Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Clarion Workshop Deserves Support

It was twenty-nine years ago this week that I had my life changed forever.

That summer, I attended the Clarion Workshop in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. The teachers were Algis Budrys, Marta Randall, Samuel R. Delany, Orson Scott Card, Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight. Among my fellow students were Dean Wesley Smith and Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and many others. Many were already published.

In 1982 the workshop met here in Michigan, at Michigan State University. And as now, it went for six weeks -- twenty apprentice writers shut up on a single floor of Owen Graduate Hall. It was kind of a pressure cooker, kind of a boot camp, kind of an initiation. Six weeks, 24-7, of writing, publishing and squirt gun fights. (And a pause to howl at the lunar eclipse.)

I was a small town girl, always a story-dreamer. I had spent the first two years of college in film school, mostly animating things by myself in a dark closet, before I realized that I was not social enough for a career as a movie director, nor bold enough to move to Hollywood and learn enough to even know if I were suited for any other career in movies.

But I did know how to sit in a dark closet and make stuff up. And even though I didn't know what a movie script should look like, or how it should read, or who to show it to if I should ever finish one, I DID know what fiction read like and looked like and how it was constructed, and I even, somehow, knew how you submitted it. At least generally. You stay home, type the story, and send it to a publisher. I knew that much. And that was something I could do.

And I had this crazy idea that I could make a little income writing that science fiction stuff. I did not read science fiction, mind you, other than some classics I read in school. It never ever occurred to me that you might want to read something before you wrote it, or that there might be some expertise involved. I read almost exclusively Golden Age mystery, P.G. Wodehouse, and swashbuckling adventure of the same era, with some high lit thrown in (including some "classic" sf shorts). Nothing modern, except for Donald Westlake, and some Harlan Ellison and other literature for class. For everything else I was a watcher. (I started as a film major, remember.)

And by luck I didn't watch Star Trek. I watched The Twilight Zone. So it just happened by magic that I had an idea of what constituted a modern speculative fiction story. And I wrote one - the third story I finished once I had decided I was going to be a writer and not a movie maker. And I submitted it to Clarion, along with the application which described my obsessive writing habits.

So thanks to Rod Serling, I got in to Clarion WAY before I was ready for it.

For all I know, I might be the reason they changed the requirement to TWO stories with the application.

You can imagine what a mind-blowing experience it was. Although most people write a lot while at a workshop, I didn't write much at all. I was too busy absorbing information. (Like, you know, that you should read a genre if you're going to write it.) I learned about the submission process, and about contracts and negotiating, and networking.

And I learned the most valuable lesson of all -- how three different respected professionals could have VERY different reactions to your work, and how three more pros and 19 students could also all have different views.

Which might be confusing to some. I know some people who have come out of Clarion bitter that "The Answer" (as they learned it) did not apply to what they wanted to do. I thought they missed the point: that there is no such thing as "The Answer." But maybe they missed it because the intensity of Clarion makes the whole place seem authoritative. If you're looking for authority, you will find it.

And for many that's okay too -- having some "authority" makes them feel comfortable in moving forward. You can always grow out of it.

The thing that makes Clarion a life changing experience, though, is that it forces you beyond what you think you know. Sure, you learn facts, and you gain skills, but what you really learn is exactly how freaking much you don't know. You learn that in spades.

And that changes your life, because once you're aware of that whole world out there -- not just mysteries that nobody really understands, but a knowable world -- everything looks different, forever and ever. It's like learning to draw and suddenly, when you look at a tree, it isn't just a tree like other trees. You see the line, the light, the color, unique it's individuality as a tree, but but also unique time -- in that moment of sunlight and breeze.

You know how small you and your experience in the universe is, but you also have a glimpse of just how big infinity is. You know, suddenly, how very far you can go, and how very much you can do.

I want others to have that experience and opportunity. Clarion is expensive. You need to cover tuition, room and board for six weeks. You need to put your life on hold. My family and I managed to swing those costs, but frankly, if the workshop had been out of town, I would not have been able to get the travel money too.

Clarion isn't a rich kid's play room, though. You get in based on merit. The Clarion Foundation raises money to offset the cost, in hopes that those who are accepted can actually attend, regardless of their financial condition.

I'm participating in the Clarion Write-A-Thon partly for selfish reasons: I need incentive to write a lot this summer. But I also feel that it's important to try to raise funds too. The Clarion Foundation may not be the kind of charity which saves lives, but it does change them.

Please consider a donation or pledge. I haven't set a money goal. I have no idea what goal I should set. I don't know your inclinations or budget or what other demands there are on your money. I can only ask those I know to please help give others the experience I had.

See you in the funny papers.

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