(This is long – go get a coffee, maybe a biscuit … off you go, I’ll wait … )
And so, it is now almost two weeks since seventeen Clarion South 2009 alums left our luxurious digs at Kelvin Grove and returned to our everyday lives only to find that we no longer fitted in them. To varying degrees I think this was true for everyone of us; personally, it’s only this week that I’ve been able to start re-moulding my life to fit around the new shape I took on after six weeks of CS09. It’s also the first week I haven’t sat in a corner and cried because I miss my fellows and because for six weeks I got to be a fulltime writer. But let me start at the beginning, which is a very good place to start …
I had actually been selected for the CS07 round, but due to a variety of circumstances I couldn’t go that year. So, I had to wait two years and then re-apply and hope, pray, and fear that I might get in again. I got in again – like most people who fiercely pursue something when I got it I had a moment of ‘Oh. Right. Crap. Now what do I do with it?’ A bit like a dog that actually catches the car it’s been chasing. Whoops.
The pre-Clarion dreams started about a month to six weeks beforehand. A cast of dozens lined up in my nightmares to tell me I wasn’t good enough. Who did I think I was? Did I think I was special? More than once I woke up in a damp sweat, thinking ‘What have I done?’
My office closed down for Christmas on 18th December, so I was left with just on two weeks to spend time with family (which I did), try to get the first draft of my Crusades novel finished (which I almost did), and to try to calm down about the oncoming storm (which I didn’t). The 4th of January dawned then limped around for a bit while I packed things I thought I would probably need (in retrospect: fewer pairs of shoes, more books would have been better). In the afternoon my friend Peter Ball (CS07 alum) arrived to drive me over to the Kelvin Grove campus of QUT. In the car, I noticed he was wearing a unicorn t-shirt of questionable … design, shall we say? The conversation that followed went along the lines of Me: ‘Oh my God. Your t-shirt. Not that t-shirt.’ Peter: ‘I figured today was the only day you’d be so distracted you wouldn’t notice it until it was too late.’ Peter is a smart man.
We arrived. Peter noted that the KG campus of QUT was considerably more civilised than the campus of Griffith Uni, where he (and previous other CS cycles) had been hosted. I believe the words ‘But … but … but you have civilisation. There’s a supermarket. There’s a Subway!’ When I pointed out there was also a sushi train, a bottle shop and a deli, there was some muttering and there may also have been profanity. Anyway, he re-grouped in the face of my ‘soft’ Clarion digs and left me to unpack, he and the offending t-shirt riding off into the sunset.
In apartment 347, I met my roomies: Alex, Steve T and lovely Lisa Bennett (with whom I’d shared a ToC in Canterbury 2100, and with whom I’d been LJing and emailing for a few months). Within about 10 minutes we worked out we’d been separated at birth and each held the other half of the brain neither of us realised had been missing. Needless to say Alex and Steve bought earplugs.
We all wandered down for our official welcome and eyed off our fellow students. Most of them looked relatively normal (you know who you are) J. Then the important business of getting to know each other began. These were to be our companions for six weeks – killing and eating each other was not an option, so we had to learn to get along. Luckily, we all seemed mature enough to realise this and so we proceeded from there.
We had changes to the program – we seem to have been the year that broke the tutors: Marianne de Pierres, Kelly Link and Gavin Grant all, due to circumstances totally beyond their control, were unable to come to Clarion. While we missed them, we were incredibly lucky that the Clarion Convenors (Kate Eltham, Rob Hoge, Rob Dobson and Heather Gammage) were both (a) determined and (b) highly capable of getting us replacements who not only rocked, but also never felt like “replacements”. Everyone fitted right in as if they were meant to be there. Each of our tutors was the bearer of gifts; they all gave more than anyone had a right or inclination to expect. The great thing about such a variety of tutors was that if a student didn’t connect so much with one tutor it didn’t matter – because they invariably connected with most of the others.
