Writers of the Future has been the subject of much discussion in writerly circles again recently. The contest’s connections to the Church of Scientology have people uncomfortable, with a few former winners speaking out against the contest and recently at least one finalist publicly withdrew their story from consideration. I, myself, tweeted the other day that until the Church of Scientology can show reform, I’m no longer comfortable supporting the contest.
Well, someone asked me to share my story. I’m not sure it’s what either side of the conversation is hoping for, but for what it’s worth, here it is.
I need to start by saying that this is all a long time ago. Seriously. I’m hard pressed to remember on any given day if I’ve eaten breakfast or not, so I’m not so hot at remembering the sorts of details people really want decades on. I’m left with a lot of impressions, flashes of memory, things that stayed with me, and a lot of hazy grey material where I have to fill in with “Well, this must be what happened…” Treat this like the memoir of a doddy old uncle.
I discovered Writers of the Future in an ad in Asimov’s. At that time, I had no way of knowing about the connection to Scientology. Dianetics advertised on television, so I had made the name connection, but I knew nothing more about it than that. The contest was quite young then, probably only in its third year or so. As an energetic teenager, I entered every quarter. I don’t think any of those stories survive, and the world is a better place for that.
College sucked up a lot of the time that I otherwise would have been writing, but when I moved to Los Angeles to attend USC, I still managed to find time to squeeze off a couple of entries into the contest. I have no memory of what any of those stories were. They ended their days saved in the format of a defunct word processor written for a defunct operating system of a defunct computer manufacturer on 5 1/4″ floppy disks that I finally got around to throwing out a few months ago. I think an early incarnation of the story that turned into “Promised” may have been among them. (That story came about because I wanted to write something where we melted down that hideous bruin statue that stands on UCLA’s campus. It had nothing to do with cross-town rivalry and everything to do with good taste in art.)
Well, one day, probably in 1994 or 1995, I checked my P.O. box and was surprised to find in it an announcement that the coveted Writers of the Future Workshop, the same one attended by the winners of the contest, was open for registration and I was invited to attend. It cost money, of course. I don’t recall how much except that it was a devastating sum to my minimum-wage-earning self, but not outrageous considering what we were getting. I wish I knew where I found the money (I probably put it on my credit card – I was bankrupt by 1998), but I found it and signed up.
Now I need to pause here and say I do not know if this offer was sent to the entire contest mailing list, local entrants, people who had quarter-finaled, or what. Talking to people around me in the workshop, I think they were all local and my impression is that most had at least quarter-finaled at some point or were Scientologists, but that may have been a selection effect. This is said with the caveat that I didn’t understand the quarter-final/honorable mention, semi-final, finalist rankings terribly well back then, and I honestly couldn’t tell you how far any of my stories got – though the fact that I don’t remember any of them should be telling.
The workshop itself was held in the parking garage of the Author Services International Building in Hollywood. Yes, you read that right. The parking garage. They converted the ramped upper floor into an enormous lecture hall. Algis Budrys and Dave Wolverton sat on a stage in the front, with the actual winners lined up right in front of them. The rest of us sat in row after row of tables on down the ramp. Budrys and Wolverton conducted the workshop personally for the winners, with the rest of us playing along.
The workshop itself was much like what others have described: A whirlwind of big names coming in to talk to us, intensely trying to churn out a complete short story in just a few days, a lot of theory, and a lot of making friends. I learned a tremendous amount, much of which I carry with me and still use to this day. The workshop was wonderful.
But the question everyone wants to ask is this: What about the Scientology?
Well, it was definitely there. The impression I had at the time was that L. Ron Hubbard founded Scientology and therefore Scientology loves L. Ron Hubbard and everything he was associated with, and therefore the Church of Scientology wanted to support us in any way it could. David Miscavige was there to welcome us all. L. Ron Hubbard’s name was not just mentioned frequently, it was extolled. We were clearly and obviously using Scientology property for both the workshop and the gala. I, personally, found it a little uncomfortable at times, but I’m always uncomfortable in someone else’s sacred space, so there was nothing weird about that to me. A couple of the texts we used were clearly Scientologist documents (the biography of Hubbard had him transcending instead of dying, and another essay – I don’t recall exactly what it was about – Budrys explained was written for Scientologists and he explained what terms like “clear” meant so we could follow it), but that didn’t faze me either, since texts that inform writing can come from anywhere and most of us pull from our own traditions when teaching.
Before anyone has a meltdown about any of this, remember that this was the 1990s. Scientology had some legal troubles as a young religion, but at this point the general feeling was that it had left them behind. The strongest criticism that anyone was lodging against them at this point was that they charge for their religious training, and people therefore end up giving away all their worldly wealth to the church. As far as I was concerned, as long as they were giving it willingly, they were free to do with their money as they pleased. It was only later that credible allegations of ongoing abuse and imprisonment came to light, and even then were largely invisible to anyone who wasn’t an early adopter of the internet. There wasn’t the need for a “firewall” between Scientology and Writers of the Future, because the contest wasn’t asking for any money (except for those of us paying for the value-added workshop), wasn’t selling Dianetics, and wasn’t recruiting.
So, yeah, the firewall was a bit porous. And I did get mailings for Scientology in my P.O. box, which I only used for writing and acting-related activities (and I did both under different names), so I’m pretty sure the contest mailing list went to the church at least once, but, again, in the 1990s this wasn’t a problem. I was then and I still am perfectly capable to tossing a piece of unwanted mail in the appropriate receptacle.
Much of what I’ve described above, though not a big deal to me, came as a real shock to people today, who’ve only known the contest for the past 10 years or so, who thought the firewall was always as strong as it’s reportedly supposed to be now. Hence the request that I record this account in a public manner. My impression was always that when K.D. Wentworth took over the contest, she wanted more separation. This was about the same time that the aforementioned allegations against the church were coming out, and so that makes good business sense; the industry pros involved in the contest need to know they’re not supporting Scientology.
To me, the only really weird thing that happened was this:
After a long stretch of sitting down, I got up mid-exercise and started stretching. A young man seated behind me looked at me quizzically. “I screwed up my knees when I used to be a dancer,” I said. “I need to stretch them regularly.”
“You know,” he said, “in our church we have ways of dealing with pain.”
“We do in my church, too,” I said. “It’s called stretching.”
He smiled, and I thought that was the end of it.
Well, he came up to me at the beginning of the next day and very quietly apologized, saying, “We’re not supposed to be mentioning our religion at all.”
“Not at all?” I asked. “Even if you’re just here taking the workshop?”
He nodded, looking frightened, and slipped back to his seat.
At the time, I took that as a sign that the firewall was actually stronger than advertised, because I had expected to not be proselytized to by the workshop itself, not having fellow attendees forbidden from even talking about what they believe. In hindsight, I really hope that young man was O.K., because I liked him quite a lot.
And I want to end on that. I liked him quite a lot. In fact, every Scientologist I’ve ever met I’ve liked quite a lot. They’re good people.
My problem is with an organization that has them terrified to even talk to outsiders. And that’s why I no longer support the Writers of the Future Contest, even though it did amazing things for me.