A Little Something for Us Clarionauts

Today is the two year anniversary of the start of Clarion 2008. This time two years ago I was being collected by Dan Pinney and Megan Kurashige from a random street corner in San Diego, for the drive up to La Jolla and UCSD where I and seventeen others were going to spend six weeks of our lives writing and workshopping SF stories. And as I write eighteen new Clarion students are heading out on the same journey.

I haven’t written up my Clarion experience. I have often tried to but in the final reckoning I don’t think I can and I don’t think I’m going to now. There was too much, and attempting to express it has always seemed to limit it somehow. I’ve expressed parts of the experience in different contexts, but as the two year anniversary has approached and I’ve been flooded with memories of that six weeks, I want to try and say something about what it meant to me, in the hope that will mean something to the other people who have been and are going there.

Clarion was a very intense experience for me. It was my first trip to America, and to California, which in itself was a wonderfully rich and powerful journey. I find California overwhelming and intoxicating, and have returned twice and will again.

(I would love to live and work there for a time, so if anyone reading this happens to want to offer me a year of work, please do.)

And it marked a separation from the life I had been living up to that point. I went to Clarion with a job to come back to, but knowing I was not going to come back to it. What I did not know was that the very close relationship I was leaving behind was also going to end with Clarion. If you had asked me why I wanted to go to Clarion while I was sitting in the departure lounge at Heathrow airport, I could not have told you. But looking back, I can see that I had for some time had a growing yearning for adventure, and for a space to grow and develop as a person. Clarion became a catalyst that brought those things into my life, and for that reason it will always have tremendous personal significance for me.

But Clarion was and is an intense experience for everyone who attends, whether they bring along the kind of personal drives that I did (many do I think) or whether they are just attending a six week writers workshop. I’m going to try and explain where that universal intensity stems from, and I’d be interested to know if other people who have been there agree.

Speculative Fiction writer is, and I mean this respectfully, a weird career ambition to hold. Like a lot of people, my relationship with SF started with a parent. My mum LOVED science fiction. Arthur C Clarke and C.S. Lewis particularly, and also Lord of the Rings which was almost a bible in our home. And she also wanted to write. So in one way or another, I have been on a journey into the world of SF pretty much since birth.

But the SF world can be difficult to find. It is almost a secret world, invisible even to some of its biggest fans. Millions of people read Hugo and Nebula award winning novels, but only a fraction of them even know about WorldCon or the Science Fiction Writers of America. There are new bestselling SF novels every week, but the short story markets where SF was born and around which much of the community turns are barely known. It took me, and it takes most writers, years of work and effort to find my way into the SF world.

And then, at Clarion, you are not just in SF world, you are at its heart. A world that until then had been built out of books, and internet forums, and weekend conventions and maybe a few real life friendships or a writing group, is suddenly made of eighteen passionate, committed, ambitious, aspiring SF writers who all share much the same vision. A world that had been subjective, ghostly and intangible is now solid and real, and you are in it twenty-four hours a day with no work or other distractions.

The feeling of being at the heart of the SF world at Clarion is incredibly strong. I have had heart-to-heart conversations with Clarion graduates from different years that I had never met before but felt instant friendship with, simply because we had the shared experience of being at the centre of a place that few people get to enter. In contrast, I’ve met professional, published SF novelists who feel much less a part of that world than completely unpublished Clarion graduates.

More than anything else, it is that sense of belonging and community in the SF world that is Clarion’s real gift. Leaving Clarion is very difficult because of it (and because you are leaving behind very real and very true friendships). After those six weeks end you are back in the big bad world, and that can be very hard. But that feeling of belonging never really goes away. In fact it can get stronger. As Kelly Link said to our Clarion group in week one, some of us would go away from Clarion and start reshaping our lives so we could be part of the SF world permanently, whether as writers or editors or committed fans. Its been a pleasure to watch all of my friends from Clarion do that in their own ways, as I’ve been doing it in mine.

I titled this blog post after a short story by Philip K Dick, A Little Something for Us Tempunauts. It’s a story about time travel, but also about leaving home and coming back, and about belonging. Clarion graduates are commonly called Clarionites, like citizens of the state of Clarion. But I think of us as Clarionauts, travellers into the strange and weird and ever so slightly odd world of SF. If we come back from our travels a little strange and weird and ever so slightly odd please forgive us, it’s the nature of the journey itself.

(I want to know all about Clarion 2010! If you are there now and reading this or know someone who is please give me blog / Twitter / Facebook links below or at http://twitter.com/damiengwalter )

(And look, I’ve done a whole Clarion post without mentioning Neil Gaiman once! Oh…darn-it…)

Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.


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