Blogging About Clarion

This is my Post-Clarion Blog about my Clarion Experience. It was originally on LiveJournal, but as LiveJournal became a Russian company without safeguards, I followed many others in taking down my journal there. Fortunately, I’d saved it in text form, so I am retrieving the bits that are useful, including this.

December 06, 2007

I’ve been regretting that we weren’t encouraged to blog about Clarion while we were there. I understand the reasons, but it still seemed sad to have no record on the web of our amazing 6 weeks. Then Jan started writing about Clarion on her blog, and I felt free to follow suit.

So here’s my impressions from the first week of Clarion.

Before Clarion:

Even before I came to Clarion, a sense of camaraderie was building up on the newsgroup. I watched in happy amazement as Shweta volunteered her couch to people who needed to spend the night, and her husband to pick people up from the airport. Other arrangements came together – everyone introduced themselves, and offered rides and assistance. The group had a good feeling. In the midst of the chaos of my pre-Clarion life, I began to anticipate the weeks ahead.

There was a minor glitch when an e-mail suggested we’d have to share rooms, which I really wasn’t up for. I frantically started searching Craig’s List for alternatives. Luckily, it was a false alarm. We had individual rooms; we were sharing apartments.

Week 1: Waterfights and Vegetable Love

I got in late, having totally underestimated the traffic between Los Angeles (my pit-stop) and San Diego. By the time I arrived, everyone was at the opening dinner on Saturday June 23rd. Kim Stanley Robinson was there with Greg Frost. He looked thrilled – more than any of us, he knew Clarion had a close call when it had to leave Michigan, and it made a happy landing in UCSD, Stan’s home turf.

He had three pieces of advice:
(1) Don’t quit your day job (and/ or marry rich)
(2) You’ll have the rest of your life to write, but only 6 weeks with this particular group of people, so if it’s a choice between writing or partying, party!
(3) Don’t miss sunset at the Bluff.

Greg, our instructor for the week,  looked as though there was nowhere else on earth that he would rather be than here, at Clarion, with Us.  I felt we were lucky to have Greg at all, and doubly lucky to have him in Week 1. He made himself the 20th member of the group. He never said it in so many words, but he made it clear that every member of the group was valuable, and that it was appropriate for us all to look out for each other. (Someone translated that into the Marines motto: No One Left Behind.) That made it a group that worked, rather than a gaggle of wary and competitive strangers.

The accommodations were comfortable – apartments with four or five rooms, each with a living room and a kitchen where, technically, we were not supposed to cook. The drawbacks were a lack of sound-proofing and clothes-hangers. An expedition to CVS Pharmacy fixed the second problem, but there was no cure for the first except tolerance. We were acquainted with Café Ventanas, our dining hall that was open for one hour for each meal and whose rigid timings informed our schedule for the entire six weeks.

Few things were within walking distance, and the Campus Shuttle didn’t run in summer. Fortunately, there were several cars among us, just enough to transport us all, and a number of willing drivers who undertook Transportation Logistics. (We few, we happy few: Kari and Kater, Betsy, Nathaniel and me.)

Can I especially mention Shweta?  She lives in San Diego, and even before Clarion started, was an enthusiastic and welcoming online presence, volunteering airport pick-ups, volunteering her living room for overnighters, volunteering to organize tickets for Comic-con. And in the same paragraph, I want to mention Nathaniel (Shweta’s husband) – a wonderful calm and even magical person who appeared bringing pots and flashlights and transport and granting occasional wishes.

A trip to Target and CVS provided supplies, SuperSoakers, colored sidewalk chalk (Thanks, Jan!) that was to result in astounding works of art, and a microwave oven. And a purple glove-puppet with googly eyes, which was named Dr. Sneag, our mascot. With the logistics under control, we started in on the actual workshop.
We met from 9 a.m. to noon, every day; and we often had formal or informal meetings after dinner. We critiqued two or three stories each day. Afternoons were for reading, writing and running errands or just running.

