Category Archives: Clarion 2014

Clarion 2014, week 4: In which everything breaks down and is eased back together

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Clarion 2014, week 4: In which everything breaks down and is eased back together

Before the actual post starts, let’s be clear here: Week Four Syndrome is a thing. But one will never be prepared for it no matter how many Clarion blogs one reads. I know I certainly wasn’t. In general, it’s usually the week when all the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological exhaustion comes to a head in this pressure cooker of a writing workshop.

Considering how this week was probably the Peak of All Intensity at Clarion and due to the personal nature of much of what I’m about to post, I’ve had to sit back and re-review why exactly I am writing these posts, and for whom (just like when writing a story). I do this for the following reasons:

  1. To process. The week before, I experienced a rather rude awakening, which became key to discovering that I have become frighteningly good at repressing my feelings when I need to let them out the most (more on this later). In the interest of unlocking my emotions and allowing myself to recover from Clarion and from that major issue plaguing me, I will try not to back down from writing about the hard stuff.
  2. To back up. As you will see further down, there will be a point where I will lose almost all my data. As of this writing, I have taken my hard drive to two specialists and the common verdict is that the data can no longer be read. Should all of the things I wrote down be lost some day, I have one “back up” at least.
  3. To remember. I’ve made a lot of memory maps for myself with myriad things over the course of 6 weeks; now it’s time to make one giant map I can rely on in the future.
  4. To help future Clarionites. Especially the ones who, like me, read blog posts obsessively. I also noted that I never really read a post that was “a little bit of everything,” so I am writing the type of posts I would have wanted to read.

P.S. Padding this with some unrelated photos because I did not take enough photos of this week.

 


 

I think my hand was shaking with excitement when I took this photo.

I think my hand was shaking with excitement when I took this photo.

Sunday

SAN DIEGO ZOO! After breakfast with Nora, Sarena drove me, Leena, Tamara, and Marian there just as it opened. We bought sandwiches and water bottles at Ralph’s first, which turned out to be a good idea.I stared at Sarena’s car’s carpets most of the way to SDZ in order to contain my excitement. I was finally gonna get to see a giraffe up close and in person!

I wonder what coming in the evening would have been like; when we got there, it was as if most of the animals partied hard the night before and were nursing hangovers in their dens. The giraffes were wide awake and enjoying a 15-minute-long line of people who wanted to feed them, though (the others kindly chose a cafe where I’d have a good view of them walking around and joked after I returned from the bathroom that they were probably going to skip the giraffes). I settled for taking their photos just outside their fence. Saw the two baby giraffes! And the one who is my age came up to the hollowed-out stump of a feeding trough near where I was standing and so graciously posed for me.

Some other highlights: coming face-to-face with a red panda and not knowing if it was real or stuffed (it was real; it scampered back into the tree just when we took out our cameras); world-famous baby panda Xiao Liwu turning in its sleep; seeing a baby Visayan warthog try to clamber over a sleeping adult and fall off; watching a grizzly bear eat a hare (accidentally dropping it over its pool’s edge, flinging back into the pool, all that jazz); a glimpse of a sleeping polar bear with its pink ball very close; coming up to the completely zoned out and drooling Bactrian camel’s den (one of its humps was deflated); that sign that said that the llamas were probably out walking with their keepers; accidentally finding out that rhino penises can reach the ground; buying Harry a stuffed toy sloth and Marian a stuffed toy unicorn for their birthdays; and getting lost in the zoo with the others at around 2 p.m.

Meet Bahati, who was born in September 1991. She helped fulfill my dream of seeing a giraffe in person, and she was ADORABLE <3

Meet Bahati, who was born in September 1991. She helped fulfill my dream of seeing a giraffe in person, and she was ADORABLE ❤

When we returned to campus, Nora had put up her prompt: create a culture completely unlike anything on Earth. I could have easily given into hyperventilating, but surprisingly, the prompt was helpful in rejiggering my plot for this week’s story, which would turn out to be the first science fiction story I’d ever write. It seemed to make more sense to me, at least. I invented a race on Pluto that would later be called “ice-dragon-narwhals-from-space.”

Luckily, we had only two stories to tackle for Monday. Went out onto the cliffs with a few of the others. Amanda, Nino, and I talked about that green flash sunset that occurred for a fraction of a moment sometime last week (I managed to see it, luckily, without even knowing beforehand that they existed).

At around 11 p.m., just as I had decided to shower, Amanda and I were disturbed by some persistent knocking on our front door. They turned out to be a raucous group of teenage boys with thick European (Scandinavian?) accents. I dealt with them on the other side of the window; they looked surprised to see Amanda and I.

“Oh, we’re sorry,” said one that looked like Skandar Keynes. “But have you seen anyone our age?”

My mouth: “Try downstairs.”

My brain: “WHAT DO YOU MEAN, OUR AGE? HOW OLD DO I LOOK TO YOU?”

Rotten kids. *grumble grumble*

Monday

Saw that I hadn’t used some brown flats I’d specifically bought for this trip, so I thought while I was rushing out, hey, why not, my black ones were full of sand from the cliffs anyway. By the time I got to the cafeteria, I was limping on one foot and figured I’d have no time to have breakfast if I’m walking this slow. By the time I got to the classroom, I was being asked, “What happened to you?” because I was limping and the backs of my feet were raw and bleeding. It was suggested to me that I walk barefoot for the rest of the day, like Cat did last week–I will never wish I could walk barefoot around any outdoorsy place again.

One of the lovely sunsets by the cliff on Sunday.

One of the lovely sunsets by the cliff on Sunday.

