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.