Notes from La Jolla

Tokyo, Fall 2012. I am sitting on my bed, eating Lawson’s pudding and contemplating the future. In my diary, I write: I need to work on my Clarion stories. I don't know if I’m good enough, or if circumstances will let me. I have not written an original story in several months. In that moment, I have neither the energy nor the will to devote more of myself to it. I am a Marketing major on study abroad, my last hurrah before real life looms over everything and swallows me whole. I have stories to write – I know this. But I also have pudding to eat and job applications to file, and Clarion is a dream I am still holding my breath about – too far out of reach to be anything approaching real.

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“I want them to be assassins,” I tell my sister over the phone. She is in LA, waging a war with art school. I am in Menlo Park, scraping together story ideas for my application. “They will be a guy and a girl, and I want them to be friend-partners who bicker a lot. I want to show a dynamic guy-girl-friendship.”

“Well, if they’re assassins, who are they killing, though? Killing is bad. I mean, that’s murder.”

That’s not the point! I want to flail, but she’s right, totally right, it can’t be a cutesy story about assassinating; I have to shift the gravitas, I have to make what they’re doing have weight. Back to the drawing board.

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A few days after sending in my application, I wake up one bleary morning and scroll through the unread messages in my inbox. There’s one from Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop Coordinator. My heart stops. Hardly daring to breathe, I read the slim line of text beneath it.

Dear Isabel Yap, we are pleased to invite you to attend the 2013 Clarion Science Fi…

and that’s it, I’m done for, lurching out of my bed; I lean over the banister and shout “Mom! Mom!” but no one answers, I race back into my room, peer out the window and see my mom outside walking the dog. I call her on my cellphone and say, “Mom, I got in, I got into the workshop I really wanted to get into!

Mom says: “That’s good! Okay. Let me finish walking Chaser.”

I jump up and down at her from the window. My hair is in its giant mutated morning bush form, I have no bra, and I am flailing and dancing like crazy. I say “Okay!” and shut the phone and get on my knees next to my bed and thank God.

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In 2010, I applied for one of the most prestigious writing workshops in the Philippines. I did not get in. My heart was racing for several days. I got blisters on my hands and feet. I was moving to the US in a few months and my head just kept repeating: you blew it. You won’t have this chance again. And you can’t write, your writing is so terrible these days, it was better two years ago, it was better when you were a freshman, what the hell happened?

I knew it wasn’t true, logically, but my heart felt it, and I looked at all my words and thought what the hell. Then we moved to California, and in a haze of confusion I found writing slipping away. I couldn’t write except when school forced me to. I had no fandoms and was producing barely any fanfic. I felt untethered, totally unsure of myself – I was so far away from the environment I knew and my safety-blanket-best-friends and the literary org that had, at its best times, felt like home. Sometimes I could only hold myself together by standing very still and watching squirrels bark at each other through the trees. Looking back on that time now, I almost can’t believe how writing came back to me – in fits and bursts, but I have it again, and I don’t intend to let it go.

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After getting in, I read a lot of blogs about Clarion. I hunt for stories and books by my instructors. I wriggle through the job hunt, my best friends visiting from Manila, and the last few weeks of college. I realize that Clarion will be hard. There will be criticism, and mysterious cafeteria food. There will be lack of sleep and a desire to ram one’s head through the wall, trying to write. I am not very familiar with SFF canon and my lack of knowledge will probably show. Plus people. Living with people; people I don’t know. We will be exchanging stories – sharing the rawest parts of ourselves. I’m no stranger to the workshop setting – but I know Clarion will be different. The level of writing, the level of critique, the fact that the program has so much history behind it.

It will be hard, but I have almost never wanted something this much.

I constantly feel like I-am-going-to-Clarion is a soap bubble that is going to burst, violently, if I believe it too sincerely.

But the bubble doesn’t burst. At the end of June, after graduation and a brief celebratory vacation with the family, I find myself in San Diego.

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Pete and I get lost driving from the airport to the UCSD campus. It is the start of my Epic Travel Jinx. My phone GPS won’t cooperate. Also, we are talking about Cory Doctorow and my sub story (to be discussed on day two, and I’m real freaking nervous about it), and about writing in general, so we keep missing our turns. We make it into the campus somehow, and then we keep hitting dead ends, until we find Brandon and Gabby and the right place to be. But none of that really matters, we’re talking about writing, we’re going to Clarion, in fact we’re already here.

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We sit awkwardly around in the common room, sort-of-knowing-each-other because of Facebook and spreadsheets and room assignments. We cheer like weirdos whenever someone arrives. I am surprised by people’s voices and how some of them do not seem to line up with their online self-introduction, but it’s probably the same for me. Jessica Hilt tells us her one major piece of Clarion advice: “If you have a choice between bonding more with your classmates, or writing your story – always choose the bonding. Always.”

