Write-a-thon: for CW and for me
5 June 2012
More about that in a minute. First, for those who haven’t heard me talk about the Write-a-thon, here’s the scoop. I am the Board Chair of Clarion West, one of the world’s most highly regarded and prestigious workshops for emerging writers of speculative fiction, taught by the best writers and editors in the field (this year Mary Rosenblum, Stephen Graham Jones, George R.R. Martin, Connie Willis, Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, and Chuck Palahniuk). Six weeks every summer that open the door to artistic transformation and professional careers. Six weeks that change lives.
We are a nonprofit organization. The Write-a-thon is our biggest fundraising event of the year. It’s a six-week writing marathon, like a walk-a-thon with words or a bike ride for cancer. Writers sign up and set goals, and then recruit sponsors. The sponsor makes a donation to Clarion West. The writer writes.
Last year, I was determined to raise the profile of the Write-a-thon, and I took a highwire approach. My sponsors gave me writing prompts; I wrote a piece of fiction to a prompt, and published it, every day of the Write-a-thon. 41 days of writing. Much of it very good.
It mattered to me. I’ll tell you why in a minute. But bear with me. Here is one of those prompted pieces. It isn’t the best of all the stories, but it’s the best one for this conversation.
Serena loved Open Mike nights: the everyday magic of music on the tiny stage of her sidestreet neighborhood joint, the way people settled in over beer and brats and cheered each other on. Her regulars were folks on their way home from the jay-oh-bee, community college study groups, young marrieds whose date-night budgets didn’t stretch to taxi fares, old-timers whose wives were dead or fled. A lot of them couldn’t sing worth a damn, which they’d all learned the hard way during the six-month stint of Karoake Hell before Serena sold the gear on eBay. But that wasn’t the same as making music together.
And tonight it looked like they might have some new voices. The couple at table five who were on their second round of vodka slammers, both wearing the classic Open Mike look, the mix of I cannot wait to blow you all away and Oh jesus fuck please someone shoot me now. The man in his seventies at the bar who put his name down when he thought no one was watching. And maybe the guy at table two. He wasn’t an easy read: the well-traveled guitar case against the wall didn’t jibe with the fresh careful haircut, or the boxed-in look in his eye. He drank his beer slowly, and by the time he was was near the bottom he still hadn’t put his name on the list. He looked like he was so far down his own rabbit hole that he might not even remember it was Open Mike, in spite of the banners over the stage and the adrenaline in the air.
When it was time, Serena stepped up on stage to applause and a wolf whistle from Bernie Ellison, who was still trying to get lucky one day. “Welcome to Open Mike at Layla’s,” she said. “All performers get a round on the house. One song to a customer. Let’s make some real music tonight!”
First up was Lamont Miller, freshly-showered from his construction job, his guitar like a toy in his big hands, singing another one of his unexpectedly delicate folk songs. This one was about a green river in a canyon, an eagle overhead. Lamont, soaring.
As the applause was dying, Bernie called from the back, “That was real good, Lamont, especially the part about the fish.” The couple at five looked startled, and then peered at Serena as if they expected her to shut Bernie down. She gave them a reassuring smile: it always took new folks a while to figure out that audience was a verb at Layla’s.
“Lamont, come on over and get yourself a beer,” she said. “You did good.”
Billie Mae Turcott stepped up with her ever-more-buzzy electric guitar. Punk wasn’t really Serena’s thing, but Billie was so passionate, and she was getting better at staying on the beat; and with every song, she brought a little more Billie Mae and a little less recycled Siouxsie Sioux. She took a Cosmo from Serena and high-fived her way back to her seat. Serena saw the guy at two frown a little: but she wasn’t that good.
The couple climbed on stage. “We’re real excited to be at Layla’s,” the woman said, as she checked the tuning on her acoustic. They called themselves Spider Bob and TJ, and they fulfilled the terrible promise of their names with squeaky voices and off-key harmonies. But theirs was a love song, and their glow touched everyone in the room. “Y’all just married?” someone called from the back, and Spider Bob blushed desperately and nodded while everybody cheered.
The old man was next. “I’ve heard about this place,” he said in a low and fragile voice: then he sang an aching a capella rendition of “Danny Boy” that had them all in tears, and Serena knew without being told, the way she sometimes did when the music and musician were particularly true to each other, that his wife had died in his arms in Intensive Care two nights before. It was all there in his music. He got a hug from everyone between him and the Jack Daniels that Serena had waiting on the bar.
She felt a touch at her elbow. The guy from table two said, “Can I still sign up?”
“You’re next,” she said, and waved him up to the stage.
As soon as his fingers touched the strings, as soon as he opened his mouth, Serena knew he and music were in one of those passionate long-term relationships, that they rode and rolled each other like a rollercoaster. He played clear and strong and true, and what he played made Serena shake her head as she drew a beer: a heartbroken it’s-all-over song. A breakup song. By the time he finished, Spider Bob and TJ were clutching each other’s hands and sniffling. He let the last chord die. He gave the crowd a thousand-yard stare. He said, “Thank you very much,” held his guitar for a moment, and then leaned over to put it away.
“Don’t you dare,” Serena said. He jerked, and blinked in her direction. “Don’t you dare come to my Open Mike with all that music inside you and then tell it goodbye. Not on our watch. Oh, please,” she added at his look of shock, and jerked her chin at the haircut. “What, you got a real job?”
He nodded slowly.
“Well, boohoo for you, big guy. All these people have real jobs, and they still make real music.”
“You just nothing,” she said. “You promise me right now that you are getting your ass back here next Tuesday to play, and nobody gives a damn about your presentation deadlines. You got that?”
He stared at her. Finally he said, “What is this place?”
“This is Layla’s,” she said. “Open Mike, every Tuesday. Come make music.”
“Shit,” he said. “Okay.” And Serena handed him the beer, and everyone cheered. He nodded, and drank, and she knew he felt it. They all did. A little everyday magic.
And now we come to the point. I am asking you to help me find my everyday magic.
Last year, I walked a wire in public for Clarion West. And I did it for me, too. I did it to stretch toward a vision of myself and my work that I thought perhaps was impossible to reach. I did it because I finally had to find out if I’m really a writer. Not an author: I am one of those. Not someone who has written beautiful words, been praised, won prizes: done that too. But am I, today, right now, capable of being the writer I want to be?
Last year I found my yes. Many of you helped me with that by sponsoring those works, and I am forever grateful.
But I am not being the writer I want to be. I am writing, a lot. Mostly screenwriting, and also building towards some new fiction. But I am losing the time war: I am slowly but surely giving ground to a thousand responsibilities and other challenges of my life right now. I’m doing my best to find the balance. But I need more help to sustain it.
Nicola is the best partner, editor, cheerleader and wellspring of love and support that any writer can have. But I need to know that my writing matters to people who don’t wear my ring. Right now, I need my Layla’s.
I commit to write on one of my projects every day for the six weeks of the Write-a-thon. I commit to write something good every single day. I won’t be doing flash fiction on my blog — I’ll be working on long-term projects that are deeply important to me. I won’t be walking the highwire in public, but I guarantee I will be doing so in private.
And I will take my sponsors on that journey with me. Every week, I will send my sponsors an email talking about my process that week. What I accomplished. My struggles and successes. The writing challenges and the aha! moments. What I’m thinking about as a writer. Whether I’m finding the balance, and how. This writer’s life.
If you support me by donating to Clarion West, you are not only helping a wonderful organization — you are helping me. You are telling me that it matters to you whether I show up in spite of whatever is going on in my life. That it matters to you whether I write.
You’ll be giving me some everyday magic.