The Clarion Call
© 1995 by Michael A. Burstein. All rights reserved.
by Michael A. Burstein
First appearance in Mimosa 17, October 1995.I never thought of Clarion as something that would be for me.
I'm a long time science fiction fan, having read the stuff for as far back as I remember. I was never really a "fan" in the active sense of the word, but I had a perfunctory knowledge of things like cons, fanzines, and the Hugos. In fact, I attended one or two cons about ten years ago, but it wasn't until recently that I started attending conventions regularly.
It was at Philcon '93 that I got the idea -- or, rather, was given the idea -- to attend Clarion. For the past two years I had been seriously writing science fiction with the intent of become a professional writer, and my stories still seemed far too weak to show any promise. I had heard that Nancy Kress taught a week-long writing workshop in upstate New York over the summers, and when I realized she was at Philcon I knew I had to ask her about it. Perhaps it could help me.
I approached her, stuttering and stammering and trying not to come across as a slobbering fan boy. I explained to her that I was trying to write, and that I had some free time over the summer and wanted to take her course.
She interrupted me to ask how much time I had over the summer.
"I teach high school Physics," I replied. "I'm free all summer."
"Have you considered Clarion?"
Clarion? Me? Oh, I was well aware of what Clarion was. Every summer since 1968, about twenty or so aspiring science fiction writers would gather for six weeks to do the most intensive writing workshop the genre has to offer. Each week, a different writer-instructor would work with the group, paying forward by teaching the newcomers what they had learned in their own careers. Founded by Robin Scott Wilson, Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm, the so-called science fiction boot camp had produced a remarkable number of significant writers in the field, many of whom became winners of major awards. If anything could turn someone into a professional, this was it.
But for me? I couldn't possibly be good enough to get into Clarion, could I? I continued to stutter and stammer as Nancy practically took me by the hand and led me to the panel about Clarion, where recent alumni discussed the workshop and how it functioned. Over the next few months, I filled out an application, submitted the best two stories I could produce, and waited. Finally, I was accepted. The joy filled me from head to toe when I heard the news; I was excited, thrilled, jubilant.
I was also scared spitless.
Like many things in science fiction, Clarion has its own set of myths and legends that are associated with it. When one editor friend of mine heard I was going to Clarion, he smiled and winked and told me I'd end up engaged. When I told him that I was already engaged, he told me to watch out, as Clarion had a reputation of making and breaking relationships. (He made a few other comments in the same vein, but as they were a bit more salacious, I shall omit them.)
Another friend told me that Clarion made all writers come out sounding the same, since it was like putting your stories through a meat grinder. Someone else told me that Clarionites often undergo personality changes (temporary, he assured me) while at the workshop.
Despite my fear, I knew what I was doing -- locking myself up for six weeks with seventeen other people who were as crazy as I was, who had the same passion for writing as I do. In the words of one 1992 graduate, I would have a chance to "drop out of life and play writer for six weeks." But I wondered about those stories -- would Clarion really be filled with lots of sex and wild parties, like a six week science fiction convention? Why did the list of things to bring include waterguns and Halloween costumes? Was it true that we would be housed all on one floor in Owen Hall, a graduate student dormitory, because the university wanted to keep us away from impressionable undergraduates? Most important of all, would this experience finally teach me what I needed to get published?
On June 19, 1994, I arrived at Michigan State University in East Lansing for the 27th Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Workshop, and shortly found out the answers to all those questions.
For those of you who don't know, a writing workshop generally works as follows. A group of people meet twice a month to critique each others' stories. They go around the room in a circle, making comments on the latest works that they've had a chance to peruse over the past two weeks. At the end of it all, the author has a chance to rebut, and finally, everyone passes the author copies of the story with their comments.
At Clarion, we generally had four or more stories a night to critique the next morning at 9 AM. In the afternoon, manuscripts for the next day's session would arrive, and you'd spend the night reading those and making comments on the story.
