Clarion 2014, week 3: Reaching for and seeing stars, and writing with them out

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Clarion 2014, week 3: Reaching for and seeing stars, and writing with them out

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.

 


 

Sunday

Leena threatened to eat all the sweets if the others didn't come up to the Common Room pronto.

Leena threatened to eat all the sweets if the others didn’t come up to the Common Room pronto.

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.

L to R: Emily Jiang and Cat Valente.

L to R: Emily Jiang and Cat Valente.

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.

Monday

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.

Lockbox Words of Doom.

Lockbox Words of Doom.

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.

More Lockbox Words of Doom.

More Lockbox Words of Doom.

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.

Tuesday

Cat lets her hair down for Cabaret's "Mein Herr."

Cat lets her hair down for Cabaret’s “Mein Herr.”

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!”

Probably the most energetic rendition of a Christmas song I've ever seen.

Probably the most energetic rendition of a Christmas song I’ve ever seen.

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!

Wednesday

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.

Cat read her "White Lines on a Green Field," which also happens to be one of my favorite stories of hers.

Cat read her “White Lines on a Green Field,” which also happens to be one of my favorite stories of hers.

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 O_o

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.

Thursday

Herbert the Ostrich Egg, before he became the Plotstrich!

Herbert the Ostrich Egg, before he became the Plotstrich!

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.

Le Plotstrich.

Le Plotstrich.

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.

Friday

By Friday night of Week 3: more people coloring in Kayla's "My Little Pony" coloring books.

By Friday night of Week 3: more people coloring in Kayla’s “My Little Pony” coloring books.

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.
All hail! The plotstrich would prove necessary in getting through the pressure cooker that was Week 4, as Cat predicted.

All hail! The Plotstrich would prove necessary in getting through the pressure cooker that was Week 4, as Cat predicted.

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

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.

Scrambled Plotstrich egg with nacho cheese and herbs on bread. Mmm.

Scrambled Plotstrich egg with nacho cheese and herbs on bread. Mmm.

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.

Yay, I can use the Lockbox Words again! But I guess it's a mark of how much we'd improved that some of us decided to put a few back in the box even after receiving this awesome certificate.

Yay, I can use the Lockbox Words again! But I guess it’s a mark of how much we’d improved that some of us decided to put a few back in the box even after receiving this awesome certificate.

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.

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