Oh, a Clarion thing I definitely should post!

Sam J. Miller, one of my Clarion classmates, posted a massive transcribed list of all the awesome writing advice quotes he wrote down over the course of six weeks. It got boingboinged while I was in Montana with no internet, so I’m only noticing this now.

Here’s the boingboing link, because it has a panorama of all of us around the workshopping table in our anonymous little classroom in the Literature Building. <3

Clarion retrospectivization

I don’t know if I’ll do any more in-depth reporting on how we spent our last three weeks at Clarion, or Comic-Con, where I fangirled webcomics god Dave Kellett like an idiot, or the increasing soberness of our cafeteria lunches and dinners as it struck us one by one that our amazing, life-changing time together was coming to an end, or our final night on the beach, where we all read something meaningful to us and Carmen brought a whole roll of paper towels for people to cry into (good call). I didn’t really break down until halfway through my reading of So You Want to be a Writer? by Charles Bukowski.

What I do know is that the chapter of my life story I’ve been telling to myself and about myself, the one where I almost lost everything but came crawling back to life over the course of half a decade or more, against the tide of relationships and work and daily survival, is pretty much over. I’m tired of the being a person who is going to do great things (at least in my head). I want to be that person, or at least take a good stab at it before too much longer.

I came home from Clarion with a massive head cold that left me nearly bedridden for several days. Partway through that time, I learned that a very dear friend, a bridesmaid in my wedding, had been hospitalized and almost died twice that first night. She’s doing so much better today – I visited her on Monday night, and she was cheerfully sitting up and cracking jokes and taking the whole thing so much better than her fiance – but, I mean, God, she’s only thirty. What if that happened to me?

I’m pretty obviously a huge piece of shit for wanting to leave my current job when so many people don’t have one. I’m insanely lucky to know my parents will always have a spare bedroom should my ambitions vastly outstrip my ability to support myself. Arthur is, I think, on board, though we’re both in the middle of deciding what the hell to do next should we ditch our so-called careers – move to L.A.? Move to Cleveland? Move way out in the exurbs of DC so he can keep doing improv but we won’t drown in rent? We both have job applications out all the time. I’m very excited about mine, but it’s been a hard, disappointing few years for both of us.

Because here’s the thing: My cubicle job is driving me nuts. What Clarion showed me is that I am a deeply unhappy person right now and the structure of my life is the direct cause. Neil Armstrong (RIP) said a thing about humans only having a finite number of heartbeats and not intending to waste any of his. I used to think the key to writing was trying to make it as safe as possible – keeping the full-time day job, carefully picking and choosing health insurance, living cheaply – but now I think that while all those things are great, what is really important is to get all the words you can out of your brain before you croak. And because of my physical issues, no full-time job is ever going to be able to let me do that to my satisfaction. Even if it means probably croaking earlier, even if it means only ever being a part-time productive member of society (because, let’s face it, I am statistically unlikely to write the next Harry Potter and I’m never going to kid myself different) I have to do this. I am going to write until I fall down dead, and damn the torpedoes, and damn the hurricanes, and damn the landlords, and damn society for telling me it’s not worthwhile.

So don’t be surprised if I start talking about drastic life changes by or around New Year’s Day, depending on whether any of my applications bear fruit – moving, changing, existing as a full person instead of a half-aware cog in the bureaucratic machine. I’m a defective part and they don’t need me. There are a thousand other bright-eyed environmental science grads to take my place. I can only be myself, a lover of science and a scientist of letters, telling the world the stories that keep us all going as certainly as bread, as blood, as gravity, as sunlight. I can only be myself, anymore.


Actually I’ve been home since late Sunday night. However, I caught the cold going around among the Clarionites just before I left, and have been coping with that on top of jet lag on top of coming down from one of the coolest experiences of my life.

So I might be quiet for a while.

I will say that I’ve decided to become a writer, no matter the probable poverty and general shittiness that brings. I just have to figure out how to make it happen.

Clarion, Day Whatever, beyond my wildest dreams edition

We’re staring down the end of Week Three, and I last reported only four days into the workshop. Shit was still getting settled. We were still learning our functions and our duties. We read our thousand-word stories (no more, no less) aloud to each other in workshop and tried to critique them, though all of us are much better trained readers than listeners. Jeff Ford gave us assignments – expand this story, don’t expand that one, work on something else if you have an idea, come talk to me if you don’t. We’ll think of something.

That first weekend, we got brunch at a place called Crest Cafe in San Diego proper and went to the beach. My knee was still messed up from my overexertion at the beginning, so L drove me part of the way. I had no choice but to get out and hobble down a steep hill, though, as this was a mostly-locals beach separate from the tourist stretch farther south, and cars couldn’t approach closely. Once I got down there, alternately baking in the sun and going up to my neck in the freezing ocean actually seemed to help the injury. I had to take it easy for another several days before I could cautiously move faster than a slow walk. After realizing how much energy I’d spent on a single beach trip, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it often. I promised myself I’d go every weekend, but there just aren’t enough spoons to go around! If I lived here I would go all the time, though – it’s beautiful.

