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.


Sincerely, 

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. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Bullies, Black Eyes, and Bifocals

How an act of kindness transformed a scared kid with two black eyes into a future writer.

As a kid, I was acutely aware of invisible things. By day, I fought pitched battles to defend my backyard from them. By night, I trapped them inside my closet by blocking the door with a mushroom-shaped ottoman. I never noticed the invisible line running down the middle of my street, though. It was a different kind of invisible.

Nestled in the heart of middle class suburbia, my elementary school was the kind of place where the kids all wore clothes from places like Dillard’s and Macy’s. Most of the boys belonged to the same Cub Scout troop, myself included. Everyone went to the same church. From kindergarten until sixth grade, this was the whole of my sheltered, little world. And then invisible line exiled me. It sent everyone I knew to a place that resembled our elementary school. It sent me to SJB.
I wasn't even
  this intimidating.

There were three carjackings within a four block radius of SJB Middle School during my first nine weeks. One of the school’s buildings, a concrete corpse in the middle of the campus, sat boarded up and condemned. The boys at SJB joined “posses,” not Cub Scouts. And there I was, a chubby, asthmatic, four-eyed kid with designer clothes and an epic collection of baseball cards.

I got into my first real fight on my third day. My adversary was a sixteen-year-old 8th grader in a Megadeth t-shirt. At twelve, I barely came up to his chin.

Years before, my father, a retired career military man, prepared me for the eventually of fighting with a bit of sage advice. “Put everything you’ve got behind your first punch,” he’d said. “If the other guy’s still standing after that, you’re pretty much screwed.” ("Screwed" wasn't precisely the word he used, but I think I've conveyed the spirit of it.)


Yep. This about sums it up.
Turns out, Dad was right.

Megadeth sent me home with two black eyes, a bloody nose that just wouldn’t quit, and a busted lip. I hadn’t started the fight (or played much of a role beyond “punching bag”), but in keeping with the school policy of punishing all parties involved in a fight, I was suspended for two days.

The following Monday, I returned from my extended weekend and expanded my vocabulary through hands-on experience, adding “getting snuck” and “being jumped” to my middle school vernacular. The four boys who jumped me were suspended, and once again, so was I.

My situation felt pretty precarious. I had no friends, and the chest-thumping coalition had marked me as persona non grata, or as Megadeth called it, “Get Him!” So, when I returned from my second suspension in as many weeks, with the constant threat of being jumped (and suspended) looming over me, I started looking for someplace to hide during lunch/recess.

Ms. Care, the school librarian, was a perfect storm of apropos attributes--the kind of person you simply cannot use in fiction lest you face that most scathing pejorative “cliché”. She was mousy and ancient. She wore bifocals, of course, with a little chain that ran from one earpiece to the other so that she could wear her glasses as a necklace, which she did from time to time. As a finishing touch, a medical condition physically prevented her from speaking in anything more than a raspy whisper.

The Concrete Corpse
Kids would climb the metal stairs on the left, daring each other to jump back down.
Bragging rights went to the kid who jumped from the highest step.
My best was an ankle-twisting 10 steps.
Her lunch break coincided with mine, meaning that the library was closed at that time every day. Ms. Care locked the doors, and passed the time behind her desk, reading books and eating unidentifiable things from Tupperware containers. I knew the door was locked, but I knocked anyway, and to my surprise, she let me in with no questions asked. She did it again the next day. And the next.

By the third or fourth day, with nothing better to do, I resorted to reading. The library had two floors. The first was dominated by nonfiction, so that’s where I began--with books with titles like “Gunmen of the American West”, “Great Battles of the Civil War”, and “The Life of a Medieval Knight”. A week or so passed this way. Ms. Care would let me in, lock the door behind me, and then return to her lunch, never once inquiring about my purpose. For my part, I spent the time learning a lot about nothing in particular.

One dreary afternoon, Ms. Care deviated from the script. “Would you mind putting these books where they go for me?” she asked, gesturing toward a small, perfectly stacked pile of books on the returns table. I was delighted at the chance to repay her kindness. “These go on the second floor,” she rasped.

I collected the books, all small hardbacks, and set about my task, thinking that I thought I was doing her a favor. Ah, but she was a clever one. The second floor was where fiction lived, and every book she gave me belonged in the science fiction and fantasy section. I went up the stairs with about a dozen books. I came back down with three. One was by Isaac Asimov. The other two featured dragons prominently on their covers. Ms. Care smiled in her gentle way, and stamped them with their new due dates. 

I returned all three the next day and promptly checked out replacements. This became my habit, and every day Ms. Care would smile and give me few stacks of books, always science fiction and fantasy, to put back on the shelves.




"Violence is the 

last refuge of 
the incompetent."
-Isaac Asimov


Eventually, the resident ruffians forgot about me. I can’t really say when it happened; I wasn’t paying attention. There were new worlds to discover, arcane beasts to confront, and the occasional damsel (or planet) to rescue. One again, I was immersed in a world of invisible things. Time went on, and Ms. Care began openly recommending books. I unfailingly read them. Rather than eating her lunch in peace and quiet, she would invite me to discuss my impressions of her suggested readings. We spoke of things like magic and plotlines. She never once spoke down to me.

When boxes of new books would arrive, there were always a couple of that seemed almost deliberately chosen to pique my interest. Ms. Care gave me first dibs on them, letting me check them out before they’d even touched the racks. That’s how I discovered Rose Estes. She wrote several delightfully gimmicky books commonly known as “choose your own adventure.”

For the uninitiated, “choose your own adventure” books allowed the reader to direct the story by choosing which page to read next. Will you fight the dragon? If so, turn to page 12. Want to run for your life, instead? Turn to page 45. Ms. Care had purchased three of Rose’s books--The Pillars of Pentegarn, Dragon of Doom, and Mountain of Mirrors. I spent the rest of that day exploring fallen empires, battling frost giants, and bargaining with a dragon to save the world. It was glorious.

Undead dragons!?
  Mind blown. 




No, it was more than glorious.

It was inspiring.

The idea of participating in a story, of deciding what happens next, led me to a new frontier: the blank page. When I’d filled a dozen of them with the beginning of my first story--the tale of a knight commanded by a mad king to singlehandedly rid the realm of dragons--Ms. Care was the first person to read it. I sat nervously across the desk from her, struggling to obey her single commandment: “Don’t say anything until I’m finished.”

“Well?” I asked the moment she sat the last page down.

My grasp of grammatical conventions was poor; my spelling and penmanship were worse. In short, my writing was a red pen’s fever dream. Despite that, Ms. Care looked up thoughtfully and asked, “This is good, but how will you maintain the action in the next part?"

“More dragons!” I replied. And that’s exactly how I did it, too.

When I returned from the summer break, Ms. Care was gone. I would later be told that her throat condition had been some kind of cancer. Ms. Care had crossed yet another kind of invisible line. But thanks to her, I remained acutely aware of invisible things, and so I can still see her. 

She's on every page I fill with stories. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Thou Shalt Not Commit Genre

Academic prejudice and the reasons college professors ban genre fiction in graduate writing workshops. 

Graduate writing programs have a lot to offer: the advanced workshop experience, the chance to learn the craft from accomplished authors, and assistantship opportunities that bestow stipends and tuition waivers. For would-be wordsmiths, academia can be a paradise, but...
Thou Shalt Not Commit Genre
Guidelines from an MFA workshop:
[N]o romance, no scifi, no horror, no vampire/zombie, 
and no speculative or meta fiction…

Course description from a MA/PhD novel writing workshop:
But please: no fantasy or science fiction.

Introductory email from a MA/PhD workshop professor:
Just as a heads-up: we don't work with genre fiction in this program,
so make sure you send something "literary." 
(emphasis added)

To be fair, none of the professors quoted above enforced their restrictions when approached privately in advance, but that’s not the point. That these policies exist at all sends a clear message: genre fiction is intrinsically inferior, unscholarly and unworthy. For those of us who ask “what if,’’ this kind of literary prejudice can be a constant companion, the voice of a judgmental deity that threatens to expel us from the garden if we defy its mandates.

This deity is outdated, elitist, and counterproductive. It stifles the creativity that its temples were built to cultivate, it turns away supplicants based on subjective taste and preconceived superiority, and it calls into question the very legitimacy of speculative fiction as an art form. To the acolytes of this paradigm, Henry James is an archangel while Neil Gaiman slithers around apple trees. Perhaps most insidious of all, this deity is self-propagating: professors imprint these biases on the students who will become the next generation of teachers. 

Rodney Dangerfield: 
The spirit animal of genre 
writers in academia.
To write speculative fiction under such auspices, you need more than just a thick skin. You need be confrontational. And no, I don't mean being belligerent, although I've had exchanges that went there on both sides (So, my graduate course on young adult literature won't count toward my degree because you consider it a "bullshit course?"). You have to be assertive. Approach professors, ask for their reasons, and be prepared to articulately challenge those reasons, but remember: these are the people who'll be grading your comprehensive exams and judging your thesis or dissertation. They're also the ones who'll decide if you'll get funding via assistantship. 

Is it unfair and demeaning to be forced to jump through these hoops? Hell yes, but when you have to kill a god, it costs nothing to be polite. Be a diplomatic deicistSo, what are some of those reasons to ban genre fiction in collegiate fiction workshops? The deity has many mouths, but here are a few of the things I've heard from its avatars:

1. We just want to screen formulaic, cliche stories about zombies, dragons, and buxom women in bikini armor.
"Nothing happens for 400 pages
followed by an unsatisfying, 
esoteric ending? Awesome!" 
said nobody. Ever.
Graduate creative writing programs have audition-based admission procedures, and most can only accept a limited number of new students each semester. For example, my MFA program turned away over sixty applicants during my final semester alone. To get in, applicants must submit a portfolio of their work for faculty review. If you've gotten your foot in the door, you should have already passed enough of a screening processes to be trusted with your craft.

Not that admission standards matter. Any kind of story can be cliched and formulaic, even ones about dying loved ones, sexual awakenings, or aging academics seducing younger women at cocktail parties. Creative writing programs are supposed to help writers identify and overcome their weaknesses. If that weakness happens to be writing predictable, tropetastic epics, the problem is one of craft elements, not genre--but even this argument falls short of the addressing the real problem: how can you tell that a story will be formulaic or cliche without reading it? 

So the little man with furry
feet needed the help of his
 best friend and his worst 
enemy to destroy the ring?
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN!?
2. I have no experience with genre fiction. I don't know how to evaluate it.

Ah, the old "it's not you, baby; it's me" line. This argument politely hides its subjective bias behind a diaphanous veneer of professional credibility. It's an excuse, not a reason. While a given professor may be unfamiliar with the sensibilities of a particular target audience, s/he will be well versed in narrative fundamentals such as voice, plotting, dialogue, character arc, pacing, foreshadowing, POV, and theme--all of which are equally present in both literary and genre fiction. 

To loosely paraphrase one of my better MFA instructors, "Good stories are good. Bad ones are bad. In that, genre is irrelevant." Claiming an inability to evaluate genre fiction is tantamount claiming an inability to evaluate fiction at all, and "I don't like speculative fiction" is not valid reason to limit the options of students who, lest we forget, are paying for these services.

3. Speculative/Genre fiction is a disposable, for-profit commodity.  

Publishers probably aren't going to buy your manuscript because they like you. They're expecting to turn a profit on it, and anyone who sells their work is inherently part of the for-profit industry. Regardless, how disposable are Shelley's Frankenstein or Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four or Huxley's Brave New World or Stoker's Dracula or... You get the idea.
Sorry. I can't hear your artsy 
rage over the sound of how
 goddamn rich I am.

