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Clarion Report, Week Four

My report from the Clarion Writers Workshop, Week 4

Within scant hours of my last report, Robert Crais and Kim Stanley Robinson showed their true colors.

A bit of background: In her book Storyteller, Kate Wilhelm reports that the intense pressure of the workshop environment was occasionally relieved by antics of various kinds. One particular variety of antics was invariably provoked by the venerable Damon Knight himself, who would spontaneously begin attacking students with water pistols. This, apparently would lead to water fights throughout the remainder of the workshop.

Now, recall that Bob Crais and Stan Robinson attended Clarion together in 1975, and that this was their one day together this year. So…

We were having a pizza party (courtesy of Bob and Stan) and having leisurely conversations on the lawn, when Bob came tearing around the corner carrying a military-grade water rifle, which he then turned on us. Stan was close behind with a water pistol (he complained for the rest of the evening that Bob had given him a dinky little gun). Chaos ensued. Apparently many of my classmates had been preparing for this moment, because water weaponry appeared out of nowhere, including stockpiles of water balloons. Others simply grabbed large plastic cups and ran back and forth refilling them.

Throughout this display, your humble narrator remained on the sidelines, taking photos of the action. However, this displeased the instructors, who maintained that there could be no non-combatants in this conflict and that, indeed, one had not really attended Clarion until one had been baptized by aquatic battle.

Here, then, is the act that officially ended the water fight:

That’s the talented Australian writer Liz Argall, drenching Yours Truly. What you can’t really see, however, is that everyone’s water gun was on me at that moment, and I was being inundated from all sides.

Stan Robinson slightly changed the workshop approach this week. Instead of devoting all four hours of our daily workshop time to story critique, he wanted to set aside the last hour for lecture and discussion about genres, pacing, style, form, imagery, the effect of the real, etc. — "everything I can remember about fiction writing." What he can remember, after 35 years and fifteen novels, is quite a lot. So we also spent an hour or so every evening on this lecture and discussion as well. I have pages and pages of notes, including a long list of "things to read later."

Stan has strong feelings about the SF and fantasy genres, as well as some stylistic issues, and he put these on the table, making it clear that they were his personal opinions, and inviting us to argue and discuss. He’s the first instructor so far who’s been sufficiently provocative to inspire me to debate — this was a deliberate pedagogical tactic, of course, and it worked like a charm.

In my previous report, I didn’t describe my own story critique during Week Three. I tried my hand at a fairy tale, which turned into a parody, which turned into an allegory — by the time it was done, it was a bit of a mess, with inconsistent voicing all over the place. The critiques of this story were actually rather kind, but everyone saw the fundamental structural problem, as did Bob. Happily, I think I can solve this, once I decide which of the two (or three?) stories I actually want to tell.

My Week Four piece was a sad SF story about a marriage, using a piece of artwork as a metaphor for the relationship between the characters. That part of it worked pretty well, but my colleagues saw two primary problems: First, the story contained two sex scenes, which were designed to show the change in the relationship over time; readers felt that the first scene was unnecessary and intrusive, although the second one was useful and worked well. Second, the plot was moved along by an overused device I hadn’t really thought through, and everybody spotted that problem. This story will be somewhat easier to fix than the Week Three piece, I think, but the main problem will be finding a less hackneyed device to move the action where I need it to go; depending on what it is, it may change several important things about the characters and require me to delete a major sub-plot. (Wait, did I use the word "easier" I this paragraph…?)

Yesterday (Saturday) a bunch of us went down to ComicCon, the gigantic comic book convention held in San Diego every year. It was sensory overload on every level, but worth it if only to see the costumes on the fans. Here’s the Star Trek Perfume Counter:

I was a bit lost, but had the fun of seeing things I did not know would be there. For example, I photographed these two gentlemen as they signed autographs:

And this is a photo of me with the legendary Stan Freberg:

Yesterday Stan Robinson left, and Paul Park and Elizabeth Hand arrived. The last two weeks of Clarion are always taught by a team of two — this dates back to the days when Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm were the "anchor team" for Clarion. I think they’re planning on changing the critique format somewhat, and adding other things as well.

I’ve noticed a certain trepidation and shyness each weekend as we meet the new instructor. By the end of the week we’ve come to love the old instructor, and don’t want him/her to leave. The new instructor is an unknown personality, and it feels sort of like having a new parent. (Okay, bad analogy, especially as I’m older than both Holly and Larissa, but you get the point.)

All of our instructors have said flattering things about our writing, our critiquing, and the way we relate to each other. I don’t know how we compare to other Clarion classes, and it doesn’t matter; it feels wonderful to have such praise from people we esteem so highly. I haven’t felt this close to so many people since my days in Alpha Delta Phi and the NJ Shakespeare Festival — and these are colleagues, so I hope, we all hope, that the relationship will continue. As we get into the final two weeks, we’re all thinking hard about how to make that happen. Meeting up at SFF conventions seems a foregone conclusion (although it’s not practical for all of us to travel so much), as are various online groupings (LJ, Facebook, etc.). We’re likely (I hope) to set up some writers groups, probably online, so that we can continue to get help from each other. Some of us live comparatively close together, so I guess the relationships can continue that way too.

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