Writing we can do the rest of our lives. We will only have each other, in this same way, for six weeks.

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Alyssa arrives and I help her bring her luggage to our suite. I find out her mom is Filipina and we chat while dragging her suitcase up the stairs. We are sharing H-02 with Gabby. Alyssa has written a bone-chilling story about a girl who sells her sister’s face. I have written a story about brain hackers who sometimes murder. Gabby, on day four of workshop, writes a story that involves children hiding out in a closet while monsters rampage in their school. I don’t know when we were named officially, but Team Tiny Bonesaw is born.

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TTB

Doofy smiles in the common room.

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So begins daily workshop life. I have to roll out of my bed by 7:30 in order to squeeze in a shower and try to grab some breakfast – usually a raspberry-and-white-chocolate scone, and a cup of coffee with milk and brown sugar. Then begins our trek from the Marshall Apartments to the Literature Department.

Our workshop room is on the top floor. Every week day, it’s four hours, sometimes more, of critiquing. Will’s phone with the bloopy sound effect makes sure that we don’t spend too long on any one person giving comments. The instructors get some more time, share their favorite writing advice, share their own writing experiences, because most of them are alumni themselves. At the end of the workshop proper, sometimes our teachers speak on a certain topic – intellectual property, which markets to send to, trigger warnings, YA, among others.

The rest of the afternoon we spend reading manuscripts, annotating, and writing. We read three or four stories a day, and then write our own, each week – it’s a constant stream of words that we are rolling in, swimming through, swallowing. I take naps most afternoons, even if I hate naps. I do my laundry once a week. On rare occasions I trek to CVS to pick up necessities. On Wednesdays we have our Mysterious Galaxy readings where I am sorely tempted by all the books; but I’m at Clarion and this isn’t going to happen again, so screw it, I’ll buy the damn shiny things. Also the Starbucks in San Diego has horchata frappucinos, and my sweet tooth is as weak as my booklover’s bones.

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Brandie and I make a Safeway run for beer and toiletries. Brandie learns I am Catholic. “What do you know about exorcisms?” she asks, eyes wide. We return, triumphant, with a box of Pabst and a six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

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A scene from that first week: it is lunchtime and we are talking and I realize I am so safe here, there’s no need to hide anything. High-fives are exchanged. Secretly I feel like in the span of eating one UCSD pizza I had been broken apart and put back together, shiny-new-afraid but more sure of myself in this certain aspect than I’ve been in a long time. It cannot have happened without these people, eating their own pizzas beside me, laughing, reminding me that things will be okay.

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I can’t get over how much I love Andy Duncan’s accent. For his going-away gift, we get him a jar of moonshine, and we all listen like happy little kids as he reads out the label: “Made from corn. Well, aren’t we all?”

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We have just finished critiquing my week two story. “This is tone perfect,” Nalo says. “I put my pen down on page one and didn’t pick it up until today. There are issues…I didn’t care. There’s all kind of precedence for food shortages, and us fucking with our food, and people fucking with our food in developed nations…If I think about it, I had all kinds of questions, but I didn’t need to think about it.”

I am transcribing this in my computer, internally screaming, because dear god Nalo just complimented me on my story, AHHH AHHH AHHH

and really that’s how Clarion felt, repeatedly, through the highs and lows: like a dream come true, like a song affirming that my words, when I do them right, matter.

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I flop on the picnic blanket Marie has laid on the grass outside the common room. She is lying on it in her polka-dot dress. Alyssa and I roll next to her. Brandon passes by, and I heckle him about his purity. He identifies the painful growth on my foot as a plantar wart, a mystery I have not been able to solve in the weeks since it has plagued me.

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In week three, Bob tells us to write sex scenes as our assignment. Reactions range from hellz yeah to oh dear. I’m twenty-three, I should be able to write a sex scene – I mean, I come from the fanfic school of writing. But I’ve actually never done it before. I’ve done sexy fade-to-blacks, but not sex scenes. Armed with tea and a jar of Nutella and I start struggling away at it. The result: we decide that Clarion 2013 is all about the D. Also: Rocketship Spatulas.

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We have a pizza party with Kim Stanley Robinson and some Clarion alumni and Clarion-foundation-benefactors. Schnarr sings a song about roadkill. Thom also plays his guitar; by now we’ve all forgiven him for the footnotes.

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Cory materializes in the common room one night, fresh from travel, and immediately brings out his laptop and starts asking us who we are. He’s read our stories so he knows our names, and just needs to connect them with our faces. Cory initiates us all to the mysteries of his extremely strong cold-pressed coffee. He also establishes the sunset walks, and so at five PM through his week a group of us trek to the cliffs to watch the hang-gliders and stare at the excessive mansion homes, breathing in the beachy air and the beauty of California.

