Storyteller by Kate Wilhelm

Reviewed by Greg Beatty

Storyteller book cover

Oh, but this is a lovely book. Everyone who wants to understand science fiction as a community will want a copy. Many people who want to become professional writers, or better writers, will also want copies, and that's because this book blends two genres. On one hand, it is a memoir. In these 190 pages of honest, often poetic prose, Kate Wilhelm recounts the story of how the Clarion Writing Workshop came to be; the many struggles she, Damon Knight, Robert Scott Wilson, and a host of other dedicated teachers, administrators, and volunteers faced; and the lessons they learned along the way in close to three decades of shaping Clarion into its present form.
 
On the other hand, and often woven deftly in among memories of students that range from gracious to bittersweet (and on, even decades later, into the far reaches of disbelief), Wilhelm fills Storyteller with lessons about how to write, and just as important, how not to write. The memoir and lesson inform one another, and are as inextricably interwoven as plot and character in a good story, for Wilhelm is often recounting how she and husband Damon Knight came to realize the need to teach X, or the necessity of teaching principle Z earlier in the sequence.
 
The gentle grace of Wilhelm's judgment of her own actions, and of student activity, tempers a judgment of individual manuscripts that is clearly much harsher; one of Kate and Damon's critical legacies for the workshop is a willingness to flatly state when a story doesn't work. One of the great values of Storyteller as a memoir is directly related to this fierce critical judgment, as Wilhelm narrates the workshop's collective struggle to balance the criticism student writers need to become not just professionals but outstanding professionals—a cutting away of writerly dross that can speed up a writer's learning process by years—with the need to reassure, to blow off steam, and to build a community. Functional and personal as it is, Storyteller works simultaneously as a love letter to the Clarion community Wilhelm helped build, a history of that community, and an explanation of it. Fans and sociologists who want to understand how SF is at once a marketplace, a community, and a tradition will need to read this book, as it offers perspectives on all such functions at once.

Clarion attendees will likely want to read it as well, but for different reasons: to know their own history, and as one looks at a family album to spark memories and see continuities. They also might want to review the writing exercises Wilhelm describes, but in truth, most of them should be familiar, even old news. Those exercises will be more appealing to those who are considering a trip to Clarion, or those who want to write fiction but who are unable to attend Clarion (or simply uninterested in the workshop format). 
 
In the end, though, one might read Storyteller for the simple grace of its writing. Kate Wilhelm clearly is the storyteller the book claims her to be—and this book takes readers on a journey towards joining her.


Greg Beatty has a PhD in English from the University of Iowa, where he wrote a dissertation on serial-killer novels. He attended Clarion West 2000, and any rumours you've heard about his time there are, unfortunately, probably true. Greg publishes everything from poetry about stars to reviews of books that don't exist. Greg recently got married.