Satori Stories: Clarion Workshop 2002
Photo by Leslie Howle - the whole flock of 17 with Pat Cadigan.
I'm next to Pat holding her book Synners, the weekly prize I had just won.
I have a variety of goals for this essay about my six weeks spent at the 2002 Clarion West Writers Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy. First, this is a how I spent my summer vacation story for family and friends. Second, I hope to provide information for people researching Clarion Workshops. Third, I want to analyze insights into writing. Fourth, I want to examine psychological issues dealing with the desire to write. And finally, I want to look at my writing ambition in relationship to getting older.
From June 22, 2002 until August 3, 2002 I stepped out of my routine life and did something very different. The Clarion West administrators, Leslie Howle and Neile Graham, warned us that our experience in Seattle would be more than just classes on writing, and they were right. But their words of warning couldn't convey our future experience, and I doubt if my words here can describe my recent past. In the world of Zen Buddhism they have a concept called Satori which refers to a sudden enlightenment through experience and not logical thought. In literature, a similar concept is the epiphany. For my six weeks in Seattle, I had a series of little Satoris or Epiphanies which I'm going to chronicle, but I doubt if my actual insights can be conveyed in words.
I was fifty years and seven months old when I flew off from Memphis, Tennessee to Seattle, Washington. Clarion is an intensive training program for people wanting to become a science fiction or fantasy writer. This isnít something to do on an idle whim. I had to use six weeks of vacation time that took years to accumulate, and it cost me about $4,000 dollars. Students are selected by applying with sample short stories. I had applied to Clarion East in 2001, but failed to get in.
The real lessons I learned at Clarion were not about writing, but discovering things about myself. Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry once said, "A man must know his limitations." I came up against my limitations at Clarion like a goldfish hitting the glass. If you can, find a copy of "The Star Pit" by Samuel R. Delany, then read it as a fictional lesson on learning ones limitations. Itís my all time favorite story and itís about barriers. The Clarion workshop was like living my reading experience of "The Star Pit."
During our adolescent years, many of us have fantasies about glamorous ambitions, such as becoming movie stars, or rock and roll gods, or amazing sports heroes, and for a few people, science fiction writers. Reality convinces most people before they're twenty-five that they must settle for being a CPA, lawyer, or plumber, if they're lucky, and something that pays a lot less, if they're not. Glamorous ambitions have stiff job requirements and few souls have the qualifications. I assume most people are like me, and continue to daydream long after they've taken a 9 to 5. Attending Clarion, for an old fifty-year-old dude like myself, is about returning to my teenage ambition. It's much harder on the ego the second time around because you know if you can't make it happen, you have to stop lying to yourself and let the old fantasy die, once and for always. The Clarion experience has inspired me to work harder at writing than I have ever worked before, and I think it will help me burst through the barriers that have always held me back.
While growing up in the 1960s I discovered science fiction, and went on amazing adventures with writers like Robert A. Heinlein. At thirteen I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful to be like Heinlein, and have his job. I never knew what that meant. I took a fiction writing class in high school but quit writing when the course was over. I learned about Clarion and Milford in the late sixties and early seventies. I had the time then, but not the money, or the drive to get the money. I got married and went to work, and never had the time again. Yet, I continued to daydreamed about writing, but never wrote, which is telling. When I finished my B.A. in my early thirties, I took another fiction course. Again, when the deadlines were over I stopped working.
Last year, 2001, when I was forty-nine and about to turn fifty I figured Iíd better get down to business and start writing. I signed up for a repeatable three hour graduate fiction workshop. I started to work at writing and it was hard. I applied for Clarion East but got turned down. That hurt, so I took the workshop again in the fall, and then again in spring, 2002. I applied to Clarion West and was accepted. I was getting better in my workshop, and since I was accepted this year, I assumed I was getting better in general. But doing well in workshops doesn't prepare you for the reality of Clarion.
