Clarion Week 4: Wisdom, Worries, and Water Guns

This is a Clarion blog.

This is a very late Clarion blog.

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It has been a little over six weeks since I wrote on my blog, and even about my Clarion experience, just a little longer than the workshop itself. And a trend I noticed, among my fellow classmates, is that those who wanted to write a week by week update like myself, have also failed to go beyond Week 3.

I have a theory as to why this is.

We had been climbing a mountain, with joy and song and frustration and love. And at the end of Week 3, as we stood on that rooftop with Cat and Nora, changing the guard under the light of the moon, the end was in sight.

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As of Week 4, we were halfway there and it was terrifying.

Why haven’t we written of Week 4 and beyond? Because as of that night, Paradise was halfway done, and I think it hurts to remember, to revisit it.

But I will, I have to!

It’d be a disservice to the last half of Paradise if I didn’t explore those days as well.

So . . . Week 4.

Nora Jemisin, who publishes under N. K. Jemisin is every bit as sweet and funny and brilliant you would have hoped for. Even battling a nasty virus, even on deadline (!), she still managed to give us a hell of a week.

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And it was a hell of a week, hell being the operative word (in no way because of Nora, mind you). As with all Clarions before, and all Clarions to follow, Week 4 is the dreaded time when wills fray, politeness snaps, and tensions that have been boiling for three weeks bubble to the surface. The stress and homesickness and frustration that had been counting down since Day 1 all comes to a head at some point in Week 4.

No one was in any way prepared to deal with it.

But Nora was.

I firmly believe that some higher Clarion power gave us the teacher we needed the exact week we needed them. And Nora, whose day job as a student counselor had prepared her for high tensions, conflict resolution, and talking down incredibly anxious and frustrated students, was our salvation that week. All of her amazing writing thoughts aside, Nora was the rock that held us together, that took our fraying ends, smoothed them out, tied them back tighter and stronger than ever. She was there for us when we knocked on her door at 1 in the morning and just said, “I just need someone to talk to, do you have a minute?” And she always let us in.

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It all came together Friday night, when she flicked open a pair of Terminator-may-care sunglasses, slid them over her eyes, kicked a box of water guns into the room, grabbed the biggest hydro-lovin’ bastard in the pile, cocked it, and said, “You’ve got a minute to grab a water gun, and get outside.”

We saddled up, and a minute later, we were downstairs on the grass shooting water, cursing like sailors, and generally causing chaos. It was a great tension diffuser, and that, paired with the great home-made dinner Nora made for us, ratatouille and chicken gumbo over rice, made for a great, feel-good weekend, and served as a delicious and smooth transition to the Vandermeers.

Writing wise, Nora spoke to us about empathy and love and history, asked us to consider cultures and societies outside of ourselves, introduced us to a lot of the realities of the publishing industry we hadn’t had a chance to discuss yet. She was frank, open and honest about her experiences, and was very forthcoming about what it means to be a writer with a day job and how best to make that work. Her and I had a lot of great discussions on epic fantasy, especially; between her and Cat, I’m still trying to process and interrogate the genre, and see what I want to do within it. 

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Nora was a great pillar of support in Week 4, and was an absolute pleasure to work with. She helped keep us afloat, kept us from drowning in our own worries and tensions, helped us find our way back to dry land for the last two weeks, the real world so much closer than the day before.

 

With that Saturday night, the Vandermeers had arrived. That Sunday, Nora flew back to NY and Week 4 had ended.

The homestretch had begun.

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Clarion Week 3: Writing With Your Stars Out

This is a Clarion Blog.

I’m writing this from the future, from week five, but more on that later.

Birthday Boy Manish at Green Flash Brewery.
Birthday Boy Manish at Green Flash Brewery.

When the end of week two rolled around, we were crashing headlong into a wall made of exhaustion and no sleep and no stopping, as Geoff Ryman pushed and encouraged and pushed us some more, in our Clarion journey. By the end of week two, we had experienced our first major wipeout of the workshop.

But we worked through it, with sleep and alcohol and singing, and by the time Cat and her partner Heath (who is a wise and hilarious gentleman), showed, we were ready for week three to begin.

