And who are you?
Yesterday the Clarion group sat in a semi-circle around Neil Gaiman and listened to him talk about story. The light was shining so brightly everone was glowing. I have photos, I may share them.
Neil talked about want, specificaly what characters want and using knowledge of that to make a story tick (this became something of a theme for the day). He also talked about caring about characters, and meaning the things you put your characters through. We also got a good picture of the Gaiman working process, which goes a little something like this – find a premise (a journey to hell, for instance), think the premise through until you find an opening, write through the story with everything you’ve got, read back and find out what the story is about, redraft to polish that theme. Easy as!
The wants theme came up again when Scott McCloud, the man behind Understanding Comics and also a specialist narrative theoritician, gave us the inside track on his latest thoughts about story. The McCloud doctrine is all about desire. Every element of story relates back to the fundamental desires of characters. Some _very_ interesting ideas, especialy when Mr McCloud talked about his suspicion of act structure. I really felt I was listening to the cutting edge of thinking about story, and that was fascinating.
Even more fascinating were Scott’s theory of the four tribes of creative type people. This is an addictive version of Myers Briggs for artists. I’ve classified myself as an Animist with edges of the Iconoclast, but two people now have told me they think I’m primarily an Iconoclast. Thats a bit worrying as it feels like marking yourself out as first against the wall when the revolution comes. Or even before the revolution comes.
Week Four Clarion almost done. Two more to go.
…and I like David Brin! The Clarion group just received a splendid theatrical performance from the Hugo award winning author.
Two key pieces of advice:
1. Control your ego!
2. Enjoy your success.
3. Writing is magic. (Because of the subjective reality thing)
Both delivered in circuitous but fascinating fashion alongside a general theme of appreciating the wonders of modern society.
And oh yes…we are all Gods of subjective reality (those of us who are writers anyway).
My short story ‘Momentum’ is in this months issue of Serendipity, the magazine of magical realism. This is a re-print from Electric Velocipede #13, so if you don’t have a subscription to that fabulous ‘zine (and you really should) then here is a second chance at the story. There are also tales from Rhys Hughes, Nik Perring, Lena Patten and Eugene Marcel Prevest.
Neil Gaiman arrived yesterday to take the reins as our instructor for week four of the Clarion workshop. The whole group went to see The Dark Knight and Neil came along as well. Pretty exciting. The general consensus seemed to be that without Heath Ledger it would have been a bad film. With him it was a work of genius. Personally I think its the only Batman movie we (as in the human race) need. No sequel required, and all previous Batman movies should be deleted from the hard-disk of history.
There is a theory gathering momentum that each of our instructors is bringing a new totem animal into the symbolic landscape of the UCSD campus. Kelly is represented by the many rabbits leaping around campus. Jim remains in the hoardes of jet black Crows and Mary Anne was accompanied by an influx of humingbirds. On Neils first night, a pair of owls (not common in SoCal) took up residence on campus. It remains to be seen what Geoff and Nalo bring with them.
OK, so I’m learning things here. Lots of things. I’m internalising a store of knowledge on fiction writing that I can’t imagine any more effective way of gathering. In the last week I’ve been challenged to think particularly about developing character and deep theme in my writing. There is an ongoing debate about political content in stories – how to tackle it, or when to avoid it. The genre / literary divide is being consistently challenged on every level. Its a fake divide, we all know it. And yet there it is none the less. Storytelling vs. wordsmithing. Balancing character, plot, ideas and concepts. And all thses issues seem to swirl around the basic question – what makes story work? Every story has a unique answer. Leaning how to find that answer afresh for every story written is what Clarion is all about.
I’m starting to find the answer to the big question I lugged over from England in my hand luggage – what do I want to write? I had a file full of ideas on my computer when I arrived. Now I can look through those ideas and strike at least a third off as stories I’m not passionate about to do justice to, and another third that just don’t engage with the themes that I’m really interested. I’m starting to see very fundametal commonalities in the stories I do want to tell, something I’ve always struggled with before.
None of this has been easily gained. Clarion life happens at very high velocity. Workshoping, critiquing, reading, writing, talking, debating, arguing, eating and sleeping. Its a little like being in a war, all experience is immidiate with no time for consideration or refelection. We even have the god awful food at Canyon Vista to reinforce the feeling of army life.
Thats all for now.
Today I finished two weeks at Clarion. It feels like much longer. There is a consensus that one week of Clarion world time is about three weeks of real world time (or should that be the other way around?). One of my fellow clarionites has observed that we are living in strange environment. The weather is the same every day. There are lizards and rabbits and crows leaping all over the UCSD campus, and eucalyptus trees everywhere with flaky bark that looks like skin. Its possible that the crows have been sent to watch over us, and conceivable that we are all living in a Kelly Link story (in which case dear reader, please don’t stop!)
Clarion is very hard work. You critique all morning. You write all day. You read all night. Sleep is scarce, but deep. Like intense, structured exercise, this kind of exertion has the effect of stretching the muscles being exercised. I can feel myself arriving at new revelations about story writing everyday. The combination of hours of writing, reading and deconstructing up to 20k words of story every day, discussing those stories, talking almost non-stop about story and being around one very skilled professional writer after another is filtering so many concepts into my head that I will still be processing all the details years after Clarion has finished.
Last weeks story, ‘Ocean Beach’ got all the experiences I’ve been absorbing from California and San Diego out of my system. Its very far from finished, but I’m really happy about the ideas I developed in the story, and its likely to be first on my list to complete when I get back. I hope I don’t lose the thread of it when Kalifornia is no longer looming all around me, being weird in ways that I think only this strange environment can be. I did a flash piece last week as well called ‘String Music’ which I will polish and submit when I have a spare few hours. This week I’m working on a high fantasy story, complete with Elves and magic rings. Its going v.well and is a good change of pace and style as the other pieces were very dense, this is much more exciting. I’m not expecting to walk away from my six weeks here with any finished drafts, but do want to generate as much material and absorb as many insights into the craft as possible.
…I feel like I’ve been here for months. Time has a different consistency when you remove the interference of sleep…
So, I’m now settled into the routine at Clarion, which goes a little something like this – get up, eat breakfast, 3 -4 hours group critique of stories submitted the day before. Have lunch. Afternoon lecture, followed by tech session / other essential life maintenance chores, write, dinner, read stories for next morning, write critique notes for next morning, write more. Choose between 4 hours sleep or more writing. Choose between 2 hours sleep or more writing. Wake-up / leave bed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
This is a barely manageable schedule on a good day. Add in any of the following variables (jet-lag, desire to talk / socialise with fellow Clarionites, critique rage, collapse of internet connection to girlfriend, symptons of cold and flu, laziness or general lack of self-discipline (all of which I have been afflicted with)) and the Clarion schedule becomes a punishing one. Today is the first day I have managed to write anything meaning ful…and I have so much more ahead of me!
But the there is reason behind this madness. Clarion is all about challenging your assumptions about writing and about genre, and expanding your experiece of writing short fiction. If there are fundamental problems with a story – as there were with my first critiqued story – the workshop process will nail them. Reading in detail 3-4 stories an evening makes you really examine the approaches other writers in your peer group are using. Discussions in crit group and elsewhere dig down into some of the issues that animate fiction writing. Most of all going through this experience with other writers who are all absolutely committed takes the act of writing, which can seem mad and obscure amongst the hurly burly of everyday life, and puts it at the absolute centre of your experience. Two days in I’ve already found it inspiring, infuriating, intimidating and intellectualy challenging beyond my expectations. What the hell happens in the next six weeks I have no idea, but I am determined to find out.