Going to Clarion West is about finding limitations and scoping out barriers. This essay is not a story about fatalism, but it is about facing up to reality. Before I came to Clarion my 85-year-old mother broke her hip. After I arrived my wife called and told me she broke her wrist in two places and had to have surgery to repair her arm. And in the middle of Clarion I got an email telling me a dear friend had died suddenly. Becoming a writer is about more than learning to write. The roadblocks are endless. Writing becomes taking reality's obstacle course and making everything thrown at you grist for the mill. Some people reading this account and the lessons I discribe below, might feel depressed or discouraged. If you're young, I might scare you with my thoughts and opinions, but at least give me credit for preaching persistence pays off. And remember, the world seen with old eyes looks different than what you may see with your young peepers.
In Delanyís "The Star Pit" humans learn they canít leave the galaxy because there is a barrier that causes most people to go mad. However, a few people, those dubbed, The Golden, can leave and visit other galaxies. The Golden are usually insane and insensitive, and the rest of humanity resent their freedom to pass beyond the barrier. This story was written in the 1960s during the pioneer years of space travel, and Iíve always thought it was Delanyís analogy for all the people who didnít have the right stuff. But after going to Clarion, Iíve added another analogy. This is an early story by Delany, and I see him struggling to be a writer and he resents those writers who have gone further, seen more, and wrote with more skill.
I am an animal in the zoo staring through the glass barrier to freedom and that freedom is the ability to publish stories. To break the barrier is to write a good story. What Iíve learned at Clarion is how hard that barrier is to break. Writing is more than spelling and grammar, which can be learned. Itís more than point of view, plot and character, which can be aped by amateurs. There are many adages about writing, the most famous is, "write what you know." That is more of a Zen koan than the obvious statement it appears to be. You can read all the how-to books, listen to all the teachers and study all the famous stories, but the nature of what makes a story good is very elusive. It is not something that can be taught.
Everyone at Clarion desires to be a published writer. That's a fairly simply statement. Spending six weeks living with sixteen strangers and working with a number of published writers, I came to feel that statement very deeply. What surprised me was how the desire to write changes over time. The younger Clarionites, the ones in their twenties, have a kind of faith in that desire. There is no doubt, they will be writers. The people in their thirties were plagued by doubt. I think us three fifty-year-old guys were time travelers. People who want to be movie stars or rock stars usually give up in their twenties. People who want to be writers can hang onto that dream and keep the desire alive a lifetime. It's tormenting. We often asked the writers we met did they love writing, and most of them said no, they hated it. Joe Haldeman told us a long joke. He said two days a month he loved to write, two days a month he hated to write and all the rest he felt proud to apply himself at a profession.
Buddhism teaches that desire is the root of all suffering. In "The Star Pit" hitting the invisible barrier causes suffering. The barrier is desire. Writing is facing one barrier after another. We were told by our teachers that it never gets easier, only harder. Clarion can be one big fun adventure, but not the writing. When it came time to write, we'd close our doors and struggle alone. Even writing this essay is a struggle. I could stop and go watch TV with my wife and that would be very easy and most pleasant. The ultimate lesson of Clarion is persistence. To pursue the desire means persistant work, which means endless suffering. Don't get me wrong -- I am not trying to bum you out, but pump you up.
The Satori of Desire really hits home after returning from Clarion. Happiness is easily found in mindless pursuits. The return to everyday routines will make you forget the desire to write. Family and friends can corrupt your ambitions by demanding your time. When you get home and there are no Clarion routines to keep you writing, you only know its real when you struggle to get up early to write, or stay up late.
When you submit a story at Clarion you hope to have a hit in class. Some of my classmates had a hit every time and gots lots of pats on the ego. My first two stories rubbed some people the wrong way. At first I assumed they just hated the stories, or the characters, but since two people ended up disliking my stories and me for the rest of the workshop, this provided another flash of insight. In my day to day life people always seem to like me, and I think they consider me a good-natured sort of guy. Affable, and maybe a bit of a character. However, if you express yourself in your writing and people hate those stories, one has to ask do people hate the real you, the inner you?
