Clarion, Wayward Will Part 3: I Don’t Like to Throw Around the Word “Fiasco” BUT…

I’d meant to write a series of posts about my experiences at Clarion ten years ago, but it’s turned out to be less pleasant than I expected. I’m so grateful at how different I am now as a person and a writer that it’s painful to look back at one of the necessary steps to get here.

Just because you get superpowers in a car wreck doesn’t mean you want to keep watching the car wreck over and over.

I didn’t get superpowers at Clarion. I barely got competency powers. It was the absolute nadir of my writing career (so far), and a hugely important wake-up call that made me start teaching myself writing instead of relying on books and other people so much.

Here’s what happened, all of it my fault:

  • I let the reputation of Clarion for graduating some of the major writers of genre fiction to intimidate me into taking the critiques I got there way more seriously (and personally) than I should.
  • I worked too hard to impress a genre community in which I didn’t particularly belong, following a lot of dumb rules and writing a bunch of awful stories.
  • I almost decided to stop writing because I was both embarrassed that I’d gotten to my age without knowing how to write better and angry at the generations of teachers who’d told me I was doing fine instead of trying to push me into doing better.

Here’s what saved me:

  • Meeting wonderful friends and even a partner (though we weren’t partners at the workshop). They’ve been supportive in ways I couldn’t imagine I needed.
  • Setting aside about 90% of the knee-jerk advice I was given there (“Show more than tell!”) by certain students and instructors treading rhetorical water until their own work could be discussed.
  • Hearing Kelly Link and Holly Black tell me the last week there that I should just keep writing my weird funny stories, only better.
  • Sitting down in a library after the workshop and thinking carefully about what I’d really have to do to get better. That meant looking closely and honestly at what I did well and not so well, deciding which of those to fix and which of those to work around. I call this the “Fix It or Fuck It” school of deliberate practice. What I eventually fixed was character, description, and voice. What I eventually decided to let go was structured plotting.

As with most harrowing experiences, I wish there was a way to have learned all of this without being an idiot, but sometimes you need a good embarrassing fiasco to focus your attention on what isn’t working. If you’ve got a long tail of be-shitted toilet paper sticking to your heel, you want someone to tell you — preferably nicely, but being told at all is a gift, too.

Clarion did indeed change my life. Or, more accurately, I decided to change my life because Clarion came along at just the right moment for me.

 

Clarion, Wayward Will Part 2: Arrival

[This summer marks ten years since I attended the six-week Clarion science fiction and fantasy writing workshop, and I’m writing about some of the things I experienced and learned with the fresh perspective of a decade closer to the grave.]

Today in 2006, I arrived at Owen Hall at Michigan State University, my home (with 20+ other writers) for the next six weeks. We were each assigned our own room with a bathroom shared with the one next door. My bathroom buddy was Robert Levy, who has gone on to write some pretty good books.

(I also think he smoked in that bathroom at least once, but that might have been asbestos.)

This is the un-air-conditioned room that awaited me in what was apparently the specialty dorm for the criminally insane:

enter

It smelled like someone had dumped out a truck-load of severed human feet and there were mysterious stains on almost every surface, but hey, I’m a writer. It was time to get used to living in squalor anyway.

shower

This was the shower in the bathroom. That accordion door could be pulled shut to simulate the experience of traveling to London in a coffin full of soil, which would probably have been cleaner.

I hurried to a nearby Target and bought cleaning supplies, transforming the room into my writing sanctuary.

after_3

(This was the last year that Clarion East happened at Michigan State, by the way. They gave us the heave ho and now it takes place in San Diego where the writers all look like this:)

slide3_new

Once I got situated, I went downstairs with a load of laundry. As I carried the basket, this guy yelled out asking why I was already washing my clothes. I explained that I was out because I’d spent the week before in Washington for work and he said, “Well, la-di-da!”

That man was Steve Berman.

He has since gotten a better eyeglass prescription.

He has since gotten a better eyeglass prescription and I have gotten a better camera.

If you told me then that within a year he’d become one of my dearest friends, someone like a brother to me…well, let’s say I would have been skeptical.

