The Shadow Workshop [1] : Ants & housework

Memory is funny. I would have sworn that the first time I tried my own do-it-yourself Clarion West Write-a-thon was the first year I applied, but didn’t get in — 2002. But I also keep notebooks, and discovered that my memory is faulty. My first “Clarion Rejects Write-a-thon” was actually in 2004, which was the second time I applied but didn’t get in.

My goal was to write six short stories in six weeks, which was the Clarion West Challenge as I understood it. I did manage to write six — things. Most of them weren’t stories so much as a few promising scenes pointing at the inkling of a notion of an idea that could, in theory, turn into a story.

One was about ants. I remember, it was a dry June, and ants swarmed out of seemingly every crack in the sidewalk, as if the ground underneath were made of ants — the entire planet, nothing but ants. I still think about that image in summer when the ants come back. It was memorable. But it wasn’t really a story.

At the end of the six weeks, I wrote a few observations in my notebook:

  • Domestic responsibilities take up a lot of time, even when I deliberately try to slack off on them.
  • The impulse to goof off rises when I’m not excited by my idea. When I am excited, working on the idea is its own reward.
  • I like writing dialog.
  • I sometimes put barriers up that are wholly artificial. Like, “I have to finish this thing before I work on this other thing.”
  • Six weeks is longer than it seems at first.
  • Sometimes I like my work. Sometimes I hate it. I don’t know which time I’m correct.

After that first Write-a-thon attempt — unofficial, unannounced, unknown to anybody but me and my husband — I felt sort of let down by the process. I wasn’t sure if it was worth it. I couldn’t tell if I learned anything. I had those little observations in my notebook, true. But were they really of any value?

Yes. And no. I think I learned more than I realized at the time. It took attending the actual workshop a couple of years later to show me what I’d learned — to enable me to talk about it.

Last year, my essay theme was “What did I learn at Clarion West?” This year, my essay theme is “What did I learn during my do-it-yourself Clarion Rejects Write-a-thon that I didn’t know I’d learned and couldn’t express until after attending Clarion West?”

But that’s pretty long. So I’m just going to call it the Shadow Workshop, because that sounds kinda cool.

Since it took me a ridiculously long time to write the above introduction, I’m going to jump right into the first topic, which is the first observation in my notebook:

Domestic responsibilities take up a lot of time, even when I deliberately try to slack off on them.

It reminded me of this:

“a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

During the original Shadow Workshop, I tried to have a room of my own. Paul’s room was the only truly private room in the house, since my own bedroom was the access point for the bathroom, so we cleaned it out to be a writing space. I appreciated the effort, but found it a little depressing to be in there. It was small and cramped and dull, and I didn’t notice any immediate benefit from the privacy. Maybe Virginia Woolf was wrong. Maybe I should go back to writing in the kitchen.

But then, when I did go to Clarion West, I discovered something much better and more powerful than a mere room of one’s own:


I suppose it should have occurred to me. But in all the stories I’d heard about Clarion West, it had never come up. We talked about what it had: the critiquing, the socializing, the in-jokes, the pressure, the breakthroughs. We never talked about what it didn’t have. You know, things like housework.

The last time I spent six weeks without housework, I was a college student, and unable to fully appreciate it, as I had spent the first seventeen years of my life without doing much in the way of housework. In fact, I had to do more housework in college, because I had to do my own laundry for the first time. My college experience was one of being eased gradually into domestic adulthood. First you live on campus and you have to do your own laundry, but somebody else is still cooking for you.

Then you live off campus and have to do your own cooking, but you’re young and your body is forgiving and for months at a time you can get away with eating things like ramen or packages of Kraft Dinner mixed with tuna (from a can) and green beans (from a can). There’s four of you in the house, plus steady dates, plus friends wandering in and out, and somebody is probably cleaning the bathroom more often than is strictly fair, but it’s difficult to tell who. Plus, you’re moving every couple of years, which tends to keep things from getting too disgusting. More importantly, it means that you can successfully put certain kinds of things out of your mind, because you know you can deal with them when you move out.

But then you pair off, getting married or otherwise long-term partnered (BRIEF WOOHOO ABOUT SCOTUS PRO-MARRIAGE-EQUALITY DECISION YEAH!!!!) and for a while things get very nice and cozy. The bathroom stays a lot cleaner. Maybe you start eating vegetables. But that domesticity has a dark side. When there are only two of you — two adults — if only one of you is really cleaning the bathroom or cooking or doing dishes or keeping up on the recycling, that becomes starkly obvious. You can’t take comfort in putting things off until you move anymore. For one thing, you might live in the same place for five, ten, fifteen, twenty years. And even when you do move, things don’t change in the same way, because you have the same roommate.

Not only that, but as you get older, housework of all kinds gets more complicated. More bills, more history, more planning, more things to manage. You take care of children, or elderly parents. You buy a house, sell a house, lose a house. Get a job, lose a job, look for a new job. Go back to school. Accumulate assets. Cash in assets. Make plans. Make new plans when your old plans become impossible. And everything, everything involves so much paperwork.

Where was I?

Oh yeah. Domestic responsibilities.

So the thing about Clarion West is, for six weeks, you get away from all that. All you really have to do is pick up after yourself, and do your own laundry, and write. (And critique, but I’ll get to that in a future essay.) Six weeks is probably the ideal amount of time for that. Plenty of time to get away from your usual headspace, but any longer, and your life would start to catch up with you.

But even getting away for a week, or a weekend, can accomplish some of that. You could try a retreat, or a summer camp, or a weekend by yourself, or anything.

(Not a cruise, though, unless it’s a cruise specifically for writers. I found that on our Alaska cruise, the boat seemed to be deliberately engineered so that finding a quiet place to think for any prolonged period of time was well-nigh impossible, as I discovered during a previous Write-a-thon )

It’s not just about not having to do housework — it’s also about not being surrounded by the tactile reminders that housework is a thing that needs to be done. So you can say to yourself, “well, I’m simply not going to clean the bathroom for six weeks,” but then if the bathroom starts to get squicky, the mental pressure builds up and eventually cleaning happens anyway, but grudgingly, accompanied by angst.

You can shove all incoming papers into a drawer, but if you pass the drawer every day you stare at it knowing it’s full of papers that you have to deal with, and that knowledge squats in your head, growing like a tumor. Inside your own house, you’re surrounded by a chorus of nagging, gibbering ghosts. Clean this. Sort this. Put this away. Decide what to do about this. Past and future demand that you provide an accounting. Mop up your regrets. Clear a space for your hopes. Get to work.

Our brains are plastic, and helpful. They get better at whatever it is we ask them to work at. That’s why it can be so important to get away — to go to a place where writing, and thinking about writing, is the only work you have to do.


Footnotes:The Brain that Changes Itself, a non-fiction book that literally everyone should read.Rainforest Writers Village, my favorite writing retreat.

Taos Toolbox, Viable Paradise, and Cascade Writers, three highly-regarded SF&F workshops that are shorter than Clarion West.

Clarion West one-day workshops

Camp NaNoWriMo