Monday, January 24, 2011

five things I learned at Clarion

In the summer of 2008, I spent six weeks being someone who, up until that particular chunk of sunny, strange time began, I didn't know existed.

Clarion and Clarion West are workshops for writers whose brains inhabit that slippery territory of "speculative fiction." Science fiction, fantasy, surreal this and magical that. They are hot houses, sparring rings, and summer camps. They let you go careening round the theater of story-telling, wielding real swords and shooting real guns (in a figurative sort of way, if you know what I mean), and then they pull up the work lights to point out where you made a mess. They are currently accepting applications and Jim Kelly, one of my Clarion instructors, asked that we talk about five things we learned there.

I went to Clarion because I tore a ligament in my knee. I applied because, while slouching on the sofa in a groggy, post-surgery haze of impatience and self-pity, I read Neil Gaiman's blog. American Gods was one of the books that made the hours of impersonating a sloth under the influence of vicodin and weirdly humming ice machines more bearable, and now its author, one of my literary heroes, said that he was teaching at this thing called Clarion.

I almost didn't go. I was scared that six weeks away from the studio and my brilliant physical therapist would derail me from the dancing life. My mom pointed out that I was being ridiculous. When else would I have the freedom to go off and explore? When else would I get to learn from someone who wrote stories that permanently haunt my head? My mom is very smart.

I'm telling you all of this because it's part of the most important thing I learned there, which is:

1. I love writing stories. Before Clarion, I didn't take writing seriously. I dabbled in it. I was completely ignorant of what a joy it is to craft a story, what an exhilarating and infuriating process goes into condensing the wild explosions in your head down to something that fits on the printed page. I can approach writing with the same level of seriousness and devotion that I give to dance. Life-changing revelation right there.

2. You have to walk the fine line between giving them everything and leaving them space to make art, and, at the same time, you can't be afraid of saying what you mean.


You have to care about the people in your stories. You are God. You have to believe in them and they have to matter. They better be worth caring for, worth crying for. Otherwise, they're just words on the page.

3. Stories can be about anything at all, as long as they're true. We had stories about crazy things. Zombie pregnancies, Oz mash-ups, advertising robots that crush an old lady's flowers. And something about these, admittedly unrealistic and wildly imaginative, stories felt absolutely honest. They were true, which is sometimes completely separate from being real.

4. Don't run away from conflict. Placidity is not your friend.

5. If you smash apart the dull, chronological line of cause and effect and replace it with story, you can start stringing together the tiny, pinprick lights of theme into a narrative of meaning. You can also more effectively lure the reader into the character's skin.

I highly recommend going. It's a crazy experience, but it can also be an amazing one. And you'll meet people who will absolutely delight you.

No comments: