Nearly six months ago, I embarked on the most fantastic journey of my life: Clarion West—the intensive speculative writing program in Seattle. After six weeks of living with my fellow students and our instructors, I came home and began writing a blog about it. My first attempt was a summary of the cool experiences—beginning with one of the greatest movie-like character reveals: exiting the subway station on day T-minus-1 to discover a classmate on stage, singing hip hop at a block party; Hawaiian shirts at the Locus Awards; epic, all-night RPGs and card games; swordfights on the lawn; karaoke night and dancing at bars; virtual reality night hosted by alum Yang-Yang Wang; celebrating the moon-landing with Sheila Williams; and countless hours of parties and classroom time and readings and critique sessions and Skype conferences with so many of the industry’s greatest talents who were so generous with their time and illuminating with their wisdom—but…even after a dozen pages I’d only managed to cover the first couple weeks. And I’d only scratched the surface. So much had happened. How could I boil it down into a summary blog? I decided to let it sit a little.
Hoping to see classmates and make new friends, I attended WorldCon in Kansas City, but this was bittersweet because those fleeting minutes between panels and parties were weak echoes of the close-knit, constant companionship we’d shared in Seattle—a powerful everyday intimacy we’d now lost. After WorldCon, I tried to blog again, and this time it was all personal. I wrote about how much I loved my classmates, how much they inspired me, how much they made me feel at home, how much they felt like family, how much they helped me discover my own identity. These are 17 of the most generous, humble, strong, kind, creative, and beautiful people I’ve ever known. The sentiments were powerful, but too dear for a wider audience. I still wanted to share my experiences, and I wanted to summarize them for my own recollections. But my subconscious was grappling with something more.
In a way, these blogging attempts began to feel like a writing challenge. There’s this thing that happens to probably all writers, where we know we have this massive, beautiful, intricate, imaginative story in our heads, just shimmering with all the radiance of a priceless diamond. But we try to get it out on paper and there is nothing but a lump of coal. We put on it all the pressure we can bear, until we begin to come up with something shiny, and then we turn it over and worry at it and cut it and maybe we get a few brilliant little glimmering rainbows, but it never even remotely approaches the brilliance we’d had in our minds. This is truly the nature of my problem here, because that beautiful perfect diamond is my Clarion West experience, but words cannot emulate its radiance. Not a few short paragraphs. Not a couple dozen pages. Not even a series of epic novels.
I realize, finally, that the solution to this conundrum has been with me all along, surprising yet inevitable, like the climax of a good novel. Arsenic is the 33rd element on the periodic table, and its alchemical symbol came to represent our class not only because we were the 33rd consecutive class of Clarion West, but because arsenic is a healing poison. We came to realize (and here I paraphrase classmate Cae Hawksmoor) that facing the darkness within ourselves helped us transform into something greater, not only as writers, but as people. On rereading Cae’s words (available in a much more compelling entirety at Teamarsenic.com), it occurs to me that this transformative process echoes the efforts of trying to create a diamond from coal. And, while it might seem problematic that a graduate of a writing program can’t find the words to write about said program and is relying on clichéd metaphors, it is only fitting that the experience of Clarion West remain entirely ineffable.
Clarion West will not be exemplified by a blog. It will be exemplified by its graduates–through the amazing stories we share with our readers, and the goodwill we share with the world.
Clarion West brimmed with brilliant insights and hard-learned lessons and pearls of wisdom and shining examples and stimulating experiences, but one luminous thread shot through everything and held it all together, held US all together: that The World. Urgently. Needs. To. Hear. Our. Voice—the voice of each and every one of us. Not just our class, but every artist, every person. No voice should be stifled. We all have something to say. We all have stories to tell, witnessed through our own singular perspective. We sense, feel, and think in our own special way. We are all the heroes of our own stories. And the first step toward sharing our unique voice with the world is discovering how to hear it for ourselves, which is the fiercest struggle of all. That’s why we needed the arsenic.
At Clarion West, I began delving into parts of myself that had long remained dormant and forgotten. Many parts of my early childhood were magical and I have many warm and loving and adventurous memories, but I also suffered horrendous dark times that included various forms of abuse and being orphaned at 13 when my parents died in a plane crash. Through the dark times, I kept hiding away more and more pieces of myself. I was taught to not love myself. I was taught that there was something wrong with me. I learned to mistrust every interaction and relationship with others. I learned to mistrust my instincts and feelings. Everything I said and every action I took seemed awkward and unacceptable until I reached the point where I was emotionally paralyzed. I was conditioned to not express myself. All the remarkable, innovative, divergent, revolutionary, imaginative, and strangely beautiful things that formed in my mind were locked away deep inside. Writing and reading had always been a conduit to this true inner self, but it was like peering into a hazy, foggy, cobwebbed tunnel to a self I’d nearly forgotten. Team Arsenic helped me grab a torch and burn my way back to these hidden treasures, to chisel away at the walls of this labyrinth that pain and self-doubt had constructed. It’s not a change that occurred overnight, or even in the course of six weeks. By the end of our six weeks, I’d only just begun realizing this most important discovery. My fiction has already improved dramatically, just through this process of learning to trust myself and listen to my instincts. It will take me years of practice to feel confident in expressing parts of myself. I have a long journey ahead, but I’ve already come a long ways to establishing this new life and identity for myself–one which could ultimately culminate in acceptance and even a celebration of my true self, one in which I’m ready to share all my unique beauty with the world. I could not have begun this journey without these amazing people, my family.
