There it is, real life is already catching up. I’d been trying to write this post these last few days, but I was simply too busy with work and technological failures to do so. I think that after Clarion, the challenge is reconciling the disparate sizes of two different parts of your life: re-learning to see the beauties of your real-life while balancing the possibilities bursting the seams of the artist life. Both have their dark sides, of course; anything without a shadow is simply flat and lifeless.
No class picture for this week. It became increasingly hard to get all of us together for one photo, although we did manage in time for the last week. I kind of wish some of us insisted more. Oh, well.
We were up bright and early for the first breakfast with Cat (Geoff passed on this in favor of packing and getting ready for his flight). I Skyped with my boyfriend for the first time since arriving in UCSD and introduced him to my roommates. While waiting for the others, Leena and I discussed going to San Diego Zoo next week, as we were in sore need of animals to pet–I mean, I kept losing my shit every time I saw someone walking a dog (which was almost daily). We just needed to find another interested classmate with a car, as we were quite likely to lose our way even riding a bus.
I was chilling in my room after breakfast when I heard that Geoff still hadn’t left. Amin, Marian, and I knocked on the door of his room, which he opened just when we thought he’d gone. We gave him hugs and thank yous all around and he signed their books while I asked him to sign my notebook (this is the disadvantage of owning an e-book–the authors can only sign your reader, and I don’t even have that).
Emily Jiang of the 2008 Clarion UCSD class came by with a staggering amount of to-die-for cookies, brownies, lemon squares, and books for us in the afternoon. She also invited us to the book launch of her latest book. Two folks from San Diego came with her and promised Cat an ostrich egg later in the week–I didn’t think they were serious.
Cat told the story of how she and Seanan MacGuire were saying how they’d never win certain awards early on in their careers, and then they went on to win those awards just a handful of years later. She had each of us take a glass (or any kind of container once the glasses ran out), fill it with liquor, and say that thing we think we’ll never achieve but hope to in time. I am not a drinker, but I went ahead and toasted anyway. I didn’t get a chance to think about it deeply enough and said that I would never start my own small press for spec fic in my country–but what I should have said, perhaps, among the many things I wished for and only realized the next day, was that I’d never help start Clarion workshops in Asia with a friend someday.
Cat also had this great analogy: “Readers are banks and writers are trying to get credit lines from them.” First lines, first pages, first chapters, and first novels all serve to help get the reader through the next phase…but if they don’t like that particular book, they won’t buy your next one.
No pressure at all.
We played one round of Cards Against Humanity with Cat’s set after that (Ryan brought his, too, but I had no idea what that game was until this week), and then I went to
growl in frustration over work on my story for the week.
I fell asleep at 11 p.m. and woke up again at 2 a.m., which was when I decided to keep writing this damn thing until breakfast. I’ve read of so many Clarion blogs talking about that moment when you’re writing and writing until you just can’t write anymore and the end doesn’t look to be in sight then BAM! Something clicks. In this case, a plot twist typed itself of its own accord, at around 4 a.m. I probably sat on my bed for a full minute, staring at the unexpected line of dialogue, and went “FUCK IT!” and went right back to sleep until my alarm went off at 6 a.m.
Started to feel like my story was going nowhere, which was a sure sign of suffering from Middle Bit Syndrome. This was also when I began drawing in class. Well, inking the pencil doodles that had faded with time, to be precise.
Cat walked around campus barefoot the whole day because her feet had blisters. I remember thinking, man I wish I was bad ass enough to walk around barefoot here. And then I realized that if I tried that in Manila, I’d catch something awful and throw my salary away at salons with foot spa services. Yeesh.
In the 15 minute break between stories, Cat had us go to one of the grass patches in the middle of the walkway and had us do a theater exercise designed to help us understand body language a little more. She assigned each of us an animal (I got a lion) and then gave us situations in which we had to act out what those animals would do: sleep, play, mate, hunt (I may have forgotten or misremembered one or two). It was definitely fun hunting down everyone else, especially when I found out that they were animals waaaaaaaaaaaaay smaller than lions (iguana, dog, etc.). Ryan got a t-rex, so all he did was lie down. Hahaha.
The ice cream in the cafeteria up until this point was only so-so, but today was the first and last day I’d get to eat the best it had to offer: a chocolate-flavored popsicle. I made a complete mess of eating it as Nino, Zach, Kristen, Kiik, and I walked to a completely unfamiliar part of campus looking for where Kiik parked his car. He offered us a ride back to the apartments to save time, but the way there was actually much longer–full of twists and turns around more student housing, then actually trekking down a hill at some point. We joked that he may actually be taking us to a secluded spot for nefarious purposes, but it was an exciting adventure overall. We were only a couple of minutes late for the talk Cat was giving back in the Common Room.
Once we got to the Common Room, the rest were quietly writing in their notebooks. Bond paper with seemingly random words (examples included “family,” “flower,” “death,” and “love”) were taped to two sides of the wall. Cat explained that these were the Lockbox Words of Doom and that she was taking these words away from us and giving them back on Sunday, upon leaving. The point of this was to get us to write around the concept of the word, which she said she has tried in her fiction and which has often yielded some interesting results. We could use synonyms. We could use the words themselves and their equivalent in other languages (I got some dirty looks for asking that question, hahaha) provided that the story was taking place in that culture and that we were sure there was no other, more fitting word. Cat understood that this was the hardest for people who had stories up for tomorrow, and she left us some time to react violently to this.
Luckily, my story wasn’t going to be taken up ’til Thursday, although I had to finish it by Tuesday to give Amin enough time to beta read. I had fun finding all of the forbidden words and using their synonyms/rewriting the paragraphs even if I had yet to finish writing the rest of the text (maybe I enjoyed it because it was an excuse to delay the excruciating task of writing the ending), but it made me think about the implications of using a different language in a secondary world where I once used English. I sort of half made up new words and half cut up Tagalog words I knew and moved around a couple of syllables in order to get familiar yet unfamiliar combinations.
By the end of the evening, my brain was just going UGH SO COMPLICATED CRY that my roommates took pity on me. Amanda brought back an apple from the cafeteria and Ryan let me have some of his root beer. I have no idea where the chocolate chip cookie came from and perhaps it’s best that I try not to remember. I was told that Clarion was full of sleep deprivation; I did not know it would be full of food deprivation, as well.
I gave Amin my story after class today. Felt pretty guilty about it, considering its length and how much we all had to read for tomorrow. But he was very gracious about it.
I am certain Cat had a talk today, but I don’t remember which one this was about. We did, however, touch very briefly on Farah Mendelsohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy in trying to determine the relationship the fantasy in one of my classmate’s stories had to the real world. The four categories were broken down as such:
- PORTAL: A portal opens into a new world.
- LIMINAL: The mode of most magic realism; real world, but inexplicable things happen or slightly different rules occur.
- INTRUSIVE: The mode of horror; shit intrudes on our world.
- IMMERSIVE: Secondary world fantasies.
Cat was careful to note that there may be other categorizations out there if we felt like our stories didn’t fit neatly into any of the four. This was just one way of looking at things.
Today may have been the day we did an exercise concerning endings after lunchtime–Cat gave us maybe around five situations and we had to write endings for them. The only ones I remember clearly were “haunted house” and “the Sun God statue just outside of the Biological Sciences building coming to life.” I remembered the last one because I wrote that it was chasing Harry and I until we were up against a wall. The glowing Sun God says, “Bitchez, why you runnin’ from me? I’m fabuloooooooous!” and Harry peels himself from the wall and goes, “Why didn’t you say so before? I’m fabulous, too!”
Karaoke was back! There were fewer of us than during the first night, though I guess that was expected. This was when we first started bringing our printed manuscripts for critiquing to karaoke. We’d read, cheer for the singer, get up to sing ourselves, then go back to reading.
I don’t know about the rest, but I saw this as one way of letting out steam; this was why I attended that time. I sang Kelly Clarkson’s “I Do Not Hook Up,” even though I was growing increasingly anxious about my own unfinished story and still had to read the other manuscripts a second time, and joined Leena in her rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” in honor of her shocking Santa Claus story the week before. Really enjoyed Ryan and Kayla killing “Handlebars” by Flobots.
I left for the apartment by myself at 9:30 p.m. and was dismayed to learn from Facebook a little later that everyone joined in for Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” and that Cat and Harry did a duet with “The Time of My Life.” Can’t believe I missed that!
At lunch, Cat gave a short lecture containing–what else–extremely useful tips about story nuts and bolts. For example, on structure:
“The best way structure works with narrative is to have both bursting at the seams. There should be 20 lbs. of narrative in a 5 lb. bag of structure.”
Titles were also taken up. If your title does not in any way connect to the first part of the text, it’s a weak title.
