I’m spending the morning getting some chapters into shape so I can meet my Friday deadline. I started thinking a lot about story, and how I do what I do. I realize I’m not a perfect writer or storyteller (obviously), but the more I read and write the more intuitive the actual process becomes. Sometimes you just “know” when the pacing is off. You know when the dialogue is stilted. You know when something you wrote early on belongs somewhere else.
You want to take people along on a grand adventure in a new place. You want them to identify with and care about the people you choose to take them through it. You want to live a life as interesting as your fiction…
Walking to the train today in shorts and tank top in the 84 degree heat and brilliant morning sun, I had a sudden urge to be in Seattle; to be wandering around the piers, heading out to Elliott Bay Books, buying caramel corn. I longed for that perfect, bookish, writing-intensive summer when I had a full bank account and not a care in the world.
It’s now been five years since I went to Clarion West in Seattle. I was there for six weeks, and yes, the experience changed my life, though not in the way most other Clarionites would think. I have fond memories of that summer, because I was also living on money I solicited from relatives to help me pay for the workshop, and I had enough that I didn’t have to be concerned about overspending myself on meals and books. I had complete and utter freedom. I lived and worked with sixteen other writers, most of whom were as passionate about writing as I was.
I was the fittest I’d been in my life, due mostly to subsisting on rice and eggs and bike riding everywhere in Alaska during the first part of the summer. I was probably still too invested in a friendship with a guy who probably wasn’t the greatest sort to associate with. I’d spent the last year dressing down and pretending to be stupider than I was. I had a lot of drunken Alaska stories. For the first time I was living a life of my own choosing. I may not have made the best choices, but they were different from anything I’d ever done before, and the life I made was mine.
Clarion was great for the writing, sure. As somebody who was so incredibly fucking sick of being the best writer/only writer who finished anything/had sold anything/submitted anything in college writing classes, Clarion was a new experience. I was toe-to-toe with some fantastic people.
But more than “learning” how to write, it was the people who changed my life. It’s the relationships I’ve maintained with a small core group of them that altered what had come before, that really challenged me to look behind the I’ll-go-hide-in-a-cabin-in-the-woods-and-write for 80 years life. I still think that’ll be a fun way to end my life, but now there’s a lot more I want to do in-between.
The writing bit – jolting my experience ahead 2 years in six weeks because of the intensity of the program – was great, but I can honestly say that I’d still have stayed on the writerly path and likely been just as successful, long-term (I ain’t dead yet) without going to Clarion.
What changed my life was that I gained a lot of close friends. Friends who were smart and strong and had mad, crazy lives. Ambitious, driven people who lived in diverse locations. Meaning: I got to go visit them. New Zealand, South Africa… and Jenn here in Chicago, who was quite cool about the idea of rooming up together. We’ve been roomies for two years now, and it’s been a fantastic experience.
And those experiences, those relationships, will change you as well. You’ll learn how to give a shit about people, how to trust them, how to love. You’ll know what it is to respect someone.
That, too, was something I learned at Clarion.
My writing, like my life, is done largely by feel. I couldn’t explain to you why I’m jetsetting to the next big city next year any more than I can tell you why I moved a paragraph of description out of a page of dialogue. Something felt out of place. Moving it to the end felt better, felt right .
To some extent, I’ve viewed my years in Chicago as a recovery from my time in South Africa: grad school, foreign country, living on my own, very little money, crap food, too many cigarettes, too much fear. Far, far too much fear. Before that, I’d lived back home for six months and saved up money while my parents graciously allowed me to stay at their place between academic programs. Unfortunately, being home meant I fell back into bad habits: binge eating, no exercise, the language of self-hate. Launching straight from there to SA wasn’t a great idea.
I’ve needed the recovery time. I have one more year in Chicago to get the last of my shit together, to find some more self confidence, get stronger, leaner, save up some money and find some financial security, and get myself a job that doesn’t make me miserable while still paying the bills.
I have a year to reclaim the summer sun, to find myself a pier, a good bookstore, some caramel corn.
Not neccesarily in that order.
You get the idea.