When Roy Peter Clark appears at events like the Festival of Reading, he delivers plenty of entertainment, from piano tunes to snappy patter.
But he's serious about writing.
Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute (which owns the St. Petersburg Times), has been teaching writing to students ranging from grade schoolers to Pulitzer Prize winners for more than 30 years.
He has written or edited 16 books about writing or journalism, and the latest is Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces. Here's an excerpt.
Having the urge to write is one thing; acting on it is another. At the age of fifteen, I broke my ankle during a baseball game, and I still remember how I planned my first week of recovery. I would write a spy novel. It was the era of Goldfinger and Thunderball, and I dreamed of creating my own version of superspy 007. I was a good and clever writer as a teenager but had written nothing longer than a short story or a book report. No matter. I was ready to go. I found a comfortable spot on the back porch, rested my bum leg on a cushion, grabbed a legal pad and ballpoint pen, and then . . . nothing.
I have a clear memory of what stopped me from getting started: I did not know how to write a novel. I knew what a novel looked like, but not the process needed to create one. I thought I could write a book just by milking my imagination. After all, it was fiction. I could invent stuff. But it soon became clear that I needed to know more, a lot more — about spies, about Russians, about gadgets, about women, about everything — before I could proceed. ...
We learn in science class that inertia is a physical force that manifests itself in two ways. Things that are still — not moving — will stay still until acted upon by outside forces. (My laptop will remain on my desk until I pick it up and fling it — discus-style — out the window.) But inertia also describes the way an object stays in motion until some external force slows or stops it. For the purposes of writing, I call the first kind "bad inertia" because it describes inactive writers who can't get moving. The other kind is "good inertia," because once you get started you can keep things rolling. No writing creates no writing. Some writing creates more writing. Getting started requires forms of exploration that become a way of life.