Clarion West

This was originally written as email messages sent weekly to a friend


For me it began Friday night of the first weekend when fellow Clarion-student Kurt Roth and his wife arrived after driving up from California. For several months I'd exchanged both email and stories with him, and he was very like I thought he'd be--a really energetic, intense, and fun person. Steph was quieter and more relaxed, but practical and sweet. I liked them both immediately. They stayed with us overnight and in the morning Jim made pancakes then we went to see the crazy Fremont Solstice parade--all homemade costumes and floats, a lot of drumming and belly dancers, and a whole Alice-in-Wonderland series with a huge cardboard tree with a Cheshire cat (with grin) perched there, a tea table and people dressed as Alice, the Queen of Hearts, the cards playing croquet, the Mad Hatter, Tweedledum and Tweedledee and all. And a huge Alice that actually grew and shrank (thanks to a hot air mechanism). And of course the traditional naked men on bicycles (and a naked woman with daisy pasties, very elegant). Loads of fun. I raced off toward the end of the parade to pick up another student, Bryn, whom I'd also met over email (also had exchanged stories with him) at the airport and drove him to the dorms. There were several people there already and Kurt and Stephanie drove in with their heavily loaded car and moved Kurt in, and we all went for a mediocre dinner at a Chinese restaurant and talked and talked. People from all over--several from DC, one who works at the Elsie (Library of Congress), one from York England, many from California, one from Kentucky, one a novelist from Saskatoon. Only four women, only two of whom are in the dorms (the other, like me, is from Seattle and staying at home). I can tell that I'm missing a lot of the camaraderie by not staying in the dorms, but maybe it will add up to more work time. I doubt I'll get much more sleep than anyone else--which is not much.

week 1

Terry Bisson

Sunday was our first meeting of the whole group (minus Anson from Arizona who had car trouble and was getting his car fixed before he could reach Seattle) and we met our first instructor, Terry Bisson. I'd read quite a bit of his work over the past few months, and the thing that struck me most about him was the warmth he displays for his characters. He is like that--I got really fond of him over the week. I like him a lot as an instructor and critic. I also love his Kentucky accent. He is both laid back and open. A great person to start the workshop with. The workshops totally wired me the first couple of days, as though I were hyperventilating. They're pretty fast and intense. First off Terry gave us a bunch of stuff to read about writing, including some Gary Snyder (ick) writing about poetry (I had read the piece years ago, and it's better than his poetry, luckily). And he had us do a novelization of the last scene from the movie, Pulp Fiction, which I haven't seen. At first I was reluctant--I hate exercises--but he wanted to see how we handled the connective tissue between dialogue, and it ended up being fun. We all came away being much more impressed (even Terry) about the quality of Tarantino's dialogue--he manages to convey a lot about character. The days are busy--we workshop about 4 stories a day, then pick up new ones to get critiques ready for overnight and have to write and bring in our own work. Tuesday nights the instructors give a reading at Elliott Bay Book Company and Friday nights there are parties. Yesterday I drove a group of us to Discovery Park and we walked around through the forest and they went down to the beach while Bryn and I sat on an old blanket and read the stories for Monday.

