An Interview with Roy Peter Clark: Transcript

This is a rough transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Roy Peter Clark in May 2020. You can listen to the interview here.

Mignon: Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and cool stuff. Today, I have an interview with Roy Peter Clark who has taught writing at the Poynter Institute since 1977 and has written so many books on writing that he’s lost count. He was hired as one of America's first newspaper writing coaches, and he’s worked with writers of all ages including Pulitzer Prize winning journalists. His most popular book is called “Writing Tools,” but today we’re going to talk about his newest book, “Murder Your Darlings,” as well as his thoughts on civic clarity. I always find his writing advice to be incredibly valuable and I hope you will too, and just for context, we recorded this interview about 10 days ago.

Mignon: Thank you so much for being here with me tonight.

Roy: It is a pleasure to be here on the other end of this amazing continent.

Mignon: Yes. It's wonderful that we can connect through the miracle of the internet. I can't imagine being in quarantine without it. You know, you are working from home now. We had to reschedule the interview because we were going to do this right after everyone started working from home, and we weren't quite set up yet to do the interview. So how are things now that you've been doing this for six weeks or longer?

Roy: Yeah, it's closing in on, from our point of view, it's closing in on three months. So.

Roy: So it's been going. I would say we feel lucky in my family. People are healthy, people are working. And most of the people who we encounter both in our neighborhood and in the community, are doing the right thing.

Roy: And so what's been amazing is how this the limitations imposed upon us by this pandemic have had certain effects on our lives, our interactions, our imaginations. My wife and I, who have established a routine which we walk every day, although it's just started to get quite hot in the last two or three days, but the sky outside has never been bluer here. The water of the Gulf of Mexico has never been clearer in the 40 years we've lived here. The birds and other animal life have never been more active. So it's been a kind of a reeducation of this place that we've, you know, it's been our home where we raised our children and from a writer's point of view, that has been a kind of a gift because it generated a lot of stories. 

Mignon: Yeah, no, it's the same. My husband and I, we've been staying home as much as possible. We do also go for a walk every day, which helps get some structure to our days. You mentioned that during this time you found yourself doing different kinds of writing or or more writing. Can you talk more about how it's affected your writing life?

Roy: Well, one thing I didn't expect is that I'd be able to write from home as effectively as I have. And I was quite nervous about moving all my gear from my office at the Poynter Institute to where I'm sitting now, which is that our dining room table--so our dining room, which used to be our living room, and my wife said, "Look, as long as I can use it on Thanksgiving Day, you can do whatever you want with the room."

Roy: So it's quite comfortable. It's near my musical instruments, a 100-year-old piano. I can see the big television screen and the next to the next room. I have to go into work occasionally to pick up files or particular books where I have no room to store here.

Roy: But there's something that's good about the pattern of work that has been beneficial. In other words, I could write in the morning if I want to. I can write in mid-afternoon. And, you know, if I feel like finishing something up later in the day, I can do that, too.

Roy: So I have to say, I've been astonished at both my level of productivity and also the variety of writing forums which I have engaged in in the last, let's say, hundred days.

Mignon: And why have you been writing in different forms all of a sudden?

Roy: You know this to paraphrase it, paraphrase a joke from an old movie like I don't write the forms, the forms write me. So there was this moment where I said to my wife, Karen, "Look," I said, "We've been having these wonderful walks, and we've spent more time together now in our forty-ninth year of marriage than maybe ever before.

Roy: I'm going to write a sonnet, but I'm going to need your permission to publish it. So she read it. She reluctantly gave me her permission. I showed it to Peter Mikey, who's the poet laureate of the state of Florida and a good friend here in St. Pete.

Roy: He loved it. When Peter liked it...Karen really likes Peter...So it was published in almost immediately in the Tampa Bay Times Sunday section. And it's been. It's just it's been fun and it's been interesting. And it's made me realize that there are some things that I can say in a poem that I can't say in an essay or a story or narrative or not.

Mignon: Why was she so reluctant?

Roy: Well, if you give me permission to read it, I think it'll become clear.

Mignon: Oh, okay. Sure.

Roy: All right. Here we go. It's a sonnet written in Shakespearean meter, if I may say so. Titled 'House Arrest' Florida, April 2020 by Roy Peter Clark.

I feel the pounding beat of house arrest,

a sentence that we serve till who knows when,

we do what our wardens think is best,

and face a viral ban we hope to bend,

we're stuck at home except to take a walk,

where seagulls croak their freedom overhead,

my wife and I, we talk and talk and talk.

I think divorce, but that joke's left unsaid,

We live in times as fickle as the moon

who grins, grins at us with all his pals, the stars.

