Learning What You Don’t Want Is Equally Valuable: Thoughts On Clarion, And Also, Unrelatedly, Polyamory, As Well As Other Things

Once a year, in normal years, eighteen lucky students are chosen to go to the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. There, they spend six weeks on a hellishly intensive writers’ retreat, being subjected to the stresses and triumphs that come with being held to standards of a professional writer.

Many of today’s most popular writers have come out of Clarion.+ I did. If you’ve liked the books I’ve written (or feel like preordering my upcoming book to see what I write like), well, you can thank Clarion for that.

Yet Clarion is a big ask for some. It costs thousands of dollars, and requires six weeks of free time to go, let alone travel costs. And the ugly secret to Clarion is that some people go to Clarion, spend their six weeks there, and emerge to realize that they do not want to be a professional writer.

This is often treated as a failure state.++ “They spent all that money, and didn’t emerge as a best-selling author? What a waste of cash and time!”

Whereas I look at that is, “You spent six weeks learning that one of your life-long dreams would actually make you miserable.

“That’s so much better than vaguely longing after something for years and feeling guilty that you never made it happen.”

Because some people go to Clarion and realize that being a professional writer is actually kinda sucky sometimes. Struggling with a story is hard work; revising that story can be even tougher. And continually weathering harsh feedback – from beta readers, from agents, from editors, and (if you’re lucky) from readers can be soul-destroying. Then you have to worry about your career, and whether you’re on the upswing or the downswing…

A lot of people wanna just write and not go pro! And that’s entirely legitimate. There’s this running undercurrent in American culture that implies that if you can make a career out of it you should wreck yourself to monetize every last hobby, but… hey. There’s nothing wrong with writing happy stories in your basement for a couple of friends and online forums.

In that sense, it’s pricey, sure, but spending the cash to strip yourself of this nagging urge that “I should be a pro writer” is really pretty damn effective. Because learning what you don’t want is often more valuable than learning what you do want.

Learning what you don’t want can free you from all kinds of guilts.

And I’m writing this essay because an online friend of mine said something very wise: he said he’d learned from reading my essays on polyamory that poly was not for him.

Which is awesome! I read a lot of online writings that seem defensive about not being polyamorous, as though there was something wrong with not being poly.+++ But polyamory is often a right pain in the ass; it’s juggling a lot of emotional concerns, it’s stretching yourself across a line of lovers that you may not have the time or energy for –

Discovering that you’re not cut out for poly is valuable information. It frees you. You can say, “Nope, sorry, not for me” to any potential poly relationships with a confidence and a surety that will serve you well.

And that’s why I don’t think all breakups are necessarily bad, either; sometimes, even though it’s painful, you have discovered a way of interacting with your lover that utterly will not work for you.

There’s all sorts of discussions about learning what you love, and those are also good. But when it comes to discussing past failures, often there’s this residual sadness fogging up the lens when it really shouldn’t – this idea that “I wasn’t good enough.” Whereas the truth is that it wasn’t that you weren’t worthy of your initial goal, it’s that you got there and discovered that it made you sad.

Learning what makes you sad is equally as valuable as learning what makes you happy. There is great strength in that.

Treasure that on the days you find out.

  • – This is the obligatory disclaimer that you do not need to attend a writers’ workshop of any kind to be a professional writer, and many of the people who teach Clarion as bestselling authors never went to Clarion. ++ – Coming out of Clarion as not-a-writer can, however, be a failure state, especially if you came out of it because overly harsh critiques sapped your love of it. Every Clarion has a different mix of writers and people, and while the success rate is high, there are always group and individual failures in the mix where perhaps a different approach could have ignited, instead of doused, their career. +++ – And yes, there are people who believe that polyamory is the “enlightened” path, selling that old snake oil that monogamy is inferior. They are bullshit artists, and you can safely ignore them.

God, As A Most Delightful Daddy Dom

As of tomorrow, it’ll have been eight weeks since I last ate refined sugar. This would have been “pretty impressive” during a decent year, but in the Age of Pandemic, the fact that I haven’t stress-eaten a cake a day has been nothing short of miraculous.