That first night as the other Clarion students arrived, we chatted in the downstairs lounge. There were twenty-one of us if my count is correct, and that was a larger-than-normal group, at least at the time. I don’t know the size of groups now.

(The way Clarion works generally is that you write one story for each of the six weeks (or less, if you prefer) and the rest of the class critiques them each morning in a circle with a handful of the other stories also handed in. A group as large as ours meant more to read and critique, and it often meant that the critiques covered the same ground. By the time you got to the last person, there wasn’t always much more to say, though sometimes by luck of the draw he or she said something that put everything in perspective…especially if it was me trying to be a smartass.)

It’s hard as a white guy to gauge how diverse we were, though there was plenty of psychological diversity: confident versus nervous, neurotic versus centered, desperate versus calm, quiet versus verbose, deluded versus rational, social versus antisocial, whimsical versus serious.

What I found as the weeks went on is that the big divide between both readers and writers of science fiction and fantasy is between the literalists and the figurativists.

  • The literalists tend to be more technically and scientifically inclined, enjoying the genre as a place to seriously consider the past and future of technology and human knowledge. They’re skeptical of Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles because you can’t really breathe on Mars.
  • The figurativists tend to be more liberal arts inclined, using the tropes of the genre more loosely as metaphors. They’re skeptical of books like, say, Niven’s Ringworld that seem more focused on technical speculations than psychological ones. 

Neither of these are wrong, except for the literalists. They’re totally wrong.

We were pretty evenly divided, though I’m definitely a figurativist. It was interesting during our critiques to see people trying to negotiate the reasons they connected and didn’t connect with a work, based often on way different thresholds of believability: “Elves would never do that, man.” 

The good news was that easily 80% of our class, literalists and figurativists alike, were engaging and fun and interesting.

For the first few weeks, I wasn’t one of them. More on that next time.

 

Clarion, Wayward Will Part 1: On the Way

[This summer marks ten years since I attended the six-week Clarion science fiction and fantasy writing workshop, and I’m writing about some of the things I experienced and learned with the fresh perspective of a decade closer to the grave.]

It’s bizarre to imagine that ten years ago today, I departed from Washington DC for the 2006 Clarion writing workshop. Big changes were coming, though I didn’t know it then. I hoped for some and of course they arrived in strange ironic Monkey’s-Paw kind of ways.

I’d spent the week working at the Census headquarters and headed straight from there toward Michigan.

(Back in my day, that’s where we had Clarion, by God: in poorly ventilated dorms at Michigan State University. I brought my own window a/c unit.)

On the way to places that I hope will change me, I usually just drive in the general direction I’m supposed to go instead of following maps. I wound my way through DC and Maryland to Pennsylvania, and in the early afternoon, I came upon this odd sign.

"Come on down to my Flight 93 memorial in the basement. I got me some stuff I stole from the field!"

“Come on down to my Flight 93 memorial in the basement. I got me some stuff I stole from the field!”

On 9/11, the passengers of Flight 93 saved many lives, possibly including my own. I was working near the Capitol building that day in 2001, one of the likely targets. It seemed a good opportunity to pay my respects, though the home-grown nature of the sign made me wonder if it was some guy’s makeshift memorial in a garage or something.

No, it was the field where the plane went down, and I stood there in quiet contemplation as busloads of children and Elks Lodge members came and went.

"Hey, your grandma made each and every one of these fucking things, so we're taking them to Pennsylvania."

“Hey, your grandma made each and every one of these fucking things, so we’re taking them to Pennsylvania.”

I thought these were Mickey Mouse ears at first, some bizarre tribute from a country that thinks Walt Disney is our president, but they were wooden angels with black wings and American flag bodies. Never let it be said that our country holds back on any tacky expression of grief, and by God, when Grandma made those back home in Iowa, she meant for them to go straight to that field. Or to sell them at Cracker Barrel. 

A more meaningful memorial was the fence with mementos pinned to it.