What month is this now? April, May or June? 

my God, please let them open up the bars, 

pandemics are not so, so bad, I think,

I hug my toilet paper, pour a drink.

So it was the jocular mention of divorce.

Mignon: Yeah, that makes sense. It's true. We've lost all track of time. When I said earlier "six weeks," I don't really know how long it's been.

Roy: That's so we've lost, we've lost. We've lost so many things. We've lost track of time. I wrote a piece, this an essay this morning, in which we talk about the loss of precious ceremonies and rituals, some of which, of course, are just fun and trivial, like, I don't know, going to a poker game on a Friday night, but also weddings, graduations, christenings, all of those kinds of things. And most poignantly, the loss of memorials and ceremonies for the dead, which The New York Times signified brilliantly on the front page of last Sunday's paper in which they listed 1,000 of the dead, as is that a signifier of the hundred thousand that we were about to that number that we were about to cross.

Mignon: And so, you know, so we were going to talk about your books first. But I think I'm going to switch this up and talk first about the importance of communicating clearly and effectively right now, because you've, I mean, you do some of the most amazing teaching on writing clearly that I've ever seen. You're regularly putting out great work helping writers write better. And I know the piece that you had about The New York Times front page was about communicating almost more visually than with words. But there was also some word stuff in it, too. And so I'll let you talk a little bit about why and how it's so important to communicate extra clearly right now.

Roy: You know, when I started out as a writing teacher in St. Petersburg and worked with the American Society of Newspaper Editors and others, and when we talked about good writing or when you looked for examples of good writing or when you looked at the Pulitzer Prizes or the Writing Awards, most of the work that was being honored, I would say, fell into the category of story or narrative. And it was usually about something big and important that had happened of famine in Ethiopia or war in the Middle East. And when I would make these presentations, I had these very hard working journalists come up to me and say, Roy, listen, we honor the work that you were holding up for us.

Roy: But I hope one day I'll be able to write stories like that. But my assignments right now were to cover City Hall and the zoning commission and the utility rate hikes. And it's really difficult for me to make hard facts, easy reading. So anything that you can do to help us do that will be greatly appreciated and will fulfill a responsibility of journalists not just to write with literary grace, but with civic clarity. And that phrase, "civic clarity" became a kind of a mantra for me. And any chance I've gotten over the last three decades to hold up an honor and expression of civic clarity, not just by journalists, but by people in government, people in the business, world, health officials, public health officials. That's what I try to do. And I'm on a sort of a small crusade now to try to do this at a time when I believe we may need civic clarity more deeply than we have in my lifetime. "Civic clarity" means not just gathering facts, checking out facts, making facts available to the public. It requires taking responsibility for what readers and viewers and listeners know and understand about the world.

Mignon: One of your previous books was called "How to Write Short," and I think that is especially relevant these days, mostly because misleading headlines and tweets just make me bonkers, because we know that most people don't read beyond the headline or beyond the tweet. You know, studies have been done... people have done studies showing that the majority of people don't read more than that. So it's especially important to get those short teasers right and not think of them so much as teasers, but think of them as the only chance you're going to get to communicate what's in your article.

Roy: So the last time I heard a story was published in The New York Times was about maybe three or four years ago when they were doing some essays on the writing craft. And it was very much related to connected to the book "How to Write Short." And I believe the headline headline was "Short Sentences Revealed the Gospel Truth."

Mignon: Hmm.

Roy: Now, that was an idea that I harvested many years ago, probably as a graduate student from an interview I heard between conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. and and Tom Wolfe of the new journalism fame. And somebody had written something about the art world in which Tom Wolfe said to Buckley something like, "It's a lie, but it feels like the truth." And Buckley said essentially said, "Well, how is that possible?" And he said "Because he wrote it in a short sentence." Is that. Now, listen, you can tell lies with short sentences. I don't have to reach very far for examples. You can also save the most important thing you have to say for the shortest sentence you can construct.

Roy: Dan Barry on Sunday, great New York Times writer, had a column which was interweaved with this litany of the dead, and he's talking about all the ceremonies that have to be put on hold, especially memorials. And at one point in the column, he writes, "Even the dead have to wait." Wow. I'm looking at my arms. If you could see my arms, you can see the horripilations, which is the fancy word for a goose bumps. Even the dead have to wait.

Roy: So that's one of the one of the lessons is that of running short and using a form like Twitter or text message is that people are going to probably believe what you have to say.