In other words, writing is revealing, and that might be why so many people play it safe and write shallow stories that are essentially recycled plots and characters. Gardner Dozois urged us to write about things that made us uncomfortable. I learned I had a knack for making readers uncomfortable. Doug even praised me for this unintentional ability. I don't think it's what Gardner intended, but it's a great lesson to experience.
Luckily, I'm not thin skinned. I'm rather insensitive, which is a virtue for taking literary criticism, but I'll point out below, it's a major flaw for giving literary criticism. My flash of insight here, despite warnings from the administrators to critique the story and not the writer, is that sometimes you are your story. In my literary workshop people would often say, "Jim, you certainly have a wild imagination," but really mean, "boy, are your stories weird!" I didn't mind because I spiced up my mundane fiction with creativity learned from the genre world. But at Clarion I was among my own kind, I thought, the weird and different, and they all looked at me strange.
One story I wrote which I put the most work into and had many philosophical issues I wanted to deal with, was shot down and crashed and burned in a huge pile of flames. The night before three people had given me thumbs up on the story, so I walked into the class thinking I had a winner, but everyone else pulled out their 50 caliber machine guns and opened fire. Like Whoa! The early marketing information was way off. The consensus was the story was full of unlikable characters, and many of the young women thought I or my characters were misogynists. The epiphany here was I wrote something people hated. Not because it was bad writing, but because the story flat out made them sick. My initial reaction was I was being too cynical for young people. The three people who told me they liked the story the night before, were older. Where does that leave me? Do I put ratings on my stories: M-35 (stories only for mature audiences over 35). Do I shift gears and develop likable characters that will warm the hearts of the youthful?
The lesson here for people considering going to Clarion, or other fiction workshops, or even taking up fiction writing as a creative expression, is you must be prepared to deal with emotional people, or even your own emotions. And I was only dealing with sixteen other people. Imagine going to a convention where hundreds or even thousands of people might have read your work and they are anxious to express their opinion. I can understand why J. D. Sallinger has been hiding out all these years. And think about poor Heinlein constantly being called a fascist in print. The man was never a fascist, but how did he feel about that public persona? One person, on critiquing my most popular story, said something like "you write self-indulgent masturbatory drivel" and I just smiled and said "thank you." You need to be able to do that at Clarion. I now understand why some Clarions, like Clarion East this year, generated so much animosity.
Like I said, I'm lucky to have alligator skin. And it's lucky for my classmates I have mastery over my speech, because I have lived with sharp-tongue women all my life, and I truly know how to be vicious with words. Since Clarion West 2002 was so congenial, I have to assume that most of my classmates also had a lot of self-control. If you have a wit like Gore Vidal or William Buckley, you should leave it at home.
My last word on emotion is to apologize publically to Liz for hurting her feelings with one of my critiques. I tried to say I thought she was brilliant and capable of the highest form of creativity, but I thought her story under review was based too much on recycled fantasy elements. The story was universally loved in class, and my prejudice against elves, ogres and other such fantasy creatures was politically incorrect to express. A good lesson I learned at Clarion was to let people write what they wanted. But, I also learned lots from my faithful anti-fans, and I hope I was useful to Liz even when I was unpleasant. Like I said, everything is grist for the mill.
Writing is a strange pursuit, a solitary endeavor designed to get inside other people's minds. One way to judge fiction is not by evaluating the quality of writing, but by studying the reaction of readers. Any writer seeking financial rewards for their craft needs to develop a fan base. Writing workshops, like Clarion, offers beginning writers the chance to study reader reaction. I consider writing workshops to be marketing research in small groups.
The natural tendency is to love your stories and assume others will love them too. When you participate in a workshop you discover that your classmates all see your work from a different angle, and that knowledge is very useful if you can deal with it. That feedback can, and should, improve your writing. If you aimed to be funny with a story, and no one laughed, you have some tweaking to do, not sulking. The general idea behind writing is to find readers and make them fans. Now some people believe writing should be about pure self-expression and craft, rather than becoming an entertainer. I see a third way where reader reaction is a tool for developing self-exploration and evolving my ability to communicate with words.