93fence3

I lingered about an hour, watching the people and what they left behind — hats, flags, buttons, construction helmets, stuffed animals, license plates, and odd concrete tombstone-looking things on which they’d written messages.

93kid

Then I continued onward to Michigan, where things would only get weirder.

Stepfather’s Day

I’ve written a lot about my genetic father, in both fiction and non-fiction. I’m about as sick of him as all of you probably are, so I won’t waste another Father’s Day going on about how awful he was.

I want to talk about someone else instead.

In the late 80s, my mother met and married a man I didn’t like much at first.

motherlarry

After living for years with my terrifying but largely responsible father, Larry seemed dreamy and impractical and disconnected from reality — better suited to lazy afternoons watching the Sci-Fi channel or reading fantasy novels than, say, being anything approaching a husband for my mother or a father to me.

But as time went on, I discovered that his gentleness and imagination were just what my mother needed, and thinking back on it now, they were just what all the rest of us needed, too. He gave my mother years of safety and happiness, plenty of those long afternoons reading cool books and talking weird theories about the universe, and he did the same for my sister and I, too, not to mention my nieces.

He introduced me to Middle Earth. It was at his house that I first watched Star Trek: The Next Generation. He typed up my first serious story so I could submit it to magazines…when I was fourteen.

larryharry

He bore the brunt of my sullen teenage years, too, all the eye-rolling and fun-making of a person who seemed a total crackpot at the time. Larry had deeply felt spiritual beliefs that certainly weren’t like everyone else’s, and I didn’t have much respect at the time for a former hippie still keeping the faith twenty and thirty years later.

I do now, though. I admire Larry’s steadfast lifelong battle against everything practical, everything expected, everything dull and emotionless.

He won that battle a few years ago, dying with all of us around him. He seemed content, pleased to see us, and he was more than ready to go after months of having one organ after another replaced by uncomfortable machines. It was strangely appropriate, I guess, that a man almost solely of the spirit would slowly lose his body like that.

He didn’t really need it.

I don’t pray much, but when I do, I usually say, “Please let good happen. Let us recognize it when it does and endure when it doesn’t. Let us be its agents.” Larry was definitely one of its agents, and I miss him.

He helped provide space and safety for my imagination, and I’ll always be grateful. Toward the end, he couldn’t speak while on the ventilator but he could mouth words. I think he might have said he was proud of me, though it could just be my ego misinterpreting him. I hope so, and either way, I’ll do everything I can to live up to that.

I wish I’d recognized him sooner as the great father he was.

Twenty Five Years Ago Today: Dumped!

It’s hard to imagine, I know, that a seventeen-year-old with such a bright future in American letters could be cut loose from a relationship, especially one in which he’d written an epic poem called “Beowill” for his lady friend. But it happened.

It was 1991. My favorite album was U2’s Rattle and Hum, my favorite movie was Dead Poet’s Society, and my favorite television show was Twin Peaks. I owned an ancient Apple II computer that was nearly always open in a mass of improvised wires. I was a month away from graduating high school and I’d already been accepted to the University of Florida where I planned to major in English because, of course, that was the surest path to becoming a writer.

I wore that shirt a lot that summer. The baby brother's rabbit suit? Not quite as much.

I wore that shirt a lot that summer. The baby brother’s rabbit suit? Not quite as much.

I lived with my mother, stepfather, and infant brother about nine miles outside of Arcadia, a little town in Florida’s bleak pale underbelly. Our house was surrounded by pastures and orange groves, punctuated by the occasional live oak tree leaning close to the ground, laden with Spanish moss.

Here's a picture with my sister. I like how most places in Arcadia look like they could be in Jonestown.

Here’s a picture with my sister. I like how most places in Arcadia look like they could be in Jonestown.

I was dating a girl who probably doesn’t want her name publicized, and her birthday was on May 11. I was going to miss it, though, because another (admittedly female) friend had invited me at the last minute to the Florida Scholastic Press Association conference (for high school newspaper writers) going on at the same time. So I wrote a great note and left a convenience store rose in our shared locker because that’s what we did back in those days.

