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. Continue reading