Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Clarion West - Greetings Starfighter

When my wife and I stay in a hotel, we
keep the bible. Notes on the flyleaf mark
 the date and occasion. We have dozens,
commemorating good times and bad.
On Clarion West, scholarships, and cancer

Held annually in Seattle, the Clarion West Writers Workshop is an intensive six week workshop for developing science fiction and fantasy writers. Each week is taught by a different instructor, including some of the biggest names in the field. Space in the workshop is limited to 18 writers, chosen from among hundreds of applicants. Last year, I got in, affording me the chance to learn from Elizabeth Hand, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Margo Lanagan, Samuel “Chip” Delany, and Ellen Datlow

Michael Alexander attended Clarion West in 2010. Cancer took him in 2012, one year after the death of his son, Elliot. They are survived by Shelia, and it's with a post-Clarion email to her that this story begins:


To: Sheila
Date: Fri, Oct 25, 2013 at 6:58 PM
Subject: The Elliot Alexander Scholarship
(I'm sharing this email with Sheila's blessing)

Hello, Sheila. 

My name is Liam, and this email is long overdue. I tend to get a little verbose, so bear with me, okay?

Neile Graham & me.
Neile is the workshop director
for Clarion West. 
There are moments in life that define everything else in relation to them. For me, Hurricane Katrina was like that. It marks my memories with a stamp that reads “before” or “after.” This summer, thanks to your generosity, I experienced another one of those moments: Clarion West. Actually, there were two moments, and they’re connected, but I’ll get back to that. 

I am fortunate enough to have a wife whose faith in me is inexplicable, boundless, and humbling. We've been married for seven years, but people still ask if we’re newlyweds. She introduced the topic of Clarion West when she noticed that Neil Gaiman (a hero of mine) was among this year’s instructors. Our conversations about it usually went like this: 

Liam: “There’s no way I’ll get in. I’m not good enough.”

Melanie: “You’re wrong.”

How it felt to get that call
As is often the case, I was pessimistic, and she was right. I was sleeping when the call came. Several disbelieving, stuttering, adrenaline-blurred moments later, I sat on my bed, wonder-struck. Melanie was gracious: not even one “told you so.” At that time, we hadn't spent more than twenty-four hours apart in over ten years. Above all things, Melanie hates being alone, so six weeks represented a huge sacrifice – and it was her idea. I don’t know how many people are lucky enough to find someone who’ll take your dreams and make them their own, but I am one. I’m guessing Michael was, too. 

A few weeks and a thousand miles later, I walked into a fairy tale. Despite everything I learned there, succinctly summarizing the Clarion West experience remains beyond my abilities as a writer. There’s no way to quantify having the clockwork of my creative process retooled by master craftsmen. How can I explain the awe of learning form my hero? Or discovering new ones? I kept expecting my proverbial carriage to turn back into a pumpkin, only it never did. Thanks to your scholarship, it never will. 

The second defining moment came during the last week of Clarion. On Wednesday morning, my mother was ambulanced to an emergency room in New Orleans. She was unconscious, but apparently stable. At 4:40am my father called to tell me that she wasn't going to wake up. Per their wishes, I remained in Seattle. She passed at 10:30 the following morning. The whole thing had been sudden and unexpected.* I waited until after the final class to tell my classmates, but Neile Graham was with me when I got the news. She was the first person to hug me. She gives good hugs. 

Bear with me, just a little longer. This is a story about journeys and generosity and honoring memories. As a rule, such things have three parts. I have one left.

My mother was cremated. No wake, no funeral. Those were her wishes, and my father honored them. On Saturday afternoon, Melanie and I drove out of Seattle. With no services to race back for, we took a rambling route full of the kind of beauty that can, if not heal, at least anesthetize a wound long enough for healing to start. 

Neither of us had ever touched the Pacific Ocean, so we did that. It was cold. Seriously cold. We found sand dollars. We passed through the Redwood Forest. Have you ever seen them? If not, you should. There’s something innately peaceful about standing among those patient, venerable giants. We drove through the Sequoias and then the Mohave Desert with its 114 degree heat. We stood precariously on ledges and marveled at the Grand Canyon. In New Mexico, we chanced upon a volcano and climbed down into its mouth. Somewhere along the way home, I stopped crying at random intervals. 

My mother's wedding announcement

Every night, I called my father and told him about the content of my day. My mother had loved the Canyon. She’d always wanted to see the Redwoods. Dad and I are both quiet people. We talked more during those phone calls than we had in the decade before. We still call each other. 

I don’t know you. I didn’t know the loved ones whose memory my scholarship honors. What I do know is that their legacy made my life a better place, a place where shooting for the moon really can land you among the stars. I also know that their legacy set me on the road to finding peace when I needed it most. 

Thank you, Shelia. Thank you, Mike. Thank you, Elliot. 

I couldn't have taken this journey without your help.


S. Liam Meilleur
10 - 24 - 2013


Michael and Elliot Alexander

This year three full scholarships will be awarded in memory of Michael and Elliot. Tuition and travel expenses can make Clarion West an opportunity that some can't afford to take. I was almost one of them. If you'd like to contribute to helping other would-be starfighters take their place among the stars, go here.

* My mother had been battling cancer for over a year, but she'd gone into remission in April. Cause of death seems to have been a massive stroke brought on by complications from her treatment.

Carol Ann Meilleur
June 17, 1952 - August 2, 2013
Thank you, Mom. 


  1. Michael was one of my CW 2010 classmates and a good man in the way that only someone who understood when I told him "I'm afraid" can be.

    Liam, we may never meet, but I cannot thank you enough for the wonderful gift of your post.

  2. "a good man in the way that only someone who understood when I told him "I'm afraid" can be."

    Between that description, discussions with Shelia, and a piece written about Michael by K. C. Ball, I'm positive we would have been friends. When I see that picture of him, it always feels like his expression says, "Shouldn't you be writing? Well? What are you still looking at me for?"