On Friday night we bid adieu to Jeff Ford, who did an excellent job as Week One Instructor and Everybody’s Genial Workshop Dad, and welcomed Delia Sherman into Week Two. Delia imposed some order on the workshopping bit that Jeff hadn’t bothered with, making sure every single person spoke about every single story. I resented it at first, but I saw quickly how it encouraged more discussion and made sure everyone’s ideas got out. We still picked the order in which we would speak.

I’m being deliberately vague about the writing. By now we’ve all workshopped at least one thing that could easily be published with a little more polishing. This is a smart (and smartass) group and we all have different strengths, but we’re all good writers already, which helps a lot. Much of the groundwork of (I hear) the old Clarions can be dispensed with, and I’m not sure how anyone could level the hoary accusation that everyone comes out of workshops like this sounding the same when we’re all so different.

A lot of our thoughts have begun to center on food. The cafeteria is not terrible, certainly serviceable, but the food is bland and recipes heavily recycled and there is very little variety. We try to get at least one “real” meal each weekend. I gave up on not spending any money on extra food (after all, the cafeteria’s already a sunk cost) and picked up some fresh figs and orange juice and wine the same day a big care package full of snacks arrived from my parents. Whoops/thanks.

L made a stealth trip to In-N-Out once and brought me a burger. I discovered the cafeteria pizza does not trigger my dairy allergy, but later ate some “real” pizza and had a very real, if mild, allergic reaction. I don’t think there’s any possible way for me to remain in denial about this anymore. I’m just going to have to avoid dairy wherever I can, though doesn’t seem so bad that I have to go through ingredient lists for whey powder or casein.

Each week, our instructor gives a reading at a local independent bookstore called Mysterious Galaxy. These outings have been so much fun that I think I should reset my new pie-in-the-sky Writing Goal – now that the old one’s been fulfilled, as I am in fact at Clarion – to have my very own reading there someday. They let us sit in the front row, right up by the podium. We take pictures. I can’t take any more books home in my suitcase, but I’ve bought two cheapo paperbacks to read and abandon and a shirt to express my love.

Eventually we said goodbye to Delia and spent the rest of last weekend instructorless until Ted Chiang arrived. But first: We managed to briefly kidnap John Scalzi, president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, from his hotel in downtown San Diego and drag him back for Mandatory Super Fun Hangouts and Pizza. This is where I learned that I very definitely am allergic to real pizza with real cheese on it, so it may be the last good pizza I ever eat. John went above and beyond the call of duty, extending his “I’ll come and talk for an hour or two” to more like 3.5 hours. He was really funny and animated and awesome and gave us amazing inspiring advice about being a writer and I just think he’s the coolest. <3<3<3

Except for Ted, of course. I say this in as offhand a manner as possible, but longtime readers of my LJ may know that I have an enormous literary crush on Ted’s ability to craft perfect amazing jewel-like short stories, and it’s taken almost an entire week of workshopping and hanging out for me to get over my huge-eyed fangirlishness. Ted imposed the most traditional of workshop critiquing methods, in which we all go around in a circle. I like the way we’ve been changing it up every week, but I’m not sure we have any more methods to use! Ted’s coming to Comic-Con with us tomorrow for a little while and then flying home. This week has been grueling but far too short.

And somehow we’re halfway through Clarion. This is just the most bare-bones accounting of our adventures – if I had the energy and time to lovingly describe the highs and lows, the late-night bonding and already-obscure in-jokes and the way that I know that these seventeen people are going to be my friends for life, it would stretch over half a novel’s worth of posts and I wouldn’t get any more stories done. I love this crew. Continue reading

Day Four, coming up for air

Guys, Clarion is AWESOME. I wanted to sit down for a minute and reflect on the past few days and give you an idea of what life at the beginning of the workshop is like (other than OBVIOUSLY GREAT).

It’s day four of the workshop, day three of us sitting around the table all morning and critiquing each other’s stuff. We all know each other’s names now, and life is settling into a certain rhythm, our paths between breakfast and classroom and lunch and home and dinner and home defined enough that people are making plans for wider excursions – the beach, for starters.

If I’d had enough energy to write this yesterday I would have complained that my main issue so far is getting around Clarion rather than any of its contents. Our dorms are on a big ridge, and our breakfast/dinner cafeteria is down the hill on one side, and our classroom is down the hill on the other and considerably farther away. This makes the walk from breakfast to class every morning a mad rush. I’ve been either last or second to last person into the classroom every single day.