Speaking only for myself, my first reaction was awe. I looked around at my class. They looked like perfectly ordinary people (okay, some of them looked pretty extraordinary, actually, but still people). Well, perfectly ordinary people who came from as far away as Egypt (Peter) or next door (Katie).  They wrote with an imagination that seemed derived from a different world than the one I lived in. The writing was deft and textured, expressed with an economy of words and sharp images. I’d have been perfectly happy to spend the entire 6 weeks just reading that stuff. How did I get into this place with them?

Greg. Greg was superb. I’ve already spoken of his way of quietly pulling the group together, building trust with us and among us. He was an accomplished and confident teacher. It was Greg who established the immortal line that provides the easiest way to critique a story that just didn’t work for you: “Every story has an idiot reader, and I’m it for this story.”

His writing exercises were interesting and useful and occasionally hilarious. Kitchen utensil sex scenes, anyone? Verbing nouns gets a whole lot more interesting when it’s spatulas poaching eggplants.

Greg also instituted the Water War, and was an active (very active!) participant. Julie and  I were the War Correspondents, and after that occasion, took every opportunity to document Clarion 2007. (I would end up with around 1500 photographs, of which perhaps half were water-battle action scenes.) Most people played. Andrew armed with a SuperSoaker was the Conan figure. Ramsey and Caleb moved so fast I got several shots of empty courtyard trying to photograph them. Jan was mischievous and nimble, dancing in from ambush points to tip buckets of water over unsuspecting targets. Treachery and trickery were the order of the day. The battle was often interrupted by people laughing themselves silly. They were ethical warriors, though. A cry of “Civilian!” or “cameras!” would stop a fusillade.

The week barreled along, and we were at Mysterious Galaxy, listening to Greg reading from his new book, which we couldn’t get copies of. (I got it later off Amazon, and Greg very kindly inscribed it for me.) A few minutes later, we were chatting with famous author Robert Crais (also a Clarion alum) who had driven down from LA. Then we were listening to Nancy Holder, reading at Mysterious Galaxy; and a book agent from the Sandy Dykstra Agency who actually encouraged pitches.

Jerome found a poster, and we all signed a message for Greg. And the week was over, and Greg was handing over to Jeff VanderMeer and Ann.

The Instructor is Gone. Welcome the Instructor!

Week 2: The Week of Dead Roman

The schedule led us to expect Jeff Vandermeer, accompanied by his wife Ann. What we got was a bonus: Jeff-and-Ann-Vandermeer. Greg had told us that Jeff would read our stories. He had. Every single one of them. Our submission stories. And everything we had written since. So had Ann.

Soon after he arrived, Jeff assigned the Roman story: We were to write, for a Saturday deadline, a 5,000 word story with a structured plot, and four characters: Gustav, a furniture mover; Antonio, his unemployed younger brother; Joanna, Gustav’s girlfriend, and Roman, a mysterious man who moves into the same building. Gustav kills Roman, and after that, they find out his secret. Don’t discuss it among yourselves, Jeff said. Do the assignment, Ann said, you’ll be happy you did. The class took it seriously. Roman must die, Julie declared. On 19 computers, Gustav killed Roman, with 19 different secrets revealed afterward. The tenements in which they lived were in London and Poland and New York.

On Friday night, with a 10 a.m. Saturday deadline, a headcount started.  Someone drew a memorial in chalk in the courtyard, and each time a Roman died, a Dead Roman was added with the initials of the author. Eventually, an array of 19 heads and a chalk corpse outline indicated the project was over.

There was a Water War. Ann and Jeff joined the combat with enthusiasm. Betsy appeared on wheels, a stunning modern Valkyrie. Desirina looked elegant and deceptively innocent, quick on the draw. Drew stayed out of the battle and watched from the window above.

There was a reading at Mysterious Galaxy.

For Jeff’s birthday, Shweta, assisted by a few midnight Clarionites, made a huge chalk-art picture of Scream.