The workshop rules were changed once again. I think we kept to the usual amount of speaking time, but Nora introduced the concept of “Ditto/Anti-Ditto” in which the group agrees or disagrees with the speaker’s critique. She also said that she’d only read one submission story each from us, but opened up extra hours to anyone who wanted a discussion about that particular story. Like Geoff from Week 2, Nora also had some discussions ready–but unlike Geoff, these were not to be MFA-type line-by-line discussions of texts; they had more to do with the political aspects of writing.

In the case of Monday, Nora and the 2014 class built a world together–a completely secondary world where some of the scientific theories, tectonic shifts, and equatorial lines governing the planet were shit, but would do for the time being.

“The key to worldbuilding is plausibility, not science,” Nora said. “Science can be the chocolate coating on the pill you’re trying to sell.”

More on plausibility:

  • “Depending on how good a writer you are, you can sell any size of a whopper to an audience–but you have to have dollops of plausibility.”
  • “Small details help establish that this world is not our own, but it is close. You can only put stuff in dollops, you can’t overdo it.”
  • “Worldbuilding is nothing but plausibility.”

She had other gems for us too:

  • “You’re trying to sell the inculcation of thought in worldbuilding.”
  • “You need to understand how the world works even when the readers do not.”
  • “A lot of what we do in worldbuilding is informed by misinformation on how the real world works.”
  • “To be a good SFF writer, you need to be informed by reality.”
  • “Class struggle is not a hierarchy–it’s all over the place.”
  • “There is no fix for a system that eats/consumes its citizens; it should just be burnt down and the citizens should start over.”
The World of Clarion San Diego Class of 2014.

The World of Clarion San Diego Class of 2014. No class photo for this week, but when I think about it, this photo’s kind of symbolic of the class and how far-flung we are from each other (or perhaps what evil geniuses we are if you don’t get that the thing with horns up there is where the Vikings live in our world).

We constructed a history in which the Tropical Forest People of the Western Side of the Pangaea-like Continent were on top for a long while due to having all the resources and thus, a faster technological development. But then, over the mountains bisecting the Continent lay the Desert and its Desert People and the Nomadic Tribes to the far East. Both the Eastern and Western Peoples weather constant raids from the small but hardy group of Vikings living on a Frozen Northern Island. The Desert People’s kingdoms and the Nomadic Tribes are united by Princess Priscilla the Wrestler, daughter of a conquering king, who chooses her husbands (yes, plural) according to whosoever can beat her at wrestling. At the point of the worldbuilding in which we stopped, Priscilla had three husbands, one of them in charge of a large navy that can circle the continent and head for the Tropical Forest People, whom they’d been unable to assail up until that point due to the mountain range. The navy encounters an archipelago to the South, which isn’t really their goal, but they’ve discovered that those islands have spices…

Nora stopped us there and told us that she just wanted to show us the kind of thought that should go into worldbuilding. And then we went for lunch. Amin and I accompanied Nora to the bike rental shop, as she was used to biking around in New York. Amin came away with a bike himself, though the two of them walked their bikes because:

  1. I don’t fit on either of their bikes, tiny as I am,
  2. I don’t know how to ride a bike, and
  3. I was walking without shoes.

We parted with Nora on her floor, and then Amin and I spent 10 hilariously confusing minutes trying to figure out how to park the bike on one of the handle-thingies outside the elevator leading to our floor. I don’t know about Amin, but I have never seen any of those things anywhere in Manila. Noah looked pretty confused himself when I finally showed up at his door and the first words out of my mouth were, “Do you know how to park a bike?” And when we got to Amin, he’d finally figured out what that hook thing was for. Hay.

My boyfriend's name is Sebb. I think this sign from the cafe behind the UCSD bookstore made subconsciously me more homesick than I thought.

My boyfriend’s name is Sebb. I think this sign from the cafe behind the UCSD bookstore made subconsciously me more homesick than I thought.

Found out that a storm had hit the country yet again and my hometown (or rather, my home city) was right in the storm path.

In the afternoon, I decided to do my critiques in the Common Room because I realized that we were already halfway through Clarion and Greg did advise us during Week 1 that when faced with the choice of writing more or partying more for the duration of this workshop, we should choose to party. These were bonds that were going to last us a lifetime. Six weeks is not enough to get to know 18 people, let alone one, and I only had three left. I felt the quality of my writing was going to dip for this, but I brushed that aside as I joined Noah and Marian in the first of our Wine-and-Popcorn nights.

Decided that the two main characters in my story for this week would be two men in a loving relationship. That was a first for me.

Tuesday

In the afternoon, my friends back home were typing in our group chat that they were scared because the wind was so loud and the windows had been blown open and some were afraid that their roofs might fly off. Using the internet on his phone, my dad told me that the storm knocked out the electricity at my house–at most people’s houses, really. Heard that my niece was inconsolable, as she’s developed a phobia related to the sound of rain.

Had a good, much-needed discussion about writing the other in class, during which Nora recommended reading Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. Luckily, I got my copy in the mail the week before and told the others I’d leave it on the Common Room table for the rest of the workshop if they wanted to read it. Something to keep in mind from Nora that day: “You’re not stuck writing your own culture, but you have to recognize the power differential.”

Harry somehow managed to compel Manish into putting flowers Ellie picked into his beard. Idea was from a Buzzfeed article.

Harry somehow managed to compel Manish into putting flowers Ellie picked into his beard. Idea was from a Buzzfeed article.

After lunch today, Kiik talked to me about considering the MFA program at UCSD. He walked me to the cafe behind the bookstore, where I was going for the first time and had no idea existed. It’s a nice, quiet place to work (and feel the desperation creeping in with regard to where your story’s going)–and what’s more, they had a Doge drawing on their cafe board. I found a table where Marty was sitting and reminded him that I was still up for beta reading his story for this week, as he asked me to do the week before.

On the story front, I was having trouble making the plot gel together, as it was also the first time I was writing a story following an emotional arc. I told Cat during our one-on-one the week before when she asked me what I had the most trouble with was putting emotions into a story. What I said was, “I have a hard time putting emotion into my stories…I write and write and write…until I crack.” I’d pushed the worry into the back of my mind, to be dealt with when I was more desperate.

Marty and I ran into Ryan sitting at one table, as he’s supposed with Shelley, like I was. She offered to read any story we like every week and talk about it for maybe half an hour. I was only able to meet with her this week because the story I wanted to send (my Week 3 piece) was completed only the week before.

After talking about my story and bringing up important points that confused me some more (in a good way), she asked me how I was doing, how the class was doing, how I’m liking the workshop and everything. Up until this point, Shelley and the instructors have been repeating what a good class we are–not just in quality, but also in how we interact with each other. Sure, there are ruffled feathers every now and then, but things could have been way worse.

This is something Nora reiterated during her Empathy lecture after dinner, but the point would not be driven home until later in the week. Meanwhile, the Empathy lecture was pretty eye-opening: she started off by telling us that different people of different cultures have very specific delusions when they have psychotic breaks. She also defined empathy for us:

  • Empathy: Seeing another’s differences, sympathizing and feeling for them.
  • Bigotry: The breakdown of empathy.
Nora, rocking karaoke. In your face, bronchitis.

Nora, rocking karaoke. In your face, bronchitis.

Nora stated that “Empathy failures are compounded by intersections of hierarchies (called kyriarchies), the tops of which are continually aggrandized by the lower ones.”

“When writing the other, any other at all, you need to understand them to the degree that you can, even if you feel contempt for them,” Nora explained. “You have to regard them with the same love and respect you hold yourself to.”

Well, who knew I’d be able to connect my religion lessons as a Catholic schoolgirl here?

Nora continued, “You need to address all your empathy gaps to be a very good writer; this will help stop you from falling back on cliched ways of depicting people different from you. As artists, we must engage that which is ugly and fucked up.”

Nora also opened up about her troubles with death and rape threats the previous year due to Vox Day and his compatriots. Then she gave us an exercise in which we had to imagine a person or group each of us felt contempt for and imagine extending empathy toward them. It was really hard for a lot of us. She also challenged us to try writing an empathetic story about a group we feel contempt for. I don’t know if any of us took on that challenge, but it is definitely more difficult than many of the challenges we were issued before.

Then we all went off to karaoke, which Nora took a crack at even though she had bronchitis. As usual, we brought our manuscripts to the pub and read while waiting for our turns, not forgetting to clap and cheer once the singer was done. I took a break from the pop-rock songs for a bit and sang Katy Perry’s “Thinking of You.” Not long after, Kayla asked me to duet with her on Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” I didn’t know a lot of the lyrics, but Kayla took care of that and we belted the choruses together.

Wednesday

Marty the Intrepid Explorer, just before we set off for the bookstore.

Marty the Intrepid Explorer, just before we set off for the bookstore.

Before breakfast, I went into Harry’s room to greet him happy birthday and present him with the sloth that the girls and I bought him at San Diego Zoo. He was ecstatic. I wish I took a photo.

Dad said that my grandmother got her power back and that they’re going there for a while to charge their cell phones and laptops. He sent me pictures of our dogs and of felled so many trees by Commonwealth Avenue, the main road we go down every day. He also sent me a photo of my best friend, whom they met by chance at the McDonald’s near my old university. She had the poor timing to come home from Hong Kong in between resigning from her old job and starting her new one.

Marian got her stuffed toy unicorn and a bouquet of roses from her husband for her birthday before class began. Sweetest thing ever ❤

Class is really starting to feel the strain of having been cooped together for four weeks without being able to see our families, friends, and lovers. Or do anything that isn’t connected to writing, really–I know that I have to force myself to go out and have fun on the weekends. Admittedly, there was even a moment after I woke up on Sunday morning wherein I almost decided foregoing the zoo in favor of writing. Argh. But I asked for this and I got exactly what I signed up for–boot camp pressure cooker blues. After class, I asked Nora if I could talk to her about one of my submission stories tomorrow and she agreed.

Marty passed me his story for the afternoon. He did warn me that it’d be pretty long and also reminded me that I opened the floodgates with my 8K whopper last week. Between writing, we ended up talking about what we think we write about and why we write what we write and all that. I enjoyed that discussion, but I was also using it as an excuse to avoid writing the scene(s) that I’d have to dig really deep down for.

Nora’s reading! I felt a little guilty for being one of the people who entreated her to our (fun) karaoke night as her bronchitis hadn’t gotten any better. Was also really excited for her to read something from the upcoming Inheritance trilogy novella, The Awakened Kingdom, but as a lot of people in the audience hadn’t read it yet and the very fact of the novella’s protagonist is a major series spoiler, she read from her upcoming novel The Fifth Season instead.

Nora's reading. Here's where I confessed that I sent her fanmail a few years back. She didn't remember. I gave her some ChocNut to make up for my fannishness.

Nora’s reading. Here’s where I confessed that I sent her fanmail a few years back. She didn’t remember. I gave her some ChocNut to make up for my fannishness.

Also bought some McDonald’s fare because I’d forgotten to eat dinner on account of griping over my story, as I didn’t even know if I’d hit the halfway point and my session was on Friday and holy god, how did everyone else manage? Was I the only one flailing in my unintentional procrastination? But anyway, I was shocked to discover that I could not finish the pack of McDonald’s fries. I’d also managed to hold off on the softdrinks until that very night–I’d forgotten to buy a water bottle.

