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer

By Roy Peter Clark

Little, Brown, 288 pages, $15.99

Times Festival of Reading

Roy Peter Clark will be a featured author at the 2017 Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 11 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He will speak at noon in the Haiman Amphitheater at the Poynter Institute.