It being late Sunday evening, I want to throw a question out into the void and see what comes back.
Geoff Ryman often rolled out the term ‘broken backed’ when he was teaching at Clarion. Geoff meant it not as a general term for a bad story, but as a specific term for a good story with something very wrong with it. Thats an interesting line to draw. A bad story is a bad story. But a good story, even with major flaws, is a thing of interest. So what to do about the broken backed story?
In my thinking a broken backed story is one where the writers imagination outstrips their skill. You are hit with inspiration for a truly original / inspiring story but your skill with the pen isn’t enough to express it in words. But that doesn’t quite work. Anyone who has sat down to write their Tolkienesque epic fantasy and failed is discovering how easy it is to imagine more than you can realise.
Another thought we all took away from Clarion, thanks to first Kelly Link then Mary Anne Mohanraj, was that there are many good stories in the world, but only a handful of great ones. Anyone can learn to produce a good story, but the thing every writer struggles with is stepping up into greatness. Stories are both complex and illogical, they are mechanisms with many moving parts, driven at their heart by a kind of magic none of us really understand. You can think you have all the parts mastered, only to find the magic is not there. Even the greatest writers only get the alchemy write some of the time.
Broken backed stories are the ones where writers are striving to get all the parts running smoothly and the magic blazing as well. They are like insane science experiments mixed with wild sorcery, Frankenstein’s monsters colliding with dancing mops to the music of Fantasia. They do not work. They are off kilter, out of joint, fucked up beyond all reason. Monsters that we keep looked in our trunks or exhiled to unused areas of hard drive.
Which leads me to my question. What should we do with them? Keep them locked away? Put them out of their misery? We might say ‘rewrite them and make them whole’. But what if we can’t? What if they can never be fixed? And what if fixing them means losing the mysterious spark that might have made them great? Isn’t a great story always a little broken backed? I think most of my favourite stories are in one way or another.
Maybe we need some kind of home for the broken backed that will never be whole. A Freakshow of Brokeback Tales. Hmmmm…I think I smell an anthology brewing!
It has been a long, hard six weeks. So long. So hard.
They don’t tell you how much hard work Claron is going to be when they let you in. I heard the words ‘Bootcamp for writers’ and thought..pfaff…all day every day to just read and write stories. Eeezy peezy. OMFG was I wrong. For any prospective Clarionites reading this and thinking about applying, be aware of what you are getting yourself into.
And then get into it.
Clarion has been, without a doubt, among the most intense experiences of my life. It has stretched me on every level – intellectualy, psychologicaly, artisticaly and not least nutritionaly. I’m going to make some detailed posts reflecting on the experience over the next few weeks when I have some distance to view it objectively. Until then then I just want to say a HUGE CONGRATULATIONS to the eighteen graduating students and an even BIGGER THANKS to Kelly, Jim, Mary-Anne, Neil, Geoff and Nalo who guided us through.
Its been a little over a week since I found out about getting a place at Clarion. The excitement has been pretty intense, its been very difficult to stop thinking about it. A number of other semi-major life events have occured – I have barely even noticed. I’m getting towards being calm about it now though.
I’ve thrown myself into pre-Clarion reading this weekend. I’m starting with Geoff Ryman, partly because his books were the first I could lay my hands on and also because I’m doing a write-up of the Ryman inspired Mundane SF issue of Interzone in the next couple of weeks and this is good research.
I read Pol Pots Beautiful Daughter yesterday. Its a beautiful story. Set in post-liberation Cambodia it follows the odd life of, as the title suggests, Pol Pots (probably fictional) daughter. Asian culture is a frequent feature of Geoff’s writing I think. Stylistically his writing reminds me of the handful of Japanese authors I’ve read, a similar mythologising of mundane urban life as Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto. There is something about characters who find happiness by accepting mundanity as well that he shares with these authors. The political aspect of the story is interesting, a massive subject to take on (genocide) but dealt with in a very modern way. The characters in the story use the trappings of modern life as a buffer between themselves and the stark realities of the past – Pol Pots daughter lives in a multi-storey house stuffed with TV’s and mobile phones. In turn we use the characters as a buffer for the subject matter. Pol Pots daughter has youth and beauty on her side, and finds a kind of redemption and release from the pasts horific events, and through her so do we.
I’m about a third of the way onto Air. This is much more challenging than the short stories by Ryman that I’ve read. It is an odd combination of difficult to take in and massively engaging. It is set in a foreign culture, who are in turn on the brink of radical transformation so there is very little familiar detail to cling onto. But the human stories are very grounded and very intimate. There is something very magical in Geoff’s writing but I can’t quite pin down where it comes from. I think it might be that his characters are dealing with longing and unhappiness. Both Pol Pot and Air remind me of the space of time after you have been very upset by something, and everything feels at a distance. I need to read more to see whats going on here though.
As always the reality of something like Clarion kicks off unexpected changes. I wrote in my application, and now just again on my student profile, that one thing I want to get from my time on the workshops is an idea of what I really want to write. At the time it felt a bit like the kind of thing people say in this kind of situation, its only thinking it out that I realise that real is what I’m looking. Looking at the six tutors for Clarion makes you realise how distinct each ones work is from the others, and from other writers at their level. Its both an exciting and an intimidating prospect to know that I (and likely the other 17 students) still have the process of finding our own distinctive voice in front of us.
More Ryman this week, then on to Jim Kelly I think.
Writer. Story geek. Travelling the world while writing a book.