So, with no further ado, here speaketh one Braum, Dan, for the use of:
Clarion Week Five
This blog is titled:
Naked in the Magic Chocolate River
Clarion 2007, Week Five
Into the Heart of Darkness with Margo Lanagan.
Prior to my journey to Australia I’d met plenty of Australians, but only in small groups and mostly in Central American beach bars. Thanks to Clarion conveners, Kate Eltham and Rob Hoge, this all changed. Soon after arriving in Brisbane I joined Kate and Rob on a bus filled to the gills with Australians, which then dropped us off at a stadium where Australians flowed in by the thousands to watch a 20 / 20 Cricket match. I most certainly was not in East Lansing anymore. Kate warned me that watching a game with modified rules as my introduction to the world of cricket might cause me some confusion. But nothing could be more confusing to me than the fact that I was not handed an official copy of the Blood of Heroes, aka “Salute to the Jugger” upon deplaning. As the weeks of my trip rolled by I wondered how could it be that so few Australians I encountered knew of this movie. I found myself in a strange twilight zone. Me on Australian soil trying to explain the movie to Australians, and most of them speculative fiction writers! Peter Ball valiantly tried to aid me in remedying this. After searching several of Brisbane’s record and video stores we found a lone clerk who knew of the movie, but she was unsure she’d be able to get it at all and certainly not in time before the workshop ended. This might have been in week five, I don’t remember. I do remember getting off that plane though and Heather Gammage was there to greet me and whisk me away to a much needed meal where I realized that the amazing ginger beer I had onboard was not a freak occurrence and that many kinds of great ginger beer flowed plentifully in Brisbane.
Anything I could write about Clarion South would be woefully lacking without expressing my gratitude for the conveners, Kate Eltham, Robert Hoge, Robert Dobson and Heather Gammage. Particular gratitude to Heather for leading by example by running in the opposite direction when we encountering a brown snake in the zoo. She wisely informed me that standing there and taking pictures like a stupid tourist, as is my inclination, is not a good idea. Even when said brown snake is in a zoo and supposed to be in a cage, but is not. ( Now that I have my pictures next time I think I will just follow that advice.) Collectively the conveners chauffeured us around, searched for random computer parts, handled catastrophic computer failures, handled catastrophic human failures, chaperoned trips to restaurants and zoos, interpreted road signs, offered quick wit and quick advice and that doesn’t even cover the workshop part ! They were role models of professionalism and our cool, calm and collected guides through the Clarion process, as we followed our own individual and collective writers journey down what came to be known as the magic chocolate river.
In the first moments of the actual workshop each student said a little something about why they were here. Riffing off another student’s response, I answered, “to drink from the magic chocolate river.” ( later I decided a better answer, and the answer I gave Kelly Link when she asked, was to learn to write like Jeff Ford ) It was an unusually sparkly thing for me to say. I must have been scarred a bit by the goanna versus turkey death match Chris Green and I had recently witnessed in the campus brush. And much like those aggressive territorial birds and giant black tree climbing clawed lizards, ( that is if they could read) I prefer my fiction non-sparkly. I like stories that engage the dark heart of things. So at first I thought this blog was going to be a treatise on why the Magic Chocolate River (along with the Easter Bunny) is not real. Then I thought I’d have some kind of awesome “Heart of Darkness” / “Apocalypse Now” analogy thing going. All the elements seemed right there, the magic chocolate river, a sleep-deprived heat-addled crew, Margo “Singing my Sister Down” Lanagan at the helm. I couldn’t figure out who’d be Colonel Kurtz. Maybe we all were. We certainly were all on our own quests, all of us forging our own creation myths, main characters in our own hero/ writer journeys in that Joseph Campbell sense. A clarion workshop offers the opportunity to dig into the heart of things, to face challenges. And most certainly by week five, which I’ve been enlisted by Lee to blog about, whether we knew it or not and whether we liked it or not we were all naked and hip deep in the dark heart of the magic chocolate river.
I volunteered to have my story for the week critiqued first so our week with Margo started out something like this…
“It seems that your playing with a tinderbox full of fireworks here and this time you have been burned.”
“Your hero is more weirdo than hero”
“There were a few elements in the story that made it not laughable.”
Okay, I’m focusing on the body blows for a reason. Once upon a time I had a karate teacher I often sparred with. Every time I would drop the hand guarding my face he would rap me on the nose just hard enough for it to hurt and sometimes bleed. After so many times with a sore face and bloody nose you bet I learned to keep my guard up when sparring. You get the point.
Perhaps inspired by Margo, I noticed more little “tough-love” jabs finding their way into our critiques. Such as this one…
“… <> freight trains from hell. They just ran me over and I staggered into the darkness and heard the sound of another freight train coming…”
No matter what kind of sting they were offered with the critiques were always very incisive and got to the heart of things. The stories and discussions they inspired impressed me to no end. And with each story, with each comment, we learned. I’m tempted to offer up even more details of my first-draft wreckage but that’s just being a little more naked than I’m comfortable with. Suffice to say, clarion is a place to take chances. It is the place where flying failures, such as that draft of my story, become springboards of discussion on life and craft and learning experiences for one and all. Clarion is a place to push one’s comfort level and that’s why I was there. After an awe-inspiring week with Kelly Link and a Zen-masterful session with Gardner Dozois I was pumped and primed to do so and found I had reached a new place in my writing.