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gratuitousSDsunset

Witness the gratuitous beach views.

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I get a lot of free books at Comic Con, and also take pictures of the cosplayers. Natasha Alegri draws a picture of Sailormoon in my little notebook. I do not see Tom Hiddleston, which breaks my heart. Kelly and Karen arrive and I realize that I’ve been at Clarion for a month, and that is fucking crazy.

Also, there are only two weeks left.

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I finally manage to write the Onsen Love Story that has been floating around in my brain since week one. It involves copious amounts of tea and almost a whole bag of Kisses with caramel centers, but it’s written. I have no idea how the story will do. That’s okay, I think to myself, I need to trust in this by now, we’re all right here, I’ll get the critique I need, and there are more stories to write.

The Onsen Love Story will be appearing on Tor.com later this year. The story is a weird fairytale; the fact that I’m going to be able to share it with more readers feels, to me, like an even weirder fairytale.

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One night in our suite Alyssa, Gabby, and I end up drawing the penis tree on a napkin and tacking it to our refrigerator, striking flamingo stances with our arms and hooting like crazy people.

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A favorite keepsake from Clarion: Kelly Link has signed my copy of Pretty Monsters with a squiggly snake and the admonition to Write more, please! I admire all of my instructors for what they do, and have read and loved several of their stories. But Pretty Monsters really broke my brain open about what short fiction could be like, and was the main reason I applied. Sometimes when I think writing is very hard, approaching impossible, this thought crosses my mind: Kelly Link would like me to write more, I have to at least try.

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Reading Micah in the common room on our second-to-the-last day is the best kind of laugh therapy, given the bittersweet farewell looming over us.

“Chapter one: in which the phone rings,” Karen says ominously. We take turns reading it, trying not to pass out from lack of air.

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It’s not that I didn’t think I could write, before Clarion. I’d finagled some stories into books in the Philippines – anthologies I was extremely proud to be part of. I’d written poems for university folios and gotten some of them workshopped at the national level. I had also written tons of fanfic, and while I had never became a BNF, I had received enough comments for enough pieces that I knew the words could touch some people. But Clarion took that spark of confidence in my writing and stretched it far beyond what I thought possible, and told me I could do this. Taught me that if I kept at it – and it wasn’t going to be easy by any stretch, but if I kept at it – I’d get somewhere.

Clarion helped me admit to myself that writing is something I absolutely have to do. It helped me admit – when I couldn’t bring myself to – that I can make something of this passion, which I have always been willing to put aside for something else. For six weeks, I couldn’t put it aside. It was all I had to do, and it was tiring and exhausting and I ate too much sugar and had to pull stories up from the dredges of my soul, but it was worth it.

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week5-1

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week5-2

Week 6: in which we are tired.

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This doesn’t capture all of Clarion, obviously. It doesn’t cover the inappropriate lunch conversations or the tears shed in that little room (including my own, twice); it doesn’t carry the taste of Nalo’s curry, it doesn’t give justice to the brightness of Bob’s Hawaiian shirts or reinforce the idea that Cory Doctorow (and his work ethic) are beyond-human. It doesn’t capture what it’s like to hug Andy Duncan, or learn that Karen Joy Fowler struggles with email distraction as well. It doesn’t have the notes of a conversation with Kelly Link about how Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock is genius. This doesn’t hold Zach’s voice telling me it’s “Ee-vang-gel­-ion,” or Sophia saying “Gurl,” or Kodiak asking us all to raise the stakes. Or Angus and his superb Macintyre-isms. Or Christian who can do a dramatic reading of Laurel K. Hamilton with the best of them. Or Eliza's lovely accent and singing. Or Patrick earnestly smiling his corgi-smile. Or Jessie’s evil laughter, or Will’s mouth forming an O when someone says “Dammit, Kaufman!”

But that’s why my Clarion was my Clarion, and this year’s Clarion is different, and all the previous year’s Clarions are different, and all the Clarions to come will be different. Clarion isn’t for everyone, but to many of us, Clarion is a home of six weeks that has extended into infinity (I’ve attended two writing cons this year and reunited with some of my cohort and met alumni, so I’m speaking from personal experience).

If you want to help make it happen for future generations of hopefuls, people who breathe magic and bleed dreams and want nothing more than to get their truest words across the page to you and countless other readers – then please consider a small donation to the Clarion foundation today. Or, if you want to support me in the Clarion Write-a-thon (which directly helps future Clarion workshops, too!), you can view my writer's page and read my post about it.