Category: Clarion

Clarion, Wayward Will Part 4: The Moon’s Turned Black

I didn’t think I’d write any more about my Clarion writing workshop experience ten years ago, but since today is the exact anniversary of a moment I actually learned something, I’d like to commemorate it by passing it on.

By this time in 2006, the six-week workshop was winding down to its last days and I’d handed in my final story for critique. After weeks of trying to write carefully plotted science fiction stories that ended up quivering on the page like botched abortions, I’d reached my inevitable “fuck this” moment.

We all have a “fuck this” threshold, right? Where you realize there’s no hope of doing something the way everybody wants so you just fling something out, like throwing your tennis racket into the stands? That’s where I was.

For my last story, I returned to being funny and mean with “The Moon’s Turned Black,” about a genetically-resurrected Algonquin Round Table quipping through the apocalypse in our moment of greatest need. I’d written it as something of a gift for Aimee after a couple of conversations about Dorothy Parker.

(That’s lesson one, by the way: write to amuse someone specific instead of a faceless multitude.)

So we all sat down in our circle of couches and chairs as the summer thunderstorms rolled in for the early afternoon, and for some reason, that’s what I remember most about it: how dark it seemed in the room. A good dark, though — a cozy dark.

It was darker than this.

It was darker than this.

(Lesson two? Find your comfort in the things you love wherever you find them.)

Each person offered their critiques and I was stunned at how positive they were, if not glowing. One person said not to change a word. Aimee said she felt like it was written just for her, which it was. Someone asked who the fuck Dorothy Parker was, but I let that go. Kelly and Holly, our instructors, seemed to enjoy the story and had great suggestions for it that excited me for revisions.

(Lesson three? Don’t do anything someone suggests to your story unless it excites you with a feeling of recognition.)

It was a big moment that I desperately needed. I was pretty sure that I’d be going home as one of those people who leave Clarion to never write again, having realized they don’t have and can’t get what it takes, but the general approbation for that story hinted that maybe there was something in me after all.

(Lesson four? Don’t give a shit about whether you are or aren’t a “writer.” Do you like doing it? Do you enjoy entertaining people? Then who gives a fuck what they — or, for that matter, you — call you.)

So I went home to find out what that something was, sitting down for many sessions with a journal in the library to figure out what I had to work with and what I didn’t. I call this the “Fix It or Fuck It” list, where I decide whether it’s worth improving what I didn’t do well (character, description) or working around it (plot).

(Lesson five? Nobody teaches you writing. You decide what to practice and improve by looking honestly at your own work and making adjustments.)

I’m not sure how much of the weird inter-social aspects of our particular Clarion helped or hindered me, though I met some wonderful friends and a life partner there (no, Steve, not you: Aimee). And I’m not sure if I needed the full six weeks away from my normal life to boil me down to my essentials.

What I needed was a calibration of my expectations of how much talent I had and how much I had yet to learn, and I doubt I’d have gotten that any other way.

(Lesson six? Some fiascoes are necessary, if you only know how to use them.)

[If you’re curious, I’ve posted “The Moon’s Turned Black” on the site for your bemusement.]

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:

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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.

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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.

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(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:)

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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.

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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.

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

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