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.
(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.]