Contemplating the upcoming 2015 Potlatch science fiction convention, which is being held here in Seattle and is closely associated with Clarion West, calls to mind my experience at the 1973 Clarion West writer’s workshop. The amazing thing to me is that I have so few memories of the six weeks I spent there. More than forty years have passed now, but it has been like this for many years: the memories broken, sporadic, disjointed, and there is so much missing. I think part of the reason I remember so little was that I was so unprepared when I went in. I was starting from ground zero. Probably in the state of literary prowess (or lack of it) I was in back then, I would not be admitted to a modern Clarion. The workshop was in its beginning years and was not as well known as it is now. I had just recently realized that I wanted to become a writer, but I had no idea how to write. I have told the story before, but for those who don’t know the background, it happened like this:
I had gone down from Seattle to Santa Clara University in California to attend college, and I had no idea what I was up to. I ended up taking a lot of drugs and missing a lot of classes. Let’s face it: I was a late bloomer, unprepared for either university or Clarion. Anyway, I attended a science fiction literature course and in the textbook was a story called “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison. I had never heard of the story or the author, but it just floored me. By the time I had finished it, there was nothing else in the world I wanted to do than become a writer. Flash-forward about a year and a half or so I suppose (the entire time is vague to me), and I was back up in Seattle having totally failed at university, taking odd jobs, writing a few stories, and wondering what to do with myself. I was still taking a fair amount of drugs and drinking a lot besides. I really was a mess, if truth be told, still recovering from all the psychedelics I had done down south.
And lo and behold, I found out somehow, I can’t remember how, that Harlan Ellison himself was giving a reading and talk at nearby University of Washington. By that time I had discovered the Nebula Awards volumes at the local library and had read more of his work and was a real fan. The lecture was great. Ellison was (and is) a great showman, and kept the audience entertained with in-your-face expostulations and anecdotes. At the end, he had all the lights in the auditorium turned out except the reading light at the podium and read his new story, “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”, which had not yet appeared in print. A sublime, thoroughly chilling piece of work, made even more effective by the live reading. After the event was over, I found out that Ellison was there because he was teaching for a week at a six-week annual writing workshop, and the performance was at the conclusion of the week.
I determined then that no matter what, I would attend the next year’s workshop. And I did.
It seems strange to me that looking back, I not only remember few of the other participants, but I don’t even remember all the teachers. I remember Harlan Ellison’s week mainly because of his reaction to the story I submitted. I admit that it was a totally lame effort I wrote for no other reason than to try to impress him. His only reaction was to wrinkle his brow and say, “What is this?” His indifference was well-justified. I had no idea how to write a story. It reminds me of a Family Guy episode in which a mob approaches the Griffin house and a scrawny, weak-looking man steps out and throws a rock that doesn’t travel more than a foot or so before falling to the ground in front of him. In justification he says, “Hey, I never throwed anything before.” That was my problem. I had never done it before. I had no idea what to say or how to say it. I had no voice as a writer, and I never did have one until I forsook everything I had known and struck out on the road into the unknown, traversing continents and in the process finding out not only who I was as a person but my voice as a writer.
Terry Carr was one of the teachers, and I remember him mainly because of the way he expressed his disappointment that “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World” by Harlan Ellison had won the Hugo award for best short story instead of his own story, “The Dance of the Changer and the Three”. I remember Peter Beagle because he read from his then-new novel “The Last Unicorn” and explained that when he was writing he seldom had any idea where he was going; sometimes he went forward sentence by sentence without knowing where the story would take him.
A few of us students were drinking buddies, and we would frequently head off to a tavern in the University District that I knew would serve minors (I was only twenty at the time, and others were underage as well) and we’d swill beer and talk shop. Among them was Paul Bond, who became one of my closest post-Clarion friends, a tall, slim young man with a heart condition. He had already had open heart surgery at the time of the workshop and later died when he was still quite young. There was also Russell Bates, a Kiowa Indian who after the workshop wrote the Star Trek animated series episode “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth” with another workshop participant, David Wise – at the time the only Star Trek episode to win an Emmy award. And there was Bubbles Broxon, whose pen name was Mildred Downey Broxon, whose houseboat on Lake Union Seattle area participants frequented after the workshop to continue monthly writing critiques.
Despite the fact that I received little direct benefit from the workshop in terms of writing finesse or story sales, I count it a germinal event in my life. It put me in proximity to other writers, which was important. It helped me realize there were other strange souls in the universe who considered writing the most important of all activities on Earth. It put me in touch with other writers, some of whom I remained in contact with for years.
More than forty years have passed since then, and I approach Potlatch with both anticipation and trepidation. I am not the same person, though, who attended that workshop back in 1973. I lived overseas for thirty-five years, gaining perspective and (I hope) a modicum of wisdom. I am a father of five sons, and parenting, if nothing else, is a process of maturation, as you learn to give up just about everything to prioritize the well-being of the children. And I have written and published fifteen books and a lot of short stories. Tempus fugit, indeed.