The big question is, how have I given up sugar for so long when I’m constantly craving a big ol’ glass of chocolate milk?

The answer: By using the Lent abstinence, compassionately, as a brain hack.

See, I believe that religion is at its most useful when it’s not merely faith, but also doubles as a brain hack to make you a more resilient, more compassionate person regardless of whether God exists or not. That’s a concept neatly stolen from Alan Moore’s thoughts on magick, where he says that casting spells isn’t really about shaping the world, but are simply a way of using patterns to rearrange your own consciousness.

Which is why for me, prayer isn’t about helping people. If I’m spending more time praying for people than I am actually helping them, then I’m failing. My days are spent calling politicians, listening to friends when I can, and donating to charity.

With that in mind, my prayer is a sort of anxiety-reducer for the large-scale things I can’t control – things like pandemics, wars, politics, and so forth. I quiet down and talk to God, trusting that He (or She, or It) has a plan – and I do genuinely believe that, but even if I didn’t, focusing on a belief that everything’s going to be okay is a meditative way of hacking my brain to get my ass to calm the hell down.

Because yeah, if I turned on the logic circuits in my brain and said, “Everything’s gonna be fine,” then my asshole brain would devise a thousand reasons why everything is spiralling out of control. But focusing on a compassionate being watching over us all – even if they’re imaginary – helps short-circuit those frantic concerns. And I need those concerns quelled, because as noted, I’ve done all I know how to do already, so stressing about the economy 24/7 will just break me down.

So I have this twinned issue: I believe, and also that belief is useful. I never assume prayer will be helpful for anyone else, because everyone should process stress in their own way. But that’s how it works for me. God is both a reality and a way to cut through the conscious levels of thought straight to the amygdala.

Which is how Lent happened to be useful.

I heard a priest discussing Lent not as a time of abnegation, but as a time of self-care. The point, said the priest, was not to grudgingly give up your favorite hobbies for six weeks; the point was that you knew what was hurting you in your life, and God wanted you to stop hurting, so why not take the time to get closer to him?

Which flipped a switch. (Or, perhaps, flipped my switchy tendencies, ha ha ha.)
I’d been dreading Lent, because six weeks of no chocolate milk? Six weeks without the nectar of life? How?!?

But that concept made me go, “You know all that sugar is hurting you. I know you can’t give it up for yourself, but what about envisioning doing it for a being who absolutely loves you and wants you to be happy?”

That… felt like a Daddy Dominant.

Which is to say that there’s a lot of BDSM relationships that aren’t predicated so much on bloody whippings and ball gags so much as “You’re not good at taking care of yourself for yourself, so let’s externalize that focus.” There’s a lot of people who take their medications because their dominant sends them a text every morning reminding them that part of their relationship is, yes, working out and taking time for themselves. You don’t take your medications for yourself, but as part of a ritual that affirms your bond for another person.

You devote yourself to another person, who in turn wants you to devote yourself.

So whenever I felt the itch for a big gloppy eclair, I thought, “If there is someone all-loving who treasures me, do I want to disappoint them by shoveling this food into my face?” And I felt them saying, “You know what’s right, don’t you?” And I let my putting the eclair aside be an act of devotion to someone else.

Basically, I hacked my brain out of an eclair. (And my brain really likes eclairs.)

And yeah, it’d be nice if I could externalize that concern to someone actual, like my daughters or my wife. (Which I have, to some extent – on the days I really want to skip a workout, I think of my daughter Erin stressing out over my heart and then I get to the weights.) But those real people have real disappointments, and if I fuck up they might yell at me – or even leave me. Whereas the God I envision might sigh a bit, but the all-loving, mysterious creator knows down to the atom precisely what a fuckup I am and still cares, so I don’t carry that extra stress of “Must be perfect in quitting sugar or I’ll be alone.”

And so it’s two weeks past Lent, and here I am, still not tucking into the boxes of Girl Scout cookies on top of the fridge.

