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Friday 19 September 2003

Naked Ambition

Paoli du Flippi

"I stripped down naked (which is the way I write frequently) and started writing the story."

— Harlan Ellison, Introduction to "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes," I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.

I had never been so grateful for the presence of my laptop.

Around me in a large grotto-like room decorated with sybaritic excess sat twenty naked people, my Clarion West peers in the Class of 2006. Seldom had I seen such a motley range of body types, from svelte to lumpy, youthful to aged, voluptuous to anorexic. The attitudes of my classmates spanned a similar spectrum, from indifferently relaxed through grinningly awkward to nervously contorted. Looks and attitudes were not always correlated exactly as one might expect. My own shape and emotional mindset fell about midway along both spectra.

We had all been here less than twenty-four hours. Arriving in Holmby Hills from the airport late at night on a hot-pink bus with the famous bunny logo, we had surrendered the street clothes we wore at the the door of the Mansion. That left us with little to carry, other than some toiletries, favorite reference books, and our computers. I had to admit that packing for this extended workshop — which I had long dreamed of attending — had been a breeze.

We had been shown to our luxurious individual rooms — no spartan dorm accommodations for the Clarion Class of 2006 — where a generous spread of snacks and drinks awaited us. Then we had bedded down — separately, to be sure, at this stage where we were all diffident and timorous stripped-down strangers — intent on getting perhaps our only full night of rest in what would be a grueling, intensive, challenging four weeks, full of competition, bonding, learning and artistry.

Now it was the first full day of our workshop, a little before noon. We had risen late and breakfasted communally, exchanged biographies and ambitions, gradually becoming a little looser with our nudity. At times I almost found myself forgetting my unclothed state — that is until one or another shift of position caused certain normally occluded body parts — belonging to either me or my interlocutor — to sway or dangle ominously. No one from the Mansion other than serving persons had intruded on our brunch. Leisure seemed to be the rule of the Mansion, and I started angsting a little about getting my money's worth out of what was shaping up to be an overly laidback experience. Where were all the legendary high-pressure assignments and boot-camp discipline that would turn us raw neophytes into passable young professional SF writers? But finally, after the last slice of imported salmon had been consumed, a beautiful, young, slightly recognizable woman, naked as the rest of us, had summoned us into the grotto.

Once seated, faced with the awesome prospect of meeting our first legendary instructor — whoever he or she might be — I became self-conscious again about my nudity. Luckily my inactive laptop served as an fairly adequate shield of my private parts, sparing me a smidgen of embarrassment. But I knew that once I turned the machine on, I would have to move it to a worksurface. I had read often enough of people incurring some nasty burns from too much actual laptime word-processing. And that was despite a protective layer of fabric.

How would it be possible, I began to wonder as we waited, to compose and critique stories under such stark, even absurd conditions? I sure hoped that the new management of Clarion knew what they were doing.

The gorgeous minor starlet who had led us here had disappeared, but now returned. She stepped up on an artificial ledge slightly higher than our seats and addressed us.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the new sponsor of the Clarion West Workshop — Mr. Hugh Hefner!"

The woman slipped aside, and Hef emerged from a hidden shadowy niche onto the ledge. Debonair and relaxed, his familiar face lightly smiling, he wore purple silk pajamas and monogrammed velvet slippers. One hand cradled a pipe to his lips. The other carried an open bottle of Diet Pepsi.

"Let me say first how happy I am to see you all here," Hef said. "Your presence in the Mansion West reminds me of my own humble origins. Perhaps some of you are unaware that I began my own career as a simple science fiction fan. I never aspired to become an SF writer — cartooning was more my thing — but over the years I've given as much support as I possibly could to the science fiction community. Why, the amount of money I've paid just to Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke alone amounts to more than, oh, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has earned since the day it was founded. This record of support explains why you're all here today. When I learned that academic funding for Clarion had been withdrawn, I instantly stepped into the breach. The future of the genre I love depends on training new writers such as yourselves."

Hef paused for a sip of Pepsi at this point, and we took the cue to dutifully applaud.

"Now I want to assure you," Hef continued, "that we have retained all the features and traditions of Clarion that have worked in the past. But we have added new ones as well, the major one being the nudity which is now de rigueur for both students and instructors. I think you'll find that this healthy display of the human body has a liberating and expansive effect on your work. In this practice my own experiences have been seconded by one of the most famous writers in the field — a man whom you'll all get to meet in just a moment, and who will be your first instructor. But before we bring him out, I'd like to take any questions. Yes, you, the lady with the charming mole on her left hip."

"If you're such a big supporter of science fiction, how come Playboy announced that it wasn't going to publish 'genre' fiction any longer?"

Hef assumed a startled, puzzled look. "Somebody at my magazine said that? Impossible! I'll get to the bottom of this ridiculous assertion, I assure you. Maybe I've been spending a little too much time with my various ladies when I should have been guiding the fruit of my loins. But so long as I'm head of this corporation, science fiction will always have a home here. Let me take one from the elderly gentleman whose carpet doesn't match the drapes."

"Will we have access to the Playmates?"

"Not unless your last name is Hefner."

After Hef had deftly fielded a few more questions regarding such practicalities as sharing networked laser printers, making long-distance phone calls, and acquiring condoms, I began to feel more at ease. Maybe this revisionist approach to Clarion would work after all.

Finally, Hef swiveled toward the niche from which he had emerged and said, "And now, without further delay, let me present a man who truly needs no introduction, the award-winning teacher who will guide you through your crucial opening week."

Out strode a fellow we all instantly recognized, but had never expected to see. Harlan Ellison was clad identically to Hef, complete with pipe and Pepsi.

"That's right, you miserable lemmings and jackanapes, I'm back! I haven't taught Clarion in years, because it's been so lame and feeble, like a coked-out dowager on life-support. But a new broom sweeps clean, and my pal Hef is just the new broom this decrepit excuse for a poor man's Yaddo needed. So let's dispense with all this hincty gardyloo. Let's cut the sweet nothings and get down to work! Let's write us some gut-twisting, cerebrum-busting stories!"

With that, Harlan tossed aside his soda and pipe. To the sound of shredding fabric, he ripped his purple pajamas off till he was naked as the rest of us.

And that's when I knew everything was going to be just fine.

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