Cat, (or Catherynne Valente as she is known to the book world), is an absolute gem, and one of the main reasons I applied this year. If you’ve never read any of her fiction, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Magical, whimsical, heartbreaking, gut wrenching, sly and charming, Cat’s work is beautiful on every level. I was half-expecting her to start bringing chairs and brooms and doorknobs to life with a wink of her eye, kept waiting to see eucalyptus trees bob and ravens wheel and stones laugh as she passed by.

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And even though most of these things didn’t happen, (that I could see with my very human, non-magical eyes), she was a delight and wonder in every sense, not only as a teacher, but as a mentor. Her critiques were enthusiastic and filled with overwhelming support, with questions that cut to the heart of the narrative, and an energy that always managed to revitalize a room of sleep-deprived writers.

Outside the workshop though, she took us under her wing, and spoke to us as equals, compatriots, colleagues. She taught us how to read your story with energy and confidence. She sat with us on the roof, taught us to stand up for ourselves, how to approach the community, how to sit at the table and be counted.

We cooked up Herbert the Plotstrich, and ate him for his narrative power.

Goodbye, Herbert. You were nourishing.
We said celebrated Herbert’s Narrative power before we cooked and ate him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She taught us that we have to believe in ourselves, that the stories worth telling are our stories, can only be our stories, that they have to come from a deep place, a well in the bottom of your heart that you have to pull from, have to give of yourself to the world through your writing.

She was ridiculous with us and laughed with us, and sang with us, (Backstreet Boys, if you must know).

She taught us that we have to write with our stars out, with our heart on the page.

Mermaid stories.
Mermaid stories.

Her energy and love and support and sheer fucking enthusiasm for us and our future got us through week three. She dropped truth-bomb after truth-bomb, and taught us that we can make it out in the world, that our stories are worth telling. She was a song, a poem, a spell, amorphous and all-changing and always supportive. 

I’ll always remember sitting with her, beer in hand, nodding along, rapt . . . And then playing Charades Against Humanity, embarrassing ourselves, with not a care in the world, putting ourself out there as we had to on the page.

 

 

She was exactly what we needed in Week Three, and it was an absolute blast (and privilege) to work with her. I think she helped convince us we were all on the right path, and that ultimately, we needed to be enjoying ourselves, that writing wasn’t all doom and gloom and darkness. She helped us remember that writing could be, and should be fun as well.

The Plotstrich in question.
The Plotstrich in question.
Funny Faces Are Funny
Funny Faces Are Funny

 

 

Clarion Week 2: Steampunk, Sunsets & Sleep-Deprivation

This is a Clarion blog.

Geoff at Mysterious Galaxy Reading
Geoff at Mysterious Galaxy Reading

Week one came to a close, and before we knew it, Gregory Frost was giving us all a bear hug and a pat on the back, leaving us in the care of our second week instructor, Geoff Ryman, a man whose heart is as big as he is tall, who exudes a quiet, intense grace in the presence of a workshop. Our first real experience with him was at an event, Steampunk Tea, which is exactly what it sounds like, where he delighted in taking pictures of all of us, and playing the instrument known as the Thunder Sheet, with a supreme gusto.

Steampunk Time Machine, RAWR.
Steampunk Time Machine, RAWR.

Steampunk Tea was a lot of fun, and a great way to get to know some of the folks on campus who wanted to know us. They gave us little Clarion pins, and said how excited they were to have us. Sometimes I forget that we don’t live in a vacuum, that there are people on campus and in the blogosphere who are actively rooting for us, cheering us on. It was a nice reminder and we left enthused. Also, David Brin says hi.

Monday brought around my first critique, and I actually had a second critique on Friday as well.  It’s always intense to read other people’s work with a critical eye, but it’s a special kind of pressure when it’s you who’s on the chopping block. A few tips I learned:

1: It Ain’t Personal- Critiquing isn’t personal. If it is, it’s a bad critique or you’ve done something so terrible in your writing, it has to be addressed. Otherwise, critiques are not an attack on you as a person, your beliefs, what you hold dear, or anything of the sort. It is an objective look at a draft of a story, a first draft mind you, of something you’ve written, and doing everything in your power to help the author make the next draft that much stronger. You should not see workshopping as an attack. If you do, you need to buck up or get out of the game. Being on the chopping block isn’t supposed to be fun.