I've also heard this sentiment expressed as, "We're creating art here, not entertainment." These things are not mutually exclusive, and if you want your work to be read outside of academia's echo chamber, you can't afford for them to be. Remember: Shakespeare's plays were pop culture when he wrote them. Oh, and he wrote to pay the bills, too.

One of my MFA professors described genre authors as: "profit-motivated writers who crank out serial novels in which the same characters do the same things over and over." Even if we pretend this inanely inaccurate portrayal is true, is there something wrong with making a living through your craft? Are you somehow inferior to starving artists if you can afford to put your kids through college? Why is success something to scorn?

4. Writing literary fiction teaches you to focus on character interactions.

"This has dragons in it! 
Bring me something with 
complicated characters
 instead."
This argument employs the following logic: literary fiction focuses on complex characters having nuanced, real-life human experiences, and since these elements are the core of most stories, students should master them before experimenting with "distractions" like fantastical settings, magical creatures, or alien perspectives. The director of my MFA department explained it this way: "Even Picasso had to start by learning to paint still lifes."

 To answer my MFA professor's painting analogy, I'll offer another one made during a class with my week five instructor at Clarion West, Samuel Delaney: "Novices tend to paint the subject first, but skilled painters typically start with th background." Elevating one craft element over another ignores the complex codependency they share. Writers develop their craft along unique trajectories; no two are the same. There is no universal formula that, if followed in the proper order, will produce mastery. 

Of course, proponents of this anti-genre argument are also presuming that genre fiction will inherently involve underdeveloped characters and/or generic character dynamics. So, here’s an idea: professors should actually read a student's work prior to making decisions about that student's strengths and weaknesses. It makes a lot more sense than issuing anti-genre mandates based on insulting assumptions. After all, not every literary writer is a master of existential abstractions, and not every fantasy writer has a protagonist named He-Man.  

Your god is too small!

The predisposition against speculative/genre fiction is a pretentious and dogmatic contagion. Spreading it sustains the literary claim to some imagined intellectual high ground, but at what cost? How many aspiring writers are discouraged by this poisonous atmosphere and give up (especially considering the thousands of dollars it costs to experience being treated like a second class artist)?

Okay, so it's a rainy day, but can MFA programs still be Eden for speculative fiction writers?

Yes.


Not every member of the literati is beholden to the frowning deity. Nestled in among the enforcers of banality are open-minded cherubs who embrace creative writing in whatever form it takes, who sincerely seek to help developing authors hone their craft even when their stories involve steam-powered spaceships, regenerating time travelers, gender-bending zombie romances, or radioactive dragons. 

On occasion, the genre-averse can be converted, and some turn out to be completely accepting and supportive in practice. The professor for my first PhD workshop had a no-genre policy. After sharing some of my work with her, she exempted me from that rule. In the ensuing (entirely pleasant) conversation, I learned that she was completely unfamiliar with William Gibson and the genre he informed. After hearing it explained, she invited me to submit a cyberpunk story. During that story's workshopping session, she drew parallels between the thematic elements of cyberpunk and the gritty, irredeemable casts that populate Flannery O'Conner stories--and O'Conner is her favorite author. There is common ground, and it's worth finding it when you can.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of institutions are openly courting genre writers. For instance, Brandon Sanderson teaches a class on writing genre novels at BYU (you can enjoy his awesome lectures for free here) and Bard College boasts Neil Gaiman among its faculty. 

In addition to the professors, creative writing programs provide an opportunity to network and build professional relationships with other students of the craft. Yes, some are literary zealots, eager to malign genre fiction and those who write it, but not all of them are that way. Not even most. You might also get lucky and meet a fellow deicist or two along the way. 

In academia, speculative fiction writers start with something to prove. It's bullshit, and it's infuriating, but it's also something we can work to change. Baby steps may be small, but they're still steps. Every professor we convert, and every bridge we build, makes the path that much easier for the genre artists who'll come in our wake. So, be a deicist, be proud of your passions, erode the prejudice, and above all, as Neil Gaiman says, make good art, because good art puts the lie to all of the genre-banning arguments.