A small collection of photographs of landscapes and sunsets taken in East Lyme, CT.
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End of Clarion 2013
This is a personal blog, but it is not a personal blog. By which I mean that I write about events, but I do not often write about emotions. When I talk about things that touch my personal life, I tend to keep it deliberately detached and vague. Tonight however, I am feeling rather raw, so this may go to some unusual places.
The reason for all this unfiltered emotion is the end of the Clarion Writer's Workshop, where I have spent the last six weeks. While Clarion is focused on learning writing skills, it is -- both inevitably, and by design -- quite emotionally intense.
So I have spent the last few hours saying goodbye to a group of people who, over a brief period of six weeks, have become tremendously important to me. Friends? Colleagues? Peers? Soulmates? I'm not sure what the appropriate term is. However, for what it's worth, I feel a strong and unusual bond with seventeen people (plus our six instructors) who, a mere six weeks ago, were complete strangers to me. And I'm sad that this is the last that I'll see of them for probably quite a long time. To judge by the chatter on the social media channels that we share, I think all of us are feeling rather bereft tonight as we all go our separate ways.
Our group was very diverse. Not in the sense that someone's skin was a particular color, or that someone was gay and someone else was straight, or that people were young, old, tall, short, male, female, and so on (although we were "diverse" along all those dimensions and more) but in the much more important sense of diversity of experience and thought and ways of seeing the world. This breadth and variety of vision is a big part of why there's no one among them who I won't be excited to see again, and why my biggest regret (aside from sadness that it's over) is that I didn't get to spend more time talking to each of them, sounding them out, seeing things through their eyes, and learning from what they know.
It's not yet clear to me how attending Clarion will shape my writing. Our instructors gave us plenty of good advice:
"Escalate!" (Andy Duncan).
"Write through the body!" (Nalo Hopkinson).
"Research is better than imagination." (Bob Crais).
"Write every day and stop in the middle of a sentence." (Cory Doctorow).
"Imagine it better!" (Karen Joy Fowler).
"Write the ending. Then write another. And another." (Kelly Link). And much more besides. But it will be a while before I know how everything I learned, whether from our instructors, or from my fellow students, or from the act of writing and critiquing other people's work, will change the way that I write.
Nor can I sum up the whole thing in a few words (beyond saying that I'm intensely glad that I did it). Much of what made the Clarion experience special for me had a "You had to be there" quality to it. How can I properly describe the surreal (and sinister) sight of watching a line of two dozen teenage recruits from the Police Explorer Academy, wearing riot helmets and carrying batons, advancing across the parking lot to chants of
"Back! Back! Back! Back!"? Or the amusement value of getting lightly drunk and taking turns reading aloud from Laurell K. Hamilton's "Micah" (surely one of the worst books ever printed, a brutal crime against the written word)? Or the relief that comes from putting down the latest batch of stories to be read for an hour or two and going out to walk or run along the cliffs above Black's Beach?
And the most "You had to be there" part of all was the people themselves. I can tell you that my fellow students were some of the most stimulating and rewarding and smart and affectionate and funny people I've ever met. I can tell you that our 'anchor team' of Karen Joy Fowler and Kelly Link were as wise and generous and gracious and knowledgeable as their colleagues who steered us through the first four weeks. But unless you're lucky enough to know some of them, or to have gone through something like Clarion yourself, those will just be words on a page to you.
What I can say, however, is this.
I think I may have found My People. They are wild and strange and delightful and you will be hearing from them soon.
"So," I said to my friends in New York,
"is this Comic-Con thing something I should go to? What is it anyway? Apparently we get complimentary tickets." Their initial looks of bemusement at my ignorance changed to open hostility.
I realized that we'd hit some kind of motherlode of nerdiness as we parked in the parking lot of the adjacent stadium. Alongside us, a slim young woman in a Catwoman outfit was climbing out of a Camaro with the license plate KSSLRUN, while a few spaces further down a meticulously-costumed Queen Amidala and a heavyset man in dungarees were trying to corral a small child dressed as a dinosaur.
"Going to the Padres game?" J. asked Amidala.
"Of course," she replied.
Getting in and picking up our badges was easier than I expected. With more than 100,000 attendees, Comic-Con has learned to run a tight ship.