Oh, yeah -- those manuscripts had to come from somewhere. You'd also spend a lot of time writing. And writing. And writing. No wonder we needed to blow off steam; we ended up critiquing a total of 93 stories over the six weeks.
Now, I will make a confession early on, so you don't get the wrong idea -- from what I've heard, our Clarion was actually tame compared to ones from previous years. We didn't push anyone around on a cart who was naked except for a mermaid's tail and strategically placed jello and whipped cream. We didn't hook up a firehose to soak the rooms of other Clarionites when we got bored. We didn't sacrifice any virgins (well, maybe one, but you can ask me about that if you see me at a con). And frankly, unless I was completely out of the loop, very little sex took place at the 1994 Workshop.
But what we lacked in wildlife (plug for Jim Kelly's novel here) we made up for in originality. Many of our instructors had been to Clarion before, and some of them noted that the weird things we did had never been done before at Clarion. We contributed our own legends to the overall Clarion mythos.
The first contribution has to be the hardship story. Doing Clarion is a big commitment, and everyone there has a story of how they managed to find the time and money. Invariably, one person can top the rest of us, and sure enough, one of us did. Jeremy Lyon, a Californian in his twenties, was so committed to the workshop that he quit his job to do it. We found that out the first day, when the group of us and John Kessel went around the room introducing each other in pairs.
John made the first week go smoothly, and in our gratitude, we had a T-shirt made up for him with a full face picture of him and one of his quotes about things we could do with our characters -- "Why not just turn everybody into giant cabbages?" This started a weekly tradition, and if you happen to talk to any of the instructors they may tell you that they remember this as the T-shirt Clarion. Every instructor got a T-shirt from us with an appropriate picture and quote, autographed on the back by all of the students.
When Jim Kelly arrived, though, we had a little something extra for him. Jim attended Clarion twice and has taught there a few times, but by a happy coincidence his first summer at Clarion was in 1974. We got a cake made with his picture digitally applied to celebrate his twentieth anniversary, which we devoured shortly after a barbecue and the first of many watergun fights.
Food did seem to play an important role in Clarion, along with the unrelenting mosquitoes, the storms, and the tornadoes. One thing I recall early on was the search for a specific Thai restaurant. The day after John Kessel had been succeeded by Jim Kelly, ten of us piled into three cars in a search for non-Owen Hall food. We headed to a nearby Thai restaurant, not realizing until we got there that they were closed Sunday. So the caravan reformed and we went in search of another one, but as we drove, the cars got separated, and we ended up at three different restaurants.
My car, however, ended up at the best Thai restaurant for miles around -- Lamai's Thai Eggroll Kitchen, one of the most difficult places in Lansing to find. How did we end up there? Our driver spotted Camille LaGuire, an '82 graduate and author of the Clarion student restaurant guide, walking down the street as it began to rain. We called to her loudly, kidnapped her, and made her take us to Lamai's, since she knew how to get there. For this and for all her work in making sure that Clarionites know that there is real food outside Owen Hall, I named Camille the patron saint of the hungry Clarionite.
I mentioned tornadoes before, but although there were plenty of tornado watches only once was there an actual tornado warning. That was the Thursday of the third week, when Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman were our instructors. Since they were leaving early on Friday to get to Readercon, we had our end-of- week party Thursday night. For about half an hour, we moved the party to the basement of Owen Hall, while three tornadoes passed through the town. A few of us whiled away the time singing ballads and other songs in the laundry room, to the amusement of the non-Clarionites taking shelter.
Claire Eddy, editor at Tor Books, came that weekend, with the joyous news that being Clarionites was enough of a credit to pull us out of the slush pile. Oh how we cheered at her news!
Her stay was all too brief, and then Howard Waldrop showed up for the fourth week. Now you gotta know one thing before you understand why Howard hit us like a major shock: H'ard has one of the strongest Texas accents I've ever heard, and comes off as a backwoods kind of a guy. From what we had heard of Howard, and from the spirited conversation we had with him on the 7th floor balcony the night before our first session with him, we really didn't know what to expect from him in class.
