Me, Clarion West, and a Shark Named Sandina

It was July, 2012; I was in a living room in Seattle, hunched over my netbook, trying desperately to finish a short story that was due that night. I was having a difficult time with the story for a number of reasons. It dealt with a particularly difficult subject, and I was worried that I would fail to handle it well. It was also a shapeshifter story, and once I turned it in, Kelly Link would read it. If you don’t know who Kelly Link is, I don’t know how you found my blog, but you need to stop reading it and go read her fiction. Now.

It was also difficult because, well, writing fiction is difficult.

Over the sound of Miles Davis, I heard laughter. This was not an unusual occurrence in those weeks. My writing, as well as anyone else who worked in the public spaces, was often interrupted by some form of play. I wanted to see what was going on, to join in, but my story was due in a matter of hours. I didn’t have time to stop. The laughter continued behind me, though, and seemed to be coming closer. So I took off my headphones and turned around, to find a large, inflatable shark. It leered at me with a toothy, red grin. And then its tail fin thrashed back and forth and it propelled itself through the air.

More laughter, really giggles at this point. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” I shouted, and shut out the ensuing uproar by jamming the headphones back on my head. Now, let me be clear. My frustration was not at the interruption, but at the fact that I couldn’t go play with a remote control shark, which I feel is a valid complaint.

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It was July, 2012; I was in a living room in Seattle, hunched over my netbook, trying desperately to finish a short story that was due that night. I was having a difficult time with the story for a number of reasons. It dealt with a particularly difficult subject, and I was worried that I would fail to handle it well. It was also a shapeshifter story, and once I turned it in, Kelly Link would read it. If you don’t know who Kelly Link is, I don’t know how you found my blog, but you need to stop reading it and go read her fiction. Now.

It was also difficult because, well, writing fiction is difficult.

Over the sound of Miles Davis, I heard laughter. This was not an unusual occurrence in those weeks. My writing, as well as anyone else who worked in the public spaces, was often interrupted by some form of play. I wanted to see what was going on, to join in, but my story was due in a matter of hours. I didn’t have time to stop. The laughter continued behind me, though, and seemed to be coming closer. So I took off my headphones and turned around, to find a large, inflatable shark. It leered at me with a toothy, red grin. And then its tail fin thrashed back and forth and it propelled itself through the air.

More laughter, really giggles at this point. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” I shouted, and shut out the ensuing uproar by jamming the headphones back on my head. Now, let me be clear. My frustration was not at the interruption, but at the fact that I couldn’t go play with a remote control shark, which I feel is a valid complaint.

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This experience, for me, really encapsulated Clarion West as a whole. The day-to-day effort, reading and critiquing and writing, was some of the most intense and difficult work I’ve ever done. I didn’t go a single day without wondering if this was going to be the day that I stumbled, or even failed. I spent my days in the company of writers that I’d be intimidated just to meet, much less show my writing to and ask for feedback. (George R. R. Martin! Chuck Palahnuik! I still don’t believe it, sometimes.) And at the exact same time, it was the easiest, most playful span of time in my life. I made the sort of instant, deep connections to my classmates, now some of my dearest friends, that one stops expecting once childhood is over. How could I not love these mad, wild people, who played with flying sharks and recognized all my references (even if they sometimes hated the movie) and wrote such incredible, striving-for-greatness stories?

These two worlds of work and play existed, in defiance of physics, in the same place at the same time. It was an amazing thing to witness and an honor to be a part of. There was so much art happening in those six weeks, in fact, that some of our more infuriatingly talented classmates drew on our manuscripts as well as critiquing them. I’ve included a few of these, from Cory and Indra.

If I learned anything at Clarion West, it’s that this is where the best things–certainly the best creative endeavors–happen, in the place where sharks can fly, but the work comes first.

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Incidentally, I finished the story. It earned me a compliment from Kelly that was perhaps the most encouraging reaction to my work thus far in my life. My classmate’s reaction to the story was positive as well, some felt that it was my best one out of the six weeks at Clarion West. On top of all of that, it was Kelly’s birthday that week, and her only request for her birthday was that we “dress up.” This happened:

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I’m not the man in the chicken mask, I promise. But I was there. I was there for the work, and I was there for the magic. As it turns out, they were the same thing all along.

This piece was originally posted on Bryan Camp‘s blog on 6/6/13. For more on Bryan, check out his blog.

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