Month: June 2016

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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