Roy: So it's incumbent upon you to embrace not just a craft of clarity, but a kind of ethical code to tell the truth, to tell it in a way that people can understand it and to tell it well to embrace the mission and purpose of using language well. The other thing about the short sentence, Mignon, is thatone of my favorite tools or strategies is to think of the period as a stop sign. And we know that the Brits don't call it a period. They call it a full stop, which is a very, very effective sort of rhetorical definition of punctuation. And when I want when the information I'm trying to render is very, very complicated, like what it means to flatten the curve in an epidemic. You're going to see in my work shorter words, shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity. There are times when I, we kind of grow up thinking that we want our readers to be able to move quickly through a text. And I say a lot of times that's the case. But there are some times when we want them to move slowly, when we want to render something suspenseful, when we want to kind of render something with emotional power so they can feel it. And then when we want to slow down so that they can understand, we can say to them, you've heard about flattening the curve. Period. Here's how it works. Period. And establish a slower pace of understanding. Incomprehensibility.

Mignon: Yeah, that's great. So we're gonna take a quick break for our sponsors. And when we come back, we're going to talk about your newest book, "Murder Your Darlings."

Roy: Yay!

Mignon: Yay!

Mignon: So your newest book, you've written many books, but your newest book is called "Murder Your Darlings," and I had the pleasure of reading an advance review copy of the book and thought it was really inspirational and quite different from a lot of the other things you've written. So can you, can you tell our listeners sort of the big picture about that book, "Murder Your Darlings"?


Roy: Yes. And I'm holding a copy in my hand as a beautiful cover. Thanks to Steve Hayes, great designer. And I always say, please judge my books by their covers, and under in the middle of the page and read over a kind of marigold colored cover is a blurb that says, "A party popper of inspiration, unquote" by Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl. 

Mignon: That's right! I wrote the blurb.

Roy: That's my best, friend. That's the best review. So, you know, I realized at some point that number one, that I was one of a group of writers and I would add you to this list. I think together you and I could list about a dozen or so contemporary writers who write about many different things overall, but essentially have built our careers and their reputations writing about language, writing, reading, grammar and culture, American culture. So I kind of felt that number one, I owed a debt of gratitude to our predecessors going back to Aristotle.

Mignon: Right. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Roy: We do. Although I think Aristotle was short. But, you know, our great intellectual giant, and the fact that one of my great professional friends passed away a couple of years ago, William Zinsser, wrote a book, influenced me and many others on writing well, sold a million copies. And so I don't know what it came to me in an odd way. I had a meeting, a collection of these books, and I saw Aristotle was sitting to my left hand, Zinsser off sitting to my right. Oh, my God. It is easy, you know. So in the subtitle "Murder Your Darlings and other gentle writing advice from Aristotle to Zinsser," I was able to kind of establish two things. One was the alphabetical order trope, but it was also a historical trope that in fact, all contemporary writers, whether they know it or not, dependent upon more than two millennia of other writers and experts on language who's shared their wisdom, has come down to us and been reimagined for a particular sort of historical period. So in the course of this book, there are about 50 writing books that I refer to. And my goal was to to do two things. Number one, to help writers learn about these books and create a menu for them, for their reading based on their interests. Second thing is to try to harvest what for me was the most useful, interesting, challenging morsel of advice, especially if I knew examples either from my own work or from the writing of my friends and colleagues where they were formed as writers by the influence of a particular piece of advice, such as in Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style." 

Roy: Place the emphatic word in a sentence at the end, period. I can't tell you how important that particular piece of advice which is also in "Writing Tools." Emphatic word order. That Shakespeare didn't write in "Macbeth," "The Queen is dead, my Lord." He wrote, "The Queen. My lord is dead." And I teach that lesson, especially in person, I tell students and professionals. I said, go back this afternoon and look at something you've written either recently or in the past. And I bet you're going to find a key word or phrase that's hiding in the middle of a sentence or the middle of the paragraph. And if you can move it out to the end, next to the period, next to the white space where people can see it, the impact of your writing is going to increase dramatically. And I stopped saving the notes and letters of gratitude I've received from people who who've shared how important that tool was. At one point I thought that maybe I had invented that. Then, of course, I found it in Strunk & White.

Roy: And then when I read the book by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch from one hundred years ago, who used the phrase "murder your darlings," he quotes a Roman teacher named Quintiliano who offers the same advice to two Roman texts. "If you want to be an effective speaker, you may find that you have a key word to deliver that's right now hiding in the middle of a paragraph, you might want to put it out at the end." Wow. And I use as examples. Michelle Obama, in a well regarded speech, said, "I live in a house that was built by slaves."

Roy: Not "Slaves built the house I live in." Which would be grammatical. But this idea that she sticks the landing, drops the mike. We use it in humor. We use it oratory. And we should use it in all forms of communication.

Roy: I would say including text messages and tweets, even if it's short, you can move the important part to the end.

Yeah. By the way, I don't know how many people do it, but I find myself more and more having to trying to in an age in an era of fast writing. I don't think I deliver a text message without reading it once. Number one, because the spell checker is changing it without my permission. But often I'll find that, you know, You know what? If I just move these two words around, this will be funnier or this will be more sympathetic. So no dumping, no dumping allowed.

Mignon: That's more complicated than my rule, which is don't tweet before coffee.

Mignon: So, you know, reading "Murder Your Darlings," you took the best parts of 50 or so books. And as I was going through it, I was thinking it must've been so hard to pick just the one thing that the main lesson from each book did. Were there things that that you wish you could have put in that that didn't quite make it? Or what was it? Was it actually was easier than I imagine.

Roy: So it wasn't hard. It wasn't so hard to to pick the element because there was usually a story attached to it.

Roy: So for example, in 1985 I think it was '84 or '85 when I wrote my first book, now to out of print, it's it's called "Free to Write, a Journalist Teaches Young Writers," and it was the story of my three years as a volunteer teacher in my daughter's public school. I was teaching writing to fourth and fifth graders using a lot of the strategies of journalism. So I had never written a book before, and I just happened to be reading a collection of John McAfee's magazine stories, which became books in which the editor, Bill Howarth, who became a friend and who taught at Princeton with John McPhee.

Roy: He wrote an introduction about how McPhee writes one of these these book length magazine articles. And I followed it step by step by step, and 19 books later, I don't follow it as carefully, but you would see if I could show you my bulletin board, for example, while I'm writing a book and how I organize these index cards in order to try to imagine the structure of all of that came out of that book. And so it was easy for me to choose that one because it had such an effect on me. My problem is always why "Murder Your Darlings" is such an appropriate title for me is I'm a putter-inner rather than a taker-outter. When I wrote the "Glamour of Grammar" (and every time I look at that title, by the way, I think of you, you and your work) I handed in a hundred chapters for a 50-chapter book. I couldn't stop. And in this particular case, "Murder Your Darlings," I submitted 130,000 words for what became essentially about a 75- or 80-thousand word book. So for me, the issue is not choosing which ones are going to go in, because I could certainly write about another 50 or 100 writing books that are out there. The problem for me is deciding what to take out. Which of my little babies? Well, what I teach is that you don't have to murder your darlings, but you can you can gently pick them up and cuddle them and put them in a file for another day.

Mignon: Right. Imagine you're saving them for the next book.

Roy: Work very hard. So for me, I have to lower my standards before I write a first draft. I have to write a zero draft. I have to write earlier than I think I can.

Roy: And then as I get close, as I go through the process, whether it's an essay or a book, raise my standards, become more demanding and to make sure that I'm selecting material, not just my best material or the stuff that I like the best, but the material that most closely supports the focus of the work. Because learning from the writing process from Don Murray, a great teacher of process, was important to him and for all of us who worked with him, but focus was the center of the process, the ability to understand what this is really about, what you're trying to say, what you want your readers to learn and parcel along to others.

Roy: And that takes takes time and it takes a kind of discipline.

Mignon: Yeah, it does. Thank you. And I'm especially glad to hear that you are...you feel like you're being so productive right now, because I want you to keep writing because we absolutely need your work and good advice that you're constantly putting out there, whether it's on the Poynter Institute web site or in all your books. So thank you so much for for sharing some of your wisdom with us today.

Roy: If I can return the compliment, let's say that not everybody who writes about writing in grammar and language can do it well long in a book and do well short in tweet and the other forms that you're working in. And so you're my go-to person when I'm trying out that kind of problem.

Mignon: Thank you. You're too kind. Well, that was, that is again, Roy Peter Clark. His newest book is "Murder Your Darlings." Roy, where is the best place for people to find you online? Where do you hang out?

Roy: They can they can find me, I think, in certain three or four locations. I write most often for the Poynter Institute website. Poynter is a school for journalism and democracy with a long tradition of teaching writing. So that's Poynter with a Y: P-O-Y-N-T-E-R DOT O-R-G. 

Roy: I write on Twitter almost every day in that section of Twitter where language nerds like to hang out and virtually smoke cigarettes and drink margaritas. Well, there's a lot to learn from the word people on on Twitter. I'm on Facebook and I also write for the Nieman Storyboard, edited by the great Jacqui Banaszynski. So very much they attend most often to interest to topics of storytelling, narrative, but also languages.

Mignon: Wonderful. Thank you so much. Have a good day. 

Mignon: I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. Like Roy, I also hang out on Twitter, and my username is Grammar Girl. You can find a transcript of this podcast and all the others at QuickAndDirtyTips.com. Thanks to my producer Nathan Semes, and that’s all. Thanks for listening.