Still. I’ll have a chocolate milk some day. This isn’t about refraining for the sake of refraining. Part of the deal with a Daddy Dom is that they know you fuck up from time to time, or even just need a break. A really compassionate Daddy Dom gives days off, understands the times when you’re so wracked you need to deviate from the routine, and will be stern but loving on the days you forget.

It is weird to think of God as my Daddy Dom. But honestly? I’m a big fan of whatever works. And if I gotta be a little closer to God to get me a little further away from diabetes, well, I’ll take it.

Not A Hemophiliac, My Hemophiliac

Whenever I think of hospitals, I think of my Uncle Tommy.

Yet how could I not? Half of my memories of my sainted uncle are at hospitals; us dropping by to pick up his cryoprecipitate twice a week, seeing him on the nights he bled so badly they had to keep him in for overnights. I remember my uncle’s five o’clock shadow thrown into harsh contrast by the fluorescent overheads, his leather boots clacking on speckled white hospital tiles, wreathed in the scents of old cigarette smoke mixed with the ammonia scent of freshly-mopped floors.

His life was intertwined inextricably with the hospital. When he was a kid, he spent two weeks out of every month there, practically growing up in the childrens’ ward. His best friend was a kid with a terminal illness who died before he was twelve. He used to go over and comfort the scared kids when the nurses had to give them injections, showing them through his own needle-scarred forearms that the IV wasn’t that bad.

When he died, I found nurse porn in his VHS collection. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Tommy’s existence was a product of medical science – he’d basically spent his whole life dying just a little slower than hospital advances could catch up to him. He was born with hemophilia, which meant his blood clotted so slowly he risked bleeding to death from gashes you or I would just bind up – and when you’re a three-year-old hemophiliac, every toddler tumbler means potential death.

But as I said: the technology caught up to him. At birth, he wasn’t expected to make it to six. At six, he wasn’t expected to make it to twelve. At twelve, it would have been a miracle if he’d become a teenager – and then, when he got to his mid-twenties and it looked like hemophilia was a solved (if expensive) problem, he got HIV from a blood transfusion.

Somehow, he managed to live through that until HIV medications could stabilize his conditions, a gruelling decade.

Then he got hepatitis. Managed with that.

Then he got pancreatic cancer, and that’s all she wrote.

And that continual lack of a future stunted him to some extent; he was always terrible with money, because Tommy literally couldn’t imagine having to pay debts two years from now. He had no image of himself as a future being. Yet paradoxically, because he was an accountant, he was also very good with money, dying literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in forestalled death and still managing to leave me $20,000 on a technicality I still don’t fully understand.

What did he buy with that money? Pretty much what I would have: comic books and CDs. Fine meals. Fun outings.

No, I lie; it’s exactly what I would have.

Because Tommy was my best friend.

We’d sit down on a sleepy Sunday afternoon like this, and drive out to the corner store, and pick us up some Archie comics and some chocolate milk (he’d get beer, but I don’t think it’s coincidence I’m drinking a beer today), and just sit around and read comics with MTV on in the background and shoot the shit.

I was… a very lonely teenager. It took me a long while to get past a combination of my own social anxiety and my unwillingness to fit in anywhere. And on those days, those Sunday afternoons, Tommy and I would discuss how great the latest Stephen King book was and talk about Eric Clapton and I’d rag on him about him smoking still and he’d just shake it off and tell me it was too late for him to change, but maybe I could.

And when I was depressed, I could talk to him too. He knew loneliness. He had a lot of friends, before he got HIV and retreated inside and got ready to die – and it was a damn shame that he spent fifteen years withdrawn, braced for a death that took him by surprise – but even though he could have had people over at the drop of a hat, he also understood his dramatic, awkward, fumbling nephew well enough to give him hope on the bad days.

I was the last person he talked to before he died.

Literally nobody who knew us though that was a coincidence.

And for as much as he loved me, he’s laced through my DNA. I walk slow, because Tommy walked with a cane and even now, almost twenty years on, I still amble at his pace. I have his guffawing laugh, which sometimes draws attention at restaurants.