A few more people joined Marian, Noah, and I at the Common Room afterward, but it eventually dwindled to just the three of us again. Noah fell asleep while Marian and I ranted to each other over garlic-flavored popcorn (mostly me) and wine (mostly her).

Thursday

Parents still don’t have power. I count myself lucky to have heard from them at all. Can’t imagine what I’d feel if none of them had data plans on their phones. No yoga class today, as even Sarena was feeling kinda fizzled out.

Nora told us in class that people have been randomly coming to her room and talking out a problem or two with her. She said that that was normal and that apparently, at this camp thing for teenagers that she helps run in her day job, the same thing is happening (only much worse because teenagers don’t yet have the adult restraint needed). She repeated that we were actually a pretty good group, as we were letting off steam in little hisses and pops instead of in one giant explosion.

After class, Marty and I walk together and I talk to him about his story. We almost missed lunch, sitting under a tree near Canyon Vista and chatting about what I perceived were possible revision points. At some point, he introduced me to PuppyCat and we somehow created our own version of Chekhov’s Gun (or Chekhov’s Chupacabra, in my class’s case): “Use the sword, PuppyCat!” Grabbed a cheeseburger at the cafeteria–that was my first time doing so, and I have to say, it wasn’t all that bad.

I drew a floppy-eared cyclops for Leena, who was feeling down. It's based on a line from her story for that week.

I drew a floppy-eared cyclops for Leena, who was feeling down. It’s based on a line from her story for that week.

We wrote in the cafe again for a while, but I eventually went back to the apartments for my first one-on-one with Nora. She talked to me about the issue of translation in my story “A Cha-Cha with Insanity,” which was written as a lifestyle article about Philippine mythological creatures staging a play at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, to the chagrin of most humans (this story was re-titled to “First play for and by Tikbalang triggers uproar on opening night” and has been published in Philippine Speculative Fiction 9). She told me that even something as simple as translation could be pandering to a wider-known culture, as I’d put an English translation next to the deeper Tagalog dialogue–language is political, in short. This led to questions of whom do I think my audience is, and I surprised myself when I said, “It depends on the story.” She referred me to Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, who has talked about the use of dialects and native languages.

I returned to the apartment and ate a combination of Creams peanut butter cookies and lemon-laced Animal Crackers on my bed and worked until my laptop conked out. Luckily, my story’s file was still open, but I was completely unable to access the other files. Tried restarting and a bunch of other things–hardware tries to install, but fails miserably. I saved the file in a completely different drive, unable to process for now what just happened. Kept writing until I hit breaking point and tears were welling up in my eyes when it should have been ideas in my head. I had no more time to back away from what was most tender to me.

I went to Amanda’s room, asking if I could stay here a while. When she let me, I went over to a free bed of hers and just cried. The story I was writing was about two artists in a loving relationship (they’re both men; a first for me)–until one gets a grant to study the subject matter of his art (the created culture) on another planet. This was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to write because I somehow managed to transpose the angst that’d crop up whenever my boyfriend and I talk about me pursuing my passions in another country (MFA, Clarion, what have you). We’d been together since we were college sophomores–in fact, our fourth anniversary fell upon my second day ever at Clarion–and my six weeks there was the longest we’d ever spent apart. Somehow, while writing this story, I ended up recalling many of our conversations about this, and about how lucky we seemed to think we were for having each other. The line that made it into my story (which also happened to be the line that broke me) was “How did I ever snag somebody like him?”

A plumed and flapping donkey for Kiik, based on a line from his story for that week.

A plumed and flapping donkey for Kiik, based on a line from his story for that week.

But in the end, I pulled myself together, finished the story–knowing that I had several loose ends by going with that happy ending–and submitted it.

Hung out at the Common Room and got very cold yet again. Manish told me he was going to a class reunion in Las Vegas and would be happy to send me my critique next week, when he gets back. We also agreed that by Sunday or Monday, he’d let me know if I can have his Wednesday slot because a few weeks ago, I stupidly believed that I could handle writing a story between Friday and Monday.

Friday

Decided to sit next to Nora for my session, as it’d been a while since I sat next to an instructor. I wore my purple dress and brought Toothless with me–and I will never forget the way Nora’s eyes bugged out as she squee’d (yes, squee’d) over Toothless when I set him down on the table.

“Do you wanna borrow him for a while?” I asked, smiling.

“No,” Nora said. She held him like an evil villain does his fluffy pet cat and stroked his back. “If I do, you’ll never get him back.” And she set him down next to me again.

My session went relatively well. I know that I rushed the ending because I just wanted it to be over and it didn’t quite resolve a lot of loose ends–however, that’s not why I started crying like nobody’s business. I am very sorry to everyone whom I made uncomfortable. I explained when it was my turn to talk that the writing had taken a lot out of me and I don’t even know why I’m crying myself. I also said that I made the ending happy because it seemed like everyone needed something to cheer up over this week (and, really, I am a firm believer in hopeful endings if not happy ones). Also, Nino had the cutest drawing of her interpretation of my “ice-dragon-narwhals-from-space” on my critique.

So. Many. SEALS.

So. Many. SEALS. They stink, but they’re adorable.

Today, we also discussed cultural appropriation and writing the other. Very informative stuff. I left a link to Daniel Jose Older’s “12 Fundamentals of Writing the Other (And the Self)” on our Facebook group for extra reading material.