But most of all, she touched on beginnings. Before taking us through a line-by-line analysis of a story Nino was submitting for next week, she taught us some eye-opening stuff:
- The accretion of information in the first part must be dense, but not overloaded.
- The danger of starting with a flashback is that the reader will have no context and will be waiting to be kicked back to the story’s present.
- Short, haiku-like beginnings in short stories grab attention.
- First paragraphs should be dense in certain aspects, though not necessarily all (genre, character, voice, etc.)
After lunch, Amin came to the apartment and went over his notes on my story. He apparently didn’t get enough sleep thanks to all that reading–I apologized to him repeatedly. After asking him lots of questions, he handed me his notes and left. I did one more round of top to bottom edits before thinking “FUCK IT!” for the second time this week and uploading my story onto the Google Drive–all 8,062 words of it. It was starting to feel like I’d been in Clarion for 3 weeks and had only 1 story to show for it–not really a bad thing, but definitely not up to my personal standards.
I went back and edited the file a couple of times to add the trigger warnings we all agreed we’d add (if there was a need), and then a warning in the first page that there were trigger warnings in the last page. It was only when I was sitting in Ryan’s car with Amanda, Harry, and Leena, on the way to Cat’s reading, that I realized I forgot to put the 5,000 word mark. DAMN IT. Already, jokes about the length abounded on our Facebook page.
Cat’s reading was nothing short of spellbinding. She read the entirety of “White Lines on a Green Field,” the first story in her latest short story collection The Bread We Eat in Dreams (I had brought my own copy for her to sign). Everyone stood rooted to where they were; when she finished, there was thunderous applause.
Bought Harry his birthday present a week early–fridge poetry magnets, Bitch-themed. My roommates and I had fun making bitchy phrases out of them in between writing stories and other stressful things.
I noted that, down the line of people who were having her sign their books afterward, there were quite a few who brought around 5 or more of her books. I had wanted her to sign my copy of The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, but it was too heavy to bring over. One other impressive thing about Cat was that she took the time to personalize each autograph. I picked up Deathless and Indistinguishable from Magic while I was at it. Sure enough, Cat was also presented with an ostrich egg in a box; she promised to cook it for us for breakfast on Saturday and I was like
We only had to read 3 stories for tomorrow–well, 2 for me. Harry kept making jokes about how it felt like he had to read 4 stories because of the length of mine.
First Clarion birthday today: Manish! They went out for beer and food truck adventures later in the afternoon.
Put on my purple sundress for the first time today. It seemed fitting, given that the design looks truly Philippine–fitting for my story–and that wearing my favorite color comforts me overall. But I do forget to bring Toothless along.
We got tips on how to retell fairy tales today. Giving the tale more specificity and planting it into a culture helps make it unique, for as it is passed down, we get images with their cultural meanings stripped away.
Mine was the last story in our roster of three that day. I learned of something upsetting during the 15-minute break and had a good cry about it in the bathroom. Marian and Sarena caught me at it and tried to soothe me; Marian later brought me tea and Sarena said there would be yoga up on the roof later. I calmed down a bit.
I was glad I saved this story for Cat’s week–“Song for My Brother,” 8,062 words. She told me I had a novel on my hands, that there was so much material to explore in that world, and that there were a whole bunch of little narratives I could put in or structure what I already had around should I think of expanding it. She also mentioned that she googled all the words that were foreign to her, and that’s when I realized (in the privacy of my head) that this world needed to be even more secondary world than it already was. I was in danger of appropriating the cultures of the different tribes by taking bits that stand out and mashing them together. This was also when I realized that the remoteness and virtual unknown-ness of the Philippines as a whole will make any story I set there seem secondary world, whether this is my intention or not. I wonder if that’s something I should try to address, but maybe it’s not something to be addressed at all?
Cat’s style for the one-on-one conferences was to ask what you thought your weaknesses were and give you a challenge for next week to help overcome those. I told her that I had some problems with character and emotion, and that I tended to write and write and write until I cracked. She challenged me to try juggling two voices bouncing off each other to see if I could sustain characterization and voice for more than 2 characters. Sadly, I was not able to try this for the other weeks, but it’s something to think about in the future.
Because I still thought at the time that my challenge was writing in other genres, I asked her about how to approach science fiction (“It’s like fantasy but with a different vocabulary, and there is no reason for you not to use your fantasy voice in science fiction because it needs voices that are different”) and steampunk (“find the dark stuff, like anxiety about steam technology”). I also told her about my problem with “Filipinoness” and she told me something I’ll never forget (and that I had trouble clearing out of my mind during yoga later on):
“Some writers have their own agendas and believe that you should only be writing what they themselves write–which shouldn’t be the case. You can choose to fight against writing about Filipinos. That’s a legitimate choice. But you should also go with whatever lights a fire beneath you.”
This may sound strange coming from an online journalist, but this was probably the first time I felt like I had a voice and that it mattered. I also learned that being Filipino was not the be-all and end-all of my identity–but it sure is a big part.
The others planned an evening viewing of The Avengers using someone’s laptop and my speaker up in the Common Room. I told Harry and Amanda that I’d follow, that I’d just finish reading tomorrow’s manuscripts–but I do not, in fact, follow them; at 11 p.m. I was suddenly woken up by their return to the apartment. I went to bed properly, disappointed that I didn’t get to watch a movie with some of the class and hear Chris Evans and Tom Hiddleston’s assets get praised to high heavens.
Heard from Marty that Cat requested I draw a Plotstrich. I had no idea how to interpret that and I stewed on it the whole day.
Cat had us go on the grass near the Bear for one last theater exercise. She had three girls and three guys volunteer for this exercise and paired us off. She instructed us to stand certain distances from each other and to try out different poses. Later on, she had us gather in a group and had us do leveling. She was teaching us to pay attention to physical gestures, as these determined how close or unfamiliar people were with each other. Also, a takeaway phrase: “It’s not how characters say it–it’s what they’re doing as they say it.”
While eating, we asked Cat about different aspects about the writing life: editing an online zine, publishing, handling panels in conventions. All that jazz. She always had awesome things to say.
While walking back to the apartments, I asked her how to tell a novel idea from a short story idea, as so many of us turned in stories that she said were actually novels in the making. She said it had to do with the number of plots, as well as a few other things:
- The 2 threads in a story, narrative and worlding element, must each have their climax.
- Short stories end with the worlding element closing off, not opening with a bang.
- 3-4 major things happen with the other stuff you as an author know in soft focus.
- Having a denouement after the climax to process what happened in the story and/or (literally) talking about endings help make it close off/end as a short story.
Once I got to the apartment, I researched ostrich photos (moving and just standing) and drew about 6 cast-off ostriches. I also researched the basic plot elements and the basic plot mountain. In the end, I took the concept of the cartoon Word World and made the damn angry ostrich’s neck, body, and legs out of EXPOSITION, CLIMAX, DENOUEMENT, RISING ACTION, and FALLING ACTION. Luckily, Cat and the class loved it; Marian and Kayla wanted me to do a tattoo version, although I was not sure if the detail could still be seen if it were shrunk to a wrist tattoo.
Cat, Heath, and the class played Charades Against Humanity well into the night in the Common Room. It’s kind of the same as Cards Against Humanity, only we had to act out the phrases on the white cards. She also donated some of her books to the next Clarion class, although I swear, more than a few pairs of eyes were glittering when she laid her offerings on the table: The Bread We Eat in Dreams, both volumes of the Prester John duology, and the Fairyland books. If there was more, I didn’t see, for I’m pretty sure there was some spiriting away going on…
Saturday morning was spent waiting for the other sleepyheads to show up, cracking open the egg (I forgot how we managed), watching Cat give it a Lion King moment before cooking it, and then eating that rich, herby concoction on bread and with a helping of two cheeses. There was almost none left when I finally elbowed my way to the bowls.
Afterward, Cat signed our books. Earlier, I’d gone down with Kayla to her room to fetch her books and she came up with me to my room as I got mine. Felt sorry for Cat–she must have been tired, but she was so gracious about it. And she never ran out of creative dedications!
She also gave us all some awesome certificates that authorized us to use the Lockbox Words of Doom. But a few of us decided to put some of the words back in the Lockbox for next week.
A different set of relatives were gonna pick me up this time. I was brought to the Filipino area of San Diego–I all but screamed, “HEY A RED RIBBON!” in the car. They brought me to a Filipino grocery, where I ate actual food for the first time in weeks and almost cried at the sight of sinigang. Went shopping for my room because up until then, we hadn’t any dish-washing sponges and I wasn’t about to pay $12 for 7 sponges (I’m looking at you, Trader Joe’s). Also stocked up on the instant noodles, biscuits, Choc Nut, a bag of soft and steamy pandesal, and threw in a pack of chicharon before going to see my other relatives. We dallied in some of the places, which is how I missed the class’s plan to watch Snowpiercer.