In nervousness and with a touch of fear, we decided to bring offerings that Monday morning. Almost every one of us walked in and put a piece of fruit at his feet. I was first, and Howard didn't seem to think it was odd, but by the time Dave Woomer, the tallest one of us all, placed a pineapple on the table in front of him, Howard realized that this had been planned. We had a good, nervous laugh, and then began the session.
One of the stories critiqued that day was by Sandy Hutchinson, who happened to be the first classmate I met -- she and I got together a few weeks before the workshop began, as she only lived two hundred miles away. Her story was about a devout Christian in 4th century Egypt who encounters a robot from the 21st century due to a time warp. We went around the circle, making the usual comments on plot, character, scene structure, etc.
Then we got to Howard. Practically the first thing he says is that if this story is gonna work right, the author's gotta let us know what the character's beliefs are. For example, which sect of Christianity is he in? Does he live east or west of the Nile, 'cause y'all see that the sects were different depending on where you lived. You had your blanks, and your other blanks, and your third blanks...
Sandy, who is an expert on this stuff, was smiling and nodding her head as she took notes, as Howard was right on the mark. The rest of us were dumbfounded. Knowledge of ancient Christian sects in Egypt is rather esoteric, and one would not expect someone like Howard to know about such things. But okay, so what, everyone knows something you wouldn't expect.
Next, we got to John Wenger's comic piece about a human forced to watch old TV sitcoms with aliens who worship our broadcasts. (John has an off-beat sense of humor which goes quite nicely with the far-away look in his eyes.) The idea behind his story was that due to the speed of light lag, the aliens get our TV shows many years in the future, and when a human crash-lands on their planet it is a stroke of incredible luck for them. They finally have someone who can explain to them the significance of the two Darrins, and the parable of "My Mother, the Car."
Again, everyone had a chance to critique. (I pointed out that John had never stated explicitly that we now had FTL technology; otherwise, his main character couldn't have outrun the television signals.) Then we come to Howard.
Well, he says, the problem here is that the time frame is wrong. You see, "My Mother the Car" was on in such-and-such year, the switch between Darrins took place in that other year, Lucy's baby was on this night, not that night, this other show was pre-empted on that particular Tuesday for this reason...
Up until that point, I had been developing a reputation of being a know-it-all since I was the closest thing we had at the workshop to a hard science fiction writer (what with two Physics degrees) and since I had the most comprehensive knowledge of the history of science fiction -- at least, of those of us there. But when it comes to knowing everything -- and I mean, everything -- Howard wins hands down. We were totally blown away. After all, it wasn't just that Howard showed his encyclopedic knowledge of early Christianity or of 1960's sitcoms, but that he showed his knowledge of *both* esoteric subjects, in one morning.
Howard's colorful metaphors entertained us all week, and he ended up getting the highest number of quotes onto the T-shirt, with such pearls of wisdom as "Either you're gonna die or it's gonna sell," or "Oedipal stuff is like family stuff, but different." My personal favorite -- "You can make a reader go 'Huh?' anywhere in a story but not on page nine. And you can never make a reader go 'Huh? What?' A 'What?' is a non- realization of the preceding 'Huh?'." Believe me, it makes sense if you think about it.
Part of our nervousness the week Howard was there was probably due to the fact that we were getting ready for Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm. Kate and Damon had taught at every single Clarion from the beginning, almost always for the last two weeks, and we truly had no idea what to expect from them. We absorbed stories of their previous Clarion appearances like thirsty travelers drinking deeply from an oasis in the Sahara. One year, we were told, Kate and Damon had been absolute sweethearts; another year, it was as if their evil twins had shown up instead. In order to defuse our nervousness, a few of us had sent a brief note to them during the first week, saying that we were learning to "write more better," and asking questions like how many pairs of underwear they owned, or if they could deal with spiders the size of cafeteria trays. The fact that they never wrote back to acknowledge the joke only served to heighten the suspense.
