Wednesday, February 04, 2009

GUEST BLOG: THE MADNESS OF CLARION III- HELEN VENN

Some Clarion graduates take different paths.

Whilst our week one and two correspondents have established reputations as up and coming short story writers, Helen Venn has taken the longer route. Only recently, almost two years after throwing her identity documents on the fire and setting off the last of the roach bombs underneath the sleeping Clarion convenors, has she finished her debut novel. It's been a labour of love for a writer firmly engaged in the task of creating a world she's loved for years.

But the lessons of Clarion hang low over her clear and noble brow: just check out the name of her blog. Imagine Me At Clarion is a repository for her thoughts on writing, nature, and the life of a mature woman in touch with those things most important to her: her words, her family, and the active intertwining of her surroundings and her passions. It is fitting that she has been announced as the Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Tom Collins House for 2008: somehow, a less historically important domain would not seem quite so suitable.

Here then, is Helen Venn:

Week Three. Close to the half way mark.

As I am sure is the case with all Clarions we were a very diverse group. We ranged in age from early twenties to late (very late in my case) middle age. Some of us had a number of publications, others had none. There were creative writing graduates and others who had learned by doing. We came from different parts of the world but we all had the same need – a hunger to improve our writing and become professional writers.

My reasons for applying for Clarion South were to improve my critical skills so I could apply them to my writing and to learn to write to a deadline. Writing is easy enough if you just wait sit around waiting for the Muse to call on you but that’s not the way to be a professional and Clarions are aimed at setting their participants on the way to being professional writers. This was hard work but I achieved my goals and learned much more in the process.

Clarion South has its own rhythm. It centres around the crit room and the computer but it also has a social side and by now there was a definite pattern. The Mafia aficionados would disappear to the common room after dinner while the rest of us would chat for a while (oddly enough this always ended up about writing no matter where it started) and then get on with critting or writing. Eventually the night owls would settle in one apartment or other and get on with writing or critting until they couldn’t stay awake any more. One night I went out to get a glass of water around 2:00 am to find ten of my fellows at work on their laptops and another coming in the door asking, “Where’s the writers’ party?”

By Week Three, we had settled into a routine. We knew each other well enough to feel comfortable. We had a fair idea of how each of us wrote, critted, even thought and we had developed a trust in each other. We’d become a family of sorts with all that involves – support, irritations, encouragement, spats and the shared highs and lows of this incredibly intense experience.

We were so tired. Given I’m one of those folk who need their eight hours a night sleep I was constantly challenged to get enough rest but sleep was not high on our priorities and just as well since we had a story to write every week not to mention writing coherent critiques of sixteen other stories. Not only coherent but useful, sensible, tactful (not always easy to manage after two or three hours sleep for days on end) commentaries that gave praise where it was due but more importantly were going to help the recipient recognise what needed fixing and why.
At the same time we were learning – from our tutors but just as much from our fellows all of whom had had different experiences. Writing tools that had been instinctive or something we were vaguely aware of were acquiring names and the reasons for forms and structures were coming clearer. We were starting to talk confidently about agency and story arc and other intricacies of style and content. We found ourselves pushing the barriers in every area, constantly surprised at how far we had progressed in every part of our writing.

For some the actual experience of being critiqued so intensely was threatening and hard to take – and didn’t improve the longer we were there. It’s not easy to sit quietly while seventeen people – your peers and your tutor – dissect a first draft that you may have finished minutes before you handed it in with no time for revision and only a cursory run through with the spell checker. It was the first time in my life that I had ever shown anyone a first draft and to discover a gaping plot hole or a misplaced section of text after you have turned it in is torture. I can see why Clarions have a make or break reputation.

Kelly Link was our Week Three tutor. She is not only a gifted and prize winning writer and publisher but a generous and thoughtful teacher. Kelly’s grasp of the business and skills of writing is phenomenal and she made us work hard but it was worth every minute. In my one on one with her – all students get an hour one on one with the tutor for the week – she was willing and able to answer my questions about a wide range of writing related subjects ranging from style and critiquing to potential markets for stories and I came away wishing it could have gone on much longer.

Kelly came with a bonus, her husband, Gavin J. Grant, with whom she runs Small Beer Press. Gavin may not have been an official tutor but he made himself available for extra discussion sessions and was a source of much valuable information. I was saddened to hear that they have had to withdraw from tutoring at this year’s Clarion South.

Other things happened in Week Three – several of us were panellists at the Summer of Speculative Fiction Festival, some of the Clarionites took part in the weekly readings at Avid Reader bookstore (my turn came in the final week) and the first person came down with the Clarion flu followed by others during the next week. It’s interesting where a fever will take you. In my case it resulted in a story featuring a large scrub turkey of sorts based loosely on the dozens of wild ones ranging everywhere on campus.

But the absolute highlight was the Aurealis Awards. Lots of excitement where we got to dress up in our finery and the Western Australian contingent (I can’t help being a bit parochial) cheered on our local representatives among the finalists and in some cases eventual winners. If you look at the photos very hard you might catch a glimpse of us all up in the top left hand corner. Then we attended the cocktail party along with the talented and famous. The food was simply beautiful to look at and just as delicious as it looked. The local Clarionites vanished into the crowd to catch up with friends while the rest of us huddled together momentarily bedazzled until the convenors took pity on us and introduced us around.

And then it was home to bed to gather the energy for Week Four.


Coming on Sunday: Week 4 is when the paranoia and insanity really begin to bite, and Chris Lynch is just the man to describe it...

3 comments:

Satima Flavell said...

Neat idea, Lee - a Clarion, week-by-week. And it's obvious that Helen is one who got an enormous amount out of the experience.

christophergreen said...

Allow me to use this space to formally beg forgiveness for not allowing myself or anyone around me to have anywhere near 8 hours of sleep a night.

I'm liking these Clarion posts. Lee, you and Patternless need to make up some rules for Email Mafia...

SarahP said...

Congrats to Helen!
:-)