No conflict, no story.
We learned this lesson within the first day or two of the workshop. We were also taught that the best authors are sadists who delight in tormenting their protagonists, making them suffer, placing them in horrific situations where they have to make heart-wrenching decisions.
And this is the problem as I consider crafting my own Clarion West story. I was the protagonist, but there was no conflict. I didn’t struggle, I didn’t suffer. My friends might think otherwise, but I didn’t feel like I sacrificed to be there. I know it sounds cold and heartless, and I love my family and friends dearly, but that’s how I felt in the Clarion West bubble.
This is not representative of others’ experiences–some folks, including at least one dear friend and several of my classmates, sacrificed jobs and endured serious financial hardship to make it to the Clarion and Clarion West workshops this summer. Others struggled through the relentless pressure cooker of peer and professional critiques and unending deadlines, separation from loved ones and from the comforts and habits of home, distraction by work and family problems, personality clashes with fellow workshoppers, and health crises.
But I didn’t struggle. I didn’t suffer. I didn’t have to fight to stay there, or to stay in the game. Sure, I was separated from family and friends, and I averaged 4 to 6 hours of sleep per night, and I had to read and critique ten to twenty thousand words per weekday while staying on top of my own story deadlines and attending readings and networking events, but I didn’t feel like I was sacrificing anything. If anything, I facilitated the isolation.
I was in heaven, and I didn’t want the world to intrude.
I was immersed 100% in the writing life. I was constantly creating, or reveling in others’ recent work. I couldn’t step out of my room without getting sucked into a fascinating conversation in the hallway with a brilliant peer or three. I lived and ate and worked and played with creatives who shared my passions and quirks and who rapidly became very dear to me. I got to talk and hang out with my author idols–I mingled with the gods and goddesses of my SF writing universe.
Some of you know that in the past I’ve struggled with dysthymia, a persistent, medium-grade depression. While at Clarion West, I was happy. Undeniably, unequivocally, deep to the core happy.
So, as I consider my narrative–my Clarion West story–when does my conflict and suffering begin?
It began the day I left Seattle. It began when I looked out my window as I was flying over Mount Ranier and I shook and cried silent tears. It began the moment I sat back in my chair at work and looked over my IT project board and felt some of my stories wither within me.
But I’m a different John than the one who left here in mid-June. A part of my Seattle experience lives and breathes inside me now, and I’m not going to let it die. My time at the workshop was exposition, set up for my life story. I’m doing all I can to recreate or prolong the Clarion West experience in my life, trying to recapture the pure joy that came with unrestricted focus on writing and on the creative process.
My story has begun. I’m ready for conflict. At Clarion West, I learned that I love the writing life, and that I’m ready to fight and struggle and sacrifice to preserve what is most dear to me.
Bring it on.