It’s been like the surface of the sun these last few days with no wind, The nights are filled with turgid heat dreams interspersed with wild moments of “Huzz-snork-ah? Which kid made that noise?” A few nights ago, I had a weird writer dream where I was invited to teach at Clarion for a week (because, I guess, every respectable writer is busy). Not wanting to be called out on my lack of professional teaching skillz, I opt to be the crazy eccentric who tries to show them that “write what you know” is crap.
1st day assignment: Everyone writes down their preferred genre. I scramble them and give them back to the least likely candidate. If everyone puts “military SF” in the hat, then they all get “paranormal romance” back. I expext a short story in their assigned genre tomorrow.
2nd day: I tell them that part of this week will be the importance of failing spectacularly and moving on from it. Anyone who didn’t finish the 1st day’s assignment should hand it to the person on their left. Their job will be to finish the story. If they did finish their story, then today’s assignment is to take the characters and basic conflict of the story and transplant it 300 years in the past or in the future. Same locations through.
The trick isn’t so much as to teach them how to finish things (I’m leaving that to the other instructors) but to get them to stop being afraid of being creative.
3rd day. I have a piece of cork board with 40 polaroids that I’ve snapped of random people over the last few days. They’re to pick three. One of them is to be dead by the end of the story. The definition of “dead” is up to the writer.
4th day. I hand out unlabeled soundtrack CDs. They have to write a story based on what they hear. If the student doesn’t have CD listening capabilities, then their protagonist had better be deaf.
I woke up before we got to day 5, and I’ve been thinking off and on about how to end the week as well as the lesson being imparted. I know I’d probably crash and burn on a few of these, but at the same time they are exercises that I wish I had been given because they would have gotten me thinking about how much freedom writing really is. Doing research for THE PROMISE OF PIRATES and thinking about that book, I’m realizing that a few years ago, I wouldn’t have even attempted to write this book because it was so far out of my comfort zone. Right now, that’s a huge part of the point of trying to wrangle it in my head. I know that a career can be built out of one trick (God knows enough writers have done it), but that’s a “job” and that’s not a whole lot of the appeal of doing this. So, yeah, I wish there had been more exercises that weren’t there to facilitate me writing the same sort of thing I’ve done before, but to get me out of my box and into the wider world.
Failure should be about as traumatic as putting your pants on backwards. You just sigh, shake your head and promise not to drink so many mai-tais in one sitting again, and put your trousers on the right way. But I really do think — at least in this environment and especially when you are young and new — that we should all be broken first and then allowed to put ourselves back together.