In the afternoon, Nora and I discussed the story I put forward in class. She said it was extremely close to publication but I might want to look into fixing the ending and a minor point about colonization that was easily fixable. She also asked me if my boyfriend and I had been separated before (I said that this was the longest period in our relationship so far) and how was my family doing (I explained about the storm). She noted that I was under a lot of stress and that maybe I should try writing flash next week to relax–and considering how many days I accidentally gave myself to write, that was probably a good idea.

In the evening, Nora gave us her final lecture, which was about life as a professional writer after Clarion. There were 7 main points overall, with lots of tips in between:

  1. Get business cards made
  2. Work on your 30-seconds-or-less elevator pitch
  3. Get on the slate at your local readings or start your own reading series
  4. Begin developing multiple lines of income
  5. Tax–file for anything that helps your business as a writer
  6. Join writers’ groups
  7. Get an agent as soon as you finish your first novel
The only proof we have of the Great Clarion San Diego Water Gun Fight of 2014. Photo taken by Zach.

The only proof we have of the Great Clarion San Diego Water Gun Fight of 2014. L to R: Sarena, Marty, Amanda, me, Tamara. Photo taken by Zach.

And she also gave us 5 good reasons to join the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America):

  1. The Grief Committee
  2. You’ll have tables at conventions
  3. Book conventions
  4. Networking events
  5. Helpful forums

“Celebrate every milestone and victory,” Nora said. And with that, she stepped out of the Common Room, put on her shades, and stepped back inside with a loaded water gun. There was a box full of unloaded ones at her feet. “You guys must have forgotten that you have these. You have 60 seconds to load ’em up and meet me downstairs.”

And thus, the great Clarion Water Gun Fight of 2014 began. There was much jumping over bushes and hiding behind pillars and sending down empty elevators and throwing water balloons.

Saturday

SAN DIEGO PRIDE PARADE! Ryan took Harry, Amanda, Nino, and I. I was really excited, as I’d never been to a Pride Parade before. Ryan warned me that there may be naked people there and I braced myself to have my Victorian sensibilities scandalized, but nothing of the sort happened. Also, why did no one tell me there would be a surplus of cute dogs?!

Me and the Rainbow Stormtrooper of Love at the 2014 San Diego Pride Parade.

Me and the Rainbow Stormtrooper of Love at the 2014 San Diego Pride Parade.

What I liked about the parade was how interactive it was with the crowd–that is to say, people walking up to you and giving you free stuff. Plus, quite a number of cute guys and near-naked buff guys and cute, buff, near-naked guys–and for some strange reason, PUGS IN STROLLERS. I got a photo with what I like to call a Rainbow Stormtrooper of Love.

We had a light breakfast before going around the shops (where I ended up buying the jelly fruits my mom had been bugging me to get and a second hand book of Sharon Shinn’s The Thirteenth House); Nino and Amanda were nicely dressed up. Somehow, Nino let me have the salmon on her sandwich, which she didn’t like, prompting Ryan to suggest we go to a sushi place for lunch. Then I got really excited–I thought I would have to stave off the sushi for six weeks because I heard how expensive it was, so I pigged out with my officemates the day before I left Manila.

If you’d like a quick education in culture, I highly recommend eating sushi with people from different countries. Ryan and Nino were very surprised when I took the lemon slice from my glass of water and squeezed it over the soy sauce (“I’ve never seen anybody do that,” Ryan remarked), as the resto probably didn’t have calamansi (I explained the concept of calamansi to them, but sadly had no visual aids). Meanwhile, since we had a plate full of different kinds of rolls, I was surprised at how much Californians liked putting avocado in stuff. It was nice to know that Ryan liked uni, too.

We went back after lunch and…I don’t know how I managed to lounge around that afternoon, but I did. When I came up, Nora was making gumbo with Nino’s help and Nino’s thumb had a humongous bandage with a smiley face on it. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer had already arrived, too, but they turned in early after some gumbo because they were tired from the trip.

Thus ended Week 4. I don’t know if I’ve said it before elsewhere, but Nora was the perfect teacher for Week 4 (and she told us too that she was originally for Week 2). I’m really thankful for having her be with us at the right time and right place…and I’m also a little sorry that we kinda blew in “little hisses and fizzles,” as she put it, but that was better than how it could have gone down, like I heard it had in several Clarions past.

And some more photos:

We found a "bleeding tree" that appeared to be imitating the bleeding trees in Leena's story for Week 4.

We found a “bleeding tree” that appeared to be imitating the bleeding trees in Leena’s story for Week 4.

 

I did not realize there were so many rules for going to see seals.

I did not realize there were so many rules for going to see seals/sea lions.

 

This is how my two cats liked to lie down together when they were younger, so I was really travelling along Memory Lane here.

This is how my two cats liked to lie down together when they were younger, so I was really travelling along Memory Lane here.

 

Nino and Amanda looking real sharp.

Nino and Amanda looking real sharp.

 

YOU ARE SO CUTE GOD

YOU ARE SO CUTE…one of the many, many dogs present at the parade ❤

 

Harry poses with a local stud.

Harry poses with a local stud.

 

PUG! IN! STROLLER!

PUG! IN! STROLLER! (Part of the Pug Rescue march)

 

Leena and Nino, with the over-sized bandage on her thumb and a plate of gumbo.

Leena and Nino, with the over-sized bandage on her thumb and a plate of gumbo.

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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.

Clarion 2014, week 2: Ready? Let’s dial everything up to 11

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Clarion 2014, week 2: Ready? Let’s dial everything up to 11

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.

 


 

Sunday

Last breakfast with Greg. I think the teenagers did something raucous again.

Last breakfast with Greg. I think the teenagers did something raucous again.