A free-writing exercise resulted in the most unusual imagery, some of which later became stories. The hero of that exercise was a frog named Theodore. We’re rooting for Andrew to develop this character.

While I’m doing special mentions: Jerome. He took the lead in some of the nice things we did; he was the Master of the Cards – Birthdays, Thank yous.  He rounded up signatures for anything that needed signing by us all. He fostered a sense of appreciation for what we had. He set up Café Jerome in the living room of their apartment. And who can forget the Holy Readings from Brother Jerome in the last two weeks of the session?

Jerome found the perfect thanks-and-farewell poster with twenty squares on it, each by a different artist with quotes about art. And then Week 2 was over, and Jeff-and-Ann gave way to Karen Joy Fowler.

Clarion 2007 Week 3: Ending on the inhale

Karen Joy Fowler, third-week instructor, was a Clarion veteran who brought a sense of history and humor to the proceedings. The ghosts of Clarion Past were unearthed and exhibited; wackiness ensued. She also had a lot of suggestions for novice writers, often couched as “Don’t….(whatever it is). Nothing good will come of it.” She warned of the dangers of everyone you know identifying themselves as characters in your book, and the possibility of their taking offense. However, if the character (presumably female) is described as “strangely beautiful” it apparently defuses all thoughts of revenge.

Unfortunately she had to leave before Sunday, so there was limited occasion for the merry chaos that attended other instructors’ sessions. Her insights into our work were amazing. Every time she critiqued one of my stories and suggested changes, she brought it closer to the story I wish I had written in the first place.

She had an apparently endless supply of anecdotes about the Great and Venerated, and crisp descriptions of clay feet. Her reading at Mysterious Galaxy was an Event; and she was joined by Emma Bull reading from her new novel, Territory, and Will Shetterley. The line for book signings was out the door…

Her week moved so fast it was like a time warp. It was over almost before it began. As we said a fond farewell to Karen, presenting her with a poster of Raphael’s School of Athens (which looked eerily like the school at UCSD sans archway) Cory Doctorow arrived.

Oh, and to actually end on an inhale: After the workshop, Karen graciously offered to critique one more story for each of us. She actually gave mine three passes, including an  in-line edit. (If it ever gets published, I am sending her flowers!)

Week 4: “It Gets Worse!”

Cory was totally plugged in. We couldn’t separate him from his iPod long enough to hold a water-war. He instituted yoga in the mornings, before class; and walks to the bluff every evening after dinner. He gave us copies in manuscript form of his subversive new YA novel, Little Brother, which he also read at a well-attended event at Mysterious Galaxy.

(He described the process of writing it – in 8 weeks – as “passing a pineapple.”
“Passing? Like a basketball?”
“No, as in the digestive process…”)

Cory was the Master of the Plot. We discussed the 7-point plot and Try-fail loops. (“The protagonist tries intelligently to solve his problem. He fails. It gets worse!”) His class assignment was the movie Die Hard, on his birthday. A birthday dinner was celebrated on return from the movie, and segued into an analysis of try-fail loops and fighting aircraft with bare fists and airborne automobiles.

From Shweta’s midnight atelier came a chalk drawing of techno-Mickey, a reference to Cory’s book, “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” and his dedication to technology.

Amelia Beamer of Locus e-mailed asking for a group picture, which was taken by Tania. That’s the one on my website. (It got published in the August 2007 edition.)

A surprise arrived from Jeff and Ann Vandermeer: Our Killing Roman stories, compiled into an anthology! Called the Leonardo Variations, it claimed to have been edited by Dr Snead and the Danger/Dead Frog…and the back cover asked, “Will his students want to replace ‘Roman’ with ‘Jeff’ in their texts when they find out?” Lunch, that day, was hurried as people opened their books. (Later, we would each get the others to autograph the books for us.)

Drew and Julie had birthdays. A stegosaurus in chalk mysteriously appeared, crowned and armed with balloons wishing them both Happy Birthday.