I honestly thought that they were gonna watch it in replay because it had already shown in the Philippines around November last year. Turns out that it was getting a delayed and limited release in the US. I was hanging out and sharing food with those who opted out of the movie in the Common Room (Marian was so happy about the chicharon–“You even say it correctly!”) when the others semi-stormed in, decrying Snowpiercer as a bad movie (“What was with that fish?!”). I was really surprised because back home, lots of people whose opinions I respected called it a great movie. Looks like I’ll have to grab a DVD copy and see for myself.
Nora arrived around 7 p.m. or somewhat later and was equally surprised that lots of the class didn’t like Snowpiercer. She was tired and jetlagged, but she brought honest-to-goodness cannolis for us from New York–I’d never even heard of cannolis until that moment, but I had two of them and my god, my stomach was in heaven–and she joined us on the roof for Cat’s last task for us. Cat gave us all a line or paragraph from Donald Barthelme’s “The Great Hug” and we each read the line in a circle under the starlight. At the end of this, Cat encouraged us once more and told us to keep writing no matter what’s going on in our leaves, good or bad, ideal conditions or no, successes and failures aside–to “Write With Your Stars Out,” as Salinger wrote in his “Seymour: An Introduction.”
Hung out a bit more with Cat and the smokers after that, until 9:20 guy came (thought you’d heard the last of him, huh?). We moved to Zach, Marty, and Manish’s apartment for more chatter and oven-heated pizza. Cat wasn’t sleeping because she had an early flight out anyway.
It didn’t feel like we’d reached the halfway point yet, but we had. So ended Week 3…and if we thought we’d hit the wall in all ways possible during Geoff’s week, we were sadly, hilariously mistaken. There was still Week 4.
**Thanks to Tamara for correcting me on a few specific names.
Every day this week, I’m going to blog about a week in Clarion (which honestly feels like a semester each).
I took the least amount of pictures during Week 2 (also, my phone malfunctioned before all of the pictures it lost could sync to my Facebook account), so I’m just going to pepper the post with photos from 3 or 4 days. I thought I also did the least amount of extracurricular activities, but apparently, this isn’t true. It’s just that the whole class was really busting our chops the whole week, what with juggling writing, reading, critiquing, and extra readings and lectures. In some ways, I remember the stories more than I remember what actually happened.
We had one last breakfast with Greg at 7 a.m., then gathered down by the grounds of the apartments when he came down with his luggage for one last hug all around.
Some of my relatives drove down from LA to pick me up and take me around San Diego. They were a little late, so I went back to help Harry and Amanda sort out the laundry we did before I got ready. Dressed up in my Steampunk dress, tights, and boots because I figured that it’ll be time for the Steampunk Tea when I got back. My relatives shocked me by hooking up a smartphone to the car stereo and choosing YouTube videos for karaoke.
We settled for a restaurant with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and South East Asian buffets. I made a beeline for the Japanese stuff, but nothing quite beats Filipino desserts (leche flan and gulaman). Then they brought me to the Gaslamp Quarter real quick to buy boots for my mom; what made Gaslamp exciting was seeing all those Comic Con posters strung up under the gaslamps, as well as some 20-30s style buildings and one awesome piece of street/graffiti art of kids supposedly climbing down the window of a parking lot all the way to the ground.
Sure enough, when I got back to campus, I saw Amanda, Harry, Leena, Marian, and Nino walking across the parking lot and heading for the library, where the Tea was gonna be held. I was about to walk with them the whole way and to just forego the rest of my costume, but Amanda and Nino dressing really snazzy (pocket watches, vests, pageboy caps, bow ties) made me envious. I had to put down the bags and the little cakes my relatives told me to give my roommates anyway.
After a 20-minute walk full of pedestrians and summer groups staring at the tiny girl in tattered fingerless gloves and a corset, I made it to the library, where a Steampunk orchestra of sorts was well underway. Audience members were holding different doohickeys and sounding them whenever the host pointed to them. Geoff ran around trying the instruments, just like an excited little boy. 😀 There was also an exhibit of Steampunky paraphernalia, featuring an assortment of bowler hats, statuettes, and paper half masks that were designed with illustrations of eyes. My favorite was the paper theaters. These had candles and paper dolls of Victorian women, but I don’t think those were for demonstration, sadly (or I missed it entirely).
The host acknowledged our class and Steampunk pins were handed out to us. Then Anastasia, the head of the Steampunk Society, gave a talk on the society’s history and background, and possibly why Steampunk is so popular. When the talk ended, we broke up into little groups. A few of us met and spoke with science fiction author David Brin without knowing whom we were speaking to, and Anastasia gave us a few tips about how to run conventions and how to make them last for years–and which ones to avoid.
David Brin called us “Athletes of the Imagination” and told us, “You’re training to be industrial-grade magicians. Remember that what you do is the only form of true magic left in the world today.” I don’t know if I believe that, but I’ll take Athletes of the Imagination and Industrial-Grade Magicians any day.
Later, Ryan introduces me to Trader Joe’s Butter Waffle cookies and I end up asking him what sorcery those things were. They’re gone in two days (and it wasn’t just me, I swear!).
In the evening, Geoff gave us his instructor’s introduction, handed us reading packets per apartment, and asked everyone to sign up for one-on-ones separate from our actual conferences. He wanted to interview us all pre-session. I decided to drop by that very night. Geoff asked me how old I was, what I did for a living, what did I write, what did I want to accomplish writing-wise, why was I at the workshop–the last few very deep questions that everybody should think about but probably don’t on a conscious level.
We ended up talking about telling (as in, the telling part of show vs. tell) and how he thinks that you can judge how good a writer is by the way they tell, how much authority their voice has. He noticed that a bunch of people–me included–did not submit something last week and so makes me promise to submit something this week. Not feeling very confident about that, I promise anyway.
No karaoke this week, as Geoff wasn’t into it and we were all busy anyway. 😦 It’s the first time Harry lets me take the extra bed in his room, as my clothes were still damp even with time in the dryer. Maybe we shouldn’t lump our clothes together too much. Harry offers me earplugs because he says he snores loudly and I tell him it’s okay because my own dad snores really loud, but I put the plugs on anyway. Sure enough, when I wake up, one of them is on the floor.
Geoff laid down more rigorous guidelines for the workshop, including holding one-on-one conferences on the same day as the author’s session and a time limit per critique. We experimented with…about 2 minutes and 45 seconds? This time will eventually get whittled down throughout the next few weeks. Sent the boyfriend what I had on my story so far; in the evening, he got back to me and said it wasn’t really his thing. This rattled me a bit because, since he’s not as voracious a reader as I am, he was my gauge as to whether something worked or not.
We were told that there was gonna be an ice cream social at the LGBT Center. Excited to get away from Canyon Vista food, some of us go with Geoff to check, only to learn that it isn’t until tomorrow. That’s 30 minutes of lunchtime gone, but hey, at least we knew where the center was and the walk back to Canyon Vista was scenic.
Geoff had his first lecture at 7 p.m., after everyone returned from dinner. His style was to have us read first, then we analyze what we just read together, with Geoff leading the analysis and asking questions.
Our first piece was Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” that famously dialogue-heavy story about abortion, the one that got bandied about in freshman lit classes in college. I never did take this story up, but I read it in a World Literature book at a secondhand bookstore, already knowing it was about abortion–but even then, I still didn’t get how any of it pertained to abortion. Or how anybody could come to that solid a conclusion without Hemingway outright stating it. I concluded back then that my teenage brain was too stupid to get it and that Hemingway is brilliant but pretentious.
But I liked the way Geoff taught this story. We went over it line by line, and he’d have some of us volunteer to read them aloud. We learned about subtext that night, something that watching plays taught me better than any lit classes ever could, up until that night, when I realized that subtext was being taught all wrong where I came from. “Hills Like White Elephants” is the kind of story where the reader is their own theater crew, where they have to work really hard in order to understand what is going on while also bringing their own interpretations to the text. The dialogue is the plot and is probably a masterclass in plot movement.
I also learned the term “gaslighting,” which is a form of abuse in which one person makes the other think they’re crazy, and that dialogue is not about what a character says–it’s what they do while they say it.
We also discussed Litfic vs. Genre. Genre’s progression over time is this: the first, original subject –> then as a marketing tool –> then devolves into tropes. A mature genre provides a set of reading protocols, according to Samuel Delany. Genre is characterized by sparkling verbs, a strong point of view, thoughts and names, sensory details, and an emphasis on setting and worldbuilding for to make things more real. Meanwhile, Litfic demands a certain kind of distance all the time. It values subtlety, ambiguity, clarity and flow, and a very bland surface.
If I didn’t believe Clarion was an MFA squeezed into 6 weeks the week before, I did now.