And I can’t stop thinking about him now that the world’s in a pandemic.

Because of the hospitals.

I remember begging Tommy to move out to Michigan with me, near the end of his life – back when he was miserable and hurting and I wanted to take care of him. And he got bitter – he couldn’t leave. The doctors here knew him. I told him that was bullshit, he could start over again anywhere, and it’s to my eternal shame that this was not true – Tommy knew more than I did. As a man who survived through medications, having a stable of physicians who never questioned his own needs – who trusted that he’d only ask for the drugs he needed – was literally life support for him.

I wonder how Tommy would deal now. Now that the hospitals have become a place of danger, where coronavirus has made it so that simply walking in has become a risk.

He couldn’t not go.

But that’s the thing; Tommy was incredibly goddamned brave, for someone who was so goddamned fragile. He’d walk through bad neighborhoods at night with a limp and a cane, eyeing potential muggers as if to ask them what they were gonna do. For him, the worst had already happened.

He was afraid of some things; being dependent on people was certainly one, me aside. (He always relied on me, a fact I still wear with pride.) But he wasn’t afraid of mortal danger. I know he’d walk into that hospital, mask on, shrugging because what the hell, life was always a risk, here’s another one, fuck it.

Maybe that was foolish. Maybe that’s a short-sighted attitude borne of his stunted future. But it also served him well, getting him adventures a man of his medical history should never have reasonably been allowed.

He lived life on his own terms. And I respect that. This virus would be a concern, but not a panic; he’d deal, as he always dealt.

I’ll deal. As I have always dealt.

Because I am my Uncle’s son.

(If you enjoyed this, it was inspired by the National Hemophilia Society reminding me about Hemophilia Awareness Day. If you got a few bucks, I’ll remind you that hemophilia is incurable yet requires expensive, weekly transfusions to help the afflicted survive, so maybe throw them a few bucks? It could be a(nother) act of kindness in a time of pandemic.)

Advice From The Plague Pits: Shape Your Space!

We are now roughly a month into quarantine, and by now you should have learned three languages, taught yourself to play the harpsichord, and achieved samsara through the perfection of Buddhist meditation.

Fuck that.

Look, if you can use this time for profitable self-improvement, then do so. But this isn’t some pleasant vacation: this is traumatic seclusion, where you’re in parts equally concerned about thousands of people (possibly even you or someone you love) dying of a fatal disease and also can I get toilet paper before we run out?

So be a little merciful on yourself. This isn’t your sixth-grade recess, this is bolting doors against the plague – and if the stress is impinging your abilities for self-improvement, then don’t beat yourself up over that.

But there is one thing I will suggest you take the time to do in lockdown, even if you don’t feel you’re up to it:

Take some time to redecorate your living quarters.

Seriously. Hang up some art, push the beds around, or at the very least do as thorough a spring cleaning as you can manage. And here’s my rationale:

Most of you had a home that was somewhat of a transient space – you went out to work, you went out with friends, you went out to get coffee. And now, in this time of solitude, your home is less of a “I’m here for a few hours and then out again” and more of a soft prison.

And chances are there’s something you’ve been tiptoeing around in your apartment. Maybe it’s that closet stuffed full of unsorted games. Maybe it’s that spare room you’ve been meaning to turn from a junk space into a reading nook. Maybe it’s just that the windows are boring.

Sure, you meant to learn Italian some day, but even if you did that’s not gonna pay immediate dividends. Yet sprucing up your home will pay off immediately – because you’re there, more often than you meant to be, and not only will a change of scenery benefit you, but you’ll be shaping your living space into a place more suited to your mood and your needs.

So yeah. Hang a couple of dreamcatchers in the window, scrub the grime out of the tub, rearrange the bookshelves. Because every time you walk by those posters you hung in the hallway, you’ll not only feel a little pride because you accomplished something you’d been meaning to do, but also that accomplishment will have turned your home into something that feels, well, homier.

This is gonna be your space for another couple of weeks, at least. So shape it to suit you.

And hang in there. With a little luck, we’ll get through this. I know it’s rough.