In 1995 I got accepted into the Clarion science fiction and fantasy writers’ workshop in Lansing, Michigan. It’s a highly-regarded and very successful writing program for budding SF/F writers. They had hundreds of applicants and only took 20, so I felt pretty cocky.
In those early days of the Internet, it was easier to find rumors about Clarion than facts. “People pick up drug habits during Clarion!” “Marriages break up because of it!” “The teachers trepinate you and sip your brain fluids!” (In retrospect, two of these are pretty clearly exaggeration.)
The first day of Clarion was over 100 degrees, and 100% humidity. I arrived on the campus and moved in, lugging everything up to the seventh floor by hand as all the carts were taken. The AC systems were overloaded, and the wasps were as thick as flies around a Memorial Day picnic. Lansing’s third biggest cash crop is wasps–not sting-you-once-and-die yellowjackets, but the nasty hard-shelled black wasps with wire-thin waists that take deep joy in the art of the bite and practice at any opportunity.
I had felt pretty good about being there, but then I started meeting my classmates. There was an MIT student with an arm in a cast. He’d spent the previous month motorcycling around Ireland, crashed his bike halfway through, and finished the tour with one arm. There was a well-traveled black girl who spoke with a lovely Caribbean lilt. A perfectly normal accent, unless you have lived your entire sheltered life in Detroit. Another woman had won a trip around the world by writing one sentence. Actually, not a sentence — a fragment of a sentence. There were med students, and biochemists, and robotics engineers, all these people with Real Life Experiences of the sort writers are supposed to have. I looked around, remembered that I still lived with my parents, and slowly realized that I was going to spend the next six weeks with a group of people who all totally outclassed me.
The orientation began. The university staff were all friendly, and did their best to make us all feel at ease as they distributed flyers and papers that described where we could eat, how we could get parking permits, where to do our laundry, how the cafeteria worked, the importance of avoiding the pea and cheese casserole, and so on, and so on. We were all nervous, looking at these strangers trapped with us in a notorious pressure cooker.
At the front of the room sat Joe and Gay Haldeman. They looked like someone’s friendly grandparents, but I knew they were actually Demons from Hell in disguise. This was Clarion, after all. Without realizing it, my hand tightened the sheaf of papers in my hand into a solid inch-thick dowel, compressing them back into the primordial wood they had come from.
We’d done our best to exclude the wasps, but a few buzzed around the room. Unbeknowst to me, one of them had been attracted by my sweat, landed on my leg, and walked up the leg of my shorts.
Joe was explaining how the workshop process works when I shifted in my chair. My leg moved a critical fraction of an inch, making the wasp feel uncomfortable. Pressured, even. He reacted as wasps are wont to do. I experienced a sudden sharp, stabbing, shocking pain, and immediately realized that I was experiencing a very personal assault.
I leaped to my feet and used the tight roll of paper to counterattack.
The wasp responded in kind.
Of course, to everyone else it appeared that I had spontaneously leapt to my feat and repeatedly smashed myself in the privates.
After several blows, I saw half the wasp fall out of one leg of my shorts. A second later, the other half fell from the other leg. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then I realized a few things:
1) I had just done myself a grievous mischief. A very grievous mischief. As I wasn’t certain what was attacking me, or the attacker’s exact nature, I had engaged in saturation bombing to be sure I took out the villain.
2) Everyone in the room was staring at me, obviously thinking either “It’s only day 1 and someone has already snapped,” or “I wonder if he’s a danger to others as well as himself?”
3) It is possible that I will be more embarrassed at some point in my life. However, it is certain that I will certainly never embarrass myself any more than I have at that moment.
It worked out for the best, though. I quietly, and in a rather high and soft voice, said “A wasp, I was bit by a wasp,” and staggered out of the room to privately inspect the damage. Everyone relaxed. A couple of the guys went looking for ice. Someone found some Benadryl to keep the swelling down. There was no ice to be found, but there was a Coke machine. I sat for the rest of the day with two icy cans of cola wedged up my pants.
On the whole, it was a bonding experience. I broke the ice in our class. Everybody knew that whatever happened, it couldn’t possibly be worse than what I had done to myself.
The wasp bites swelled and became infected. The infection lowered my immune system, which turned into bronchitis, which turned into walking pneumonia. I spent the next week coughing chunks of goop. This turned into a running gag, and just about everyone wound up doing a phlegm story. Except me, of course.
So, after all this, would I recommend Clarion? Yes, absolutely. But wear long pants.