Clarion 2014, week 1: All things shiny and new, raring to go

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The week 1 class photo by the stone bear. Look at us, still looking fresh.

The Week 1 class photo by the stone bear. Look at us, still looking fresh. L to R: Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi, Zach Lisabeth, Marian Womack, Nino Cipri, Ellie Rhymer, Director Shelley Streeby, Harry Markov, Marty Cahill, Tamara Vardomskaya, Ryan Campbell, Instructor Greg Frost, Sarena Ulibarri, Amin Chehelnabi, Kristen Roupenian, Noah Keller, Amanda Fitzwater, Leena Likitalo, Manish Melwani, me, and Kayla Whaley.

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.

 


 

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Toothless taking my white wolf Snowfur under his wing.

Sunday

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.

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Jeezus, look at how high that bed was! And the movers never came to adjust it, either. 😦

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.

Monday

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:

  • VOICE
  • SETTING
  • CHARACTER
  • 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.

Kayla has co-opted Ellie's ukulele while Nino and Tamara look on, amused.

Kayla has co-opted Ellie’s ukulele while Nino and Tamara look on, amused.

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.

Tuesday

I wasn't kidding about the house being atop the building.

I wasn’t kidding about the house being atop the building.

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.

I hear that this library has appeared in two science fiction B-movies as a spaceship.

I hear that this library has appeared in two science fiction B-movies as a spaceship.

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.”

Wednesday

Suite HARV standing in front of the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore. Photo by Leena Likitalo.

Suite HARV standing in front of the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore. Photo by Leena Likitalo.

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!”

Inn n Out burger. What in the world is Animal Style?

In-N-Out burger. What in the world is Animal Style?

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.

Thursday

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.

The end of the snake path leading to the library.

The end of the snake path leading to the library.

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.

How a Grumpy Cat Cappuccino Saved My Arms from Wilting.

How a Grumpy Cat Cappuccino Saved My Arms from Wilting.

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.

Friday

The clusters of purple buds, lined with delicate crystal-like drops.

The clusters of purple buds, lined with delicate crystal-like drops.

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.

Drive-In Cinema. They're not looking at the camera, but pictured are Sarena, Kristen, Tamara, and Kiik.

Drive-By Cinema. They’re not looking at the camera, but pictured are Sarena, Kristen, Tamara, and Kiik.

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.

Saturday

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.

I'm sure this is just the camera angle.

I’m sure this is just the camera angle.

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.

Motivational posters tacked over my bed. The ninth one that I filled the gap read HAVE FUN. YOU'RE NOT HERE TO WRITE A MASTERPIECE

Motivational posters tacked over my bed. The ninth one that I filled the gap read “HAVE FUN. YOU’RE NOT HERE TO WRITE A MASTERPIECE“.

L to R: Greg Frost and Geoff Ryman. I think Geoff is about 6'7".

L to R: Greg Frost and Geoff Ryman. I think Geoff is about 6’7″.

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