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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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*
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.
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.”
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:
- I don’t fit on either of their bikes, tiny as I am,
- I don’t know how to ride a bike, and
- 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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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:
- Get business cards made
- Work on your 30-seconds-or-less elevator pitch
- Get on the slate at your local readings or start your own reading series
- Begin developing multiple lines of income
- Tax–file for anything that helps your business as a writer
- Join writers’ groups
- Get an agent as soon as you finish your first novel
And she also gave us 5 good reasons to join the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America):
- The Grief Committee
- You’ll have tables at conventions
- Book conventions
- Networking events
- 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.
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?!
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: