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Officially retired, but still teach and write there. - Poynter Institute

Posted By Joe Hamilton


Roy Peter Clark has been serving his community, teaching and writing for decades. And the order there matters. Roy loves St Pete and has given his talents first wherever he can help elevate our community. He's coached countless writers, pitched and initiated great projects and guided news novices, including the Catalyst. It was at the Banyan Cafe on Central Ave that the vision for the Catalyst formed. Without the perspective, affirmation and wisdom of Roy Peter Clark, we surely wouldn't be off the the start we're enjoying. Roy is a treasure in every sense of the word and the ripples of his influence are woven into the very fabric of St. Petersburg.

Years in St. Pete

I arrived in 1977.

Organizations involved in

In addition to Poynter and the Times, I write for a variety of different news organizations. I’ve written for I’ve been doing some work recently with The Undefeated, a website of ESPN, which focuses on the collision of sports journalism and American culture. I have good relationships with a variety of institutions in town, the Pinellas County Schools, the University of South Florida in St. Pete. Bookstores, coffee shops, microbreweries. Anywhere people want to gather and tell stories is a place that I’m attracted to.

What gets you out of bed every day?

The honest answer at the age of 70 is the need to pee, but I would say I’m driven both personally and professionally by a pretty big ambition. And I’ve stated it in the books I’ve written and the teaching that I do. I want to make America a nation of writers. Now before you can do that in America, I guess you need to make Florida a state of writers and St. Pete a city of writers. So every day I’m waiting to be surprised by the opportunity to fulfill that mission and purpose.

Why St. Pete?

In 1977 I was teaching English and writing at a small campus in Montgomery, Alabama. I had written some journalism pieces, I’m a New Yorker in ’74, I was looking for a job out of graduate school, had a new PhD, I applied to 100 schools. I got 4 interviews and one job offer in Alabama. And I got really interested in the South, in the time after the civil rights movement. Jimmy Carter had emerged as a Presidential candidate.

The South was starting to look a little more open and progressive. So I wrote stories about that and when I did they ended up in the New York Times, newspapers around the country. That’s what sparked the journalism fire for me. In order to learn about journalism, I wanted an immersive experience. I was invited by Jean Patterson, who was the editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He wanted to try an experiment – Could you improve the quality of writing at an American newspaper by bringing somebody in from the outside who doesn’t know any of the restricting conventions of the journalism craft, but who is appreciative of good language use and powerful storytelling.

There wasn’t much in St. Petersburg in 1977, there was the newspaper, which was very good. There was the weather, which was really good half of the year. And there was the sea. My wife and I and our three daughters began our family life. We made a really interesting decision back then and we were looking for our first house and people said, “Anything you do, don’t live on the South side.” We would up moving into one of the most interesting, racially diverse parts of the city, and maybe one of the most racially diverse and tolerant places in America. And that has been a tremendous blessing. It has helped me understand not only the city, but the country in all kinds of powerful ways.

What is one habit that you keep?

I guess for the last 7 or 8 years, its been coffee in the morning at the restaurant called Banyan, originally on 9th St. And then a second one on Central Avenue attached to the Morean Arts Center. Enjoying the unintended benefit – it feels like a relaxed, unofficial city hall.

Who are some people that influence you?

Gene Patterson, who hired me – who taught me about the relationship between journalism, democracy and social justice. In other words, gave me not just a craft but a purpose for the craft. Don Murray, who was from the University of New Hampshire and was I think the most influential writing coach in America. Spent a lot of time at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. I would say the two of them became mentors for me. On a daily basis, Bob Devin Jones inspires me with what he’s done as an unofficial cultural czar of the city. Tom French who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 at the St. Petersburg Times.

What is one piece of insight - a book, methodology, practice - that you would share with our readers?

When I was going to school – there was the absolute expectation that you would learn to be an effective reader. Writing is something that was and still is not thought of as a social literacy – something that everyone should do. This goes back to thinking of a nation of writers. We have a nation of texters, we have a nation of bloggers, tweeters, Facebook updaters. People don’t think about that as writing but I treat the writing of those elements, even if I’m moving fast, with as much care and attention as possible.

What is one thing you wish you knew about your work 3 years ago?

On New Years Eve 2016, I officially retired as a salaried employee of the Poynter Institute and signed a contract to keep my office there and to do additional work teaching and writing on a contract basis. I was the Vice President and Senior Scholar, I’m recognized now as the Senior Scholar Emeritus, which is not a happy phrase for me. I had absolutely no idea how busy I’d be in retirement. I’m busier now than I was.

What’s next?

On Tuesday I’m going to give a little presentation at the new James Museum of Western Art. It’s going to be a social evening in which members of the community are invited to come in and reflect on a particular piece of art that speaks to them in a particular way. I don’t think I’ve ever given a talk in a museum before.

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