(I couldn’t call because my girlfriend’s phone was disconnected at the time. I couldn’t send her an email because the only people in 1991 who had access to that were nerdy college professors and the Defense Department.)

This is what computers looked like back then, for Christ's sake.

This is what computers looked like back then, for Christ’s sake. I owned the one on the bottom left (TRS-80 Model 1) and the one on the far right of the middle shelf (Commodore 64), too. 

When I got back from the conference, I tried calling again in case her number had been reconnected, and I was pleasantly surprised to see it had. We chatted for a few minutes and I asked when she wanted to celebrate her birthday, but she seemed distracted and distant, telling me she wasn’t feeling well. We got off the phone pretty quickly.

Now, I’m not like this anymore, but back then, I was prone to melodramatic stunts and flamboyant emotional gestures. The thing to do, I reasoned, was to ride my bike the nine miles to town and surprise her for a belated birthday celebration.

(I had no car for a number of reasons, most of them involving the cost of insurance and my unpredictable income.)

So I saddled up and followed the treacherous two-lane highway into Arcadia on my bike. The journey took about an hour or so, but that was okay because that was the present: “Look! I risked my life to come here!”

Yeah, those aren't bike lanes on the sides. And imagine trucks full of oranges rumbling past you, too, for the full effect.

Yeah, those aren’t bike lanes on the sides. And imagine trucks full of oranges rumbling past you, too, for the full effect.

I arrived at her house not too long before sunset. I propped my bike against a tree and knocked at the door. There was some shuffling inside and she answered, looking surprised and a little aghast, the exact responses I wanted from my romantic gesture.

(All I want in this world is for people to say, “Wow! How did he pull off that amazing stunt?” I’ll settle for, “Wow! Why would he pull off that amazing stunt?”)

She glanced into the house behind her and then back at me, but eventually she invited me in. Seated on the couch was a heavyset gentleman in a Wal-Mart uniform shirt. I nodded curtly to him and sat down. The three of us sat in silence on different pieces of furniture for about five minutes until my girlfriend finally pulled me away into her bedroom.

I'll admit I may have been influenced by emotion, but this is pretty much how I remember that room.

I’ll admit I may have been influenced by emotion, but this is pretty much how I remember that room.

There, in a vase, was a huge display of roses she’d gotten for her birthday from the guy in the other room. At this point, I started to get an uneasy feeling that there would be a scene when we both told the guy he’d have to leave.

It took her a few tries, but finally she blurted out that yes, he’d sent her the flowers and yes, she knew him from work and yes, she liked him. I nodded, listening, not quite believing. When she stopped talking and it was just her looking at me expectantly, I realized I was the one being asked to leave.

After a nine mile bike ride.

I didn’t say anything particularly dramatic to either of them. I just mustered the little dignity I had, got on my bike, and rode away.

On the way to a friend’s house, I passed a vacant lot where I’d hung out as a kid. The county had cleared it but now it was all grown back, so I took that as a sign I’d be all right. Between that moment and “all right” was a trip to the prom with the girl who’d dumped me, but that’s a whole other story.

It was the start of a strange, dream-like summer that I wouldn’t change at all.

It was a summer of much carpe-ing the diem.

It was a summer of much carpe-ing the diem.

On My Silences

I miss the blissful pre-online ignorance of not knowing what so many people think and believe. It was easier to pretend there were better ones living somewhere else in the world that way.

When I was a kid, you pretty much had to walk into a bar or a Moose Lodge to seek out so many ill-informed opinions at once on everything from car repair to macroeconomics. Now the Internet brings the bar and the Moose Lodge to me.

I used to blog (often angrily) a lot more about politics and culture, but then I had the epiphany that I really had no idea what I was talking about. And even when/if I did, the others who didn’t weren’t listening anyway.

Marketers, pollsters, and social media have convinced us all of the supreme power of opinion, of every person weighing in on every issue, mostly so we know what side they’re on and if it’s our own. Do you properly hate Donald Trump? Are you sufficiently horrified by abortion? Can we trust you to think always about the children?

The answer I see too infrequently is, “How the fuck should I know?”