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).

Some of the Steampunk instruments. Anastasia is the lady with green ringlets.

Some of the Steampunk instruments. Anastasia is the lady with green ringlets.

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.

Monday

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.

Steampunk Paper Theatre.

Steampunk Paper Theatre.

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.

Tuesday

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.

My costume. Photo by my lady-in-waiting, Haralambi Markov. I am also his lady-in-waiting, actually.

My costume. Photo by my lady-in-waiting, Haralambi Markov. I am also his lady-in-waiting, actually.

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.

Wednesday

Geoff at his reading.

Geoff at his reading.

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.

What happens when you give me and Harry magnetic poetry.

What happens when you give me and Harry magnetic poetry.

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.

Thursday

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!

Get a room, plz.

Get a room, plz.

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.

Friday

CORGIS <3

CORGIS ❤

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.

This is similar to what we tried to do, only on an Agatha Christie mystery.

This is similar to what we tried to do, only on an Agatha Christie mystery.

“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.”

Saturday

Mmmm, fries.

Mmmm, fries.

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.

There should be a Tumblr for all of these goofy faces.

There should be a Tumblr for all of these goofy faces.

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.

Geoff ceding the class to Cat on his last night and her first. We're not complete here and it was truly very dark out.

Geoff ceding the class to Cat on his last night and her first. We’re not complete here and it was truly very dark out. Photo by Liz

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″.

A funny thing happened while I was at Clarion: On Filipinoness in writing

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Some Philippine mangoes. I wrote a story that made my classmates say, "I'll think of this story whenever I eat a mango." Photo from agritoursph.wordpress.com

Some Philippine mangoes. I wrote a story that made my classmates say, “I’ll think of this story whenever I eat a mango.” Photo from agritoursph.wordpress.com

 

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.”

A busy bookworm’s mid-year resolution

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So here I am following the tweets of my Clarion classmates like a creepy stalker, when I come across one thread concerning two of them talking about how many books and short stories they’ve read this year. One guy’s read 20 books, the other one 8 (although he says he’s read more short stories).

I have a read a grand total of 6 books, and it’s already halfway through 2014. (To be fair, I only named 2 off the top of my head.)

I am also not done reading the books of the Clarion 2014 instructors, and I still have to review a novel for my job. I swore off novels since March because I wanted to imbibe the short story form in time for Clarion, but what the hey, life doesn’t mean you get to tie all the loose ends.

I’m not sure if it’s my job or the fact that multitasking has actually destroyed my ability to get anything done faster even though I persist in such a stupid method. But I need to read more books.

So, I will try to get through three books before I leave for San Diego on June 21. After Clarion, because I may take another long writing break to rest the creative part of my brain (if my college thesis ordeal has taught me anything, this may just happen), there will be plenty of time to eat away at my To-Read pile.

And boy, are all those new books I acquired this summer starting to look real shiny. And it isn’t the plastic covering I put them in.

In which I battle with my heritage of smallness, pre-Clarion

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*It is not within the scope of this post to define exactly what Filipino culture is, on the whole and overall. I will not attempt it because I do not know and because I may not be able to catch myself from thinking Tagalog-centric thoughts that will discredit the other regions, tribes, and languages. The Philippines is young and its people are trying to discover who we are―very much like teenagers. That’s why I suspect that not even the most senior members of the local culturati know what Filipino culture is, and that those who profess to know may be kidding themselves.

**For the purposes of this post, I will be referring to the internationally-known Filipino language as Tagalog, seeing as there is very little difference between the two. I will also be referring to the local dialects as languages for the same reason that I wish as much as possible for a non-Tagalog-centric mentality to pervade this post. And just so we’re clear, a dialect in this context is:

The other usage refers to a language that is socially subordinated to a regional or national standard language, often historically cognate to the standard, but not derived from it.

***Mini Philippine history and culture lecture ahead. Possibly drowse-inducing. You have been warned.

 


 

I.

I have an uneasy relationship with Filipino culture.

The question of culture has been bugging me of late because of my Clarion UCSD acceptance. I am told that the 2014 batch is a very diverse group, very international: apart from North America, my classmates hail from Finland, Spain, Australia, Bulgaria, and Singapore. One has Iranian blood and two have Russian ancestry. This is great when you consider how diversity and inclusiveness are huge issues in today’s international SFF scene―just consider the Hugo Award nominations hullabaloo and trending Twitter hashtag, #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

I’d be glad to represent Filipinos in the international writing scene some day (sooner than I think, it seems). There’s just one problem: for the last 22 years, I’ve felt detached from my culture―a foreigner in my own country, an outsider looking in on history being made all around me. I even write about outsiders; most of my characters are loners and society misfits.

As if this weren’t enough, I have been told at local workshops by some veteran writers that my work and my generation―and myself, by extension―is not Filipino enough. Before, such a sentiment used to make me seethe inside for three reasons:

  1. These writers were addressing social and educational factors beyond my control;
  2. They were raging not at me, but at my entire generation;
  3. They were mourning periods in time that the elders back in their day probably would not have considered “Filipino enough,” either.

Let’s leave out for the moment how Philippine literature’s “default” mode is social realism and how many “literary” writers do not take the literature of the speculative seriously, even though most of early Philippine literature is full of “highly magical oral-epic tradition.” That’s another essay for another time.

 

II.

I am a middle-class young woman. I went to a progressive all-girls’ Catholic school in Metro Manila, the megalopolis where I was born and raised. I am the eldest daughter of overprotective parents in a patriarchal society. I was not allowed to commute anywhere (whether alone or with friends), sleepover at any friend’s house, stay out later than my curfew (which depended on the function, thankfully), and I was not brought to public markets―a pity, as these are places I consider as cultural hubs on par with art museums and preserved historical sights.

