What My Mentor Taught Me

By James Patrick Kelly

Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm, Clarion Conference 1974

Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm, Clarion Conference 1974

Back when I was an aspiring writer, there were no MFA programs for the likes of me.   My ambition when I was starting out was to marry the literary values I had embraced as an undergraduate English major to the hurly-burly of widescreen ideas, surreal settings, and exotic characters that sprawled across the pages of the science fiction magazines that I loved.  Hardcore sf fans did not necessarily welcome me and my cohort of literature-loving newbies; they accused us of writing “li-fi” instead of “sci-fi.”  And did we get respect from mainstream gatekeepers of LiteratureLand for our attempts to remake the genre?  Fat chance.  Even today, the administrators of all too many writing programs continue to hold their noses at the mention of popular fiction, lest the aroma of art for commerce disturb their delicate sensibilities.

But let’s grind that ax another time, shall we?

The one and only writing program for young Jim Kelly was the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, then being held at the Michigan State University. In some ways, the Clarion experience was very much like that of the Stonecoast residencies, only more concentrated.  Over the course of six weeks in the summer, 18 of us gathered in a steamy MSU dorm to unpack our attempts at fiction in workshops led by a different professional science fiction writer each week.  The workshops were never the same because each mentor arrived with her own artistic ideas or his own hot button issues.  But the overall agenda was set by Damon Knight, who founded Clarion with his wife, Kate Wilhelm.  They believed that science fiction was as important as any other kind of writing, but it deserved to be better written than it was.

And so did we.

A bit of history: Damon Knight began his love affair with science fiction in the early ‘40’s as a member of the fabled Futurian fan club, along with the likes of Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, and many others who went on the have distinguished careers as editors and writers.  From there he moved effortlessly through the many different precincts of our genre.  Not only was he a writer and an editor, but he was the science fiction’s first critic of note.  His devotion to the craft of writing led him to co-found Clarion in 1968.  He was also responsible for the founding of the Science Fiction Writers of America and served as its first president.    Although he wrote nine novels, his reputation rests mainly on his lucid and at times acerbic short stories, the most famous of which is probably “To Serve Man.”  Damon edited reprint anthologies throughout his long career but his crowning achievement as an editor were the twenty-one editions of Orbit, a centerpiece of the golden age of original science fiction anthologies.

I met first met Damon at Clarion and was at once intimidated and entranced by him.  He was not only funny but more than a little mischievous in person.  He might bring a squirt gun or package of superballs to the workshop and use them to emphasize a point.  With his long white beard and infectious laugh, he presented as a kind of surreal, manic Santa.   But in workshop he was honest to the point of bluntness.   Yes, he could make us squirm – but in a good way!  Because even as he was ripping the bleeding heart out of a failed story and holding it up for all to see, we all had the sense that he cared deeply about the work and, more importantly, the writer.   And in fact, after the workshop, many of us stayed in touch with him and Kate.   For example, when I sold my first novel without an agent, Damon vetted the contract for me.

And so I’d like to share some of his advice.

Well, not exactly advice per se, rather something he used to write on my manuscripts – and those of my Clarion mates – that has stuck with me to this day.  He would scrawl who cares? in the margins.   While on the face of it, this might seem like pure snark, I ascribed the best of intentions to Damon whenever he inflicted this dreaded question on me.  It was meant as a challenge to my assumption that the story I was telling was interesting enough to hold a reader’s attention.    What stake did the major characters have in the outcome of the plot?   What was the significance of that outcome in the world of the story?  Could the characters act to influence that outcome?   Or if the dreaded question was applied to a specific passage, I understood that I was being invited to justify it.   Was the amount of story time I was devoting to a particular description or scene commensurate with its importance to the story?

Now Damon had read more than his share of broken stories, both as an editor and as an alpha workshopper, so his boredom threshold was perhaps lower than most.  But he understood all too well the capacity of writers fall blindly in love with their own purple prose, their twisty plots, their needlessly quirky characters and obscure research and ideas never before explored in print (for good reason).  Writers thus blinded by their own cleverness will never see their readers yawn, peek at their watches, or turn to their computers to check their email.     And I never interpreted his who cares? to mean that nobody in their right mind would ever give a damn, but rather that I hadn’t yet done the work necessary to make the thinking reader care.

So maybe this particular bit of Damon’s wisdom might be summed up this way: Writers need to consider all the things they can do to lose their readers.   Then maybe they shouldn’t do some of those things.

I owe my mentor, Damon Knight, a lot.  In fact, I have come to think of him as my literary father, since our careers have come to have so many points in common.   I imagine that my students will now see something of him in me and my own workshop style.  That’s as it should be.  Because whenever I launch into a critique at Stonecoast, I sense him standing behind me, ready to give me a shot with his handy squirt gun should I not do my best.

Jim Kelly Author PhotoJames Patrick Kelly has won science fiction’s Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards.  His work has been translated into twenty-one languages and is available in print, audio and digital.  His most recent book is DIGITAL RAPTURE, The Singularity Anthology (2012), co-edited with John Kessel. His website is www.jimkelly.net


5 thoughts on “What My Mentor Taught Me

  1. Great to hear about Damon Knight from a more personal vantage point. I used to use his Creating Short Fiction when I taught undergrad creative writing, and I learned a lot from it.
    Thanks, Jim!

  2. Pingback: Calling All Stonecoast Faculty Blog Readers: We Want to Hear From You! | Stonecoast Faculty Blog

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