Margo’s advice to our class was rock solid. Her lessons admonishing against words like skitter and scurry and akimbo was not only humorous but unique and effective. Her critique of my story served also a lesson about “sentimental” aspects and how to more effectively use them in a story.
One of my week five highlights was the Clarion reading series at Avid Reader bookstore featuring our weekly tutors. The conveners arranged for students to read for a few minutes before each tutor. I was excited to be one of the “opening acts” before Margo’s reading. So rock and roll. I loved Kate’s introduction for me. She said something like, “I’m not sure our next reader is destined to be a great sci-fi author, a benevolent dictator of a small pacific island, or a New York crime boss, or maybe all of the above.” Yes we all had “mafia” on our minds. The readings are just another great thing a clarion workshop offers and having this and other readings under my belt I felt more confident when I read at Ellen Datlow and Gavin Grant’s Fantastic Fiction reading series a year later.
Thursdays were most certainly my favorite because it meant attending these readings held at the little outside area with giant fruit bats winging it high in the dusky sky. I loved the street the store was on. The store. The bats. The sense of community. And most of all our tables for twenty at Punjabi Palace complete with Bollywood videos cranking as we feasted on palek paner and an assortment of curries.
In the dark heart of week five we were receiving messages from Planet Pitchforth on a regular basis and found we needed no ambassador to decipher them. I went on car rides with Peter Ball with old Cure, Regina Spektor, and Goldfrapp as the soundtrack. Tasks like checking a post office box and running through the supermarket were a delight and an adventure. Dumping the water pail from the Dalek-like robotic apparatus they called an air-conditioner became a nightly ritual. The clarion owl and creatures of the night that lurked round the garbage dumpster had become so accustomed to us they no longer paid us any mind. Our games of mafia heated up and we thought that we might actually find the pattern to the patternless man after all. On the first floor, politics and fiction, tales of worlds real and imagined, stories of our pasts and futures, all swirled together into one great everlasting late night blur. I noticed that the B-movies that we watched began incorporating elements of and messages about our workshop stories. To this day I swear it was not us reading into them. Lunchtime curry with the gang and the crows and kookaburra that liked to hang around was a daily delight. As was morning eggs and discussion with Chris Green. But at some point during week five a hint of something bittersweet and mournful entered the mix for me. And it was not just that I was planning my clarion “week seven” writing binge and trip to the Red Center and Great Ocean Road after that. I worried how I would ever survive back home without a supply of ginger beer.
But the real source of the feeling was that since I’d been down this river akin to this before I knew the emotional punch that waited at the end. We all wanted it to last forever, this sense of common purpose, the sense of expansion, the working daily and all day long towards common dreams and artistic pursuits. This feeling of dread slowly took over our last night. After the wrap party. After the after party. And during the after-after party, huddled in the corner of the first floor we thought maybe if we didn’t sleep then tomorrow and the end would never come. One by one people dropped off until the most drunk of us, or in my case the most sorrowful of us, greeted the end of night and the new day. I’m filled with so many potent images of this end time. Right now I am there seeing the expression on Simon Brown’s face as he watched Chris Lynch and I load Chris’s infamous treasure chest of words into his car. The image has perfect symmetry with how my time in the beloved residence hall began; the one of Chris Green and I unloading Melania’s car which was full of so many things that seemed random at the time, among them a giant paper-mache love heart and load of fresh rich soil and seeds to grow.
I wanted this blog to be all about the fact that when it comes to writing that there is no magic bullet, no magic workshop, no magic river; that there is only hard work and blood sweat and tears and more hard work and facing fears; that writing is a lonely pursuit with only you and your ass in your chair writing away, but these words did not come. Two years on I remain convinced that the magic chocolate river is indeed real. My “pre-clarion-south self” wanted this river, my imagined Australia, to be filled with Blood of Heroes like images, the kind of stuff that would make Jasoni scream out “Gold dust! Absolute gold dust !” and break into a knee-bloodying November Rain air guitar solo like he did in a particularly infamous week five critique; but what I got was much more surreal and much more potent. Enduring. Beautiful. And so, so dear to me. What I got was real Australia. What I got was six weeks with these people and their words, their worlds, their stories, their lives and their dreams. I could blog forever about them. I promised myself I’d say just one awesome thing about each of them but I couldn’t contain myself. So instead I give you their names. Christopher Green, Richard Pitchforth, Melaina Ferranda, Michele Cashmore, Helen Venn, Ben Francisco Maulbeck, Jason “Jasoni” Fischer, Laura Goodin, Jessica Vivien, Chris Lynch, Lyn Battersby, Jason Stokes, Alessio Brescani, Michael Greenhut, Jess Irwin, and Peter Ball. My friends. My community.
The magic chocolate river flows on.
We finish our journey down memory therapy with my very own luscious wife, Lyn Battersby, on Sunday, when she wraps up or Clarionarama with a look back at the final week, week 6, and the parting of the ways