Six Weeks, No Sleep, Mental Illness: A Steal at Only $2,000!

At least a couple of people who went to Clarion with me would probably have vituperative things to say about it. I've always told people, and it's true, I remember those six weeks in 1984 as one of the best six-week periods of my life. I'm not sure I learned a single thing that I could put down coherently on paper, but I did take something precious away from the experience, and that was that I was not alone. There were others - many others - who loved SF and fantasy and who were committed to writing it. I rubbed elbows with Famous People: Harlan Ellison, A.J. Budrys, Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm, Robin Wilson and Elizabeth Lynn. That was the instructor lineup that year. I was twenty-one, full of hurt, and also full of hope.

I didn't know the first thing about what I was doing except that I just sat down and did it.

I believe that I wrote about 40,000 words when I was at Clarion. I could have done more, but there were also everyone else's stories to read. This was to the good, since the story I sent with my admission package was also the first complete story, as well as the first science fiction story, that I ever wrote.

So much for the vaunted Clarion admissions system. This is not to say I hadn't written. "Literary work." That means things that nobody would recognize as a "story," and poetry. I had also "wanted to be a writer" since I was six years old, and had always made "stuff," as in stapling paper together with a construction paper cover, and scribbling within it, since that time. On the bright side, one could say, I had no issues sitting down and writing horrible stuff night after night. It made me very happy to do that. It still does, only in the meantime I figured out that I generally do better in the morning than at night. That's what eighteen years of experience will do for you! Actually, ten years. I quit writing a couple of years after Clarion, and did not start again for another eight years.

That had nothing to do with Clarion, but everything to do with myself, so this is not another contributory piece of evidence for the "Clarion Curse." The truth is, I was only 21 when I went, and far too young, na´ve, and inexperienced to really get a lot out of it.

Today, I tell people that they should be more mature, finished writers than I was in order to get the full benefit of the instruction and the experience. My youth allowed me to remember this time with total fondness and love; it also meant that I basically didn't learn a goddamn thing because I was too young to even begin to comprehend what people were talking about. On the bright side, although I got a great deal of petting and comfort from my classmates, and I squeezed that Blue Bunny 'til he cried (or I did), I had absolutely no lacerating damage from anything anybody said about my work, in any way, shape or form. That's because it wasn't "work." It was fun. It was the most fun I'd ever have. I guess that it still is.

Actually, I did learn some things. I learned proper manuscript format, and why putting "copyright" on your manuscripts was a bad idea. After a two-hour rant from Harlan, I came to agree with his thesis: "Don't Write a Goddamn Shitty Title That Lies There Like What Your Dog Did on the Sidewalk!" I believe that the example he used was "The Box." It could have been, "The Chair."

If I had been less of a blank slate, Damon Knight's advice could well have stopped my writing. He said, "Just tell a story." Now, at that time, since I didn't know what a story was, he could have said, "Just paint your ass blue and fly to the moon," and I would have said, "Sure, Mister Knight, right away!" Just tell a story's a nice way to get into themed anthologies and so-on. It doesn't have anything to do with what I really set out to do when I was stapling those sheets of lined paper and folding that construction paper all those years ago.

I could always stir up emotion. I could make myself cry when I wrote, laugh, picture vast worlds, and see strange and wonderful creatures. A.J. Budrys, my favorite instructor (because A.J. instructed, primarily), read a passage from one of my stories and said, "If you can write like that all of the time, there's nothing you can't do." And it was something that meant something to me, I do remember that. I would consider that to be good advice, because it was a clearly-seen, clearly-felt passage. That is, no matter who you are, what good writing is.

I did not realize at the time, but I was attending one of the last years of "Classic Clarion." I also didn't realize that the whole reason I was there - because I'd read an article A.J. had written in Asimov's that powerfully motivated me to want to attend - was that applications had gone down, and they were having to "get the word out" to drum up more applicants. If A.J. hadn't written that glowing article, I probably would not have heard of Clarion in time to be able to apply and attend. I'd have been firmly tied down at my full-time job and wouldn't have been able to take those six weeks off during the summer.

