A Clarion Field Report

The Torrey pine thrives wild only in northern coastal San Diego, where I spent six weeks this summer, from June to August, at the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Workshop. One of the world’s rarest pines, the Torrey is a startlingly generous tree: when grown inland in rich soil, it’s broad and open-crowned like an oak, lushly needled, thick-trunked. It’s perfectly suited for temperate, mildly wet San Diego—nothing like the Ponderosa pine that crowds the Rocky Mountain foothills near Denver, where I live. The Ponderosa is a spindly, scrawny tree scraping every thin nutrient it can into its height; whose boughs at their healthiest look emaciated and balding. It's a scrapper tree, reflecting the dry, thin-aired Rockies, a nature clocked in disasters: summer fires, winter snows, spring floods. I’m building to a metaphor, here. It’s what I do.

A  heritage Torrey pine  in San Diego Harbor's Coronado Island.

A heritage Torrey pine in San Diego Harbor's Coronado Island.

Clarion is its own generous and rich environment. Since 1968, Clarion has been the premier proving and training ground for aspiring writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror; alumni include literary-speculative heroes of mine like Octavia Butler, Kelly Link, and Ted Chiang, and on this blog I've raved over horror shorts by recent alums Carmen Maria Machado, Alyssa Wong, and Sam J. Miller. The faculty this year was a knockout, too: Lynda Barry and Dan Chaon, Nalo Hopkinson, Andrea Hairston, Cory Doctorow, C.C. Finlay and Rae Carson

My Clarion dorm bookshelf: cartooning, story crits, faculty books and inspirations, antacids.

My Clarion dorm bookshelf: cartooning, story crits, faculty books and inspirations, antacids.

For six weeks, eighteen of us spent all day, every day, writing new fiction, reading each other’s stories, and critiquing each of them. In the words of our Week 1 instructor, Lynda Barry, there’s an artistic muscularity that emerges from so many minds concentrating creatively together, playing in each other’s weird imaginations. That’s the fertile soil in the metaphor. And after that first, generative week 1, every Clarion participant turns in a new story—no old drafts allowed—every week. That’s ninety stories, or about 450,000 words of original genre fiction, produced, read, and scrutinized in a month and a half. There's no time for anything else but fiction. There was no time to obsess over the news or keep up on Game of Thrones. I totally missed who this Scaramucci guy was. I totally missed the skinny repeal of Obamacare that was supposed to be. I get the feeling I’m profoundly privileged in this, and this, in the metaphor, is the equivalent of not having to contend with floods and fires all the time, of not having to measure out my days in national disgraces. Clarion provided the ecology where imaginative fiction could thrive wild. My writing showed it, too: bolder, freer, more agile, more playful, and much readier to describe the horrific and cruel.

In the days after the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, I also got the feeling of something obscene and untimely in getting to spend so many weeks in my Clarion bubble, poring over our manuscripts, debating quiddities of craft. Monkishness never was an effective counter to Nazism.

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Art-making is always political. That’s no compliment to artists—writers who refuse to engage with social injustice, after all, are making a highly political choice in that refusal. But I expect a space like Clarion is necessarily going to engage with our state of perpetual moral-political crisis, by its very nature as a concentrated, speculative project.

First, there’s no time to write away from what dominates our imagination. This is the premise of Lynda Barry’s fondness for timed creative exercises: if you don’t give your brain time to come up with the pretty, posturing nonsense it thinks you should write, you’re going to draw from those anxieties and longings pressing at the seams of your consciousness. I came to Clarion deeply anxious about the state of my world and country; I didn’t escape that anxiety at Clarion, but drew strange, terrible, and beautiful things out of it.

Second, speculative fiction necessarily resists that lazy temptation to represent the world only as it appears. It’s the classic trap of loyally realist fiction, or memoir: a young writer (say, me) submits a thinly fictionalized episode from his own life to a workshop and bristles when his readers tell him the character beats are implausible. “But that’s how it happened!” Sure, Jan, but unless the story investigates and proposes an emotional logic—or at least, an aesthetic shape—then that true story lacks truth. Because speculative fiction depicts things that could not have happened, speculative writers inherently have to come up with a logic or shape for that impossibility. That shape comes from the fabulous mulch, as Ray Bradbury calls it, the compost heap of the experiences you’ve lived and digested into your bedrock imagination. And that comes from thinking hard and painfully about your world, however broad or specific it is.

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It’s like those uncanny images of trees that grow around foreign bodies, revealing something inherent and surprising about both the tree and the object. Did you really notice the pavement’s tiling until the roots grew through the crevices? The tree, in this metaphor, is the story of reality you’re telling around an unreal premise—you learn where that tree is fragile and where it’s hardy, and in what new and bizarre way it will swell its truth.

What did we write about in Clarion? My first story was about the culture of violence against women and the women who resist it. My second, the way we close our minds to the threats of climate change and economic inequality. There were stories, so many stories, of tyrants, tribalisms, and outsized personalities who never take responsibility for the harm they have caused. It’s like we never left at all. The shock of photos of torch-wielding racist mobs wasn’t exactly one of unfamiliarity—if anything, this shape is much too familiar—but of finding something familiar in a different place than where we left it. At Clarion, the monsters were all on the page.

Photo Credit: Header photo by MLeWallpapers.com (Dec. 31, 2010).

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