Here, have a sunset.
Here, have a sunset.

2: Draft Numero Uno- This is a first draft. This Is A First Draft. THIS IS A FIRST DRAFT. It’s not supposed to be perfect, (unless you’re Kelly Link, whose Clarion Archive stories depressed us all because they’re pretty much what got published). The goal here is to try something new, something exciting, and to get your hands in the muck and mire as much as possible. You’re building an intricate sandcastle as high tide approaches, and you need to do what you can before the Deadline Tide sweeps in, destroying it. But that’s only because you’ll have the tools after the workshop to rebuild it, stronger and better than ever, with buttresses, and shield walls to keep out the water, and archers to take care of any water-dwelling armies, and soldiers riding the back of orca whales and–! Well, you know what I mean. It’s a first draft. Perfection isn’t the goal. Learning is.

3: Keep Typing- People worked hard on your story, and they wouldn’t be in the room if they didn’t have a lot to add to the pot. They devoted time and effort to give your story a thorough working over, so if they’re talking, you’re typing. Make sure to record everything they say, because not only are these folks smart, they all bring a certain point of view to your story that can help it sink or swim. Don’t disrespect that.

4: Solace Muffin- You can get the best critique in the world, and still feel wrung out. Make sure to have a solace muffin or cookie on hand, to help you through the worst of the head-spinny, mind-shuffle that can come after a critique.

Unwinding from Week 2
Unwinding from Week 2

But yeah, we workshopped and read and stayed up late and workshopped and read and drank, and by Friday afternoon, we all collectively passed out. This was the first week where we had work every day and every night, and it hit us hard. We had become the mental equivalent of a pile of exhausted puppies cluttering a grassy hill, exhausted and all smushed together, sleeping. We were adorable.

Geoff was an excellent instructor, very direct and academic in his analysis and deconstruction of a story. Very different in style and tone from Greg but no less helpful. I imagine it’s going to be a blast learning Cat’s style and what tone she sets for the week.

Steampunk Gentlemen
Steampunk Gentlemen

 

Oh! Cat is here, by the way. She and her partner Heath, came in last night, and we made a giant homemade chili dinner for them. It’s been less than a day and she’s already dropped like eight truth-bombs.

It’s going to be a great week three.

 

Clarion Week 1: Grandmapunk, Roof Brews and Porky Pig

This is a Clarion blog.

I slept maybe four hours, and dragged my ass out of bed before the sun was even thinking of rising for the day. Showered the sleep away, woke up with a razor to my throat as I shaved, threw myself together as best as I could, and just as the sun was over the horizon, we were off to JFK. There, I was lucky enough to meet up with my classmate, Ellie, and together we navigated TSA and within the hour, were in the sky. Wedged between two oddball passengers, I dozed and read while the plane whisked us across the US. We traveled back three hours, and were in San Diego proper around 11:30. Classmate Zach picked us up and before we knew it, Clarion had begun.

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Forms to fill out, keys to receive, hands to shake, folks to meet, we came together all of us, various waves crashing in on the same shore, the same new and alien landscape of cloudless blue skies, and a consistent low seventies temperature. Director Laura Martin walked us through the campus, introduced us to the dining hall, and by the time the sun was setting over the Pacific, we were all gathered around Gregory Frost, Man of the Written Word Extraordinaire, and we sat in rapt attention.

“This isn’t Viable Paradise,” he said, bedecked in his hawaiian shirt, grinning. “This isn’t Taos or Odyssey or like any other workshop out there. This paved the way for a lot of those, but this is it, this is Clarion.” He spoke to us for a little while, his biggest lesson being: now is the time to fuck up, fuck around, experiment, “drive your story into the wall at 90mph and see what happens.” We all left that room, and I swear I could hear our minds and gears spinning and whirring and coming to life in a way they hadn’t before.

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were a storm of prompts, exercises, and lectures, as we weren’t going to be discussing our submission stories. (We were too far away from them, Greg said, and I agreed). Those first few days were learning the campus, learning the format, the google drive, and preparing ourselves. Folks were already writing their stories by Tuesday. Things move awfully quick at Clarion.