Sustained and deliberate ignorance is a terrible thing. But temporary ignorance – something we might even call open-mindedness – seems just as terrifying to so many people.

It’s a fire hydrant culture where everyone feels compelled to splash a little of their scent on every issue.

So I talk less about these things, not because I don’t think about them but because I don’t see how opinions should matter much. We’re not the crowd at a football game, and “making more noise” doesn’t help much in the real world.

The disappointing truth is that despite what the websites and polls tell us, what we believe to be true has very little influence on what is actually true.

So you may never know how I’m voting in November or what I think about white supremacists on fiction awards juries or whether I’ll stop using $20 bills because Harriet Tubman is on them —  unless I can write something funny about it.

Should you stop sharing your beliefs? I’d never want to silence you. But I’ll say this:

Talking is how they distract us from doing, and never mistake a Post or Submit button for someone’s genuine interest or actual action in the world.

The Most Important Writing Advice You’ll Get Today

Here’s the most important writing advice I can give:

Stop making a big deal out of writing.

“Making a big deal” includes (but is no way limited to) the following:

  • Finding the perfect desk, pen, writing software, or coffee shop to work.
  • Writing random things just to feel like you’re still a writer.
  • Hunting down your mental blocks, hang-ups, neuroses, and terrible personal history to free the creative soul within.
  • Worrying at all about “inspiration” or “the muse” being present or absent.
  • Worrying at all if you’re working hard enough (compared to other writers, compared to other professions, compared to other people’s impressions).
  • Worrying at all about “finding your voice,” which is really just a retrospective conglomeration of all the voices you’ve chosen to tell your stories over many years.
  • Worrying at all if you’re ready. You aren’t.
  • Elaborately outlining or preparing your world or characters.
  • Joining the right “professional” associations to “network.”
  • Gazing with longing at becoming part of a writing “community.”
  • Searching for ways to make writing easier or less messy.
  • Searching for the perfect writing book, class, workshop, website, mentor, or…uh…blog post that has the secret.

What’s funny is that we know all of this already. We’re looking for ways to simultaneously simplify writing to make it easier and complicate writing to make it more magical.

Take the summer off from thinking about capital-W Writing and think instead about the thing(s) you’re writing. When a story exists to make you a writer, I can guarantee it will suck. When you exist to make a story, it changes a lot.

 

More on that Visit to a Children’s Mental Asylum

You know that feeling that the best achievements of your life are behind you? If the number of times I’m asked about it as anything to go by, I’m guessing that my greatest moment was climbing through a broken window at an abandoned children’s asylum.

I guess I’m okay with that.

A few people have asked me to provide some more details after yesterday’s brief entry, so here’s the story.

It starts with Joseph DeJarnette, who probably wishes you were never born.

He was the director of Staunton, Virginia’s Western State Hospital from 1905 to 1943, and in that time he performed hundreds of involuntary sterilizations of the “feebleminded,” whom I’m guessing were not in short supply only a few hours from the nation’s capital.

For DeJarnette, sterilization was less an unpleasant medical duty and more a gleeful hobby worthy of poetry:

This is the law of Mendel,

And often he makes it plain,

Defectives will breed defectives,

And the insane breed insane.

Oh why do we allow these people

To breed back to the monkey’s nest,

To increase our country’s burdens

When we should only breed the best?

 

(On the subject of “insane breed insane,” my father used to muse with a certain grudging respect about the virility of the patients at the mental hospital where HE worked, saying that “crazy sure likes to fuck.” Which did not, in fact, provoke a lightning strike of irony.)

Anyway, DeJarnette even argued to keep the United States at the forefront of eugenics:

“Germany in six years has sterilized about 80,000 of her unfit while the United States with approximately twice the population has only sterilized about 27,869 to January 1, 1938 in the past 20 years… The fact that there are 12,000,000 defectives in the US should arouse our best endeavors to push this procedure to the maximum.”

In 1932, the DeJarnette Sanitarium was named in his honor in much the same way that we now have the Richard M. Nixon School of Ethics in Government and the Reverend James Warren Jones Agricultural Seminary.

