[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.