Things that happened to me two or three years ago are like old snapshots, yellowing and curling up at the corners. So, 1984, well, I can say that I still have some of the clothes I wore at that time, including the infamous Blue Bunny T-shirt. I still wear my grandmother's ring. My hair is still much the same color. I remember how big, strong and vigorous A.J. was. He looked like a prizefighter in some ways. I remember his calm, measured voice and how careful he was in everything he said and did.

I remember Harlan: dark, smooth brown hair, sharp features, quick and lithe. My bones melted when he walked in. I stared like a goober. Uhhh, it's Harlan. He's here. Omigod. Omigod.

"Who the fuck do you think you are - Marilyn-Fucking-Monroe?" Well, and that was my introduction. I don't think I said anything, but I might have peeped, "It's just my Marilyn Monroe mug. My friends gave it to me." I was sitting next to Glenn Wright. When I send money to Clarion, I send it to the Glenn Wright Memorial Fund. Glenn let me stay at his house. Glenn was my friend and I loved to listen to his stories. He was James Dean's friend. He had hundreds - thousands - of fantastic records. He smoked unfiltered Lucky Strkes and we would go outside in those blessed, un-PC days and smoke like fiends, laughing and talking. I really don't remember the whole incident clearly, but Harlan then went into a rant about my "body language," and Glenn finally stepped in and got him off to torturing others instead of me. Harlan's "mode" is basically to say assaultive things, and if you don't back down, then he reconsiders on his own. He did the same type of thing with the crucified Blue Bunny for the T-shirt, screaming, "It Sucks!" and then getting closer and saying, "No, no, it's wonderful." You know that T.V. commercial where the guy has terrible timing? The girl says, "I love you," and he's frozen and says nothing, and she finally walks off? And he hits the golf ball and says "fore" ten seconds later after he's unmanned another guy in his foursome? That's me - that's all that saved me from Harlan's further wrath. I just didn't react! I can say truthfully, today, frozen in a kind of timeless terror until Glenn came to my aid. This falsely convinced Harlan that I "had guts."

Harlan was my friend. Harlan comforted me. Very bad things had happened to me, and I was still all torn up about them. Maybe in a way, I still am. Harlan Ellison is all the things that Harlan is, but many people may perceive his outer shell as what's inside, and he's far from that. He is one of the few true gentlemen I have ever known (A.J. is another), and it's hard for me to put my feelings into words except to say that Harlan "accepted" me and said the right things. He told me things that gave me hope, and also an idea of what courage really was. The most important thing that he did was demand the best of all of us. I have always contrasted this in my mind with "Just tell a story." Perhaps now what I mean by that comment being potentially career-ending may be more clear.

Perhaps those with more talent than I can "just tell a story" and do brilliantly. I have to give it my all - heart, mind and soul - every time. That was what Harlan taught me. And I suppose that I do remember that.

So, those were the things I remember that I think are important. We also ate pizza with sauce that sure seemed like it was made from ketchup, "Mexican Food," and I had the Dreadful Can Horror and Homesickness Freak-Out. We played with the water guns constantly and water balloons and generally went insane. Much laughter, much love, much friendship. Wonderful conversations. A number of people did pair up, and one couple got married. Harlan dubbed my husband Mike "Gorgo" after seeing how tall he was from a picture on my door. I tried, for the first and last time in my life, to slump my shoulders and I was probably doing a kind of deformed Tales From the Crypt-type thing with my neck when around Harlan. A.J. and Edna encouraged me to eat healthy food. A.J. was infinitely patient. Elizabeth Lynn was a very loving and kind instructor. Michigan was stinky hot, filthily humid, and green green green, an entire state like the inside of a discarded tire. I grew to hate the mutant squirrel and the bug-infested birds that sang outside my window as I sweltered like a little, quickly-growing pasty steaming Chinese dumpling under a hot, damp cheesecloth. Beer, Lucky Strikes, nothing would help. I became quite insane (all you have to do - or me - is look at the titles of those things I committed while there to see what was happening to my mind). How lovely it was to come back home to beautiful brown hills and dry heat, the sun overhead like a searing penny.

As Harlan put it to me a while ago, "I went swimming in the waters of life." That's so much nicer than "Getting a life," isn't it?

