I think I’m able to write this now.
It’s been hard to write these blogs because in a way, it’s me letting go of the experience, letting myself say goodbye. But that’s necessary; sometimes you have to say goodbye to something good, in order to be ready to receive the next thing.
As the Vandermeers were quick to tell us, life outside of Clarion is, simply, not Clarion, and we shouldn’t pressure ourselves to find that kind of experience again.
So, here we go, ready or not, down the rabbit hole one last time, you and I. Ready?
Nora’s last day began with me wrenching myself awake from a hangover-coma and joining her for food shopping. Nora had been planning on putting together a farewell dinner for everyone and as my hangover burned away, we had a wonderful time talking and hanging out, picking up supplies while the rest of the class slept. She introduced me to pho, for which I’ll always be grateful, and covered some beer supplies for that night. (Have I mentioned Nora kicks ass? Nora kicks ass). We grabbed food stuffs and went back to the dorms, where she began to get everything ready; we continued to hang out and chat. I may have rambled to her about the novel I was working on. Sorry.
As everyone woke up, they came by, eager to help and pitch in. Someone may have cut their thumb on a vegetable slicer. All in a day. As the afternoon burned on into evening, we brought books by for Nora to sign, and eventually, dinner was ready: ratatouille and chicken gumbo, which Nora claims was not so very spicy and yet it still burned the paint off of wall. (Kidding, but it WAS delicious). As we were eating, Ann and Jeff Vandermeer showed up and I knew we had transitioned into the final moments of Clarion.
The next day, we bid a sad farewell to Nora, and our time with the Vandermeers began. I knew it would be interesting, since for the first few days, Jeff and I both ended up wearing the exact same outfit, only lending credence to the rumor that I was his bastard son, and thereby convincing no one that that wasn’t the case. Ann accepted me into the family with care and grace and didn’t even yell at Jeff for not telling her of my existence.
The thing about the last two weeks of Clarion, is that Time had begun to reassamble itself. We’d been hiding from it, smashing it into pieces for the first four weeks, catching it creep around corners, watching us from shadows unseen. We thought we could keep it at bay, but it’s relentless; it came for us in a swift surge those last two weeks. The Blur had begun and swept up every day in its waters.
Ann and Jeff, for those who don’t know, are some of the best, most brilliant, and hard-working folks in the biz; between the two of them they’ve probably worked on, edited, and published, dozens upon dozens of anthologies, let alone a myriad of short stories, novels, and other works both collaborative and singular. They’re fierce in their desire for one thing: great fucking stories. And they will push and push to get that out of you. Being one of their students was like staring at the sun while painting it, like surfing on a massive wave while composing a Daft Punk remix of Beethoven’s fifth, like hiking a mountain blind, following the siren song of a Yeti singing poetry in its native tongue; a mixture of impossibility and art and intensity, the kind of work ethic and attention to detail that sounds insane but in the end, is incredibly possible and real, as long as you have passion and dedication in equal measure.
They pushed us to take risks, to try new things, to believe in ourselves wholly; their message after four weeks was: It’s time to stop doubting yourselves and be brave in your belief.
We threw ourselves into those last two weeks, flung ourselves into the last sprint of the race, trying to stay one step ahead of time, one step ahead of reality, which was asserting itself too, pressuring the edges of our Clarion existence, pushing us onward. Some of the best stories were written in those last two weeks.
It wasn’t all writing, of course. We got to know Ann and Jeff, got to spend time with them, pick their brains, listen to their stories of the industry and adventure and straight-up insane moments in their lives. We drank and ate cheese and went to the cliffs and readings and Comic-Con. We went to breweries and took walks and ate dinner, together. They introduced us to Charles Yu and Lev Grossman and many others. They treated us as equals in the field, with a lot still to learn, but as equals nonetheless. And they encouraged us, at every moment in everything.
Most of all, they took care of us. Together, they were Mom and Dad to all of us, not only as as we wrote, but as we got ready for the real world, too. One of their goals as the anchor team of the experience, was to help prepare us for the cold plunge back into reality. They gave us advice on markets, on agents, on writing, on being kind to yourself. Clarion was a massive shock to the system, and being kind to yourself as you readjusted was one of the things they stressed the most.
As San Diego Comic-Con bled into the background and Week Six officially began, every little thing took on the air of ritual. Our morning walks past the UCSD Sun God statue, our weekly conquest of the karaoke machine, our trips out to the cliffs or beach, our final night of readings at Mysterious Galaxy: every one of these moments became packed with importance and sacred value.
Our final night, we all went to the cliffs to watch the sunset over the ocean one last time. We all went back to the common room for pizza and drinks. Jeff and I got drunk and discussed his latest book. Ellie brought out her ukelele and we sang. Lisa Bolekaja and Sarah Mack (Clarion ’12!) swung by and celebrated with us. Kayla probably said something about whales and how much she hates them. Nino most definitely tried to eat Harry. I may have done impressions of just about everyone and I still can’t remember if they were good or not. If they weren’t, my sincere apologies to my Clarion family. If they were, you’re welcome. If I didn’t do one of you, it’s not that I don’t love you, it’s that I couldn’t do justice to your amazingness.
We drank. We sang. We said good-bye. After six weeks, it was over and only the rest of our lives waited.
The next morning, I had a hangover the size of Chicago. The sky was grumpy and grey. Some folks had left in the night. Kayla was already driving back home with her Dad, (Brian, who deserves a whole blog to himself. Man, that guy can tell a good story). Harry caught a ride on the back of a giant eagle. Noah walked into the ocean, humming to the cloud of butterflies that followed in his wake. Kiik returned to his slumber under the earth. Leena, Amanda, Tamara, and Nino constructed a flying machine from balloons, rock’n’roll and string, and sailed the skies homeward. Manish was all, “Yo bro, I gotta go,” and turned into a bat and flew away to the moon. Zach was kidnapped by a band of singing pirates. Vida vanished into thin air and left her hat behind. Sarena called her pack of hunting elks and rode one back to the southwest. Ryan unfolded his angelic wings and smiled as he took to the skies. Kristen rode a neon unicycle fueled by dreams back to Massachusetts. Marian disappeared in a puff of smoke that smelled like vanilla and ink. Amin slowly dissolved into a pile of smiling sand and flew home on the wind.
Only Ellie and I were left. We made our way to the San Diego airport. It was fitting: we came in together on the same plane, and we were leaving at the same time, too.
We said good-bye. I got on the plane and sailed through the dark of night, back home to New York.
It’s fitting that the last thing I really read at Clarion was Jeff’s third book of the Southern Reach Trilogy, Acceptance. I snatched it up and squirreled myself away with it, (Sorry everyone, especially Noah), but it meant more than just reading the last book in a trilogy I was enjoying: It’s there in the title. Giving up control, giving up paradise for a world that held your past and your future but not your present, learning to accept things as they are; I don’t know, maybe I’m rambling, but it helped get me to a certain state of mind needed for entering the real world again.
It was time for us to let go, but never forget, and accept the world that waited for us.