Readers can be catagorized as fans, anti-fans, indifferent, editors and teachers. Fans are people who like what you write and want to read more. Anti-fans are readers who hate you and will throw your story against the wall. Indifferent readers are the majority, the people who have no interest in your work, but they a are pool of potential fans. Teachers and fellow workshop students have to read your work. Editors and slushpile readers will stop reading your work the instant you turn them off. Editors are the most important readers. Even at workshops, or in slushpiles, you want your story to find fans. We were told at Clarion that in the marketplace if a reader hates your story they'll probably never give you another chance. In other words, don't make anti-fans. But if you make a fan, they will stick with you through a few bad stories after that first good one.
In workshops, anti-fans are very useful, probably a good deal more valuable than fans. Now I'm talking about more than providing critical comments. At Clarion we had a couple people who always entertained. That's what you want as a professional writer, but as a learning writer praise provides little information. What does, "this rocks" tell you? Of my five stories I had one story that was popular, one that was very unpopular and a spectrum of three in between. Trying to understand what makes a story unpopular with readers is the key to improving your writing, and I learned the most from my disliked stories.
Here's one of my many lessons learned from anti-fans. Fiction is about conflict. Readers prefer likable protagonists for most kinds of stories. In my story for Kathleen Acala I accidently created an unlikable protagonist. I meant the conflict to be about being old and competing with the young. Since the group is mainly young, they naturally identified with the antagonist and disliked the protagonist. Big mistake, but valuable lesson. In the real world, outside of the workshop, that would have killed off a bunch of potential fans. Anti-fans are good in the workshop, but bad in the marketplace. My solution for that problem is to work at making both characters equal and push the reader to sympathize across the generation gap in both directions.
Indifferent readers are the big problem in both workshops and in the marketplace. If you could query a million readers by asking, "what kind of book would you like me to write," would you really want to write such a book? I'm not sure you can pander to fans. I think what they are seeking is unique self-expression and experience. Fans are going to be readers who identify with you in a positive way. Not everyone will. The indifferent will ignore you. The people who don't like what you express or how you express it, will become your anti-fans. Your goal as a writer is to make fans out of the indifferent. Strangely enough, sometimes increasing your anti-fans can increase your fans, for example think writers like Ayn Rand, Harlan Ellison and Robert A. Heinlein. Readers are seldom indifferent, they either love these writers or hate them.
At Clarion, like most writing workshops, you spend far more time criticizing others than receiving comments on your own stories. I wrote 5 stories, but critiqued about 80. To complicate things, many writers are thin skinned, and if you criticize even something simple like the placements of commas, some sensitive writers will feel you hate them. Another revelation I had was about the nature of being a literary critic.
Most people are familiar with Literary Critics or Movie Critics, and they often enjoy playing at being critics at parties and dinners. Another type of critic is the English professor. It came to me early on that these types of critics aren't what people need at Clarion. This level of criticism is much too harsh for beginning writers. The Clarion method is all about critiquing stories. The administrators give out several handouts about how this critiquing should be done. I read each story and my reaction was to compare them to the best stories in the annual anthologies. Or I wanted to analyze them like I was taught as an English major for writing papers. I actually wanted my stories critiqued like this. I wanted our teachers to explain how a student story was different from a published story. But to do this would require a lot of work, and I think a severe form of critiquing. My guess is my stories contained less than 5 percent of the elements of a good story published in a yearly best of anthology. And I might be vastly overstating my abilities by saying I need to do just 20 times better. I may need to be 100-200 times better.
Workshops like Clarion have to avoid that issue. Gardner Dozois announced right away he wouldn't buy any of our stories. That sounded harsh to us, but it could have been a gentle statement on his part. Gardner is the ultimate critic. He's an editor, and an editor is the only reader a writer must impress. Gardner also refused to do individual conferences. My feeling was he didn't want to be put on the spot and have to criticize a story with his real opinion. I think he was being kind when he just waved his hand and said I won't even read those kinds of stories. I think all the instructors held back on being fully critical because people who attend Clarion are at a stage where too much criticism could kill their dreams cold. So my advice, don't go to Clarion with the intention of being a brilliant critic. And conversely, don't expect to be told the truth about your stories.