Weirdly, it was renamed in the 1960s to the DeJarnette Center for Human Development, because the word “sanitarium” was more offensive than “DeJarnette.” Then it became a children’s mental hospital in 1975 and was shut down for good in 1996.

It’s been abandoned ever since, though there have been discussions of making it into a “frontier museum” or condos or a mall of some kind. People sometimes break in and look around or vandalize the furniture and papers that are left behind.

papers

When I went inside in 2006 with Matthew Warner (and, truth be told, my now ex-wife), I didn’t feel any oppressive aura of suffering. It reminded me of most ill-kept government buildings, everything painted with thick flaking layers of pastels.

danglingfeet

If any feeling did seep into the structure, it was one of barely holding itself together — there were drawings and slogans on the wall that were meant to be “fun” in the way that earnest government employees try to manufacture fun.

super

friendly

One feature struck me as particularly interesting, the Universal Precautions Cabinet. How did I know that was what it was? Because someone labeled it, that’s why.

precautions

When I showed the pictures of DeJarnette to some of my friends from South Carolina, they shook their heads in disbelief that anybody would go into a place like that.

“Look at that shit,” said Jason. “Whatever went down in that place at the end took every fucking thing in the Universal Precautions Cabinet…and it still didn’t work.”

A few months later, I went to the Clarion writing workshop and had a bruising and demoralizing first critique of my work, a moment of deep personal doubt.

When Jason got wind of that, his advice was, “Next time you’re sitting with those people, you look around and ask yourself who there’s got the sack to go into an abandoned children’s asylum where even the Universal Precautions Cabinet didn’t help for shit.”

That helped. It still does.

And if you have doubts about the kind of person you are sometimes, you could probably do worse than remember that you’re the kind who goes places you’re not supposed to go just because you’re curious what other people did and how they felt.

It’s architectural empathy.

Though DeJarnette didn’t perform sterilizations at the center named for him (that was at Western nearby), I still wonder if any of the residents ever left that place feeling…better. Braver. More ready with their own internal Universal Precaution Cabinets.

Because I couldn’t bear if it was just me.

Ten Years Ago: Breaking into an Abandoned Asylum!

(I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations on trespassing has gone by long ago.)

Ten years ago today, my buddy and fellow horror writer Matthew Warner and I decided to take a stroll around the abandoned children’s mental asylum in his town of Staunton, Virginia. I’d wanted to get some pictures of the exterior because it was a cool spooky place.

awesome

Then I happened to walk by a human-height broken window and thought, “Well, clearly I’m being invited inside.”

So I went in and Matt followed.

muralhall_1

Note the feet of hanging children.

Note the feet of hanging children.

dormeropen

handswall

mattwillgood

(There are more pictures here.)

I had a great time. We touched nothing, harmed nothing, and we respected the property and the pain of the people who once lived there. I think Matt has gone in with permission since then, but what’s the fun in that?

I know there are people who go into abandoned places for the danger and the risk of it, but I’m more interested in the stories those structures seem to absorb. I don’t have a lot of supernatural beliefs (this and the efficacy of democracy are the only two), but I do think that emotion can linger in places. And even if it doesn’t, I think it’s important sometimes to extend our empathy enough to pretend it does, to remember other people in other times.

I am not in any way advocating that you should enter a building this weekend and try to imagine the lives and feelings of the people who lived there. I’m not advocating, say, finding a bent section of fence where the police rarely go and gently stepping over. And I’m definitely not advocating that you should walk carefully through a dangerous ruin, taking no souvenirs but your own thoughts and maybe some pictures.

Stick to the living like everybody else. God knows they don’t express their every little thought often enough.

Hey! A New Interview with Me on the Outer Dark Podcast!

I’m not sure why people are interviewing me all of a sudden, but maybe I’m like the Paul Lynde of horror, the kind of show biz trooper always available when someone needs a center square.

Anyway, Scott Nicolay very graciously and insightfully interviewed me for the award-winning Outer Dark podcast, and it’s available for your enjoyment now!

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