So I look back, and now that I'm a teacher, I think, "It is not a 'boot camp' for writers." It could be a "summer camp," because the experience has a lot in common with camp. You have intimate relationships with people who are the most important people in the world to you for those six weeks, and then it's over, and you part ways. You realize how similar you are in so many ways, and how utterly different and separate you are in others. It's a microcosm of life, all compressed into six weeks.

And you can't "learn to be a writer" in six weeks. That's the work of a lifetime. I'm not sure when it dawned on me, but one day I woke and realized, "There is no magic day. You will never 'be there,' and what you're doing is going." So, Clarion is a break, a way-station, a stop, a moment in time among the collection of moments that are our lives.

The "method" by which work is critiqued at Clarion is a good way to go about it, but it's not the only way. I suppose it's a valid teaching method, because writers need to get used to the idea of "performing" in the sense of writing regularly, producing good work, being willing to show their work to others, and being able to accept feedback. I have heard it said that Clarion produces "a certain type of story," and a "certain type of writer," and perhaps there's some truth in that. But it's equally true that Clarion did not affect my work in any way, shape or form, except to give me a sense that a lot of work was needed, and I'd better be ready to take my lumps and work as hard as I could. I'm not kidding. You could have locked me in a room and told me to write for six weeks with no contact with anyone else at all and I am pretty sure that I would have written the same material. There are the same cadences in my work now, and even some of the same themes - nascent - but they were there. No, I didn't know what a goddamn story was, and yes, I had to figure it out for myself, but I really was the same writer I am now back then, only far younger, far less confident, and much more na´ve. The little girl who stapled all those books together and wrote those sort of non-stories in them was the same little girl who read 200 books all in one summer, who had even at that point read a lot of literature and so much poetry, as well as SF/F, hidden inside better books like Trollope's The Claverings. Hidden for shame, and that's one thing Clarion did do for me - it made me proud to love science fiction, and not at all ashamed any longer.

My attitude has changed, I suppose, because I think that writers doom themselves if they become too attached to any one way of thinking and doing things, and especially if they come to believe "there's only one right way" and become too invested in being part of a group, of "going with the flow," and this is the sense that I get from all the Clarion journals and, especially, from commentary that I've read from later instructors like Howard Waldrop. The "Turkey City Lexicon," which is not at all a Clarion thing, but which seems to be related in people's minds, is a compendium of terms that represent a way of thinking of a specific group of writers in a specific place and time. This is now 2002, and I, for one, never did come from that place and time - I come from the brown inland valleys of Southern California, in the shadow of the mountains. Does anyone seriously think that "eyeball kicks" are a literary value? The little list of beginning writer mistakes? I can put all that down in two sentences: Don't write about the first thing that comes to mind. Don't put down the first word that pops into your head and never think for another.

In writing fantasy, and I understand that more and more applicants to Clarion in recent years are fantasy writers, it seems to me that values are of the greatest importance. Bedrock, root values that are expressed in the meta-play of these stories. Science fiction is a mindset. It involves not only not writing about the very first thing that comes to mind, but figuring out a way to access all those things that, under ordinary circumstances, would never come to mind. And for me, saying something of worth about them.

Nobody asked me this question at Clarion, but this is the question that changed my writing, my writing career, and informed everything I have since written: "What are you adding to the discourse?" Why are you writing this story, this novel, this poem? Why should anyone read it?

You don't have to pay $2,000, risk your relationship or marriage and flirt with mental illness to ask yourself that question.

I think, all this said, that if you are thinking about going to Clarion, that you ought to do it for the right reasons, understanding what it will and will not do for you, and understanding what the things are that only you can do for yourself. Only you can ultimately choose what it is you write about, and how you write about it.

If you are wise and capable, you may take a great deal from your Clarion experience in terms of skills learned and confidence developed. You'll need those, as you continue on your writing journey. In six weeks, you will not become a Famous Writer. If that's your goal, I would suggest that Clarion does offer some networking opportunities - I understand that Ted Chiang's first story was selected by Ellen Datlow from that group. And Harlan gave me Hi-Ho's and a ceramic frog.

If you're like me, you'll make fast friendships, remember kindnesses done for a lifetime, and remember most fondly one of the best six weeks of your life.

And that's Clarion. There's magic there, but no magic formula. Those you are expected to come up with yourself. That's what it is: being a writer.

Amy Sterling Casil

January, 2002

Redlands, California

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