For those who’ve been following the saga on Mastodon, you’ll have gotten to watch the sausage being made. Hopefully none of this is too repetitive.
I just spent the last week down in South Lake Tahoe at RAWR. For those who’ve heard of Clarion, the easiest way to explain it is “a one-week mini-Clarion aimed at the furry fandom.” If you’ve never heard of Clarion, the Regional Anthropomorphic Writers’ Retreat — almost assuredly a backronym but a clever one — is a six-day workshop and retreat for writers to learn how to improve their writing. Before the event, applicants a short work as part of our application. Those who’re accepted first go through a round of intense beta-reads with discussion, followed by writing up to six-thousand words at the retreat, followed by another round of intense beta-reads, all interspersed with lectures on storycraft and one-on-one discussions with the lecturers. It was, as our facilitator described repeatedly, a literary crucible. And it was amazing.
Before I get too deeply into the workshop itself, though, I want to take a moment and have my own private giggle about that word: crucible. It got said repeatedly, and it was accurate — the event really did leave little room for impurities because of its intensity — but at the same time, because of my own spiritual practices, I couldn’t help but chuckle every time it came up. In some ways, this was the positive inverse of the last six months, a chance to thrust myself into the Refiner’s Fire, to take a turn at Xalki’s workbench and see what I could make of myself. I’ve participated in the 3-Day Novel Contest before. I was looking forward to the challenge, and I think being excited for it helped me face it. A crucible it was, but also a chance to temper and shine.
As far as fellow students, my class had six people in it:
Kyell Gold and Ryan Campbell taught the lectures, and Alkani served as logistician for the retreat overall. Every last one of them was fantastic and helped make the experience incredible. First off, the instructors themselves were knowledgeable, thoughtful, and most of all helpful. Both of my one-on-one sessions were incredibly productive. I’m not ashamed to admit that at one point, Kyell made me cry — happily — with a well-timed line. Every single person present brought something to the table, a new viewpoint, new eyes looking at words, and they all showed me things in my own writing I hadn’t seen before.
I feel a bit like Lovecraft, continually falling back to superlative descriptors in place of showing what people did, but in this case I have reasons for it. So much of the trip can be summed up as an emotional aggregate of wonder and excitement. We cloistered ourselves from the world, mostly, focused on writing and making ourselves better at what we wanted to do. We laughed, we talked, we bounced ideas off of each other at all hours. We loaded up on caffeine and alcohol, occasionally at the same time, and cranked out tons of text. Then we shared our naked, screaming wordbabies with each other and saw them for what they were and what they could be. There isn’t anything in my experience quite like it. In many real ways, I just don’t have better words.
Another aspect to it all is that I don’t want to share the nitty-gritty of the mechanics, because that’s a good chunk of why someone would go to a retreat like this. I can say “it was worth it,” and I can say “I would love to go back when there’s a Repeat Offenders’ class,” and I can even talk some about the side details, but I really don’t want to cover any of the nuts and bolts of the workshop itself because I would rather encourage everyone I know who writes to attend, and to experience it for themselves. This was a wholly worthwhile experience in my book and I’m sad that I can’t go back next year, but happy in what I’ve learned from it.
One thing I can talk about, though, is how this has impacted my own plans and my own vision. One thing Kyell suggested was to actually build a plan, to figure out where I’m going and what I’m doing with my writing. There’s the Patreon, of course, and my past novels. I have other novels to finish plotting. Last Meal is likely to be the first in a series of short stories that may turn into a sequel to Beautiful World. I have the prequel and sequel to Bonds to plot. And I have the Pornograph Project to continue, which I should actually dictate and describe in full.
I have a novella about queer kobolds on my mental landscape.
All of these things have come back into focus in ways that just weren’t there before the retreat. One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I get sucked into my orthocosmic terror way too easily, and when things are at all shaky at work, I become too distraught to work. I need to learn to push past that, if I can, or to find ways to work around it if I can’t. Self-care is more than just useful; it’s vital. If I’m not taking care of myself, I can’t help others. I need to put on my own oxygen mask first, and writing is part of that. Putting visions on paper is part of my healthy lifestyle, and I need to remember to come here to rebuild myself, as well as everywhere else.
The other thing I’m taking away from that is that I really want to keep that critique circle going. I promised myself I’d spend the weekend on downtime and I have, cleaning house and rebuilding from an emotionally intensive experience. After this, though, I’ll be reaching out to my class to try to get a monthly session going. I want more of this.
Finally, I want to encourage everyone reading this to think of applying to do so. That said, I have two caveats I want to offer anyone who does think they’re ready. The first is that this really is a crucible. Your stories will be analyzed. You will be told what people think needs work. You’ll hear good stuff, too, and that’s important because it’ll help you to remember that you’re capable of producing good work while the things people didn’t like are being highlighted. You’ll be expected to write a story at the retreat and produce a bunch of analysis for others. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun, and I found it to be a lot of value.
The second big warning I want to put on this is that you’ll really need a sense of your personal style when you arrive. You’re not going to agree with every analysis presented to you. Many people’s analyses aren’t going to agree with each other. One story in particular in our year split the reviewers on how to improve it. You’re going to need enough certainty in your own authorial voice to be able to pick and choose from the analyses provided, because nothing anyone says is a requirement. You’re going to be told what your peers and contemporaries think doesn’t work for them, and you’re going to have to decide what to do with that. You really will get out of this sort of event what you put into it. I can’t suggest this enough: lean into what people say, accept the discomfort that comes with it, and ask questions. Everyone who says something negative about every story says it for a reason. The fix may not be whatever gets suggested in the moment, but every piece of feedback had a reason for its existence. There’s a tightrope to walk between leaving your ego at the door and asserting your personal vision for the story. You need enough certainty in your own voice to know when a critique missed the point, and enough humility to accept when a suggestion really will make a story better. And it’s hard. But it’s so very, very worthwhile.
All in all, this was a phenomenal experience — and there I go again — and I’m really glad I went. To my class and my instructors, thank you so much for the opportunity to join you! Give me a week to recover and I’ll start nudging people about projects. And to Alkani, talking with you about Beautiful World and how that discussion shaped the rewrites of Last Meal were a highlight of my trip. One day, maybe I’ll even be ready to help teach at one myself. I want to be part of the legacy of furry writing, and I think this was a great step on that journey, growing my own skills and learning how to help others.
It’s a wonderful time to be here