Looking back at #Clarion2014 (from never-ending week7)

Fate puts together a nice bunch of like-minded people to fight the zombie apocalypse, defeat an evil villain, find a magical object necessary to prevent the end of the world. They live the adventure of a lifetime. The story ends, the plot draws to its inevitable yet well-developed conclusion… and each one of them has to say goodbye and go back to their pre-adventure existence. I’m always left thinking about what happened next. Did they stay in touch? How could they just break up their newly formed fellowship, and continue as if nothing had happened after their life-changing experience? Who could go back to a “normal” life after being the Doctor’s chosen sidekick for a couple of series?

The only problem with living the adventure of a lifetime is that adventures come to their heart-breaking end. Attending the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop more resembles an adventure than anything I have experienced so far, perhaps with the exception of my first year at Oxford. The college system, another thing I had not experienced until then, was a slightly surreal and eccentric environment filled with clever people, which happens to put a lot of effort in making you feel part of something. And we were something, the most riveting MCR in the whole University, the one with the most creative people and doing the craziest, most awesome things. We worked hard and we played hard, made friends that lasted a lifetime, and learnt a stupid amount of things in a ridiculously short time. It was a one-off, and I did not expect to experience something similar in my entire life. And then I went to Clarion, and I found myself, once again, in the company of a small group of hand-picked individuals with a similar outlook on life to my own, interests very similar to mine, goals and dreams to match the ones I’ve been secretly nursing for the past few years. I felt at home instantly.

It’s only beginning now to dawn on me how privileged I have been to meet this people and be part of this project. They are not just amazing writers, but very nice human beings as well, who have made me feel welcomed, supported and that I belong, even at my lowest moments. I could not have asked for a better fellowship. Not to mention being tutored by admired writers whom I hold in awe. Clarion has made all of this possible. It will be difficult to convey a sense of the unimaginable goody-packed six weeks that felt like six months, so crammed they were with creativity, art, writing, partying, fun, sleepless nights, cups of tea and coffee, bottles of wine, craft beer… We worked hard, yes; we played harder, in order to stay sane. The working overcame the play, the working became the play. And, for once in a very long time, at least for me, working in the sentence stands solely for “writing”. Dream of dreams.

We have been an extremely productive Clarion group, and most days we had four stories to critique in the workshop (which meant our tutors were kind enough to cram their planned lessons on the evenings, and even during the weekends). And, in order to keep up with that rhythm, we had to keep writing. All the time. Clarion is a great testing ground for many things, and the first thing you learn is that you can really produce like a pro; you’ve always been able to. You just didn’t know it. Pre-Clarion, you would have nursed the two ideas you had for short stories in a year for months, not wanting to start on them for fear of mangling them. At Clarion you had to come up with new ideas every week, and you had to sit down and write them. And they had to be good, of course. The Clarion experience also resembles very closely being the parent of a toddler: you have to learn to write around the cracks, at odd times, into the early hours. It is demanding, but it couldn’t be more productive. It simply works. Having slept an average of 4-5 hours every night, I have also learnt I could run Great Britain if I wanted, as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair famously did on those hours sleep. Not bad at all!

The fact that we have been an extremely close-knit, supportive group has been crucial in keeping the writing going, the flow of ideas alive. I had never attended a workshop before, and didn’t know what to expect. This is what you get at Clarion: 17 extremely clever people who give you thoughtful advice on your piece, find its flaws, eloquently show you the way to improve it. Not counting on the wonder of beta-readers (thank you Leena, Noah, Kristen), the generosity, the creative impulse at the service of a bunch of other individuals. They are your karass (I am using Kurt Vonnegut’s definition here), and you want to see them doing their best. Being thrown together with extremely creative people does wonders to everything: writer’s block, self-esteem, nourishing your own creative buds, the need not to sleep because you want to carry on talking forever with these interesting, clever individuals who are your friends now, as if by magic… I stopped doing collages a long time ago, now I need to get back at it. Why? Writing is not enough! The ways in which I have to express myself have grown exponentially after Clarion. I have even bought an ukulele at Clarion, me, who have never played anything more than the tambourine at Christmas. I really feel now I can tackle anything. Try me.

Time behaves in an unexpected fashion, something you wish you should be able to recreate at home. It is not good. You need the Californian sea-breeze, the endless tea-fuelled nights, and the company. Time does not expand anywhere else as it does at Clarion. But in the workshop, when you are writing all the time, it seems to do exactly that. In four effective hours you achieve the equivalent of a whole week of work back home. You emerge to the common room exhausted, zombie-like, and make yourself some tea. You sit down with people who have just being doing the same, and what do you do but start talking about writing, about what you are writing and what they are writing? The common room becomes a brain-storming testing-ground for endless possibilities, fuelled by active imaginations, wine, tea, coffee, dreams. You drink your tea and it tastes better than it ever did. Being grateful for those moments could never be enough.

I am guessing that, because of the anchor-team picking us, even if we all had our own developed and distinctive aesthetics, we did share a similar discourse at work beneath the surface of our formal approaches: we were all veering on the liminal between genre and literary writing, testing that thing called slip-stream, challenging genre assumptions and bringing a literary approach to the known tropes. All my fellow writers produced high quality prose every single week. I was, am, in awe of many of them, have developed literary crushes on their prose, have become a self-proclaimed fan of a few of them. This is perhaps due to the intensity of the Clarion experience; but this intensity is sought for, induced, by the course’s structure, which aims at making us feel part of the Clarion’s extended family, and to establish bonds that will last a lifetime. Clarion does not only give you confidence in your writing, and therefore in yourself; it also provides you with your own support group to go into the world. Clarion has been my Hogwarts, and who hasn’t dreamt of going to Hogwarts? My karass, and I’ve always needed a karass. I cannot imagine my writing, but also my future life, without this group of extraordinary people being there somehow. Thank you all; #week7forever.

#BonusTrack: Highlights!

Week (1): Gregory Frost gently introduces us into the pace and what to expect from the program. He claims that Clarion is like doing an MFA in a month. We stare at him in disbelief. Do I need to say it: he will be proved correct. We are treated to some amazing lectures on creative writing which open a few secret chests for us, certainly for me. Critiques begin, karaoke night starts happening (to my dismay), and we get to know each other. The week draws to a close with a rare outing into San Diego Old Town for the most delicious Mexican food, discovering the cliffs for the first time, and concludes with a few words from our instructor to ease us into Clarion, and into the world. Gregory Frost couldn’t have been a more generous, warm, uncle-life figure to have been broken into Clarion. He made us believe we will be able to do it, to reach the last week intact. If this wasn’t enough, I saw a hummingbird this week, the first of my life, and the first of a few. A wonderful premonition of the happy days to come.

Week (2): Geoff Ryman puts us through our paces: everyone is expected to hand in one story for the critique sessions. I think this was a blessing: it established the pace we managed to keep going during the following weeks, it showed us that we could do it, and from then onwards each one of us more or less had a story each week, with the odd week to take a rest out of the six. By the end of this first fortnight I have cried once, laugh many times, and learnt things not only about my writing, but also about myself. I am beginning to fully comprehend what I’ve left myself in for. Geoff is so much fun to be in, so knowledgeable in his lectures. He cooks chilli for us and for new instructor, Catherynne Valente. He goes and we realise then that we are deeply missing him, and Gregory as well. It’s been two weeks and we already feel as if we’ve been there two months. Home seems a faraway construct, an imaginary world. There is only the writing, the learning, and the constant challenge. And we all raise to the occasion. There is also a lovely Steampunk tea we are all invited to, where we meet a load more of nice people, and a bunch of us gets to see the polar bears at San Diego Zoo.

Week (3): As much as I admire and read widely my previous two instructors, Catherynne Valente is perhaps the one author I identified most with in many ways. Meeting her has been a revelation. I get ghostly Oxford-like sensations again: there I was, being tutored by a person who knows absolutely everything… I simply didn’t want her to stop talking at all, ever. This week was packed with things: emotions, creativity, discussions… If week one was a gentle introduction, and week two brought us up to the pace of things to make the most of Clarion, week three brought it all together. Being there made sense, the endless hours of work made sense. She challenged us with the “Lock Box of Forbidden Words of Doom”, a single exercise which made a better writer of me in hours. Absolute magic. Valente also pumped up our bibliography by recommending and using in her lectures and discussions a number of key works that made me realise I was where I had to be. During her reading at Mysterious Galaxy Bookshop some fans gave her an ostrich egg; Catherynne would cook it for us that Saturday for breakfast before leaving, and we all eat it together, perhaps the most bizarre and bonding meal I’ve had. It was delicious, btw.

Week (4): My lowest point, due partly to exhaustion, insecurities and general self-doubt; and so, I was extremely thankful to have someone like Nora K. Jemisin as an instructor, with her sensible approach to writing, teaching, and life itself. Nora was a godsend at a delicate time. Perhaps, sensibly, it was the week I gave myself time off, and focused on getting more needed sleep. This was also the week when, thanks to Nora, I learnt all I never knew about the marvels of worldbuilding; she was amazing at conjuring up civilizations, and I couldn’t stop gaping at her mastery of it, and noting things down like a madwoman. There were other important themes discussed in class, topics I am afraid I had never even thought about before going to Clarion; and so the learning curve just grew and grew… exponentially at this point. When Nora leaves I realise we’ve crossed a bridge; if we had made it this far, we have nearly made it.

Weeks (5) & (6): Jeff and Ann Vandermeer have been the captains that have steered this boat, even before getting there. I am sure that the majority of us have applied this particular year in order to be instructed by them. In my case, after reading Finch a few years ago, my whole approach to writing and how I wanted to write completely changed. I’ve read many others of his books since then, but Finch will always remain one of the crucial texts for me as a writer. As an editor and publisher, I’ve long admired their anthology work, and so the opportunity to be taught by both of them, during two whole weeks, was more than I could have hoped for. Their generosity knows no bounds, and included such amazingly surreal things as treating us all to a lunch in ComicCon with Lev Grossman and Charles Yu, just because they are nice like that. Their lectures and insides into the publishing world have left us speechless, feeling that, perhaps, we step onto a bit more secure ground than before. During these last two weeks some of my awesome fellow Clarionites received their due honours as Leonard Pung Scholar and Octavia Butler Scholar, two deeply moving times for all of us. Week six was the first time I ever got to the beach; simply no time before that. And week five is also the week when we got to experience the wonderful craziness of ComicCon, a beautiful ordeal difficult to forget.

Thanking all these wonderful people will never be enough. And now I have a little piece of advice to give you, dear reader, if you decide to go to Clarion next year: I didn’t made it to Karaoke until the last week… fatal mistake! Go to Karaoke! That’s all I’m saying. You can always get up an hour earlier to finish that last critique tomorrow morning.

And keep the writing going, of course. You know you can do it.


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