I do have a picture of me eating a sandwich with Algis and Edna Budrys at Clarion in 1984, but I cannot find it. I am sure I was wearing a distasteful (to me) dark blue skirt and my button-up-the-back Victorian-style blouse. I was so proud of that thing!
This is A.J. Algis Budrys as I remember him. While I have told Harlan Ellison that every word he said during the Clarion SF Writers Workshop in 1984 was true, it was A.J. who was my favorite teacher. It was A.J. from whom I learned the most, and it was A.J. with whom I stayed in touch over the years most frequently.
Unlike many, I actually read A.J.'s writing. You will see one of his books here on the reading links on my now much less-used blog. It's a link to Hard Landing, a post-Vietnam, Cold War type of book about aliens living among us. Now that I read it again, I see that it's quite a bit like Fringe, only minus the mad scientist, and literate and intelligent and filled with the A.J. thing: loneliness.
I could be wrong, but I think A.J. was our second week instructor at Clarion. Possibly the third week. I do know that out of all of the instructors, A.J. was the most clear, a natural teacher.
Not only was I an "extra" student barely admitted to the workshop, I had several secrets and plenty of baggage related to the six-week hothouse of writing and late night affairs and madness. First, the story I wrote that gained me admittance to the workshop was the first science fiction story I'd ever written. Second, it was a mashup of the Star Trek episode with Zefram Cochrane ("The discoverer of warp drive") and "A Distant Episode" by Paul Bowles. This apparently produced something "storylike" because I was admitted and did go to the workshop. Third, and most significantly, it was the first "storylike object" I had ever completed, because I sure as heck did not know what a story was. Despite spending four years taking "creative writing" one or two classes each semester and having written many thousands of words, I went to the Clarion SF Writers Workshop with no clear idea what a story was.
It would take me another eight years to understand what a story was. But A.J.'s clear explanations, which did take me the better part of a decade to comprehend, did, at last, sink in.
A.J.'s clear presentation of characters with conflicts informed the story creation model that I use to teach.
I may not have known what a story was (I didn't), but I did have a sense about people's motivations, and although I knew A.J. was an outstanding teacher, there was something so complex behind his bluff, friendly exterior. His eyes missed nothing. And, I noticed even then, and even remember asking others, "A.J. doesn't treat everyone the same. Why?" Certainly he treated me kindly, it wasn't that. I noticed that he seemed to comment off-point, or in a mild, off-handed manner to some writers, whereas with others, he would laser in to the exact problems in their work and give specific instructions, or would outright tell them it was poor and to write it over again or try a different story.
Since I didn't know what a story was, the one memory that stands out strongly to me was smoking on the porch with Glenn Wright and returning for my turn in the barrel. I can't even say which story it was that was being critiqued; there's at least 8 stories in that horrible box that's now in the UCSD library archives. I wrote one or more, sometimes even three, stories (story-like objects) each week of the workshop. I do remember it featured a little girl on a swing. So A.J. read this little passage aloud and said, "If you can write like that all the time, you can write anything."
I look back and realize it was very simple. As long as I wrote honestly about something I knew and was passionate about, A.J. was correct. But I thought about what he said for a long time. I knew this was an honest and heartfelt portion of the storylike object, so even though it took a long time for the plot lesson to sink in, on a scene level, I was able to achieve some degree of mastery much more quickly.
I felt that A.J. was an extraordinarily insightful, trustworthy and decent man, yet guarded. And lonely. It took some years for me to both understand what a story was, and understand A.J.'s gifts as a writer: clarity, insight, discretion, deep and complex thinking.
A.J. did remind me of my grandfather, but he reminded me of what my grandfather may have been like as a son of the second World War and a young man who came of age during the Cold War. My grandfather was a son of Southern California in the true golden age of the state. Everyone was his friend until they proved otherwise and a dishonest word never left his mouth. Not that A.J. dissimulated. It was what he did not say, not what he said. It was what he kept to himself.
As I said, I kept up with A.J. and Edna over the time I was not writing after Clarion. I wrote little holiday letters and sent cards. I received the occasional card or letter from him. I thought they lived very far away in Illinois. I pictured the flat broad lands spreading away from the city on the lake, the endless rows of small houses and midwestern sameness.
