There is a moment in the hyperactive and wickedly smart comic book series TRANSMETROPOLITAN where Spider Jerusalem, the futuristic political journalist and militant gonzo activist, having just suffered a crippling stroke of some sort, is informed by his Doctor that he has contracted something called I-Pollen Degenerative Disorder, and that in the coming few months as this vicious brain cancer deus ex machina progresses he is going to lose all motor and cognitive skills. As the Doctor reels off the horrible consequences of this, Spider starts grinning, and by the time he’s done Spider looks about as happy as a shark about to eat a baby penguin. When the Doctor asks him why the hell he’s grinning, Spider responds in the royal we of editors and people with tapeworms, “So we’ve got a deadline. We can do deadlines.?

Hallelujah. Indeed. Writers can do deadlines.

I’d like to tell you about a little adventure I had this past weekend. At least for me it was an adventure and a bit of a revelation. I think for others it was probably as fun as learning what flop sweat is like after they thought they had a part nailed in a play or coming face to face with a blood sport Hemingway liked to call “boxing Turgenev.?

The setting was Foolscap VII up in Bellevue Washington. The programming had a nice little break from the usual panel fiascos such as Circular Quest Fantasies: Threat or Menace? and Do Wookies have G-spots? Instead, off to one side, minding it’s own business on Saturday at 3PM was Show Me A Story: A Workshop moderated by Harlan Ellison with Manny Frishberg, Sandra Odell and Amy Thompson. When I saw this on the programming schedule I foolishly assumed we would bring in some finished material that would be tossed around for some tough love and suggestions for a final polish.

Ha. Ha ha ha. When I’m wrong, boys and girls I go right off the rails. You’ll see.

Friday morning I approached the Con chair and was told that the workshop was booked in advance and the event could only accommodate sixteen. Damn. Still, it was reasonable. Even sixteen story critiques in an hour and a half would be pushing it. Still, I clutched my Twain pages and my little horror story to my chest and said, “Well, if anybody drops out or there’s a seat on the wall, let me know. I’ll be quiet and keep a low profile.?

First we lie – then we write.

The panel rolls around and they had three or four dropouts. Like a questionable character in the third reel of a heist film, suddenly, I’m in. And here’s how it went down. Rainier is a conference room that’s just about ALL table. The ambitious dozen take their places and suddenly all I can think of is 12 Angry Men. Looking back on that moment I’m not sure that being verbally abused by Lee J. Cobb would have been so bad in comparison, but that feeling quickly passed. Aside from the four already mentioned, there was Kristin Ruhle on my right and Doug Lane and Amy Kosten-Jenkins from Webderland on my left. Also present was Kathleen Retz who ran the Foolscap art show. If Doug or anybody else wants to cough up the names I’m missing I’d appreciate it. I’m moving on with apologies to those whose names I’ve misplaced.

At this point Harlan laid out the ground rules. Ms. Retz had a folder and in it she had color reproductions of art she had pulled off the Internet. I’m told that much of the art was pulled from Elfwood.com

Ok. I have just been to this site and there are over 600 galleries, each with dozens of pieces so I’m not going to even try to cite the individual works. As I write this I have a query out to Ms. Retz and may know more later. I’m sure Doug and Kristen and Amy remember their pieces. In fact, I suspect we all have our art burned into our brains for good or ill. Adrenalin does wonders for memory.

Back to the “rules.? Harlan said that we were each to pick a piece of art, and then we were going to sit down and WRITE A STORY in approximately the next half hour. These we would then read aloud, and a brief round-robin critique of the story would take place. As Doug likes to say, “Holy Jeebus!? Now you, sitting in front of your monitor at home may square your shoulders and say to yourself “yeah, sure, big deal, I could do that?, but I’m telling you I’m real glad I had the medicine man bless my bulletproof tunic and make me invisible for good measure before we started. This may not have been for keeps but it sure felt like it.

So after a lot of sighing and tooth gnashing and hair pulling and crying and drooling and knuckle chewing [the proceeding 14 words brought to you by Street and Smith and worth 7 cents if appearing in TRAPPED in 1957] we all picked our art. Harlan picked LAST from the four or so remaining pieces. And we began.

Now a note to the cynics among you on how Uncle Harlan is a big stinky cheater. Let me TRY and head you off at the pass. Could Harlan have seen all the art in advance? Could he have then sat down and cobbled up rough story ideas for 16 pieces of art so that he had something to expand on no matter what was handed to him? Could he have worked the room like some sort of double-brained Kresken, hypnotizing and pushing and cajoling us into taking the other pieces and leaving a pre-chosen piece for him? Yeah, sure, I suppose. But I was there and Amy was there and Kristin was there and Doug was there and that’s not what happened. We all picked our poison and Harlan chose last. Moreover he picked a piece, that while extremely well executed, I pegged as about the last thing he would want, as it featured, well, you’ll see.

