Goodbye, Damon

Damon Knight was my teacher at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in 1992. One of the fathers of science fiction, Damon founded the Science Fiction Writers of America, helped invent the writers’ workshop, wrote much of the classic Twilight Zone canon. He edited the Orbit series of short story anthologies. He wrote brilliant stuff in his youth and his work got even better as he grew older, more controlled. His last two novels, “Why Do Birds?” and “Humpty Dumpty, An Oval,” are two of the finest science fiction novels ever written. I have never had a teacher quite like Damon. His notes on the creative process are among the most lucid instruction on tickling your brain that I’ve ever received.

Damon died last night, at the age of 80, after an illness. I feel privileged to have known him. I’ll miss him, as will the thousands of writers and millions of readers that he touched. Goodbye, Damon.

A plotted story has a skeletal structure that can be extracted and examined; the story makes sense if you just tell what happens in it. This is not true of unplotted stories. Consider, for example, Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” It is easy to say what happens in this story. The narrator gets off a train in a deserted countryside and walks deep into the forest, where he makes camp and goes to sleep. In the morning he catches grasshoppers for bait, has breakfast, and fishes the river. He catches trout and cleans them. This account could be expanded by adding detail, but even if it included every least thing that happens, it would not tell you what the story means.

The strength of “Big Two-Hearted River” lies partly in its symbolism (the river is the narrator’s life, and he is fishing the upper part of it, which represents the lost paradise of his boyhood), but there are powerful unplotted stories in which symbolism plays no part. Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” is simply the chronicle of a man’s life; the same can be said of Willa Cather’s “Good Neighbor Rosicky.” In these stories we are profoundly moved, not by drama, but by the inner meaning of a human being’s existence. These are stories of illumination rather than of revelation; they take the form, “This is what life is.”

The story forms we have been discussing are not rigid little boxes, into which every work of fiction must be crammed; they are ideal categories. In practice, elements of these forms are mixed in all kinds of ways. The same story may be partly one of resolution, partly of solution, partly of illumination (see, for example, The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett). When you understand the simple forms, you can mix and combine them to make more sophisticated ones. There is no end to the stories that can be written, because the possible combinations of old forms will never be exhausted, and because good writers keep on inventing new forms.�

Damon on plot: Link

Damon’s Hotwired chat: Link

Damon’s bibliography: Link Discuss