Jerome and Shweta made a poster of the Doctruvian man. It started out as Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, but it acquired Cory’s head, a pair of Mickey Mouse boxers, a variety of electronic equipment, and a name-change…

We appeared that evening for our sunset walk wearing paper cutouts of a photograph of Cory’s head, stuck onto our clothing like buttons. Cory’s did a double-take when he got off the cellphone, turned around, and saw us all wearing Cory-heads!

On Saturday, Donald Wesling, Professor Emeritus of UCSD’s literature department, and the head of the Clarion effort on UCSD’s campus, had a pool party for Clarionites and their families if they were present. Justin’s then-partner Tim showed up, looking a little bemused by this crowd of writers. Kater’s husband Jeremy and her two remarkably well-behaved little girls came too. And we were joined by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, who team-taught to final two weeks.

Weeks Five and Six: Whirlwind

Ellen and Delia brought a sense of urgency to Clarion. They themselves had a number of other activities planned, but managed to make time for more activities for all of us. They also brought a good deal of amusement.  Meetings now started with a 1930s (?) holy text, “Write to Earn!”  Brother Jerome did the readings, with able support from Sister Kari and other members of the congregation.

The last two weeks whirled by. Liz Gorinsky of Tor came and spoke with us. We saw two plays: After the Quake, and The Deception. We went to Comic-Con, exciting, overwhelming and exhausting. We met Sarah Ryan, Clarion ’91, who has just published her second YA novel. We had theater exercises. We had a discussion about potential short-story markets. We had a full-moon visit to the beach, along with Dave and his wife and the cutest little puppy.

I lent my 2GB flash drive with 1500 Clarion photos on it to whoever wanted copies. I’d been posting a selection each day, compressed. (There are some 450 photographs in the Group files…) Caleb took a marvelous picture of Nick and Justin as battling mages, and modified it into an even more marvelous picture:

Battling Mages of Clarion

Our last evening at Clarion ended with a party organized by Kari. In addition to leftovers from everyone’s fridges, we brought in some food. August 2 was Katie’s 17th birthday, so of course there was a cake with candles, ignited from the electric burner in the kitchen, using a spill made of a paper towel.

Kater had, overnight, made a chalk drawing of My Little Perseponie, a reference to the Persephone story Katie had earlier submitted to the workshop. It had a pomegranate on its flank, with six pomegranate seeds. When the sprinklers washed it away in the morning, Kater redrew it in the 20 minutes between breakfast and class.

The masks that Kater had made earlier were a big hit. Everyone played with them: An alien with green projections and a huge number of eyes; a green man with a face made of leaves (this was by Jan); and a wonderfully eerie ghostly geisha mask.

And then there was a surprise announcement: the presentation of the Octavia Butler Award to Shweta. It came with a lovely silver pendant, a replica of one Butler used to wear, made by the same artist.

The poster we signed for Ellen and Delia showed three little girls, reading with fascination a book that had morphed into their joint work, “The Fall of the Kings.”

Around midnight, we visited the Singing Tree. Some of our classmates had reported hearing eerie sounds late at night; but each time we went, it only played the blues. Or was sulkily silent. Nevertheless, the trek to the tree had become a late-night ritual. Matt professed to be afraid of werewolves. Caleb put on the geisha mask and made a scary ghost (later immortalized in a You-Tube video).  We returned and exchanged awkward hugs…we knew we were running out of time. There was some howling at the moon that may have been werewolves.

The next morning, there was an unusually large contingent at breakfast. Even those who had never been down before class were there for the last farewells. Then people started to drift away; there were planes to catch and schedules to keep. People helped others to pack and to move stuff. Slowly, in groups of two or three, people left.

At lunch, there were only a handful of diehards remaining, together with Ellen and Delia. And then that was over, too.

My departure song was from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

And when Thyself with shining Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter’d on the Grass,
And in thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made one—turn down an empty Glass!

I bused my empty glass into the plastic crate, and left.

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