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Clarion Prep

We’re just a couple weeks out from Clarion now, and I haven’t posted anything about my preparations. Some of this is due to unavoidable distractions – getting married, a weeklong honeymoon, followed by three weeks of allergic-reaction-related illness, followed by slow recovery marred by periods of severe pain and exhaustion. A lot of my life right now is stumbling out of various craters as the universe drops little bombs on my plans, over and over.


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That Clarion Call

My science fiction education was entirely self-directed. Nobody else in my family read it. None of my friends read it. I spent a lot of time completely alone in worlds of what-if.

But I wasn’t completely alone, was I? I read books of essays. I picked up decades-old reviews written by other science fiction writers about their contemporaries’ works. I read old copies of Asimov’s and Analog and F&SF and Galaxy and Orbit and on and on and on.

And, very slowly, I built a picture in my mind of the science-fiction world. It was small. Close-knit. Everyone knew each other and it seemed like everyone was friends. And I thought about someday joining that world, bathing in camaraderie and acceptance and common interests, the way some people think about being rock stars or supermodels or actors or billionaires.

This was about when the internet was really taking off, but everything was dial-up and the search engines that existed were crap. It was conceivably possible to find SF fan sites, I just didn’t even know how to look – and, for a while, it didn’t even occur to me. I loved my genre from afar. Cleveland’s days of hosting huge SF cons were long over, though I did get my parents to take me to some kind of Star Trek meetup for a few hours once. (I spent my whole time in the dealer room, pawing through merchandise, too terrified to talk to anyone.) I never wrote a fan letter until college. I never even wrote a letter to the editor.

But I did write science fiction. (And a little fantasy. And a lot that blurred the line between them.) I wrote stories and poems and abortive novels because I was an isolated teenager, because I was bullied and stalked at school, because I was, somehow, already extremely precocious at it from an early age and it felt so good to be good at this one thing. And all that time, I thought often of how I was going to meet my idols someday as an equal. If I could just write enough. If I could just get good enough.

Success did come, in bits and pieces. College gave me a mentor in the form of awesomesauce writer Gregory Frost and validation in the form of the Dell Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. In Florida I got to live the dream, shaking hands with so many of the people I’d read growing up. It seemed like everyone wanted to pat me on the back and encourage me to ever greater heights. I got to be that rock star I’d always imagined, if only for a weekend or two, even if I hadn’t published anything just quite yet.

But it fell apart again almost as soon as it started. I got sick. I stopped writing. I thought it was gone forever and I mourned it like a friend. I thought of the old me as dead, or unrecognizably transformed. I thought I had to just move on with the cards I was dealt and try not to grow too bitter.

I started again, eventually, answering some need that inconveniently refused to curl up and die. The stories that resulted were lifeless. I applied to Clarion once, last year, when I could finally afford the application fee, and was rightly rejected. But I said at the time that I wasn’t going to give up. This was something I knew I needed so badly I would do anything. Neglect home and hearth and boyfriend. Go off my pain meds. Burn precious energy I needed to properly perform my job.

This whole past year I’ve been winnowing. I no longer involve myself in other people’s business. Not enough energy. I’ve cut all my extracurriculars but the cat adoption fairs. My life is quiet and pale, work-sleep-work-sleep-work-cook. Read. Read read read read read. Write. It’s very depressing, if I think about it too hard, but it’s necessary when I’m so weak.

I got into Clarion this year with two stories I wrote in, I think, August and November of 2011. I’ve known for a little while but I wasn’t supposed to say anything until they announced it last night. I burned so much energy this past week just being happy about it that it’s hard to feel anything but exhaustion right now. There’s so much logistics to deal with – wedding, and honeymoon, and now a long leave of absence at the height of summer – and I’m so tired. Given the choice I would have spaced out all these major life events a little, if only for breathing room.

But I did it. I got in. The thing I’ve wanted for literally half my life – ever since, in my wide-ranging reading, I started picking up references to this mysterious workshop and the late great Damon Knight. I’m going this summer, sick and all, weak and all, and praying that I’ll be able to keep up just enough to not embarrass myself. I’m so worried that I’ll be socially awkward as always, anxious and strange and unapproachable. That I won’t bond with my fellow supplicants at the Altar of Nerd. That I will disappoint the instructors with my output, or that I’ll miss all sorts of awesome quintessential-Clarion activities because I’m too sick to crawl out of bed.

I’ve never been the fastest writer. I’ve never been the slickest. But I want to learn. I want so desperately to go in only myself and come out a better artist and a better person, someone with a plan, someone worthy of those childhood ambitions. Someone stronger.

I’ve finally been called, and I can only answer with what I have. Let’s hope that’s enough.