From my father, I inherited Polycystic Kidney Disease. Our lives have been defined and rearranged by his having had a kidney transplant and my having the stage one version. There are many very unhealthy Filipino foods I was trained not to eat, such as isaw.

My first language is English, much of which I learned from a steady diet of Disney movies and North American and British works of fiction. There was a time when I was eager to learn Nihonggo because of all the anime I watched, and later French (Parisienne?) because of all the French animated films I adored. But I actively refused to learn Tagalog because my older cousins teased my sister and I for speaking English (they did so in Tagalog, naturally). I came to view the former language, ironically, as the language of my oppressors. In later years, I would adopt a halting version of Tagalog with a heavy American accent I tried hard to suppress as a defense mechanism of sorts. Everyone I spoke to in Tagalog was marked as an acquaintance. I suppose that’s why I had few friends growing up, even though my batch at my old high school numbered over 400 students―and even when I did gain friends, they were very much like me.

This is what I know when I “write what I know”―and when you consider that the Philippine archipelago has 7,107 islands, 81 provinces, 17 regions, 180 tribes, and over 170 languages, I know nothing.

I am trying to navigate my way around this culture dilemma: I join writers’ workshops because of the opportunity to travel and meet new people and try new things; I got into journalism because a friend told me that this was the kind of job where people grow up fast.

These last three years haven’t been all good. For example, I’ve been literally shoved by the cruelty of strangers in the middle of a parade ground―and we work in the same company. My hair was once caught and pulled in the crush of the MRT crowds and I was publicly made fun of for crying out in pain.

But the good outnumbers the bad. I’ve finally been to a local festival, partaken of a Cordillera tribe’s ritual, swum atop a sandbar, eaten fresh urchin roe (thanks to the kindness of strangers), worn a hijab in the Muslim city of Marawi, haggled for goods at a public market, stayed out on a boulevard for hours just to catch the sunrise, learned a handful of words in the respective languages of new friends. Every new place I go, someone passionately lectures about the Spanish/Americans/Japanese influences and their inflicted damages on the food, on the buildings, on the land, on the people―and I will listen, because I am genuinely interested in history.

Yet even after all that, I still don’t know what Filipino culture is. I feel its pull, but it eludes me.

 

III.

You’d think the Philippines a huge country when I describe it, but in truth, we function much like a small town where everyone knows or claims to know each other. It doesn’t help that, due to over 350 years under three colonizers, we are the most Westernized nation this side of Asia. How can I hope to represent 95 million people of an intensely diverse, intensely colonized, intensely regionalistic nation? I am still learning how to question its divisive modes of thinking!

Barring all these factors, I don’t even know what Manila culture is. I don’t know what the hell being Filipino is supposed to mean―though like I said before, I don’t think anyone does.

None of the above should or would have bothered me, but then I chose to pursue writing as a passion (specifically, writing fantasies). No matter what you write, you can’t be an ace in such a pursuit without constantly asking of yourself “how?” and “why?”

None of the above should or would have bothered me, but then I read Nick Joaquin’s “A Heritage of Smallness” under Dr. Ambeth Ocampo in my junior year of college. That damn thing will break you if you let it. And I let it because what it postulated was true: Filipinos of ages past preferred and excelled in the small endeavor, whether this was literature, architecture, business, or industry. And to think that Joaquin wrote that gem in the 1960s!

The task before me and others like me, then, is to build something great. Something built on and with the bones of the East while bridging it with the West.

And now, I’m going to a writers’ workshop in the United States and by God, I am frightened by the possibility of not being true to my roots there.

I believe in people writing whatever the hell they want, but I also believe in peer pressure. Will I feel forced to write “Filipino” stories, which some define as work devoid of colonial influences? Or will I keep making up worlds like I usually do, occasionally borrowing from other cultures not mine, the way Westerners do? What if I fail to speak for my people? Is it presumptive of me to even call the indigenous tribes my people when I only know of the existence of a handful and seen even less individuals up close and personal?

 

IV.

There is a very problematic strain of thinking in talks of nationalism. It frames the Filipino without any influence of the West. Many agree with this kind of thinking, going so far as to protest in front of the US Embassy when Barack Obama came to visit.

I do not agree with this kind of thinking. While trying to reclaim a lost pre-colonial culture, it also rejects everything good the West ever brought to the archipelago. I am talking about the 12 items Nick Joaquin lists in his essay “Culture and History” as the greatest events in Philippine history―all of them introduced during the 16th century, the beginning of the Spanish era. These are as follows:

 

  1. The Introduction of the Wheel
  2. The Introduction of the Plow
  3. The Introduction of Road and Bridge
  4. The Introduction of New Crops like Corn, Tobacco, Camote, Coffee, Tea, Cocoa, Beans, Achuete, Onion, Potato, Guava, Papaya, Pineapple, Avocado, Squash, Lettuce, Cucumber, Cabbage, Singcamas, Sigadillas, Mani, etc., etc.
  5. The Introduction of New Livestock like the Horse, the Cow, the Sheep, the Turkey, the Goose, etc., and the Carabao as Draft Animal
  6. The Introduction of the Fabrica, or Factory
  7. The Introduction of Paper and Printing
  8. The Introduction of the Roman Alphabet
  9. The Introduction of Calendar and Clock
  10. The Introduction of the Map and the Charting of the Philippine Shape
  11. The Introduction of the Arts of Painting and Architecture
  12. The Introduction of the Guisado

 

And let’s not forget who finally united a whole cluster of different barangays, even if it was just in one island group (Luzon). It definitely wasn’t the datus.