What people need, and like, is a critic who wants to make a story work. Comments that help the writer find stumbling blocks to telling their stories are appreciated. The best Clarion critics, both students and instructors, were those individuals who could get inside the story and see what the author wanted to do and suggest ways to weed out obstacles or where to place new walkways that would help the flow of traffic. As we worked as a group, some stories would get bounced around in a way that revisions would emerge that felt logical and right. It was best to point out grammatical flaws, poor spelling, and other little writing failures with notes on the manuscript.
I'd finished three semesters of literary fiction workshops before coming to Clarion. My professor has a sign on his door "No Pulp Fiction Allowed." During those workshops I craved to write the science fiction I always dreamed of writing. Well, I got to Clarion and I could write anything I wanted, and guess what? Yeah, it was the sudden realization that I don't write the stuff I've always read and loved. With that epiphany came a second blow to the old spiritual noggin, a double epip -- I don't even know what I love to read anymore. I've become a literary rolling stone, a bookworm who has lost his way, a reader who wants to be a writer, but one who has no foundation. I write stories that amaze and surprise me because they ain't the ones I ever dreamed about writing when I was a teenager. Why am I surprised? My stories are psychological and reflect disguised issues about my current life, a life I never could have imagined forty years ago.
In the Satori above where I write about people hating my stories, and thus I ask if they hate me, I have to wonder if I like myself also? One anti-fan constantly harped at me to write emotional stories reflecting my true self, when all along I was writing such stories. The trouble is important issues to a fifty-year old person are invisible or depressing to someone in their thirties or twenties. Back in the sixties they had a saying, "you are what you eat." I have to ask, "are you what you write?" We had stories about murder, incest, sex with giant squids, toad zombies, hate crimes, suicides, terrorism and so on. Should I read anything into those stories? If you are young, you will say no, stories should be stories. If you are older, you like revelations and messages. One of my anti-fans wanted me to overcome my intellect and write from the heart, but my stories were about an older heart, and the cold intellect was just a tool I use to understand myself. I think Doug, Dario and Lyn sometimes understood that, but then they were older.
If you write to entertain and give your readers a ride on a flying carpet of cheap escapism, I doubt you'll reveal much about yourself. Danny wrote a great story about a Basset hound called The Little. The first half of the story was about protecting The Little from poisonous cane toads. The second half was about zombies. The first half revealed his love and fear for The Little, the second half was Danny's appeal to pulp fiction readers. Danny also tried to straddle the line with a story about the death of his grandfather. My satori was discovering I no longer wanted to graft on a pulp fiction plot to make the readers happy. And if I don't want to write pulp fiction, what about reading it? And I don't think I'm alone here. Paul Parks, Pat Cadigan, John Crowley and Kathleen Alcala, four of our instructors aren't writing traditional science fiction, and Joe Haldeman writes a very grown up form of SF. I don't know if my fellow Clarionites noticed this. Many of the stories I read at Clarion made me think they were inspired by Star Wars, Babylon 5, Xena, Star Trek, and endless fantasy movies, cartoons, anime and video games, and not what's currently being published in Asimov's.
I hinted at this discrepancy in my crits, but didn't make an issue out of it because of the Types of Literary Critics Satori. To point out that our Clarion stories were very different from Asimov's or Dozois Year's Best, is to sound like I'm saying we all suck, and I don't mean that. Gardner Dozois on his first night to visit us stated that he'd read our stories and he wouldn't buy any of them. And I'm guessing people took that to mean our stories weren't good enough. Gardner told us a number of times in class we had to give up writing recycled SF&F. I think he was pointing out that Asimov's and F&SF, the forums for cutting edge genre fiction, are looking for stories that aren't like what any of us dream about writing. In other words, I've grown up, but so has science fiction, and if you want to be a writer you need to know the current field and your current self.
