What did I learn at Clarion West [4]: When in doubt, give everyone superpowers

Part of the Clarion West 2014 Write-a-thon series.
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(As a side note — I’m not sure my “avoid social media except for Sundays” thing is going to work, when I ended up spending most of my Sunday seeing The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay at Book-It Reperatory Theater, which was awesome, but that’s why you’re not seeing this until today.)

Each week of the Clarion West workshop — well, 5 of 6 weeks — you’re expected to write a fresh story. The expectation is that these will be new stories, written during the workshop, and not something pulled off your hard drive. The workshop is structured so that you typically have quite a bit of time in your schedule for crafting that story.

But if something isn’t coming together, you don’t have a lot of time to get on with your life, let your subconscious do its thing, and get back to the story later. Part of the pressure of the workshop is that you have to confront that story RIGHT NOW. Forget your life. This IS your life. We’re even going to cook your meals for you. ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of your brain power can and should be going to figuring out how to make that story work.

I think one of the reasons this strategy is effective, is that it takes a lot of creative processes that might be subconscious, and forces them into the conscious mind.

Many cultures have mythology about storytelling that characterizes it as a form of divine visitation, and it can certainly feel that way. Especially if you’re still at the writing stage where you wait for inspiration to strike, when it does strike, it can feel like being possessed. Your story can feel like a completely separate entity, struggling through your words to come into a life of its own.

But at a Clarion-style workshop, you cannot wait around for that semi-divine lightning strike to come from the clouds. You have to sit there, striking the flint yourself, until you can get something to catch fire. (Well, you don’t have to sit there. You can take a walk around the U-District if you want. But you still have to be thinking about your story the whole time.)

For my final story, I had an idea that I thought was pretty good: a science fiction piece of the cynically humorous variety, where a process is discovered to surgically remove the conscience, which significantly enhances the material success of the people who have it done. So more and more people have this done, until the percentage of artificial sociopaths becomes too high, and society melts down completely.

It seemed like a story I could write. The vague shape of the story as I held it in my mind resembled stories I had read, and liked, in the past.

But I couldn’t do it. At every point, when I tried to think about how to write it, my mind was a blank. I had a protagonist — a young upwardly-mobile corporate striver thinking about having the procedure done. I had a setting — an exaggerated version of the phone company where I worked for slightly less than a year, which will forever haunt my dreams as my personal Kafka-esque nightmare. But the actual scenes just wouldn’t come.

When I say the scenes wouldn’t come, what I mean is this: I never reached the point where I simply knew what happened next. That’s what I mean about catching fire — you try one thing and another thing and another thing, and then finally you hit on the right thing.

When you do that, for a little while — maybe for the rest of the story, maybe only for the rest of that scene — that’s when writing is fun. Your own story becomes just as exciting as staying up all night to finish a book you can’t put down.

The deadline was looming. I had started, and given up, at least a dozen times. I had been staring at my laptop for HOURS. I wasn’t quite prepared to let it go entirely, and miss the deadline. (Which I knew was technically an option thanks to the legendary Ted Chiang.) But I was mentally preparing myself for the fact that my story would be terrible.

Then it hit me — a meta-bolt of lightning, sizzling illumination through all the stories during the workshop that I had attempted and failed, and the stories that I had technically finished that didn’t really turn out, and even all the stories that hadn’t worked out for me before Clarion. I saw what they had in common.

I realized that I was always trying to write stories about people who had strange and important things taken away from them. I was always trying to write stories that were thoughtful, melancholy, subtle, unsettling, and surreal. I kept trying to be Kelly Link; J.G. Ballard; Shirley Jackson; Kij Johnson; Jonathan Lethem.

But I didn’t have much feel for writing that kind of story.

I love reading them, so it seemed like I should be able to write them. But it doesn’t always work out that way. And why should it? Any artist, in any medium, who I’ve ever admired, when they list their own favorites, inevitably mention a few whose work is nothing at all like their own.

I needed to accept that I had writing abilities in some areas, but not others, and to accept what those areas were. It didn’t mean that I should never push myself by writing something that I found difficult. But I would never get anywhere if I was forever fighting against my own inclinations.

Where could I go, when I didn’t have much time left, and all my other plans had failed?

I thought back to what I regarded as my most successful story up until that point, based on a suggestion by Maureen McHugh: take a story I liked and file off the serial numbers to make it the basis for a new story.

I had picked a story from Night Shift, the first time I read any Stephen King. I was on a school trip during my sophomore year, and one of the teachers had brought it along as part of a small box of books intended to keep us 15-year-olds entertained. I finished reading the book I had brought, and Night Shift looked like the most promising of all the books in the box, so I gave it a try.

I loved it. I became an instant King fan.

One of the stories in particular freaked me out — it was called “Gray Matter,” and had an objectively silly premise (man drinks from tainted beer can, turns into The Blob). But still it’s haunted me from the moment I read it, and I’ve never been completely sure why.

Anyway, that was the story I used. To make it science fiction I added nanobots and near-future dystopian social breakdown, and to make it mine I added a determined woman trying to save a little boy.

This seemed like the direction I needed to go — toward my more populist literary tastes, and not the ones that were more — uh — English major-y?

It was almost like a sequel to my first revelation, that I needed to stop thinking about stories in English Lit terms while I was writing them. I needed to get over a deeply embedded fear that I didn’t realize I had — the fear of being thought ridiculous if I wrote something that was too obvious, zany, sentimental, cheesy, pulpy, shallow, trivial, or silly.

I had somehow — perhaps during all those years of English Lit — absorbed the idea that “good” meant “more literary” and that “more literary” meant “a story of a certain type, with a certain feel and approach.”

Just as I had to get over writing in a vague attempt to please a bunch of imaginary English Lit students, I had to get over an equally vague fear of being mocked by a bunch of imaginary English critics.

If I would stand up for the right of other people’s fiction to be purely entertaining, why not give my own work the same courtesy? I could write a story, and it didn’t have to mean anything deep and lasting and significant. It didn’t have to be an incisive commentary on the state of our world. It didn’t have to contain devastating emotional insights into the human condition. It didn’t have to produce sentences of jaw-dropping poetic power.

It just had to be a story.

And to make it a story, maybe I needed to try doing the opposite of all the things I kept trying to do. I needed to make everything obvious, giddy, and absurd. Have big tentacled monsters just because I like that sort of thing. Give everyone superpowers. Fill it with swearing and dumb jokes. See what happens.

Three hours later I had a first draft, and a couple of personal writing slogans to live by:

The more ridiculous an idea seems, the better it probably is.

When in doubt, give everyone superpowers.