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But it wasn’t all work. Monday nights have become Roof Brews, where we sit around on the roof on sunset and drink, play ukelele, get to know each other in a way only imbibing and music can allow. Tuesday night, we reversed it, as we hit up Karaoke Night at the local pub, and sang our heart out, the beers lowering our Social Shields. Highlights include Meatloaf, TLC, Kiss From A Rose, Rihanna, and Johnny Cash in the style of Porky Pig.

Wednesday was our first time at Mysterious Galaxy Bookshop for Greg’s reading and signing, and it was fantastic. Such a beautiful home of science fiction and fantasy and mystery books, and a great cadre of people working and shopping there. Got to meet a few Clarion grads, (HI SARAH MACK), and got to talk with Greg Van Eekhout, whose novel, CALIFORNIA BONES I just read and loved. Afterwards we grabbed some In’N’Out Burger, and got ready for our first day of critiques the next morning. I also finished the first draft of my first story, “The Sleeping Stone,” (being critiqued Monday!).

Clarion 1And if the way things went yesterday and today is any indication of the weeks to come, I’m looking forward to it even more. Everyone had very intelligent things to say, being supportive without being appeasing, and being direct without being cruel. I’m nervous for Monday, but I’m ready for it.

Kat Howard, my mentor and friend, told me that Clarion is basically a Time Warp, and it really is: Sunday feels a year ago, and August feels as though it is breathing down my neck. I’ve already begun work on my second story, “The Composer’s Betrayal,” should have some movement on that in the next day or two.

I’ll most likely do a massive blog at the end of it all, with lines and quotes and lessons, so you can look forward to this weekly missives as a detailing of our adventures out here. And from the feel of this group, the beauty of the campus and the area, the excitement we all have whenever we walk in the room, there are adventures more to come.

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WESTWARD, HO.
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Roofbrews!

 

So What Is All This Clarion Jazz?

I’ll do a big catch up post soon, along with a slew of reviews I’ve had taking up space in my brain. But I wanted to talk today about the Big News:

I’m going to be attending the Clarion Writers’ Workshop this summer in San Diego!

::insert gif of flailing muppet arms set on fire, elephants swinging from the chandeliers, while a raucous party, complete with hats, balloons, streamers, and several garage bands erupts below and there is SO MUCH CAKE::

So, for those who don’t know, here’s what Clarion is all about: Six weeks out in San Diego on the UCSD Campus, only a few minutes from the ocean, living and working and writing along with seventeen other talented-as-hell writers, under the tutelage of six working, super-talented-as-hell industry professionals, one a week, with a focus in genre writing. The goal is to write a story I believe, and workshop and critique in a positive, honest setting with a different industry professional writer guiding and teaching for the week.

Those professional writers are: Gregory Frost, Geoff Ryman, Cathrynne Valente, Nora Jemisin, and Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, each and every one of them giants in the field. I really lucked out this year. I know the work of many of them with the exception of one or two, but I look forward to familiarizing myself before June.

What I do know is that they are all immensely talented and will each bring something completely different to the table. (Be warned: I will do my best not to fanboy out each time they enter the room, but I promise nothing, you hear? NOTHING.)

I sometimes still can’t believe I got in. I’ve been applying for years, dreaming of spending every summer with like-minded writers, and just . . . working, typing, having the time to focus on my craft with folks who will be just as crazy and passionate as I am. I’ve already started meeting some of the other students and I can tell it’s going to be a great group.

It’s going to be intense as all get out, but I can’t wait. I’ve been pushing myself so hard lately, working three jobs while still trying to write while still trying to sleep, that six weeks just workshopping and writing is going to seem like a vacation. Of course, I say that now. I’ll get back to you after day one.

A huge thank you to my mentor, Kat Howard and all the other writers and readers and friends who have helped me polish and rework my writing to the point it is.

The next few months can’t fly fast enough. Until then, just going to be saving money, sleeping when I can, and writing as best I can until June. (And maybe install an IV drip of coffee . . . yeah, that’ll be a good project to work on . . .)

Alright, back later tonight for more Life Stuff Updates.

Until then, write on.