I was late to class because I experimented with a shortcut (and ran into Geoff, who was also running late) and took a wrong turn somewhere. When I get to the classroom, everyone is helping lay down rigorous guidelines for the workshop: submission guidelines, scheduling which days you’d like to get critiqued on, delineating the 5,000-word mark and giving the others a choice whether to go on or not, Instructor Reading Wednesdays as 3-story days in order to lighten the load. I wondered if this discussion was my fault; I asked Geoff’s permission the day before if I could already put my name down for Friday even if my story wasn’t ready yet. He obliged. In class, he told us that it was good that we could set our own deadlines.
Stories today were awesome–honestly, they were always going to be awesome, even if they weren’t The Best Thing The Author Could Come Up With. That’s just a testament to brilliant my classmates are; talent leaking out of their ears no matter what they write.
Before Tuesday, I knew that Noah and I were the last ones to submit anything, and somehow, not being alone in this made me feel more comfortable. I jokingly told him before this day, “If you submit something before I do, I will cry.” But that’s not what happened during the 15 minute break in the middle of the session; Noah finally said that he had a story now, he just needed to edit it. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I put out an offer to beta read. Didn’t know if he’d take it, but it’d be fine either way.
The ice cream social we’d all been hearing about finally happened today. Apparently, our class saved the social, as very few other people showed up.
Up until this point, I’d been questioning the structural integrity of the cafeteria bananas, which were some of my closest links to home–every time I got to the last bite, it would fall off and roll away. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had mango-flavored popsicles at the Center; this was great, because mangoes figured prominently in the story I wanted to submit, and I’d all but forgotten how they tasted like (mango popsicles were no substitute, but it was enough to jolt my sensory memory and make me just a little bit homesick). We also had a group picture, though I still don’t know whose camera it was on.
Marty, Kayla, Amin, Tamara, and I buy lunch at a coffee stand nearby. Geoff joined us for a bit, and we admired all the dogs (whose photos were erased from my malfunctioning phone), some of whom would rather sit next to us and smell our food than go with their owners. I decided to go with Marty to the library and work some more. He managed to coax me into telling him what my story was about, since I mentioned I wasn’t sure I was going to make this week’s deadline. I told him about two parts of it and mentioned I was retelling two Philippine myths about mangoes, and he said that it might be better to save it for Cat’s week, as she’d definitely be up for talking about that sort of thing. I mulled this over until just before I went to bed.
First time I ever took an afternoon nap in Clarion. I woke up aghast at myself and at the time I could have spent reading the stories for the next day, but Ryan said that I probably needed that.
We discussed Donald Barthelme’s “Jaws” at the evening lecture. Geoff discusses plot, POV, dialogue, and character, but the most interesting point in the lecture, for me, was made about names. In science fiction, it’s better not to make up the names–but when you do, make sure they have a sound palette.
While telling myself that maybe this week is my lesson in revision (apparently, I’d learn that lesson during Week 3, too), I pull out two flash pieces with three years’ distance between them, the second of which I wrote in answer to the first. I completely rewrite the first piece, which I experimented to death on with different lengths during my undergrad thesis, put them in the same document, and show them to Harry, who expressed a wish to beta read for me the week before. He finishes the two during the 15 minute break between the sessions, just like I thought he would, and tells me that the two need something to tie them together. This I accomplish when we go to the library together and write side by side.
Noah also handed me his manuscript during the break. After finishing up at the library, I come over to their apartment and go over the manuscript with him up until we have to leave for the reading. There were 4 stories for tomorrow, and I think this is when we start thinking about making Thursday a 3-story day, too.
Majority of us went to a brewery before the reading, but I’m disappointed to learn that they do not have root beer, which I’d developed a taste for starting when Ryan bought this really nice, smoky kind from Trader Joe’s some days ago. Nino and I crossed the street to buy some Mexican, but for some reason, crossing the freeway doesn’t feel as dangerous as playing Froggie’s Revenge with the vehicles on Manila’s streets.
The people at the bookstore asked us how we were before the reading began. There was something ominous about the way they said we looked like we were holding up well.
Geoff is a wonderful reader; he tries to embody his characters as he reads. Harry and I sat together on the floor and came up with strange phrases using magnets on a magnetic board; I was delighted to learn that there were different boxes containing different themes: Bitch, Zombies, Edgar Allan Poe, Vampires, and Shakespeare. A bunch of us fooled around some more with the bookstore merchandise, which include tentacles that you can wear on your fingers. Ryan and Manish put some on and it was…well, they could become very popular with a certain kind of audience in Japan.
We had some McDonald’s burgers and fries–it’s a step down from last week’s Inn n Out, but I have this thing where I want to check the McDonald’s branches of the countries I travel to so that I can see what’s so different about them. The original American McDonald’s has, apart from a wider selection of humongous burgers, salad and yogurt. It is funny how they’re still pretending to be healthy. I cannot finish the large fries without help; Harry bought himself a milkshake that will figure very prominently later on. We also stopped at Trader Joe’s and I did a little more grocery shopping until Harry was ready to yell at me because I was taking so long–but I refused to leave without two boxes of those damn good Butter Waffle cookies.
In the middle of critiquing the 4 stories for the next day, Ryan asked Harry and I if we’d like to watch Look Around You, a show parodying British educational science videos for elementary students, each episode 10 minutes long. We watched about 3 episodes, laughing and going “WTF IS THIS?!” the whole time. Looking back, this is probably the first time I had to force myself to take a break for my own sanity.
Honestly, I didn’t understand why having this many readings in one evening was proving difficult. It’s not like I didn’t get piles of readings 2 inches thick when I was in college; when I was doing my thesis, it got worse when I had to add my thesis writing in between all that. But perhaps Clarion’s difference is that 1) it’s much shorter than a sem, and 2) you have to critique your readings at the same time, which requires more brain power than just regurgitating your facts during recitation.
Harry told me that he had a fever the night before (“The fever took me”), partially due to the seasonal changes and partially due to that milkshake, probably. I joked that we could have sued McDonald’s while he ate some of my cereal. We walked to class together and for the first time came across the two fat corgis and rubbed their bellies like crazy. Harry was worried that we wouldn’t make it to class in time, but I reassured him; I have, at this point, sprinted or brisk walked to class in under 20-30 minutes several times. I think it was also at this point that I could wake up without an alarm going off every 7 a.m.
Kiik brought cookies and everyone went gaga. He’d bring sweets to all of his sessions and we’d always joke, “Mm, Kiik’s story’s really good!” (although his stories really were good.) I think we didn’t go completely crazy after six weeks of cafeteria food due in part to his random food offerings. Thank you, Kiik!
Sarena had been holding yoga sessions on the roof since the week before, but I only got to join in on this day, alongside Kristen, Marty, Sarena, and Tamara. I begin to feel the heat of the San Diego sun on my face, though it’s a dry and at times grating heat. Geoff joined us later, although he might have had a harder time, having had no yoga mat to protect him from the warm concrete. He later had to remove his rubber shoes and the things jangling in his pockets.
Geoff’s lecture that night centered the first chapter of Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things.” He touched briefly on character (every time you add a character, you add 500 words) and novel ideas vs. short story ideas (you start with a very visual idea that your audience can get right away).
But what he really talked about was plot; specifically, Story vs. Plot. Plot is a series of related incidents moving through the arrow of time via cause and effect, while Story is how you present the plot, not necessarily in chronological order. A good plot is character-driven and has good motivation. Meanwhile, if you establish your storytelling method early enough, the reader will get used to it. Geoff also said that chronological writing is a symptom of lying; you know your plot when you can recite it backwards.
When you smash up a plot, you smash up causality and culpability. We all tend to view the end of the chain of events as the meaning, but that is not what Arundhati Roy wants her readers to do when reading “The God of Small Things.” We all paired up (I was with Kristen this time) and had to order all the events mentioned in the first chapter chronologically–in short, figure out the plot. Kristen was in charge of recalling the events because she’d read the whole book, and I was in charge of finding the events as they were ordered on the sheets were given (and there were a lot). When we heard other groups saying they’d gotten up to 40+, I felt my stomach falling. But it was a good exercise.
Fourth of July! But I was more into celebrating how I was finally going to be workshopped at last. I brought Toothless with me, as he served as the Comfort Dragon.
Harry told me he wasn’t going to class in order to fully heal from the Milkshake of Doom (which he said tasted funny, in hindsight), but he headed out to breakfast first. I spent more time reading the day’s stories and finishing up my critiques. Halfway to the cafeteria, I got a raging stomach ache and I couldn’t even pinpoint why. Harry found me holding onto a fire hydrant for support. I suppose to passerby, I looked pretty scary/weird: a girl the hood of her dark jacket up, dark floor-length skirt blowing in the wind while she’s doubled over a fire hydrant. Harry eased me to a bench and decided to stay with me until I was well enough to walk to the cafeteria and have enough tea to soothe my aching stomach (with Toothless’s wings as my umbrella; Kiik thought I had a bat on my head).