The first week of Kate and Damon had us all feeling like squeezed lemons, to the point where we hardly had any time or energy for letting off steam. We finally understood where the other stories about them had come from. They were the harshest instructors we had all summer. As one Clarionite put it, the previous four weeks were merely a prelude for Kate and Damon. But the harshness, at least to me, did not seem overly gratuitous. You learn a hell of a lot when a writer goes through a story with you "sentence by bloody sentence," as Juliann Medina put it.
We finally did let off a little steam on the Friday of their first week. Or rather, some of us let off a little steam. You see, among the group of us were two incorrigible punsters, David Greer Smith (who reminds me of a clean-cut Groucho Marx) and myself. Unbeknownst to the two of us, a group of classmates had planned something special for whichever one of us made the next pun in class.
To my great relief, that turned out to be David. Damon had drawn a Venn diagram to show that every story needed Background, Setting, and Character, and had labeled each circle with the first letter of each word, respectively. David gleefully pointed out that these three things were absolutely necessary, because if, for example, you didn't include Character, you'd be left with B.S.
At the next break, about eight of our classmates got their water weaponry, marched David up to a nearby brick wall, and fired. All that was left when they finished soaking him was his outline on the wall. According to Kate, it was the first watergun pun execution in all of Clarion's history.
We had one other "first," the Monday night following. The pressure had become so intense that Juliann Medina, a short blonde with a midwestern accent and a sharp sense of humor, decided to organize a manuscript sacrifice. That night, in full costume and regalia, all eighteen of us marched into the courtyard while chants were played on a portable stereo. We surrounded a bonfire, and going around in a circle, we drank from a cup of wine and offered our manuscripts as sacrifices to the gods. As the flames fed on our stories, we ran around and around, chanting and screaming. Kate and Damon witnessed the sacrifice and again Kate commented that such a thing had never been done at Clarion before.
On the other hand, for me this catharsis came a day too early. You see, for critique the next day I had submitted a piece of space opera.
Bad space opera. And I didn't realize how bad it really was.
I guess I should have seen it coming when people smiled at me and gave me funny looks during the break. But the real tip- off was at the beginning of the critique, when the classmates to my immediate right and left started arguing over who got to go first. Everyone trashed this piece so much that by the time we got to Kate and Damon they really had nothing to say. I have to admit, although I found myself laughing at the stupidities in this story as they were pointed out to me, the fact is that this critique hurt my feelings a *lot*. I needed to spend the afternoon and evening all by myself to recover.
There were two consolations, though. First of all, as one of my classmates said, part of the reason they were so harsh on me was that they expected better from me because of my other stories. They knew that this couldn't possibly represent my best work. The other consolation, which I revealed to them after the critique ended, was that this particular story was written by me the week *before* Clarion. I had been worried about my ability to produce a story a week, so I wanted to see if I could do it at least once. Therefore, being told that this story was awful compared to all my other stories told me that I was learning something at Clarion.
On the last day, at the end of the session, Kate dropped the biggest bombshell of all. Although we were a Clarion of "firsts," we would also be a Clarion of "lasts." After 27 years of teaching at Clarion, Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight had finally decided to retire. The news hit us all like a balloon deflating. Our emotions were mixed -- joy at having had the chance to work with them, but sorrow at the thought of wondering how Clarion would possibly survive without them. For myself, I was also proud in having been allowed to share in a part of science fiction history. No matter what else happens in my life, I can say that I was a student at the last Kate & Damon Clarion.
Looking back on my experience, I have to agree with something that Steve Samenski '93 said at that Philcon panel that got me into all this -- he commented that he did not feel fundamentally changed by Clarion. While this is true, I do feel that I have learned more than I ever did before about what makes a story work, and even if I still find it hard to apply this knowledge to my own work, I feel much more confident now when dissecting other people's stories. Most important of all, though, I made seventeen good friendships that will last me a lifetime.