(Side note: Isn’t it fascinating how so many turn to history to find culture?)

However, the Philippines does not owe Spain a debt of gratitude simply because they brought these innovations or even because they named the archipelago after a Spanish king, for better or worse. These are simply facts, and people ignore facts at their peril.

But although we must acknowledge what good came to the Philippines from the West, we most certainly cannot shun our own for the embrace of a foreign culture, even if we do not exactly know what we own if it sat right under our noses. I don’t just mean the different traditions and histories of the indigenous tribes; I also pertain to both the traditions and modernity found in the cities and metropolises, though these have been “tainted” by the foreign.

The cosmopolitan in the Philippines is also Filipino; to reject this is to reject the inherent adaptability of the Filipino people. Alone of all the Spanish colonies, were we not allowed to keep our native tongues though we allowed many Spanish (and Chinese and Arabic and later, English) words to seep into these? Are not the descendants of those who were converted to Catholicism still following the framework of our pagan ancestors when childless wives dance for the Virgin of Obando every May for a baby, when multitudes throw their handkerchiefs at the Black Nazarene every January in the hopes of gaining miracles in the cloth? Did we not completely alter until unrecognizable the military jeeps the Americans sold at the end of World War II, hence the jeepneys we have plying the streets today?

We are so good at conquering the tools of our conquerors, even if we never vanquished the conquerors completely by ourselves; why deny this attribute?

Listen, I’m not pro-Spain or pro-America or even pro-Japan. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate as well as critique the parts of the cultures they brought and continue to bring to the Philippines. I think we are all the better enriched when we get an idea of how much larger the world is beyond the horizon, whether you look to another province or another nation.

The Filipino adaptability perfectly encapsulates something I’ve lately realized: a vibrant Filipino culture―and culture, in general―is not captured in any concrete, specific thing. Maybe it is not meant to be captured at all, or at least, not completely and for all time. You can definitely find a people’s culture in their values and in the way they interact with each other and the world. The things these people leave behind are only meant to suggest the dynamism of an entire way of life.

Perhaps our perceptions of culture change with every generation. Culture is not static. Hence, maybe this is why the elderly will always be complaining about the youth and the loss of culture in any period in history, everywhere.

If there’s anyone truly in danger of losing their culture, it’s the indigenous tribes. Many indigenous traditions are dying out because their youth are choosing modernity, education, and work in the big cities (especially Manila). It would be great if we could preserve those, but there are huge obstacles to overcome in the endeavor―not least of which is how many seem to prefer squabbling over regional differences rather than embracing them.

 

V.

And so we circle back to literature.

There is a Huffington Post article titled “Are Authors Scared to Write Diverse Books?”. It’s not the best article about diversity in literature out there, but I think it’s a good jumping point.

At first I thought it was going to touch on a history of North American racism in literature, but author Roni Loren briefly examines the poetics behind her own writing while breaking down three fears straight, cisgendered white writers may have in writing a character totally unlike them (LGBT, disabled, Person of Color, what have you).

But when I read the last fear, I realized that the article applied to anyone writing from an outsider’s perspective in anything. The fear was, “If I’m not part of a certain group, do I have the right to write about it?”

I applaud her answer:

 

This topic has varied opinions. Some believe that stories about x group should only be written by writers who are x. I mentioned earlier that we need more diversity amongst published authors, so I see where this idea comes from. And I absolutely agree that there needs to be focus on encouraging diverse voices in the publishing world. (That’s a bigger topic I’m not going to tackle here.) But I don’t think that means that any writer should be limited to only writing about groups they belong to or experiences they’ve personally had (how boring). A rising tide lifts all boats. Let’s all be part of that tide together.

 

By virtue of blood, birth, association, and responsibility, whether I like it or not, I carry the disparate voices of 95 million Filipinos no matter where I go. The danger of speaking for 95 million is that foreigners who do not know any better will look to me and others like me as the voices for them all, even though every single one of those 95 million people have experiences vastly different from one another. We are united only by that word―Filipino―and we do not even have a solid definition everyone can accept.

I don’t even wish to speak for all of them, especially the indigenous peoples. That would be presumptive; some of the tribes even have people who can speak and write for them. I will occasionally speak about them, but after all, I am an outsider. I am bound to get something wrong. How then, will I ever be Filipino enough (and uphold that proudly)?

It took friends both Filipino and North American, both living in the US, to point out to me that 1) this is a conversation I’ll be having with myself for the rest of my life, and 2) by virtue of blood, birth, association, and responsibility, whether I like it or not, I am a Filipino no matter where I go. I was born as one, I grew up as one, and no matter what my influences are or how left out of society I feel, it’s going to keep showing up in everything I do and in every imaginary world I create on the blank page, one way or another. This existence I’ve been living is valid, too, and I do not owe my career or my subject matter to anyone, foreigners and Filipinos alike.

I may have lived a privileged life as an English-speaking Catholic school girl from Manila with a kidney disease. Some would even consider that the angst I feel when trying to crack this mold as a First World Problem; it certainly does not compare to a faceless corporation evicting you from your ancestral home or sleeping on cardboard boxes in the shadow of a highway.

But you know what, we all have our issues. Having one issue or other does not determine where a person falls in the much too simple dichotomies of weak or strong, right or wrong, patriotic or unpatriotic. Those are just some of the things that make up my voice and I would rather have this kind of voice than the inability to wield any kind of voice at all.

We can only hope to write about each other with respect. But in worrying about the weight of 95 million other voices, I nearly forgot about the heft of my own voice and the respect I must accord it, too.