Sarena asked me if I was nervous about my session. I told her that at this point, I just wanted to get it over with.
But when we do get to the classroom, we discover that it’s locked and that either no one has the key code or it doesn’t work at all. I think it was Ellie who offered to kick the door down, but we sadly do not go with that offer. We go back to the Common Room and hold the session there. I forgot it was Shelley or Laura’s husband who brought so many pizzas to the Common Room. He got such a round of applause when he got there. Harry appeared in time for both the pizzas and my session, wholly well.
I was last on the list of those to be workshopped that day; we were so hungry and the pizzas smelled so good. Geoff asked me if it was okay if we ate before my session and I responded by saying that I am getting hangry myself. They laughed and someone said that I don’t want hangry people critiquing my story, either. My session seemed to go over well; this was “The Politics of Ink: A Love Story,” which was 1,319 words long. It raised some questions about using food words to describe People of Color (although we could all agree that the male writer in my story was an asshole) and the gravity of different types of abuse. You’d have thought I would’ve been on top of the food adjective stuff, but I had never had to consider this in the context of white people before. Proves that I still have so much to learn.
“Dead Men’s Path” by Chinua Achebe was the story for Geoff’s final lecture, which was mostly about language. Geoff demonstrated how a good writer–like Achebe–will end a sentence or paragraph with the punchiest word. Two more things he talked about: the Buggeration Factor, in which the event occurring is still a coincidence but the readers will believe it because it is the worst that can (and will) happen; and that story climaxes are different for readers and writers.
- WRITERS: When the outcome becomes the most inevitable
- READERS: When the story is the most dense
Afterward, Geoff, Nino, Amin, and Marty go out to buy more drinks and the others clear out of the room. Kayla, Marian, and I are left behind; that’s when I decide to introduce my portable speaker. I hooked up my phone to it and Kayla and I had a private Disney-themed karaoke session. I do believe we scared off Marian at some point, just before we moved on to the pop songs. Harry came in just in time for Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women,” but we had to cut it short in order to watch the fireworks on the roof…which happened pretty far away and were very small, according to Harry’s critique of them. When it was over, I called out from the platform, “HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY, AMERICANS!”
We also found out about pterodactyl porn. The costumes…are very lifelike. Amin, Marian, and I sit together and show each other photos of our cats; Amin and I talk about the sicknesses and surgeries we’ve had, who we were when we were teenagers, the Philippine and Australian school systems, our art (I draw, he sculpts), our jobs. Some of us stay up late in the Common Room talking about anime shows and exceedingly gross movies (that aren’t necessarily horror but are still horrific) and recommending favorites to each other and Harry disturbed the crap out of all of us when he sat on one of the high chairs and said, complete with hand gestures, “I have two words for you: Newborn. Porn.”
Decided to hole myself in the apartment and work on my story. The following week, I will realize that I only had about half of it down on this day–but I rewrote that one-half from top to bottom until my brain wanted to explode and it was time for dinner (well, merienda). Turned out that Zach and Nino were cooking–there was some chipotle and tortilla chips on Nino’s table, and some steaming cheesy (chipotle?) fries. Nino also had some kind of meaty stew simmering in a vat, and Kiik brought some yogurt thingies. Overall, my stomach was really happy.
Zach’s lovely girlfriend Liz came by for a visit, too.
Leena, Harry, Tamara, and I sat in one corner and showed each other music videos ranging from corny to cheesy to downright terrifying from our own countries. I did not want to win that one, but dammit, I won it with the official music video of the “Otso-otso.” To rub salt into the wound, some news blows up on Facebook feed about Imelda Marcos being the guest of honor at a scholarship dinner at my university, and I retire to my room for a while in order to process my disappointment and to write just a little more in my story.
As such, I was not mentally prepared for Cat’s arrival. I processed too late that she was coming and had no time to keep it cool. As such, as we were looking at the stars (and mistook an airplane for a planet), as Cat and her husband Heath and the others got acquainted, and as Cat was telling some fascinating story about her time in UCSD and I leaned too far back into a chair and almost toppled Kristen and myself (“Jesus, Vida, you’re gonna kill us all!”)–I was losing my shit. Harry had to hold me. But luckily, Amanda was there to lose her shit with me.
We brought Cat and Geoff up to the roof to hang out. Cat got us all spellbound by more tidbits about UCSD and a little bit about her time in Japan as a Navy wife–we couldn’t help sit on the ground and listen. She and Geoff retired early; Geoff to orient her about the class.
So ended Week 2, which was rough and rigorous and still amazing. Cat would later say that we had thousand-yard looks in our eyes upon first meeting us.
Every day this week, I’m going to blog about a week in Clarion (which honestly feels like a semester each). I suspect my first few posts will have more delineated days, as everything was so new and left sharp impressions; the days for the other weeks will blur into longer paragraphs, probably.
Apparently, my class is more international and more diverse than previous classes. 10 women, 8 men; almost half the class hails from are non-American (Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Finland, New Zealand, Singapore, Spain, and of course, the Philippines–with quite a few more having different ancestries); four are People of Color and one is a Person with Disability; some are LGBT; and of course, one is from a Third World nation.
We came to the workshop with our personal demons perched on our shoulders (and maybe goals smoldering in our hearts), but also wielding our individual strengths. Some, like me, came with a list of story ideas to tackle, the first paragraphs of some of which were already written out and the rest outlined. I can’t speak for the others, but I know I came to the workshop naively thinking that I could plan my way through it.
Like I said, I was naive. I’d soon learn to let go of that, but that’s a story for Week 4.
My main goal, in hindsight, was to be able to write my emotions and/or personal experiences into my fiction. That sounds like a very elemental thing, but I’d been told before that my work lacked grounding. Some even lacked a little bit of me in it. I also wanted to experiment with other forms and try out other genres, with Science Fiction at the top of the list, followed closely by Steampunk and Horror. And, though I didn’t articulate it to myself until about halfway through, I wanted to see if I could write an actual short story, not the summary of a sprawling monster (like I usually do; but later, Cat Valente and Ann Vandermeer would tell me that sprawling monsters are something to be embraced).
In the end, I learned a lot of things. But there are some things that could have been categorized as things I needed to learn.
Hotel breakfast was at 7 a.m. sharp. It was also quite good: a cinnamon roll, strawberry yogurt, a banana, and tea. Had no appetite for anything heavier. I remember thinking that I had never seen so many white people in one room and I had to keep myself from staring. Had to check out at 11 a.m., but the concierge thankfully allowed me to wait in their lobby for classmate and roommate Ryan Campbell (who was picking me up at 2 pm.). Missed lunch that way, though I really wasn’t hungry.
Ryan finally picked me up (“I’ll be the girl holding a white wolf stuffed toy”) and he was surprised that I didn’t have a Filipino accent. Said I sounded like I was born in America, to which I explained that English was my first language. We accidentally detoured into Old Town, which was not a bad thing–it looked completely different from the rest of San Diego, what with the riot of bold colors and all the tourists.
We arrived at UCSD at around 2:30 p.m. Campus is huge. Ryan handed me a plushie of Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon and I was shocked because I had just mentioned to him a week or two before that my sister and I loved it and that I was gonna get her a plushie once in San Diego (or at Comic Con). On our way to Revelle Check-in, I first met Amin and Noah, who were walking together. A bunch of people who were heading a summer group for high schoolers asked me if I was part of their group and I delightedly shook my head.
When we finally arrived at our apartment, Ryan stayed long enough to watch Amanda Fitzwater and Haralambi Markov come out of their rooms and hug me (Harry squealed before saying “You’re tiny!” to me–I’d never ever been called tiny in my life) before jetting off to pick up more classmates from hotels and airports. Meanwhile, I tried to fix my room; the bed was, shockingly, as high as the desk, thus reinforcing the stereotypical (and yet totally true) petite Asian stereotype.
We had our orientation at around 4:30 p.m., followed by a campus tour (where I was taking pictures of everything, like the tourist that I was). Like I said, UCSD’s campus was huge; we mostly stuck together for fear of getting lost among the buildings, the numerous art installations, and all those teenagers. Only Nino and Manish weren’t there; Nino would arrive in the evening and Manish in the morning. Registering for the wi-fi was just as frustrating as finding one’s way around campus–but not as bad for me as for the Mac users, apparently.
Instructor Greg Frost gave a brief talk at around 7:30 p.m., after dinner, regarding what we could expect from the workshop and what he expected from us. Greg acknowledged that he was easing us into the workshop culture, but at the same time, let us know that we’re no longer wading in the kiddie pool. Clarion, apparently, is an MFA program squeezed into six weeks. We also signed up for the one-on-one conferences.
