Sunday, June 26, 2011

Clarion romance, 23 years on

Kelley and me, 1989

Today is the 23rd anniversary of the day I met Kelley. I told the story in my multi-media memoir, And Now We are Going to Have a Party. I was 27, just arrived at Michigan State University for the six-week Clarion writers' workshop. I felt alien, English, and alone...

I'd never stayed in a dorm before, especially not one in humid 98-degree heat with no air-conditioning. Not one full of straight white people with wedding rings and big shiny teeth. Not one where all the pre-paid cafeteria food was useless to me. The cooked food was meat-based (I was vegetarian), or covered with cheese (I'm allergic). The bread was white spongy stuff that looked more like mattress filling than anything a human being should put in her mouth--and mouldy to boot. Worse, oh much worse: Midwesterners thought tea came in a glass over ice.

So there I was, trying to breathe air like warm potato soup. Workshop not due to start until the next day. (Half the workshop was already there. But these were the scary, white-teethed straight people.) Broke. Starving.

"Hey," I said to Sue Ellen, another Clarion student, across the hall (the one who made me this nameplate from rubber dinosaur stamps). "Where's the bar?"

"Oh," she said, "it's dry."

"Yes, I can see that it hasn't rained for a while, but where's the fucking bar?"

"No, no, you don't understand. The campus is dry. There's no bar."

I stared at her. "No bar?"

"No bar."

By this time it was late. It was hot. I'd have to walk miles to find a supermarket and I was exhausted by travel and the forceful and repeated ejection of my stomach contents for the last few hours. I went to bed.

The next morning, after a breakfast I couldn't eat, I accosted another workshop member, one who actually lived in town and so knew where things were. "Can you point me to the nearest supermarket so I can buy some beer?"

He smiled and said cheerily, "It's Sunday."

"Sunday. I see." I took a breath, determined to speak slowly and clearly and in a tone adapted to the meanest understanding. "Sunday. Yes. Now please give me directions to a supermarket."

"No, no," he said. "You don't understand. It's Sunday. Supermarkets don't sell beer on Sunday."

"No beer," I said.

"That's right!" He twirled his wedding ring and said, "Let's go hang out with the rest of the gang!"

I followed him numbly. Six weeks of this. No beer. No air conditioning. No food. No tea. No real people. What had I done?

I talked to a group of my fellow students. We were mutually incomprehensible but we kept trying and eventually I came to understand that Clarion, for these people, was a big deal. They knew what to expect: workshopping, personal conferences with the teacher of each week, fun and games with water pistols (or "squirt guns"). They knew the teachers' work, and by reputation. Everyone but me had brought their own computers. Many of them had corresponded before the workshop (they'd all received a variety of forms and participant lists and information sheets that had never made it to the UK). I asked them if they'd known, then, that it was a dry campus and there was no beer on Sundays at the supermarket. Why, yes, they said. Well, then, had any of them brought anything, any beer or wine or fucking Tennesee sipping whisky? Why, no. They were puzzled. We stared at each other, aliens.

After an inedible lunch I sat in my cheerless room and contemplated the wall. Minutes ticked by. Hours. The last few students arrived. I heard them trundling their vast carts of stuff--cushions, posters, blankets, PCs, special mugs, slippers, mosquito repellant, water pistols, and clothes, lots of clothes--down the corridor then thumpings as they customised their rooms and called out to each other and made friends. I stared some more at the bare wall.

Thunder clouds were gathering. It was one hundred and five degrees. The air was thick and slippery and difficult to breath. Tim Powers was here, ran the word. First meeting at 6:00 pm. I didn't even know who Tim Powers was.

My wall was institutional green, my bed blanket babyshit yellow. I was to share my bathroom with a woman called Peg, in the room to my left (the room to my right was not yet taken). I examined the bathroom. Grey tile. No shampoo or soap or hand lotion.

About three o'clock I heard another cart trundling down the corridor, but also a noise I didn't recognise. I stuck my head out of my door.

Thunk, thunk, thunk. A woman on crutches gimping down the corridor after the deputy director of the workshop, who was pushing her cart.

She had long blonde hair to her bum. Her bum was in Calvin Klein shorts. Her legs were also long, and the colour of sun-toasted biscuit. One ankle was wrapped in one of those nasty 'flesh'-coloured Ace bandages. Sprained, I diagnosed. Her arms were long and golden, too, and her fingers.

I have never actually run into a sheet of cling film and bounced to a full stop, but I can guess how it feels. I looked at this woman and I felt a soft shock. As I tried to breathe something strange was happening. Pathways in my brain were being reorganised. It was as though every cell in my body lined up like iron filings and pointed at her. It felt irrevocable.

"Hello," I said, and withdrew into my room. The newcomer thunked into the empty room next door. Next door, oh god. Just one thin sheet of plasterboard between me and all that golden longness.

I was deeply angry. I'd flown thousands of miles, risked everything. I was here to work, to learn. I'd been sensing the change heading my way, but it was work, it was writing, it was art. Not...this.

And then it was six o'clock, and the newcomer and I walked together to our first workshop meeting. Her name was Kelley. She'd sprained her ankle doing Wing Chun. I knew I was lost.
Kelley in her dorm room, 1988, tired after marathon writing

I was right. Lost lost lost. And found, of course. It gets better every year. As I said this morning when I woke up and beamed at Kelley: today we have food I can eat, real tea, and some fucking beer! Life is good.




Meanwhile, Kelley's latest piece for the Clarion West Write-a-Thon is up. This one will make you blink:

“Is she aware?” Caroline said.

“Of course,” the Clockmaker said, quite dispassionately.

The pendulum swung steadily. A beautiful clock. Old. It might have been keeping time for centuries.

The minute hand clicked to 11:57.

“Is she suffering?”

The Clockmaker said, “It does not cause her physical pain to be small and wooden.” [more]

You can read all of them so far here. If you like them, consider sponsoring her.

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12 comments:

  1. It certainly is. Happy Anniversary to those young people and to us too, my love!

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  2. I love this story! Happy Anniversary!

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  3. Jed, thank you.

    Mark, so, hey, yesterday was the anniversary of our first meeting...

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  4. And it really was, as I recall, sort of First Contact experience. For others who might read this, I can do a credible British accent, at least RP---except in front of you. I mentioned it in front of some others and there you were with those inquiring, ever-ready-to-be-impressed-amused-etc eyes, saying "Really? Let's hear."

    And of course I absolutely could not do it. Reduction to self-conscious posseur. But as you turned away, there was a little glint in your eyes, a kind of "Gotcha, but it's all in fun" look, and later we spoke English to each other, I thought, really well.

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  5. Mark, I'm a wiser and kinder person now. Now I would smile and say, "Cool. I'll look forward to hearing that at some point." But, y'know, the heat and No Beer probably made me a little combative :)

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  6. No, you were cool about it, and later I laughed my ass off at myself. You handled it perfectly.

    Possibly the frustrating years of being unable to publish prior to Clarion led up to this, but after Clarion I found I had learned to not take myself very seriously. I think you helped with that. So...thank you.

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  7. Happy Anniversary Nicola and Kelley,what a great 'First Contact' story.
    Here's to at least another 23 more!

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  8. Mark, my pleasure :)

    Dar, thank you.

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