week 2

Pat Cadigan

This second week of the workshop has gone by so quickly I can hardly believe it. Pat Cadigan was here. She writes cyberpunk short stories and novels. For some reason everyone seemed nervous while we were waiting for her to come to our first meeting, and she came in acting tough, challenging us, but she turned out to be warm and a lovely person to work with, besides being an incisive reader, more focused on the details of the stories than Terry Bisson had been. In that first meeting she challenged us to try something new, and between that and Vonda McIntyre (a well-known SF writer who has taught at Clarion in the past and whom I met at the Friday night party for Terry Bisson) telling me that if I only brought in novel sections I would learn less at the workshop, I spent Sunday in a civil war with myself, trying to decide if I would succumb and write a short story. I succumbed. Since I had told Vonda that if I wanted to write something short I wrote it in a poem, I decided to mine my poems for a story. I took details about my trips to Wales and Scotland, and wrote a story from it. It was fairly well received--still have work to do on it of course, nothing is perfect at Clarion--but not bad for my first short story since high school. There are 20 of us in the class: Kurt from Alabama now living in CA who has published a lot of short fiction but not for the major markets, sharp wit; Bryn from Santa Cruz who grew up all over the country, very quiet and writes some magical stuff; Justina from Leeds who is wildly imaginative and ambitious and cynical; Judy from Saskatchewan who has published a couple of collections of mainstream short stories and a romance novel, now trying for speculative fiction; Elizabeth who lives in Seattle with her parents and writes somewhat poetically with a great imagination; Brett from LA who takes acting classes; Eric who is the SF librarian at the Elsie, who has travelled to Russia and Albanian and who has quite a range of interests; Craig, also from DC who writes with the most incredibly detailed characterization--I think he's going to turn to young adult fiction which he'll do extremely well at, loads of promise; Chris also from DC, plays drums in a couple of bands there, has a great command of voice; Lyman from Seattle who is a retired chemistry professor and writes charming stories with the kind of classic-era SF voice but a contemporary sensibility; Ken who is throwing his life into one work; Robert out in his own world having studied perhaps too much Crowley and philosophy and who has a uniquely weird style; Christopher the liberal southern boy from Kentucky who is class clown and a joker but meticulous and imaginative and humane, and who with Kurt has worked hard to bring the class together; Michael from California who looks like Steven Spielberg and is warm and gentle, and though his stories are sometimes violent they're romantic; John who is our small but sharp writer--his works aren't ambitious in the literary way some of us are pushing for, but are clear and tight tales well told; Jeremy from New York and Toronto, sardonic but friendly; Richard who is a humanities professor, very quiet and well-read; Rich who has just moved to Seattle who knows a lot of fantasy and gaming and who has a quirky imagination; Anson from AZ who is the most quiet of us all; and me. Trying to settle out who the golden boys are. Everyone has something unique to offer. As I said, the week went by so quickly it's hard to think about in detail. We see so much of each other, but I do miss a lot going home rather than living in the dorms. It may be that I'm able to get more work done. The commute drives me crazy, but it's a good time to think and sort through the day's events. Got very fond of Pat and her sardonic humour and her wonderful insights into the stories. Miss her already, but tonight we meet Geoff Ryman, the writer whose work has most impressed me of all of our talented faculty--and I have a story to finish.

week 3

Geoff Ryman

End of third week, with Geoff Ryman, the writer I admire most of all our teachers. This week went by quickly but not as fast as the second week. He did things a little differently--we went over the stories more quickly, and after the critiques he talked to us about writing and pushing beyond just writing stories, cracking us all open a little. He made us think more about patterns and art and stretching ourselves, and what we were already accomplishing in the stories. He read from a really funky manuscript at his Tuesday night reading about a tube train that crashed before The Elephant and Castle stop, and about all the people on and off on the last three stops. It's a hypertext novel on the net, and full of interesting characters and connections and events. He reads beautifully, like the actor he is. I was kind of in a funk on Tuesday, even before we did my story, which I was quite proud of but the class didn't have much enthusiasm for--not harsh criticism, but I think we're not enjoying all that much right now. I took the crits kind of hard because I started feeling so tired, and that I'd fully extended my talents writing this one. Later after the reading it was better--Jim came to the reading, so I had that extra moral support. Thursday night for the Fourth of July Geoff invited us to his room for drinks, and I bought a bottle of blackthorn cider and drank much of it, then we went to the 12th floor to see what we could of the fireworks--did see some in between the downtown skyscrapers and some from the neighbourhoods surrounding the dorm, all of us hovering by the windows. Then some of us went back to Geoff's and drank scotch. I got quite thoroughly blitzed and Justina was drunk enough to read palms. I left about 1:30 when I thought I was capable of driving again. Friday night was the party, which was kind of fun, standing around talking, and I ended up giving backrubs, including to Geoff, but it was cramped at the house that held the party and we all crashed early--I was pretty tired and spacey after the night before, but luckily not at all hungover. Yesterday was Jim's birthday, and he went with us all to laugh at the movie, Independence Day and he got the chance to talk to Geoff a little, then we had to say goodbye to Geoff because he was leaving today early. Another sad goodbye--weird how we all get so attached so quickly. Today I tried to finish my story for next week--a dreamy little thing. And shortly I have to leave to go to the Sunday night meeting to meet Jack Womack.

week 4

Jack Womack

We're now halfway through, and I'm already realizing how much I'll miss the people in this class when they leave here. There's going to be a big hole in my life. I feel peculiarly stretched out and emotional and open. Very strange--I guess the accumulation of all the intensity and how found I'm growing fond of these people. It's strange, through. I feel like a wind could blow right through me. I didn't have time to write last weekend or didn't make time or something. Week 4 is supposed to be the most difficult time, but it wasn't. We had Jack Womack, a Kentuckian transported to NYC, a chain smoker, and a nice guy with a wonderful imagination and a way of challenging us while at the same time setting us at ease. The week wasn't that rough. I wrote a rather deliberately poetic story and I thought I'd get nailed for it but it went over well. Jack gave an interesting and dramatic reading from his new novel about Russia. I had time to talk to friends. After Jack's reading, I went to the beach to talk with Kurt and we had one of those punishingly honest conversations. Wonderful, but yikes. He's getting to be a very close friend. It's weird how I feel as though this whole experience has cracked me open in a strange way--it's hard not to talk about really serious stuff. Somehow we're all like that--the experience of writing so much and having so little sleep and being together so much and sharing first drafts--they were right about it being a bootcamp. I didn't expect it would affect me like this at all. There are whole days where I feel like a raw nerve. Anyway, the rest of the week seemed to go pretty quickly or my memory of it is lost or something. Maybe because Friday night after the regular party which everyone wanted to leave early I brought a bottle of scotch I wanted to kill back to the dorm and drank too much of it and no one would let me drive home until I was sober which took a while. That probably killed most of my memory cells. On Saturday there was a big party at Greg Bear's, who has a house on a lake on the north fringes of Seattle. It was a lot of fun--people were swimming and going out in the kayak and just relaxing and talking. Greg and his family are so welcoming. We watched The Wrong Trousers, the Wallace and Gromet animation. Had a wonderful potluck meal and then a local agent did a Q&A discussion that was actually a little upsetting--just seemed very commercial, but I guess that's the name of the game. After it was over I asked the agent about a letter I got a couple of years ago stating that it was difficult to find publishers for female fantasy authors, and the agent said she thought it was something just that agent might say and that I should send her my novel. Too bad it's not finished. Anyway, had a lot of fun there with friends. Afterwards my carload (Kurt, Justina, Christopher, and Jeremy) came back here to our house to talk and visit and read poetry, of all things.

week 5

Ellen Datlow

Sunday evening was our first meeting with Ellen Datlow, who is a pretty well-known editor in the field. I really enjoyed working with her. She was just getting over pneumonia and was feeling pretty shakey, but still had a lot of interesting things to say from the editorial perspective. Rather than giving a reading, she was interviewed by Harold Waldrop, an SF writer and good friend of hers, and the conversation was fun--they played off each other well. I handed in two stories this week, one based on the Cruel Sister ballad and another a very short, painful abused child dramatic monologue. The latter just spilled out one night--only 500 words. I was quite calm and collected until at the end of the critique I had to try to say something and started shaking. Yowch. I've had time to spend getting to know some of the other writers. The four of us women decided to write a story in response to all of the boys and feeling outnumbered by them and how frequently even the sensitive among them used female characters just as props, so we're doing a story called "The Bronze Jockstrap" (because the tendancy among SF writer to use female characters just as props is known as the Bronze Bra Syndrome). It was a lot of fun to write--we laughed so hard it hurt. Had a good meeting with Ellen Datlow--she suggested I send her some fairytale poems and maybe a story for an anthology she's working on. Then we traded names of favourite authors back and forth. Friday night was another party at a local writers for Ellen Datlow. It was one of the most pleasant, and I really enjoyed meeting the local hosts, writers Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith. It was a pretty intense week. Yesterday, Saturday, I spent the day cleaning and shopping for a party over here. Didn't last long, but it was fun having everyone over. Before the party, all the women came over and we finished the first draft of our story. The main character is named Jane Bondage. We did have fun. Now it's Sunday night again, and I've started what will be my final Clarion story. We've had our meeting with Rachel Pollack, our final instructor--funky, she's really into tarot. Should be an interesting week, but I'm already mourning how we have less than a week and everyone is going to be leaving. It's making me crazy thinking about it. It's been a long time that we've been together and soon we won't ever all be in the same place at the same time again. Hard to think about. Blegh.

week 6

Rachel Pollack

Sixth week was Rachel Pollack, still pushing us to push ourselves, but more gently now. That describes Rachel well, actually: someone who moves seriously but gently forward. For the stories it was sex and violence week. We were all pretty punchy and emotional and starting to think about what it's going to be like now that it was getting close to the end. Kept thinking it's the last Monday, the last Tuesday and we picked up our T-shirts, and the last reading, the last Wednesday, the last Thursday when we turned in our "The Bronze Jockstrap" story and finally it was the last workshop day and I could hardly believe it. It ended with a story by the same person, Eric, who we'd started critiquing with the first day. Afterwards, we sat there pretty stunned. Then the graduation ceremony, which was fun and we got our certificates and secret decoder ring.


Saturday I did two runs to the airport. It's hard to say goodbye to everyone. Most everyone was gone by Saturday afternoon and the dorm was empty. People still there were helping Rich move into his new apartment. And then we had houseguests right away, who threw me back into real life, despite my unwillingness to go there. It's really over.

Note on uploading this, 11/02

Well, I've finally decided to put this up onsite. It entailed a little editing and a few choices that took me a while to make: how much to keep in and how much to omit. I actually took out very, very little. The emails were brief and summary in nature to begin with. But I do hope this conveys something of what it was like for me. It was a wonderful experience, wonderful enough that now I both work for and volunteer my time for the Clarion West organization.