We waited for each other at the ground floor before going to breakfast, as we would every day this week and every Sunday morning with new instructors (but otherwise, never again). We took the long way going to the Pines (we had yet to discover the shortcut) and had extreme difficulty finding a table among all the screaming teenagers. Food wasn’t bad, but still couldn’t eat much. Something of a tummy ache, which would last me several days. Was this jetlag?
I decided to record everything on my phone, the way I do whenever I interview someone or listen to a conference.
In class, Greg said that he was going to keep lecturing about craft until one of us began submitting something–we didn’t critique the submission stories like I thought we would, which kind of made me kind of sad because I knew deep down that I wouldn’t be able to get a story done for Week 1 in time, even with all the exercises Greg gave us. So much for six stories in six weeks.
Greg also laid down how we might want to proceed throughout the workshop as well: reading a story twice, the concept of ideal and idiot readers, beta readers just so we might feel a little more confident before uploading our works, leaving a story alone for 24 hours after finishing it (yeah, haha, if you have Time Management skills), writing the author a letter along with the critique. He also gave each class a bunch of scientific articles–prompts that may or may not start stories.
Between 9 a.m. to 12 n.n., Greg walked us through opening sentences and first pages, 1950s Syndrome (stories with inefficiently extrapolated futures), kinds of characters and character deaths and repellent characters and characters who don’t know certain key things about themselves and the Symbolic Self, and where to find good research books (the children’s section of a library or bookstore).
The exercise he gave us was in 4 parts. He gave us a few minutes to do each one:
- PARTS OF A STORY (scenes)
Some of us read theirs aloud afterward. I was really impressed. They all immediately came up with sketches with speculative elements and I came up with winding drivel in the realist mode. Nothing wrong with realism, but it was so clear to me that my brain was still warming up. I needed to get into gear faster.
After our first lunch at Canyon Vista, the conferences began, four people per day or so. Amanda was first blood among my roommates; after she returned, we all asked her how it went and then it spiralled into a living room session where we (Ryan, Harry, Amanda, and I) just started talking about our jobs and our backgrounds and how we don’t feel we fit in with our cities/countries and the languages we spoke and our opinions on certain movies.
Some time after dinner, a bunch of the others decided to have a drinking session on the roof (Monday Roof Brews–called that maybe twice, then never again). The latecomers were told off by 9:20 guard, who explained that we can’t drink up there according to California State Law and that we were getting a little too loud.
There I was, dressed for winter in the height of a California summer, on a campus right next to the Pacific Ocean. At some point, because we were just getting to know each other and I diverted to the wallflower aspect of myself, I crouched on the ground and spread my long skirt around me to stop my legs from shaking (Ellie would lend me her leather jacket for the rest of the time I spent standing there). It would take three days for me to stop wearing my scarf everywhere and about two or three weeks to wear a jacket for the protection of the hood against the heat, not against the cold. I remember looking at everyone and thinking how comfortable they all seemed hanging out with each other and drinking and playing ukulele and talking about movies they’d seen. Ellie impressed us all by singing the complete lyrics (with ukulele accompaniment!) of Amanda Palmer’s “Ukulele Anthem.”
I talked to a few people myself, or else just listened to the conversation. Manish made me feel right at home when he showed me that he, too, was also wearing two or three layers. We talked about Filipino food and Singaporean food (that we promised to show each other should we ever visit each other’s countries), and Singapore-Philippines relations.
“Almost all of you said were introverts!” I thought at some point, really amused. I felt like such a small-town girl, even though I come from the bustling megalopolis of Metro Manila–everything there was so convenient and easy and efficient, the way everything back home isn’t. There wasn’t even any traffic! I worried very briefly that it was going to be high school all over again.
Luckily, those worries were unfounded.
Greg talked about writer’s block today–basically, he doesn’t believe in it. It could be 15-20 different things at any one time. He also said there may be such a thing as pre-emptive writer’s block, which is being unable to start because you have no ideas and you feel you have to start the story right. “Start it wrong,” he said.
Then he launched into context, which is basically about character relationships. Rarely is a character interesting by themselves; they need people to bounce off of. Then he taught us his theory about relationship triangles, which is an unbelievable and effective story fix. We learned about the Ecology of the Supernatural, the Ecology of the Economy, a little bit about telling details and in-cluing, and just a few Things That Don’t Work Anymore in Fiction.
I currently have no record of what exercise we tried today because my hard drive is still in the repair shop (more on that for Week 4), but I think this was the one where Greg gave us 4 or 5 situations and gave us 10-15 minutes each to write different beginnings for each one. Again, I was amazed by what everyone read aloud–there were no two concepts alike among 18 writers. But I don’t know, the idea caught fire for me, so I ended up writing a flash piece on the situation “a man falls from a bus, a woman smiles.” Made it about a young guy in his 20s who is super late for the bar exam because he’s stuck in traffic. It’s his last chance to get his life together, and he’s also thinking about the dead sister he admired. He gets off the bus but falls down, and he looks up to see her ghost encouraging him. I read that one aloud; was glad for the chance to try and get over my fear of public speaking.
After class, Sarena, Amin, Nino, and I paid a visit to the literal house hanging over the edge of the Engineering building. It was an amazing, dizzying, terrifying experience–according to the housekeeper, the artist built the house (which is basically a living room with completely different corner and furniture sizes to mess up your perspective, full of the paraphernalia of a cozy existence and burgeoning family life) to convey how disoriented he felt upon coming to live in America or something of the sort. I had to hold onto the chair as I stood there, feeling like falling. But it was cool to watch Amin and Sarena’s sizes shift depending on which corner of the house they walked to. Instant magic.
We also went to the library to register–god, was it gorgeous. Looked like a fortress. We went up the snake path to get to it, and then down to what felt like the secret underground entrance.
I checked out the Special Collections archive and ordered a couple of boxes full of the previous classes’ works. Got the box containing Kelly Link’s stories, as well as the 2013 class–wanted to read my friend Isa’s fiction. Little did I know that this would be only the first of two times that I’d set foot in the archive. Went up to the sixth floor to find Harry and Manish, whom I spotted going up as I signed up for a library card. I forced myself to begin writing a story then and there. It’s one of the ones on my Clarion Ideas list. Thank god I’d been thinking of that world for about two months already, though I was still certain that I would not get it done before Week 1 ended. Harry and Manish took turns talking to me before they left the library; it seemed like Harry’s longhand draft was going well, while Manish was researching for his story. We did not get off on the correct floor because, due to the library’s architecture, we miscalculated where the entrance was.
First karaoke night! Everybody took a go at the mic; that was when we learned that Ryan could do a startling impression of Kermit the Frog while singing “Rainbow Connection” and that Kayla could rap (I think she did Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass”). Tamara also released her operatic voice training on “Cabaret.” The duets and other regular combos also established themselves that night. It was time for me to shed (a little bit of) my shyness, so I had at the mic with Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” and Pink’s “Raise Your Glass.”
Final day of lectures and exercises, though we didn’t know it yet. Later in the afternoon, Tamara would break the ice by sending in her first story of the workshop.
We had a bunch of exercises. First up was one teaching us the importance of names: we paired up (I was with Amin) and had to name seven completely different characters–the names, in fact, had to be in keeping with the characters, a la Charles Dickens. Best one was naming “A descendant of Vlad Tepes who fits himself with artificial teeth and lamely attempts to bite people at random. I had a real hoot over Amin’s “Clad the Nibbler.”
Still don’t know for sure what today’s other exercise was, but I am willing to bet it was the one where we had to write a sex scene, then make a list of nouns and verbs related to kitchen tasks. Then we had to replace all the nouns and verbs in the sex scene with the list we had. That was to show us how sex scenes are just one of those things that could easily go bad in writing. Most of it is titillating, but extraneous. Even the best writers’ brains can short circuit when it comes to sex scenes. Needless to say, that was very awkward and super funny when a few of the others read theirs aloud–and because I did a bunch of non-sexy paragraphs to warm up first, I don’t think I got that exercise right until the last few minutes in. We had our first class photo after the session, by the stone bear.
Ryan drove us to Greg’s reading at Mysterious Galaxy. In the car were the four of us (Suite HARV as we once called ourselves) and the quirky, fun-loving Leena. We kept chatting about how American roads were so different from the roads in our countries (New Zealand, Bulgaria, Finland, the PHL) until Ryan overtook a car and said that some guy was flipping him off. Sure enough, the driver of the car he just overtook had his arm hanging out the window, middle finger raised. When we looked around, we saw the driver of the car throwing a punch at the guy in the passenger seat and went “WHOA!”
The car swerved left and right along the freeway, until it finally drove off to one side. The two guys, an older man and a teenager, got out to duke it out. Laughing, us foreigners were going, “Ryan, slow down! U-turn! We must watch this! It’s like reality TV!” And Ryan says, laughing, “No, I might get called to court!”