Our first attempt to get into a panel was unsuccessful, so we gathered our courage and went down to the dealer's floor. The entire floor was one seething mass of humanity.
"I have never seen so many virgins in one place before," J. said. She narrowed her eyes and studied the expanse of booths selling comic books, DVDs, postcards, collectible figurines, T-shirts, anything and everything connected to every pop culture franchise that I'd ever heard of and thousands that I hadn't.
"You know," she mused,
"I've had it all wrong. I thought I was a fan, but it turns out that I just like stuff. These people are fans.""
The majority of attendees were not in costume, but there were enough who were to satisfy my shutterbug instincts. I didn't recognize every pop-culture icon portrayed but I could tell that certain characters were having a good year. In the brief time we were on the main floor, I counted no less than seven Thors. Interestingly, all of them were female -- so I suppose they were technically Thoras -- and one was South Asian. I later realized that this might be because few men really have the physique for the God of Thunder (or even Chris Hemsworth), but no one at a convention is going to complain if a pretty girl wants to stride around in a plastic breast-plate and boots. The necessary counter-balance was provided by a bearded male cosplayer dressed as Honor Harrington (with a stuffed treecat perched on his uniformed shoulder). Slave Leia, formerly a mainstay of the convention, was conspicuous by her near-absence; I only saw two, whereas her more modestly-dressed counterpart, Senator Leia, was well-represented. There was even a Steampunk Leia, part of an ensemble that included all of the major Star Wars characters re-imagined in pseudo-Victorian style, culminating in an imposing Darth Vader wearing a magnificent bustle.
When the crowds became too much, we retreated upstairs for a talk by Richard Kadrey, a writer whose work I've always enjoyed. His talk might almost have been the missing lecture from our Clarion course, with a simple double message: keep at it until you succeed, and write your own books in your own voice, not anyone else's. Kadrey is also a Clarion graduate. When we stopped by the Harper Collins booth later to say 'hi', he regaled us with stories of the Old Days, when the instructors were apparently less gentle with the students than they are today.
I spent most of the day with just two of my fellow students, our other companions having been sucked into the maelstrom and lost from view.
"I wonder what A., G. and S., are doing now," said J. at one point.
"Three cute young women in costume?" I said.
"I imagine they're posing for photographs. Lots and lots of photographs." I wasn't wrong. When we met up later, they all wore the rather strained expressions of people who've been forcing a smile all day.
Not everyone was feeling the Comic-Con spirit. Across the road from the convention center, a small group of dour-looking Christians held up yellow signs expressing God's displeasure with all this fannish excess. An unsmiling man on a stepladder read Bible verses in a flat monotone.
"Look," I said to C.,
"those guys are cosplaying religious zealots. Amazing attention to detail, they must have worked on those costumes for weeks." He gave me a tired look. Inevitably, the Christians had attracted their own counter-demonstration, in the form of a small group of cheerful fans holding signs that said things like
"Jesus told stories too" and
"Be shiny to one another. Joss 3:16." I knew which church I'd rather belong to.
By about four o'clock we'd all had as much high-intensity fandom as we could stand, and we headed for a nearby bar to regroup and refuel.
"You know," said T. later,
"pretty much every con I've been to, the best parts have always been in the bar afterwards." Everyone nodded in agreement. Maybe the next time I end up at a con, I'll just skip the panels and the exhibitor's stands, and go straight to the bar. Wearing my Thor costume.
If you're an aspiring writer of speculative fiction -- fantasy and science-fiction -- you've probably heard of the Clarion Writer's Workshop. Founded in the 1960s, it's sometimes described as a boot camp for would-be SF/F writers.
The workshop runs for six weeks and is held at UCSD in San Diego (it moved from its previous location in Lansing, Michigan in 2007, and is now further west than its Seattle-based offshoot, Clarion West, which will shortly be renamed Clarion Not As West As All That). Eighteen students -- chosen from a pool of applicants through a competitive process -- spend their time writing, attending lectures, reading and critiquing each other's work, goofing off, and not getting enough sleep. A rotating team of six author-instructors take turns teaching, advising, socializing, and shooting the students with water-guns.
This year, I am lucky enough to be one of those students. So here -- four weeks in -- are some of my impressions. If they seem a bit scattered, that may be because I've been sleeping rather less than I normally do.
