by John Kessel

So you’re coming to Clarion. I don’t know you or your personal reasons, but I think I know something about what might drive somebody to make this commitment.

One of my favorite albums of all time, one of my top three of the 1990s (along with Radiohead’s OK Computer and Moby’s Play) is Freedy Johnston’s 1992 Can You Fly, and my favorite song on that album is the first, “Trying To Tell You I Don’t Know.”  The reason I like this song, aside from its crunchy guitars and sense of urgency, is that for me it captures the desperation that drives someone to create.

You have to listen to the song to get the full effect, carried by Johnston’s reedy, hoarse voice. Here’s a link that I hope works for you. Listen to it, preferably loud, on headphones.!/item/yw42

Here are the lyrics:


Freedy Johnston “Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know” from Can You Fly


Well I sold the dirt to feed the band

Falling right through my hands

Yes I sold the map up to the sky

Falling down always trying


Trying to wake up in your head

Trying to cry with the red light on

Trying to tell you I don’t know


Well I sold the dirt and bought the road

Let me tell you right where we’re going

Yes I sold the house where I Iearned to walk

Falling down always trying


Fifty bucks to use the van

Trying to find your city man

Trying to get back my guitars

Trying to tell you I don’t know


Well I sold the dirt for a song

Bleeding on every note

Yes I sold the map up to the sky

Falling down always trying


Trying to sing what I can’t say

Trying to throw my head away

Trying to cry with the red light on

Trying to tell you I don’t know

This song is autobiographical. Freedy Johnston was a smart homely kid from Kansas, not the source of a lot of world famous rockers or anything else, and he wanted desperately to make it. He kicked around for a number of years in the 1980s, dropped out of college, lived in Lawrence playing various loser gigs, moved to New York City, and was not getting anywhere. So when his grandfather died and he inherited the family farm, he sold it in order to raise money to record an album.

Think about that.

You want to create so bad, you are so convinced that you have something in you that is worth saying, that you will sell your birthright in order for the chance to speak what you hope is in you. To regular people it’s insane, even some sort of crime. You yourself don’t even understand why, or whether it is worth it. You know it’s crazy, you are in radical doubt about your ability, you just sold the house where you learned to walk for the chance to go on the road and play a bunch of miserable one-night gigs, to pay the band, to spend fifty bucks for the van, to get your guitars out of hock–your grandfather’s sweat and blood being dribbled away for something he would probably scorn. It hurts you to do this, you’re bleeding. You owned the map to the fucking sky and sold it for a chance to play to a bunch of strangers you don’t even know. Are you nuts?

Well, in the eyes of the world, maybe you are. You are a writer, or you ache to be one. You will make big sacrifices in order to come to Clarion, to spend six weeks of your life taking your best shot. You leave your family behind, you quit your job, you break up with your boyfriend, you spend thousands of hard earned dollars, maybe go into debt, all on a wild chance to write stories for strangers.  You are taking a big risk. You may not make it. Even if you do, like a toddler learning to walk, you are going to fall down a lot before you learn to walk. Always.

So you are going to write what you can’t say into the form of a story, you’re going to throw your head away and follow your heart, going to cry with the red light of the recording studio on, and send the result out there for strangers to critique.

I am here to support you in that insane choice. Because I was just as insane, because anybody who chooses a life in the arts is a brother or sister in that madman’s club, devoid of common sense, desperate for that chance, willing to sell the map up to the sky (crazy!) in order to grasp something you don’t know.


3 thoughts on “Desperation

  1. When I first heard about Clarion, I thought Gee that’s nice — who can afford to take six weeks off AND pay tuition, room and board? Then the next year I had a new one-year contract which paid more than the previous year and I thought Gee I could afford to go to Clarion now. And I did.

    And then when I got to the 2004 Clarion, I found there were people who’d quit a job in order to come to Clarion. Wow.

    As you’d expect, everyone’s story is different. If Clarion is something you really want — and the experience of having six weeks of nothing but reading and writing SF/F is amazing — you will find a way when you’re ready.

    Dr. Phil

  2. I found out I was pregnant at about the same time I found out I had gotten into Clarion. My challenges weren’t financial, though spending that kind of money with a baby on the way would be considered irresponsible by anyone. My challenges were physical and emotional. Even when not pregnant, I’m pretty fragile in both respects. I have profound social anxieties that are hidden under a brash personality. Sleep deprivation and terrible food just add to my problems, and I seriously wondered if it was fair of me to subject my little “passenger” to all the stress that would be coursing through my system.

    I can’t say as I got through the experience unscathed, but it has turned me from a “wannabe” into a writer, and in other news, my baby turned out absolutely perfectly despite being in a stress-bath for six weeks. If that experience shaped her, I’m glad I did it, because I wouldn’t want a single thing about her to be even the slightest bit different.

    She is also named, in part, after my first Clarion instructor.

  3. One of my goals is to be accepted into Clarion next year. I have already sold my birthright to go on the path to be a writer. Five years in, even with the struggles, i often wonder if I’m still all in. Thank you for this article because I’ve been wondering am I willing to–as the song says–sell the map up to the sky. Am I trully willing to do what it takes to get into Clarion, even it that means being on the edge of success and utter failure? That’s a pretty scary place to be and I have walked away from it many times.


    Six months of looking for another job, another place to live, and doing something else for a living, there is only one thing I want to do deep down in my soul. Write.

    So, you don’t know me from Adam, but I’m going to tell you that I am committed to the this path that we walk as writers and welcome your support. May I see you at Clarion 2012.

    Thank you.


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