Even after all that excitement, we made it to Mysterious Galaxy in one piece.
I’m developing a theory in which heaven is an amalgamation of all of the awesome places a person has loved in their lives. Mysterious Galaxy is going to make up some part of it; apart from being spacious and well-lit, they had an excellent F/SF section, a multitude of books on cats, fridge poetry magnets, and other awesome bookwormy merchandise. Couldn’t help wander down the aisles during parts of Greg’s reading; it’s not that it was boring, not at all–it was my equivalent of doodling during a long session.
Afterward, Ryan drove us to In-N-Out for dinner (Leena had takeout at Chipotle because she’s vegetarian). I finally had one of their famous hamburgers (California Burger in the PHL), although when I posted the picture on my timeline, a bunch of friends told me to go back and have it Animal Style, whatever that was. This is when I also learned that Marty doesn’t like tomatoes, so I became his official Tomato Gobbler every time he had a burger/sandwich that had one.
We critiqued the first 3 stories of the workshop today. We still did not know that this would constitute a light day. I think the session went really well; you could glimpse from that day how we would all style our critiques from then on, but it wasn’t until Week 2 that we’d hit our grooves and I could begin tracking my own progress while taking note of the others. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses when we critique, as well.
I am not certain if Zach assumed his Time Lord duties on this day, but as far as I know, we did not have a set time to deliver our critiques for all of Week 1. Also, got my Comic Con ticket today. 😀
Manish and I talk about our stories at lunchtime. He said he understood if I couldn’t talk about mine though I tried anyway, because why not attempt a different process? He told me that it sounded like the main character didn’t have much agency at the moment, and I took note of that. We both agreed we’re probably just going to do 5 stories for the 6 weeks, though we both said we’d see if we can’t cough up a sixth somewhere in between (ha. Hahaha. Ha.).
After lunch, I went to the library with Marty and Kristen. The boxes containing the stories of Clarions past arrived today and we dug our way through the works of Kelly Link, Jeff VanderMeer, Cory Doctorow, and Nalo Hopkinson. We thought we could make ourselves feel good by how bad the stories were–but they weren’t bad at all, so joke’s on us. Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat” may very well have been in the same form in Clarion as it is now that it’s published.
I also read one of Isa’s stories. Somehow, reading the work of other Filipinos who’d been there before me made me feel better because, as I have written before, I had identity issues (which were somewhat put at ease after the workshop). I didn’t have time to browse through everything because we still had stories to read and because I had to get going with my own story–but somehow, I had time to drop by the Price Center and do a little grocery shopping. I also went to the UCSD bookstore and ended up with two books. I had confidence that I could finally find my way back to the apartment by myself.
Big mistake. I wandered around our part of campus for about 30 minutes more, looking for any sign of something familiar, only stopping to go to the bathroom (which I found through sheer accident via the shortcut to the apartments from the Pines cafeteria). By the time I got to the apartment, I had almost no strength to type. Amanda helped me through this by suggesting I rub the bottle of Grumpy Cat Vanilla Cappuccino I bought up and down my arms.
I registered for the Thursday of Comic Con, but then learned about the difficulties of transportation, the lack of schedule, and that some of my classmates were going on different days. Que horror! But I wouldn’t send the email to the organizers asking to move my registration until Week 2.
A terrible and embarrassing thing happened to me today. I locked myself out of the bedroom in the apartment–I usually lock the door at night before going to sleep and before leaving the apartment for breakfast. Panicked because I didn’t know if I lost the keys or locked them in my room. I got the spare from the front desk, but in my panic, I guess I didn’t do a proper sweep of my room. Kiik and Noah helped me retrace my steps and look for the keys for about an hour. It wasn’t so bad. We ended up talking about food because it was so close to dinner. Noah also told me a little bit about where he lived and some of the animals there, and so did I. Then we stopped before some bushes next to the Literature building because I saw a hummingbird for the very first time and admired it for a while.
Ryan texted Kiik saying they found my bedroom keys on my desk (goddammit); this led to my first time taking the shuttle around campus. We talked about more food and Kiik asked me about life in Manila.
Four stories for Friday. Super heavy day, but somehow, we still made it in time for lunch. My one-on-one with Greg got moved to Saturday.
On Friday afternoon, we went for a walk on the cliffs. I went anyway, even if I needed more time to work on my story, because Greg also told us that we could do less writing and more hanging out with our classmates. Plus, I’m always game for more nature.
The cliffs were beautiful. There were random rabbits and strange flora everywhere, including a small cluster of buds that had what looked like crystals sprinkled all over them. Noah plucked one and showed it to me. When I took it, the delicacy of the buds surprised me; they crumbled if I wasn’t careful holding them.
There were parts of the cliff that were closed off because the ground wasn’t exactly steady. Marty and Greg proved to be rebels in that sense. A bunch of us jokingly shouted, “Don’t do it, Greg! You still have so much to live for!”
We also watched a bunch of para-gliders, a flock of birds flying in wave formation, judged the people/person living in an excessive mansion by the cliff’s edge (it apparently has 12 or 13 bathrooms), and watched a spectacular sunset before moving back to the roof and hanging out some more. Couldn’t believe the week was ending.
Sarena drove me, Tamara, Nino, and Kristen to this cat-themed Drive-By Cinema truck somewhere in San Diego. I held Sarena’s phone and watched the car move along the freeways that none of us knew.
There were excellent tacos when we got there, and someone was handing out fake blooms to all the attendees. The 45-minute stream of cat videos was just about ending when we sat down. Then they played a 60s Japanese yakuza movie called Tokyo Drifter. Tamara and I had way too many side comments, but the movie was (unintentionally) hilarious. The best part was the bar brawl, Western saloon style–all the men just start hitting each other for no reason and the entire set began falling apart.
I was really worried that all of my roommates would be asleep when we got back at around 11 p.m. (I’d left my room key behind–this was a habit I eventually shed, I think.) Kristen and the others were offering that I sleep on their couch if that was so, but apparently, my worries were once again unfounded. Once Sarena parked, we found a small group of Clarionites standing around the parking lot, laughing raucously. They’d apparently been found out by 9:20 guard again.
Greg and I have our conference. He had some comments printed out for both of my submission stories. I didn’t feel too bad about not having my own session this week because of this, but we were both sorry he wouldn’t be able to workshop something new of mine. He really is the Chill Uncle among all of our instructors.
We opted out of the Pines breakfast and had brunch at a loud and vibrant Mexican restaurant in Old Town instead. The cafeteria food had yet to taste terrible to me at that point and I was just barely getting over my jetlagged stomach troubles, but when I ate the rice, egg, and refried beans…heaven. I didn’t realize how much processed food I’d been eating. Nino even introduced our side of this table to this milky drink which Ryan reminded me was called Horchata. ❤
Leena asked me about the story I was planning to submit and I told her it was a secondary world based on pre-colonial Philippines. She told me she didn’t know much about the country’s history, so I kinda launched into explaining 30o+ years of colonization in about 5 minutes. Shoulda warned her I was a history geek.
After brunch, the group went its separate ways. Suite HARV, with Tamara and Amin included, decided to traipse around Old Town’s markets. We found an old Mexican-type house that had been turned into a museum (complete with an outdoor oven!), went through a dried meat shop, and dove into numerous stores full of luchador masks, pottery, tiles, and magnets. Even a Chinese pottery and porcelain shop, for some reason, where Amin and I found a multi-colored phoenix made more frightening by the scary baby doll looking down at it from behind. I bought a bunch of tiles for some folks back home.
After getting some top-notch ice cream and admiring how blue the sky was, we squeezed into the car. I ended up sitting on Amanda’s lap, and we casually drove down the freeway, hoping no cops were around. Ended up chatting about the other times I ended up squeezed like this, especially in lines–best to make light of a tight situation.
While printing out the stories for next week, Clarion Coordinator Laura caught me typing up my personal motivational posters on my laptop for printing, too. I printed a ninth one not too far later on, and I’m sad that I didn’t get a photo of all 9 on my wall or get to take them all home with me afterward. The ninth one read HAVE FUN. YOU’RE NOT HERE TO WRITE A MASTERPIECE.
Geoff Ryman arrived at around 7 p.m. He hung out with us and Greg in the common room and the roof for a little while. Man, is he tall.
So ended Week 1. Little did we know that it wouldn’t always be this carefree.
Warning: Spoiler alert.
Beautiful Darkness got under my skin whether I wanted it to or not.
The physical experience of having the book sort of mimicked my reading experience. To start with, I did not buy this book–it was sent to me by a friend who wished for me to bring it home for her from San Diego, where I was immersed in the Clarion Writers Workshop and thus, had very little time to read work that wasn’t that of my classmates.