During the critique of my final story, Blunt made a significant comment. Most people liked my final story best, and Blunt said that story was me writing in the present, and my other stories was me trying to write like Heinlein from my 1971 self. The truth is I've always wanted to write like the Heinlein stories I read from my 1964-1966 self, when I first discovered his writing. Blunt put his finger on the issue, my writing is directly tied to Heinlein, but he got the times reversed. My earlier stories are the from older me, and the last story was from my younger self, and more like the Heinlein Juveniles I love so much. Blunt was associating my current writing with Heinlein's later period, which I detest. Many Heinlein fans justify his later period by saying Heinlein was writing satire. What's weird is I've always justified by stories about unlikable people by saying they were satire about society. Now that personal revelation might not mean much to you the general reader, so let me elborate in a generalized fashion.
Do you read for fun and escapism, or do you read for knowledge and insight? Harry Potter versus Angela's Ashes. The satoric flash I had over this is people want to read for fun, and they don't particularly care for whatever revelations I might have concealed in my stories. Now most of you might be saying, "well, duh!" but you don't know how that feels. It kicks most of my writing ambitions in the balls. Most writers do aim to be entertaining, and they end up recycling successful stories or aiming for the lowest common denominator. Books about dragons, warp drives and vampires sell, so the temptation is to get busy and write more of them. Many of the early Clarion stories I read followed this path.
What do I do? Learn to write to make readers happy? But would I even read what I wrote? Or should I write to make myself happy? And how do I deal with the fact that most people will hate my stories? Do I have any choice?
There is no way to understand the social bonding that goes on at Clarion. By nature I'm a hermit. I work as a programmer, which means I spend most of my day in an office by myself. My wife is a social gadfly and works two jobs, so I seldom see her, which works out well since I have many solitary hobbies, such as writing. My hermit nature was further magnified a few years ago when I developed a heart arrhythmia that ended up making me agoraphobic. I'd have tachycardia spells that are benign, but can scare people around me, so I avoid being trapped in a social situation away from home. It made me scared to go to movies or restaurants because I was afraid of causing a situation. I eventually recovered from this condition and I've slowly got used to socializing again, especially if I'm driving and know I can make a quick getaway. I've always been a homebody, so for me to go to Seattle for six weeks and live in a dorm with sixteen other people was a big challenge. Memories of this condition made me avoid going to most of the Clarion parties. Doug who has epilepsy went to more of the the parties, so his bravery impressed me. I should have been as brave.
Everyone at Clarion West 2002 were wonderful and I was very impressed with their talent and commitment. The diversity of backgrounds was amazing. Traci, a young mother from Denver had already sold three stories. Diana, from California, is working on a MFA in playwriting and fiction and has had plays produced. Genevieve, a local Seattlite makes money as a freelance writer, worked for Amazon, has been in rock bands, and practices martial arts. Doug, a former Microsoft programmer, had a long career developing computer games all the way back to the Apple II, and is our leader in humor. Lyn, who was born in Australia, but with her husband, is a citizen of the world and sailor, cried over one of my stories. James is finishing up a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence and financial systems. Dario, an Italian who grew up in England and now lives in California works as a successful artisan. Wendy finished Yale and is doing graduate work in bio-chemistry. Blunt just published an article in Dr. Dobbs and is a freelance programmer. Liz, our youngest, studies graphic arts, wrote a distinctly different story every week, and has a FTL brain. Simran studied physics in college and is our most talented world builder. Adrian taught in Viet Nam before Clarion, was our social bellwether and is now media ready. Danny is working on an MFA and grew up in my old stomping grounds of south Florida, completed Odyssey last year. Chris studies cultural anthropology and has sold poetry. I loved living with these people for six weeks. The experience was far more than a workshop.