And so, the week by week account:
Weeks 1 and Two: Sean Williams (aka Good Sean and Evil Sean)
Sean bears the distinction of being known as the nicest man in Australian spec-fic* and the most productive man in Australian spec-fic. Because we had him for two weeks instead of one, he created a week 2 persona ‘Evil Sean’, who was pretty much indistinguishable from ‘Good Sean’ except that he seemed to have grown a small demonic goatee. Both of them gave out Haig’s chocolate frogs during their one-on-one consults with students and made tea or coffee as requested. As well as giving us the benefit of his considerable experience as a successful working writer, Sean was instrumental in creating the culture of our class. He showed that it was important to be respectful even when disagreeing with someone or critiquing their work, and that was a value that carried through with us for the whole six weeks. There was always respect (insert Ali G impersonation here).
*only if Trent Jamieson isn’t in the room.
Week 3: Margo Lanagan (Australian Legend – no pressure)
Margo’s reputation arrived well ahead of her – we all knew who she was and what she’d achieved with her writing. And some of us were more scared than others. I was terrified. Sure, we’d shared a ToC in Dreaming Again, but man! She’s MARGO LANAGAN. Surely she was both talented and evil. Well, she was talented, mildly evil in a good way and wonderfully wicked. Some of our favourite quotes came from Margo, including: ‘Smells like nuns to me’ and ‘I love a good pile of bodies’. We learned from her ever-shifting list of banned words (and promptly used many of them the week after she was gone J). And we got to hear her reading from her new novel Tender Morsels, which was a treat.
Week 4: Jack Dann (Our Rebel in loafers)
By the time Jack got hold of us we were … tired, but still well-behaved, and possibly settling into a rut of being too nice to each other in the crit-pit. Jack kept us back later and later in class until we learned how to crit properly. The problem with week 4 is that you all like each other. You know what to expect from each other. You don’t want to hurt feelings and you get a bit soft. We all did that. Jack kicked our asses. He was precisely what we needed. Couple that with his enormous experience as both a successful writer and one of the most commercially savvy editors in the business, we got the kick we needed to get us over the week 4 hump. Plus he is adorable and has more energy than the entire class combined. And we got to hear him read from his new work-in-progress, which was a privilege for starting-out writers, to see how the master does it.
Week 5: Trent Jamieson (The Actual Nicest Man in Australian Spec-fic)
Ah, Trent the Terrific. Trent stepped into the first week breach left by Team Kelly and Gavin and he was fabulous. He is genuinely the nicest man in spec-fic anywhere on the planet – I believe the only time he’s ever gotten into a fight was with, well, Sean Williams when they both stood aside for two hours each insisting that the other be first to enter the room. Trent has a great perspective on what can make a good story great – he looks at things just a little differently and makes suggestions that seem a little crazy, but invariably, you realise he’s right, dammit. He has a tremendous feel for and sense of what a story can be. And he won his second Aurealis Award this year. He rocks.
Week 6: Team VanderMeer (Jeff and Ann VanderMeer)
Even though Jeff was the only corporeal manifestation of Team VanderMeer, Ann was very much in evidence, having read everyone’s stories and offering comments and advice via the magic of T’internets and occasionally by being channelled through Jeff. Not only were there story crits, there was advice about how to move forward after Clarion and that was something that hadn’t occurred to most of us as something we’d need (we’re a bit thick like that). You need to keep in mind that by week 6, even those of us who’d maintained a fairly well-controlled schedule (i.e. myself and Brain Lisa) had drifted into sleep-deprivation and begun to regard choclit and coffee as the two major food groups (pavlova was the third). This resulted in, well, sock puppets on Jeff’s first day in the crit-pit with us – seventeen slightly wild-eyed adults with sock puppets at the ends of at least one of their arms. Poor man had handed in his latest book, gotten on a plane, flown to the ass-end of the world, had a little nap, and then fronted a bunch of feral students, whose vocabularies had been reduced to ‘ditto’, ‘anti-ditto’ and not a few creatively combined profanities. To give him credit, he didn’t bat an eyelid (it may have been the jetlag or the shorting out of every brain synapse in his possession); to give us our due, we handmade those sock puppets. Jeff and Ann’s professionalism and generosity were wonderful and deeply appreciated. Team VanderMeer was everything we didn’t know we needed.
Well, class, we will continue with this in Part Two, which will appear when I write it. I’ll cover things such as the daily routine, lessons learned, how to fit back into civilian life, and exactly how much Jameson’s Irish Whisky will lead to sock puppets.
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