James Patrick Kelly: Writing Teaches Writing

James Patrick Kelly is a writer, teacher and anthologist living in New England. He is a regular in Asimov’s magazine, and has won two Hugo awards: for “Think Like a Dinosaur” and “Ten to the Sixteenth to One.”

I was on a panel a couple of weeks ago at Boskone called Workshops: Compare and Contrast, described thus: “Our panelists have forged themselves in the fires of genre writers’workshops from Martha’s Vineyard to New Mexico. They’ll take us behind closed doors to compare tales of processes and rituals, sniping and support, the chemistry of who’s in the room, and the magic of hearing a story improve right before your ears.” Back in the day this panel might well have been called Breaking Into Print or some such, somewhat later it would have been Should I Go To Clarion? The audience for those panels would have very similar to ours: aspiring and lightly published writers. Our panelists represented a variety of the workshops which now serve as the gateways to publication and perhaps a career. Mind you, they are not the only gateways, but many of your favorite writers have passed through them. I am not ashamed to say that I am a fan of workshops. I went to Clarion and have taught there and Clarion West and Odyssey and Viable Paradise and am on the faculty of the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.

After we panelists all had our say, we took questions from the audience as is the custom. It may just have been a fluke, but most of the questions were about MFA programs. This struck me as a sign of changing times. Back when I went to Clarion, it was unheard of for sf writer to get an MFA (one of my Clarion teachers, Joe Haldeman, being a notable exception). Now, not only beginners but well published writers are enrolling. (I’m looking at you, Leslie What and Michaela Roessner-Herman and Kij Johnson.) I’m often asked which is better, a Clarion style workshop or an MFA?

My answer is yes.

There is no question that writing can be taught, but whether or not it can be learned depends on the individual. Some people learn just from reading how-to-books. I do: I’ve got a collection somewhere north of fifty. Some like lectures, others prefer groups where writers sit in a circle and speak plainly about what works and what doesn’t in a story. Students tell me that they get something out of the critiques I write them for Stonecoast. But the fact of the matter is that there is really only one way to learn to write. A former student of mine, Eljay Daly, who graduated from both Viable Paradise and Stonecoast, was interviewed the other day on the Underwords blog’s New Writer Spotlight. Asked the most important lesson she had learned at these various programs, she wrote something that I now have tacked up beside my desk. “If I have to narrow it down to one, I guess it would be ‘Writing teaches writing.’ Keep trying. If my system isn’t working, try another system. If the story I’m working on is lousy, finish it anyway, then write another one.” I don’t remember saying anything quite so smart; Eljay figured that out all on her own. But as I read it, a heavenly choir began to sing.

Writing teaches writing. That is all we know and all we need to know.

5 thoughts on “James Patrick Kelly: Writing Teaches Writing

  • March 16, 2011 at 9:07 am

    “Writing teaches writing,” but what is it that gets you published? Going to Clarion? Connections? Not how good you are but who you know?

  • March 16, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    I can only answer this from a short story perspective (time spent reading slush for Strange Horizons), but slush readers are desparate for stories that are well written and original. They read so many stories that have typos, poor construction, poor beginnings & endings, or are minor variations on a common theme, that if you can give them something new & different & good, they’ll happily pounce on it and recommend it for publication.

    The other thing I noticed as a slush reader was stories submitted to the wrong magazine: sf submitted to a fantasy magazine, perfectly good ‘Analog’ stories submitted to Strange Horizons, etc. Researching which markets would be a good fit for your story can be key.

    In my time reading slush, connections & workshops never entered into the decisions.

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