When I started writing again, the one person I felt "safe" sending my work to was A.J. for his Tomorrow magazine. You'll notice that's not one of my credits.
Algis Budrys has the honor of having written me one of the most poignant rejection letters I've ever received; the other one is the little card from Alan Rodgers at Twilight Zone that convinced me to quit writing for eight years after Clarion (meant as an encouragement - taken foolishly by me as the exact opposite).
I started writing again when Meredith was about three years old. I had written 10 or 12 things approaching something like an actual story. One day I was sweeping out the garage when a little song came into my head: the ballad of Jonny Punkinhead. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. I remembered how I felt about the homeless people. How hard it was for people to understand that there were more and more of them every day. I thought about how my friends, even my own family, didn't understand what I did at Family Service. They didn't know what it felt like to feel the pain of the disenfranchised, the ill, the alone, the tortured, the people who were afraid they could not feed their children or pay the rent.
When I finished "Jonny Punkinhead," I knew I had written something worthwhile. So of course like a child, my goal was to publish it -- anything -- and I sent it out. I collected the most amazing set of rejections for this, a good, story. And most amazing of all was A.J.
"I cannot pay you what this story is worth."
Sure I cried.
Well, after that came the agonizing Writers of the Future situation, because I really was about ready to quit - again - when I got the letters from Dave Wolverton and Fred Pohl that convinced me I had better not give up this time. Was "Jonny Punkinhead" a WoTF story? No. It was purchased by Kris Rusch for the new writers issue of F & SF in 1996. The second time around: Kris had been one of those rejecters the first time around. I changed only a few words of the story when I sent it back to her the way Dave Wolverton told me to do.
So, I went to the Writers of the Future contest too late. It was another two years before I attended the actual workshop. And lacking a laptop, I actually had the same manual typewriter I'd taken to Clarion all those years before!
"Mad for the Mints" was written first in longhand, and then banged out on that wrist-killing thing. Think about trying to buy some type of ribbon for a student-edition manual typewriter in 1998.
So here was A.J. in the flesh again. I think the others were a little surprised that I knew him and he knew me.
Now I was somewhat more perceptive and I really noticed A.J.'s tendency to pick and choose his approach with different writers. I was beginning to learn "what a story is," and the young man who was the grand prize winner that year wrote something pretty non-story-like. A.J. praised it effusively. This bothered me. I could not understand why he would be so overly effusive. It was unlike him, or unlike at least what I thought I knew. I ruminated, I probably even mentioned something to Ron Collins, that it seemed "un-A.J.-like." I even fact-checked my impression that this story had absolutely nothing going for it.
Finally at an evening event, I had the chance to talk to A.J.
"Why did you say that to __" I asked. "I don't understand." It should go without saying that while everyone was thrilled with "Mad for the Mints" and I knew I had a sure sale, A.J. was less than impressed.
He just looked at me, blinking mildly. Then he said, "You have every gift anyone could want. Others don't."
Well, now I put these things all together.
See, in-between times, before "Jonny Punkinhead," right after I had started writing again, I bought a copy of Hard Landing by A.J. This book was tighter than a tick. I recognized the skill and craft in it, and the excellence of language. So I wrote A.J. and told him what I thought. I wanted him to know that I ... well today I'd put it this way: that he had done something magnificent. That he was magnificent.
This is what I received back in the mail (this book was published in 1993 - it was not signed at the 1984 Clarion SF Writers Workshop):
"Orphans is orphans, no matter where from, and we understand each other."
This is the story. A.J. remembered; he not only remembered -- he knew.
I remember those cool blue-gray Baltic eyes. That solidity. The quiet, careful thought.
Yes, orphans is orphans. We do understand each other.
What it feels like to be on the outside, looking in. Always on the outside.
What it feels like to walk away.
What it feels like to return.
And A.J., I do understand: triumph lies within. Just like Lithuania. Suffering, alone, one defeat after the next. Forced into silence. Never, ever broken.