One of my roommates, the awesome horror writer Haralambi Markov, saw it and asked to borrow it for a while. When I happened upon him in our living room later on and asked him how the book was, he said that it was disturbing–this, coming from the guy who wrote a tender family story with baking a dead person into a cake at its center. He showed me the page where the little people start pouring out of a dead girl, survivors of their world turning to jelly and crumbling.
So I left it on the living room table up until the day I had to play tetris with two balikbayan boxes before going home.
Safely back home, the book sat on my table until I showed it to my boyfriend. He flipped to page one and was hooked from the beginning. I sat next to him and read right along with him. I turned the pages for the both of us, though I didn’t really want to read it–but I figured we had very little time together before I officially went back to work. For such a disturbing book, reading it with another gave me insight into how my boyfriend’s critical and readerly brain worked, so that’s the first point of approval in this comic’s favor. It was interesting to note the parts where we both said aloud “I knew it!” or “Aw, and look at what so-and-so is doing in this panel before this happens…”
The second approval point: Kerascoët’s lush watercolors and the two different art styles–highly stylized for the little people and realistic for the two humans. They do nothing fancy with the panels or the lettering, and I must say it was disconcerting not to have any lettered onomatopoeias tearing across the page. But simplicity is one of this comic’s key elements; without it, it wouldn’t work half so well. Beautiful Darkness‘s startling layers of complexity must be allowed to speak for themselves, so the art had to scale back the usual ostentatious dynamism that graphic novels are often told in. The Kerascoët duo’s art style was perfect for this project.
Beautiful Darkness opens in a fairy tale-esque manner, with the protagonist Aurora preparing for the arrival of Prince Hector with her friend Plim after a ball. Soon after the Prince arrives and pays his compliments, the room they stand in begins disintegrating. Aurora escapes what looks like the end of the world and the “camera” pulls back, revealing that many others like her are escaping, too–from the body of a dead little girl lying in the woods.
Soon after, Aurora and the survivors attempt to make some semblance of the civilization in the big wilderness surrounding them and the corpse, even if some actions include what were once mundane activities becoming completely nonsensical out of context–for example, the vain and cruel Zellie having a wedding dress made around her body for about half the book. Others try to find new ways to get food and survive in general, such as climbing into a bird’s nest and getting their throat punctured as the bird feeds them bugs, or eating fruits that turn out to be poisonous (these have killed off scores of the other survivors in no time, apparently). Death is everywhere, but it comes to the nicest and most civilized of the little people first.
And there’s the other disturbing element of Beautiful Darkness: death is rampant, even gruesome, but none of the little people seem to care when someone they once knew dies. Life goes on in the dystopia in the woods–there are tea parties and dinners and kite flying, even a wedding. Nobody once says “it’s kill or be killed” or “every body for themselves” at any one point, but that’s exactly the kind of mentality going on here.
It is also a tale of the death of innocence (the dead girl is one layer) and of civilization crumbling. Aurora’s helpful, friendly, hospitable nature (the one that allowed her to distribute food, help build shelters, and try to draw people like the shy Timothy into the bigger circle) disintegrates slowly, beginning with her ruinous dinner with the forest animals that inevitably leaves many of her people dead and the food scattered. She even gouges out the eyes of the nice mouse who often gave her berries to eat over uncivilized behavior at the dinner table (it peed on the said table, which was just the mouse being true to its animalistic nature). At the same time, the population of survivors dwindles due to individual stupidity or group callousness (the aforementioned Timothy is buried alive by the snobbish Zellie and her handmaidens, the baby she was caring for left to die on a root even after one of the handmaidens take it from Timothy and coo over it as if it were a toy).
There is plenty of backstory left out of the comic: we do not know what life was like for any of the little people before their host body died, for example–certainly, no one spends their time reflecting on what they lost; they just go on trying to replicate it all, whittled down to their most basic images, often with catastrophic results. We do not know how the host body died or why, although it is implied that her death was violent and caused by the adult man living by himself in a cabin–“the giant in the woods.” And we definitely do not know why there was an entire country of little people living in a little girl–and it’s all right that we don’t know the answers to any of these mysteries.
But at its core, when you push aside the tales of surviving a dystopia and the horrors of the human experience, Beautiful Darkness is a fairy tale about what one plucky young woman has to do to win her prince. And even this simple formula, it subverts.
The verdict: Beautiful Darkness was adorable. It was disturbing. It gave me goosebumps–Lord of the Flies with a thick layer of sugar and icing on top. It forced me to categorize the way I liked things, the way I really liked things, and the way some things are not my jam at all and yet I can’t put it down for the life of me. Beautiful Darkness is exactly the third thing I just mentioned. I usually cannot stand horror, but I think the simple but effective art style and the fairy tale tropes (and their subversion) managed to pin me down. And the fact that I can write this long a post dissecting it really says something about it.
Beautiful Darkness does not appeal to my personal aesthetics at all, and yet, I feel that it’s set to become a classic among other titles in the same medium. Best of all, it helped break this horrible streak I had ever since coming from the workshop, in which I began to see the strings in published work, whether I liked the piece or not. I had no experience of the sort reading this.
So, one of the grandest adventures of my life ended a few days ago. I’m back home and my jet lag and letting everything soak in and reconsidering a lot of things. I may not have blogged during all my time there like I planned, but I think I’ll be posting a series of blogs processing the experience, instead.
This is one of them.
Just before I flew off to the US, I wrote a post about struggling to come to terms with a heritage I felt detached from. To sum up some parts of it, I was afraid of having to represent the Filipino people while also feeling like the Filipino people have never once represented me. This had much to do with language, familial upbringing, economic class, and what have you. I may have been just a teensy bit afraid that once I got to the workshop, others would expect me to write about being Filipino, just as local writers have expected me to do here (I need not have worried about that).
But something strange happened once I got there, and I guess everyone who leaves the motherland ends up experiencing what I did to some degree or another.
Ready? Here it is:
I never felt more Filipino than when I was living in San Diego.
I cannot count the many times I felt like a small-town girl occasionally muttering small-town phrases and wearing small-town clothes and missing small-town food–and I come from a freaking megalopolis!
And, for some reason, I could not stop writing about Filipinos. Even when I set my story in a secondary world, there was still something unmistakably Filipino about the characters and the world they lived in.
At Clarion, I wrote about two different writers calling to life their ideal mates via their writings (week 2, “The Politics of Ink: A Love Story”, 1319 words); a slave aspiring to be an epic chanter who relates how the mango came to be and ties it with her love of her brother, her hatred of her mistress, and the fall of a kingdom (week 3, “Song for My Brother”, 8062 words); two gay men dealing with the fallout of their relationship as one of them prepares to go to a distant planet to pursue a grant for the study of its creatures (week 4, “The Siren Call of the Rimefolk”, 4653 words); and a small family living in a tropical city stricken by a natural disaster (week 6, “Blushing Blue”, 3107 words).
(My week 5 story was a flash called “The Bride Who Would End the World”–the setting was mostly generic because I wanted to create a new myth tying an apocalypse to a cosmic wedding. Didn’t pan out as well as I hoped, but it’s a first draft written on a cellphone because my traitorous laptop broke down as I was writing the week 4 story).
Whether I stated it outright or not, these stories all had a Philippine base to the setting.
My one-on-one with Cat Valente really helped smooth this out. She explained to me that she herself never felt more like a California girl than when she was living as a Navy wife in Japan.
“Some writers have their own agendas and believe that you should only be writing what they themselves write–which shouldn’t be the case,” she told me. “You can choose to fight against writing about Filipinos. That’s a legitimate choice. But you should also go with whatever lights a fire beneath you.”
And I did. I don’t regret it. Will it extend toward my future work? Who knows?
Other friends of mine who understood my pre-Clarion angst have told me, “What makes your stories Filipino is that you are Filipino. You will carry that with you everywhere.” And they’re right, too.
A classmate of mine said during my final critique session for the whole workshop, “And, I’m sorry, but because you are a Filipino, I read this as an alternative Philippines.”
I should have told him, “Don’t be sorry. That’s really what it is and that’s really who I am.”
Michael Janairo on his “Long Hidden” submission, which contains a story set during the Philippine-American War of the 1900s.
Readercon is awesome. The conference for speculative literature is always worthwhile, as it offers a deep dive into issues and concerns that are at the forefront of literature.
So I got to hear luminaries like Michael Dirda and Peter Straub talk about their development as readers and writers. (Dirda doesn’t have time to reread books; Straub is rereading Iris Murdoch right now.)
I got to hear Samuel Delaney read for a work in progress that is from the point of view from a young Herman Melvill(e), and includes scenes during his life and times in Albany.
I learned a lot about the difficulties of living in space (the weakening of the body in low gravity; the politics of funding); about how authors try to strike a balance between fulfilling and subverting readers’ expectations (though…
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