Thus armed with inspiration, or the poison of our own choosing, we began. Most of us used pen and paper and committed our sins in long hand. Good enough for Shakespeare and Neal R. Stephenson, we figured it was good enough for us. One person had a PDA-keyboard configuration that I thought was keen looking, but a bit too small to work on with out going blind. Harlan pulled out an old manual typewriter provided by the convention and we were off to the races.

Have I ever told you all what a complete and perfect dick Harlan can be? Really? Well, he starts pounding away at this thing and all I can think is word word word word word, now he’s FIVE ahead, word word word word word word SLAM! carriage return, now he’s ELEVEN ahead, word word word clack clack clack… pause, scratch forearm, fold arms over chest, glare a bit, pause hand over keys, then whack whack whack spacebar spacebar spacebar WORD WORD WORD and he’s off again. After a minute or so of this I think we all tuned it out. In fact, in a weird way, very quickly I found it, if not restful, at least sort of focusing. I work at a PC and WORD and MS Office are my friend, but that thwacking ratchety sound IS the sound of creation to me, the way a loud KA-CHING is the proper sound of a cash register drawer opening. So I stared at my painting, chewed my knuckle and started plotting my little story.

I’m cutting a few paragraphs here. Suffice to say I ended up writing a vignette. Approximately 290 words in 25 minutes that told the story of that moment in the painting:

http://www.donatoart.com/gallery/farseekers.html

and gave some back-story and set up some conflicts for scenes to come. At best, it is a crippled fragment that will never see the light of day. First draft, under the stopwatch is NOT my friend. At least Barry Malzberg had bourbon to see him through this in the 1970’s. Who works like this?

Later I was talking to Harlan about the value of this kind of kiln-style writing and we agreed that it was unnatural BUT it does do two things. First, it forces you to finish something. The world is full of project starters who never get around to finishing anything. I know because I’m one of them. The other is that after the pain is over, it can be – and should be – a tremendous confidence booster. It illustrates what Harlan has said for years, that Art or art isn’t really created in ivory towers on crystal mountaintops; it’s usually hammered out by people in basements and attics or sheds behind the house (John Gardner) or even an upright plywood coffin standing like an airless isolation chamber in an otherwise normal living room (Lester Del Rey). The lesson is like the ubiquitous Nike slogan. Just do it.

Back to Harlan being a dick. So, we’re all of us writing to the best of our abilities – and some of those abilities ended up being pretty remarkable. I’m recalling Mr. Frishberg and Mr. Lane and the one by the woman to Mr. Frishberg’s right whose name I don’t recall, when Harlan slams his carriage return for the last time after typing “they were all run over by a bus. The End.? or some such shite, and gets up and steps away from the table like a guy with a winning hand who has called “all in and good night and good luck and your twenty is on the dresser, see you later kiddo, I got a train to catch.?

Seventeen minutes. Last to pick. First to type. First to finish. What do you call that?

So Harlan gives us another 10 minutes. Then he gets a drink and tells us when we hit the five-minute mark. Then time compresses to auto-accident Ballard time and we’re done.

We each read our pieces and offer up some critiques but I don’t think our hearts were into the criticism. I won’t savage you and you don’t savage me was rule of the day and worked out fine. For a LONG and accurate description of workshop dynamics there are essays in the Clarion anthologies that go into exquisite detail on how this can play out and go south quickly when people don’t play well with others.

Besides, we all knew what we were waiting for. Harlan had written a story. A NEW story. Right there, in less than twenty minutes. So, we sat back and said well, let’s see what the oldest enfant terrible has got. He read his story.

Let me be clear. Harlan said this to me after the workshop and I completely agree – “There were NO failures in that workshop. Everybody produced something and everybody learned and everybody took something away that they could use.? That almost never happens in a workshop or any teaching situation for that matter. Moreover, a couple of pieces could probably be published virtually as is, or given a polish and then sent on their way. Two out of twelve would have been a very good day in workshop land.

But it wasn’t two out of twelve because Harlan read his story and showed us how it’s done. Mohammed Ali said, “it ain’t no brag if you can do it.? Boy was he right. And I didn’t even have to get punched in the head by a heavyweight to learn that lesson. Or maybe I did and I’m still taking a standing eight count and wondering just where my corner is.

Either way, I could tell you about it, but it’s 350 words and you’ll read them before too long. It’s called WEARINESS and will almost certainly feature the art of one Hubert J. Daniels who I am told is a young student at the University of Warsaw and I suspect is about to become a “made? man if that’s what he wants.

I asked Harlan how this compared to Clarion, where the writing assignments were overnight affairs and he told me they’re analogous but in a compressed sort of way. “It’s sort of like comparing a good piece of buttered bread to the finest French toast you’ve ever had. Both worthy in their own way.?

So there you have it. Cost of traveling 3,000 miles to see some friends and stay at the Bellevue Sheraton for four days and attend a small science fiction convention? About $850.00 Having your ass and ego handed to you by a paunchy old man with a battered manual typewriter with nothing to gain and no need to prove anything to anyone?

Priceless.

– Barney Dannelke [12:09AM]

Composed in 2 hours 11 minutes / 2,160 words.

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