I'd particularly like to thank Lyn, Doug, Dario and Blunt for saying nice things about some of my stories out of class. That was encouraging. I also want to thank Traci and Diana. Traci wasn't a fan of my stories but was very supportive and a good friend. Diana didn't liked my stories either, but she was kind and encouraging, and that was supportive. Simran, Liz, Wendy, Adrian, Danny, James, and Genevieve were all very nice people I wish I could have spent a lot more time with them. Chris didn't stay in the dorms and I didn't get to know him, but he was a great guy in class. From his experience I'd tell future Clarionites to always opt for the dorm.
I could have bonded more if I had attended all the parties, and I now regret that I didn't try harder. However, I really don't like parties. I dislike relating to people in groups. I love being with people one at a time so I can learn their stories. The level of communication diminishes with each person added after two. I love communicating with people, but three way conversations are annoying, and four people partically never talk about anything more than fun things. Party conversation is usually just useless chatter to me. That's why I tried to single out people at Clarion to talk with them. I'd walk to class with different people, or catch people in the lounge by themselves. But that was hard to do because we often gathered in groups. It was cool though, when the whole herd of 17 assembled in a flock.
I related to my Clarion classmates like they were a family. Doug, Dario and I were all fifty. There was a middle group of thirty-something or older twenty-ish people, including Blunt, Lyn, Danny, James, Genevieve, Adrian and Chris. Then there were the young ones Liz, Simran, Diana, Traci and Wendy. I liked to think of the older classmates as brothers and sisters from a big family, and the younger classmates like children from the next generation. My wife and I never had children, so when all my classmates left for the parties on Friday nights, I felt like a parent staying at home, worrying if the kids would get into trouble and waiting for them to come home safe. I also enjoyed having the quiet house all to myself.
I was sorry I couldn't have gotten to know everyone more. The work of writing and reading for critiques was quite time consuming. Plus, if I didn't get my sleep I couldn't function. A lot of socializing happened after I went to bed. Many of the Clarionites were night owls. I'd be getting up to take a pee at 3 am and would find people in the lounge talking away. If you've ever seen The Real World, Road Rules, Survivor or Big Brother, you will have an idea of what it's like to live with a group of strangers that get to know each other. It's a fascinating process. We started this bonding by meeting online before Clarion, and we have continued to stay in contact online afterwards. We plan to keep up with each other and have reunions at various conventions. Thus Clarion workshops are more than just writing workshops. Be prepared to be a part of a hive mind. I really loved when we formed up as a group, like for Sunday night meetings, dinners or photo sessions. We all felt something as we got closer to making that magic number of 17.
Lessons Learned At Clarion
Now that I'm home, I'm often asked if I got my money's worth from attending Clarion. I could have used the $4,000 to vacation anywhere in the world. I could have bought the huge HDTV I lust after. $4,000 allows for a lot of choices, but in all honesty, I think I got the most bang for my buck by going to Clarion. I've had a fantasy about being a science fiction writer for 40 years. Clarion gave me the most realistic experience of what it takes to make that fantasy a reality. I'd say the odds of me selling a story to a leading SF&F market are pretty slim, but not impossible. Clarion gave me a clearer picture of what the SF writing business is like. I've got an idea of what kind of work it will take and what kind of changes I need to make in my life, and I have an idea of what level of writing is required.
For me to succeed, I need absolute dedication and discipline of daily writing for 4-5 years. Since my life is quite full that means I'll have to give up a lot. I'll cut back on TV and movies, read less, go out less, nap in my La-Z-Boy less, and maybe even spend less time with friends. It's a sacrifice. I know I'm a lazy person that is extremely addicted to all my diversions, and never in my past have I shown any signs of such discipline. I'm moving towards the age of 51 so it's doubtful I can change the momentum and direction of my life, but I still believe I can move mountains if I try. I was inspired at Clarion even though my stories were not popular.
I'm reminded of an old Vaughn Bode underground comic strip. It showed this little creature being tortured, and his arms and legs get chopped off and he's tied up. In the last panel, if memory serves me right, the little creature whispers to another captured creature, "I'ze gonna escape tonight." I want to write with that little creature's determination, even if the odds are against me.
Jim Harris, 8/11/2