Taimur Ahmad – Joy and energy personified, makes you feel hopeful about the world.
Betsy Aoki – An observant eye for the truth in things, who helps you cut through the bullshit.
E N Bartmess – A swashbuckling warrior with a sense of humor, whose analysis of your stories gives insight from every neglected angle.
T Jane Berry – Her cheerful warmth and exterior leaves you unprepared for the dark and gritty horror of her prose.
Octavia Cade – Cunning and sharp and just as you steel yourself for her scientific acumen, she’ll leave you rolling with a comedic flurry.
Paul DesCombaz – He will school you in the ways of music and pop culture and all things cool and his stories will give you the creeps.
Alex Filipowicz – Boundless skateboarding energy, he will have you laughing until your sides ache, but grab hold of something when he takes you for a ride into the serpentine spirals of his mind.
Lora Gray – My molting twin. They will cut you with the deep and wonderful truth of their poetic prose and help you feel welcome.
C A Hawksmoor – Tapped into other worlds and mystical planes, they help you discover profound clandestine truths that span dimensions and time.
Jon Lasser – Knows the value of contrary opinions and can slice you with surgical skill to shape your story or make you laugh.
S Qiouyi Lu – Their presence echoes their prose with an economic power and grace that seeps into your skin and glows inside you.
Emma Osborne – Ambassador of hugs and acceptance, she helps bring out the truth and makes sure every voice can speak.
Shiv Ramdas – You might think he’s a trickster god, or a trouble-maker, but that doesn’t give proper respect to the warmth of his heart.
Mitchell Shanklin – Master of games, you will smile when he enters the room and the inventiveness of his mind and fiction will spark your imagination.
Jessica Silbaugh-Cowdin – Speaks the fierce and piercing truth, and shines a light to bring you out of the darkness.
Gabriel Teodros – Peace personified, he walks into a room and the mood brightens. His stories radiate with compassion and community.
Cadwell Turnbull – Warrior of the deeper truths and justice, he is a natural caregiver who heals and recognizes your heart.
Team Arsenic Instructors:
Paul Park – Taught me to turn stories about like a puzzle box in the air, interrogating the hidden meanings and experimenting without inhibition.
Stephen Graham Jones – Showed me how to trust the value of my own thoughts and ideas and to feel more comfortable in my own skin.
Elizabeth Bear – Taught me the power of the through-line and the craft of magic in prose. Exemplified how to have fun and shed inhibitions (I wasn’t ready to join the Bear Dance, but I did learn and will dance one day).
N K Jemisin – Helped me explore my inner voice. Showed us how to worldbuild and understand the deeper complexities of society, and to help us listen to, and learn from, other voices.
Sheila Williams – Taught me to take risks in my stories and to delve deeper into the complexities inherent in my worlds. Made me feel comfortable being myself and exploring new ideas.
Michael Swanwick – Demonstrated the power of triangles–exploring at least three characters in stories, so relationships develop new dimensions and complexity. Made me feel good about my voice and pacing and made me want to pay more attention to ratcheting up tensions.
Neile Graham – Helped me have faith in myself, especially during the spots where coming out of my bubble was a challenge. She inspired confidence in the workshop process and helped make us feel at home.
Huw Evans – Showed us we could have fun without faltering in our progress as writers. Helped maintain a positive learning environment. Took a sword to some of my classmates, which was also quite entertaining.
The Clarion West Community and Beyond:
I really can’t even name them all. Literally hundreds of people who were there for us. Volunteers who helped drive us, wine and dine us. People who gave us books. People who shared their experiences, wisdom, and time. People who gave us things we needed and donated money. People who shared their stories and gave advice. Editors and writers who Skyped in to give us pointers. Alumni who made sure we knew the best places to have fun and made sure we didn’t miss a beat (or get any sleep). Honestly, I’m pretty sure I made more friends this summer than I have sum total in the rest of my preceding life, and I feel better empowered to make more in the future. Thanks everybody!