From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Cautiously Expecting: On Creating Life and Fiction at Clarion

At the end of March, I was relaxing with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars when I suddenly sat up in a cold sweat, my breakfast churning. At first I blamed Robinson’s potent description of the effects of radiation on the human body. Then I decided it was anxiety, since Robinson himself would be analyzing my work in a few months at the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in San Diego. A week later, both theories were shouted down by two pink lines on a stick.

Although I may be the first person in the workshop’s 41-year history to attend while pregnant in the literal sense, I am certainly not the first to arrive in a state of urgent expectancy. Every year, around eighteen hopeful speculative fiction writers arrive at Clarion swollen to bursting with unborn careers. Amazingly, nearly a third of them use the six-week boot camp as a catalyst to carry those metaphorical pregnancies to term and become published authors. Ever since my positive pregnancy test – which was as much a shock to me as my Clarion acceptance, since I’d given both a perfunctory effort with little hope of success at my age – I have found it crucial to justify the expense and stress of my attendance by discovering The Big Secret to the (in)famous workshop’s success.

My first theory: Clarion works because it represents six weeks of immersion in writing among likeminded people, free of distractions. According to Philip Brewer, Clarion class of 2001, “Writing is a terribly solitary activity and transforming it, even for just six weeks, into something of a common endeavor, is kind of magical.” However, in an online retrospective, he reveals something I would never have guessed. “Going to Clarion doesn’t give you any more time to write,” he says; “the workload from critiquing is pretty heavy, and the opportunities for social activities are endless.” So much for my “distraction-free” theory.

I read another essay or two positing that Clarion’s success rate had more to do with attracting the right students than with anything that happened at the workshop. That, however, would suggest that the workshop did nothing to change the trajectory of the students’ careers. Why would someone who didn’t need any help make the financial, geographical, and personal sacrifices necessary to attend? Furthermore, they’d picked me, hadn’t they? How astute could the selection committee really be?

That last question sent me into a spiral of panic and self-doubt, exacerbated by first trimester’s relentless nausea and exhaustion. Clearly the committee had made a mistake. I was no writing prodigy. I was about to put myself and my unborn through six weeks of sleep deprivation, revolting food, and emotional upheaval for nothing. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, I had the good sense to confess my fears to Shweta Narayan, a Clarion 2007 graduate who had always spoken highly of the program. She sent me a long email that upended many of my assumptions about Clarion and about myself.

“Clarion teaches you several things,” she wrote. “Besides tools of the craft and the trade, it teaches you what it’s like to write stories fast when there’s nothing else you need to do, it teaches you what it’s like to be immersed in writing and writing talk, and, yes, it teaches you whether that life is for you, much of the time.” I already knew I wanted the life; my doubts lay in my ability. This is where her closing sentiments dropped a bomb on some of my most dearly-held paradigms.

“Post-Clarion,” she wrote, “it’s not the people who were brilliant who succeed. It’s the people who are stubborn as hell and keep writing and submitting.” She was not only paraphrasing Octavia Butler, but also spoke from personal experience. Shweta felt she hadn’t measured up to some of the talents in her class at Clarion, and was surprised to reach SFWA professional status while some she had admired were still putting off submitting or even writing.

Could it really be that simple? Step one: Clarion screens applicants for potential. Step two: Clarion gives students the tools and techniques to make use of that potential. Step three: students put that potential and those tools to work.

Something was still missing, though, and it didn’t come to me until the first time I looked at a monitor and saw my unborn’s grasshopper-sized legs kicking fiercely in response to the compression of an ultrasound wand. In that moment, I realized that whether I was ready or not, there was a person inside me waiting to get out. I was still lacking in several crucial elements needed for success as a mother, but now I had no choice but to make myself ready.

The same, of course, was true of my writing career. Clarion had made further procrastination impossible. I’d written the check, I’d bragged to everyone, I’d already begun getting to know my seventeen classmates. Once at Clarion, I’d no longer have the option of taking my sweet time about finishing stories, hoarding them close to my chest until they were “perfect.” I was about to be faced with all my own weaknesses and forced to do the work necessary to push past them.

No one looks forward to the wrenching process of forcing her inner author out of its warm cozy hiding place and sending it howling out into the cold bright world where it will be snipped and spanked and peered at minutely in all its raw wet ugliness. Why should we ever take action, as writers? It’s much easier to love a baby we’ve never seen, a baby that could be President or win a Pulitzer, than it is to face the fact that little Johnny may need to repeat the fourth grade.

Ask any author, though, any parent: was it worth it? No matter how harried, wounded and demoralized that life-giving individual may be, no matter how recently she just finished complaining about how nothing is what she’d planned, if you give her a moment to think it over, she will always answer “yes.”

For Clarionites, the baby is coming, whether we like it or not. And after all the pain and expense of delivery, if we want to give away the fruit of our labor because it’s not the shape we expected, we have that choice. It’s a different sort of choice, though, from the one we’ve made before. Many of us would elect to remain forever in the blissful second trimester of our writing careers, proudly and publicly “expecting,” humming lullabies to an imaginary cherub without ever experiencing pain or disappointment. Once we’ve gone through the agony of bringing it into the world, we’re a hell of a lot more likely to try to make the best of whatever wrinkled little bug-eyed beastie we’re stuck with.

That, perhaps, is the secret of Clarion’s success, at least for people like me. It shoves us into the delivery room, snaps on the rubber gloves, and says PUSH.

Mishell Baker works as a freelance entertainment writer in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, fetus, and two Bengals. Prior to that she has held such jobs as corporate headhunter, movie extra, vacuum cleaner salesman, exotic dancer, and personal aide to the disabled, among others. Her 2007 screenplay Kingdom of Daylight was a semifinalist for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ annual Nicholl Fellowship. Though she enjoys screenwriting, she now has an excuse to focus on her first love: fantasy fiction. She will be blogging her Clarion experience at http://dreadedsword.blogspot.com.

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