The UCSD campus in La Jolla is a pretty, sprawling site filled with concrete buildings that all look just similar enough to each other to seriously confuse anyone with poor directional skills. The lawns and open spaces are home to a range of wildlife: rabbits, dark-eyed juncos, hummingbirds, and flocks of crows. The crows are about the size of a small sheep and bounce sideways along the concrete paths as if mounted on springs. In the morning, the fog that has covered the campus during the night rolls slowly back towards the sea, allowing you to savor the odd experience of feeling the bright California sun burning your exposed skin while the more distant pieces of neo-brutalist architecture are still shrouded in mist. In the evening, the fog rolls back in again. During the afternoon, pairs of F-15s fly deafeningly overhead, low enough that I spent the first few days wondering when one was going to finish up in our bathroom.
The campus plays host to a constantly changing line-up of other summer camps and conferences. During our first week we shared the cafeteria with a pack of soccer players in fluorescent shorts, aged from six to sixty, who alternated between limping tragically and looking as if they were about to take off at a run at a moment's notice. Then the cafeteria was invaded by five hundred teenagers from a youth leadership program, who burst into inspirational songs at a moment's notice and blocked every available passage with spontaneous orgies of group hugging. Next week, our neighbors will be a selection of local SWAT teams; we have been warned to expect armored cars and helicopters.
My fellow students at Clarion are mostly American, from a wide range of different backgrounds. They are some of the most intelligent, articulate, imaginative, cultured, witty and creatively filthy-minded people I've ever met. It's at once humbling and enormously exciting to find myself thrown in with them. They are also all amazingly nice. No one is arrogant or unfriendly or inconsiderate or needy or attention-hungry. Everyone seems to play well with others. I asked the organizer how they'd managed to achieve such a happy balance.
"We don't screen for personality," she told me.
"Only for talent." I don't know whether to believe her or not.
The instructors are similarly outstanding. I'm not someone who makes a habit of hero worship but the instructors we've had so far -- Andy Duncan, Nalo Hopkinson, Robert Crais and Cory Doctorow -- have all been deeply impressive: gifted writers and teachers, of course, but also immensely generous and likable. They also struck me as being very wise people. On the one hand, the exposure to 'the trade' that you get from Clarion has a de-mystifying effect: it reminds you that successful authors are not some select band of superheroes but ordinary people with lives and concerns not so very different from your own. At the same time, our instructors and their guests make me think that those who make it might just share some special spark, some quality that goes beyond just the ability to keep putting words on the page and sending in the submissions until an editor finally bites.
Not everything about Clarion is idyllic. Four weeks of cafeteria food -- served at frighteningly short intervals, so that it sometimes feels as if you spend the whole day sitting down to one meal or another -- has everyone longing for something, anything different. The daily routine is genuinely exhausting. When you're going to class, reading three or four new stories a day and trying to crank out stories of your own without turning into some kind of traumatized hermit, your sleep schedule is the first casualty. It only took a couple of weeks before everyone started to look a little ragged. Emotions run high: writing is emotionally-draining at the best of times and the high-pressure environment only makes it more so (
"You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll give serious thought to swimming out to sea and never coming back"). And when your hyper-kinetic polymath of an instructor, one of those high-intensity people who you can't imagine ever meeting a setback that he couldn't blast aside by sheer personal energy, reveals that it took him sixteen years to 'break in' as a writer, that's more than a little daunting.
But those are details. If you aspire to write science-fiction or fantasy, then Clarion is where you want to be. And if you like to read it, then my fellow students are the writers you're going to want to read in the next few years. One of the things I enjoy most about Clarion is that I get to read their stuff now. You have some amazing treats in store for you.
Everyone here, including me, has made some sacrifices to be here. I don't think I'll ever regret it for a second. Being at Clarion doesn't mean that I'm a writer. But being at Clarion has made me more excited about writing than I have ever been.
Black's Beach cliffs
A small collection of photographs taken from the cliffs above Black's Beach, San Diego, California.
San Diego Fireworks
A small collection of photographs of the 4th of July fireworks display in La Jolla, San Diego, California.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
A small collection of photographs taken at sunset in the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve near San Diego.