Clarion West

If you're considering Clarion West (part 1)

When I first considered applying to writing programs like Clarion West, I poked around the web in search of personal accounts from attendees. They were almost uniformly positive - enough so to convince me to undertake the personal and professional hurdles of clearing six weeks in the summer, along with tuition costs.

In retrospect, much of what I read contained the idea of what I experienced, yet I still somehow was unprepared for what it felt like. It was the difference between data and qualia, between the word "blue" and plunging headfirst into the sea.

Someday, I'll try to collect some of the best links to first-hand accounts, but for the moment, take a look at this essay by my friend and fellow Clarion West grad Robert Minto. He writes about many aspects of the program. He also address what I think is an essential aspect of the workshop, and something many participants experience: the possibility that you will fall short of your expectations, that you will experience failures, and that you will be encouraged to own your vulnerability as a writer. 

Meanwhile, I'm working on a parallel account, which will address another important aspect of the workshop: community.

Reasons not to come to Clarion West

One of the most surprising things I discovered at the Clarion West writers workshop was what it lacked: snotty writers who thought they could do no wrong. 

Anyone who has spent time in a writing group has met people like this, but they were notably absent from our group. On several occasions I tried to pry the secret of the selection process out of the workshop's leaders. How had they managed to pick a group of people who were universally dedicated to improving their own work, who supported the experimentation and growth of others, and who received critique and feedback with openness and grace? Where were the arguers, the defensive whiners, the self-appointed geniuses throwing their literary pearls before swine?

In the absence of preening jerks, our critique sessions unfolded in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. Disagreements were not uncommon, but they were devoid of rancor. I trusted the group in a way I had never experienced before. I wrote outside my comfort zone and was rewarded with supportive but unvarnished feedback to help me write better.

In an effort to help future Clarion West groups enjoy the same utopian experience, and with the caveat that I am not associated with Clarion West leadership and this is not an official declaration, I offer this set of guidelines.

Do not bother attending Clarion West if:

  1. You are looking for an opportunity to be praised, lauded by your amazed peers, or appointed as the Chosen One.
  2. You would prefer to defend the perfection of your prose and your choices as an author, rather than accept professional feedback.
  3. You feel better about your own work when you denigrate that of other people. 
  4. You are unwilling to listen to the insights and perspectives of people different from yourself. 
  5. Other people tend to describe you as "poisonous," "toxic," "a narcissistic asshole," or other terms typically applied to hazardous materials or psychopaths. 

And nothing was ever quite the same again

Just returned from six weeks in the Clarion West writers' workshop. You can expect to see many love letters to that particular institution (and my fellow writers, who were a frighteningly talented bunch) as I process the experience. It was a bit like being sealed into a submarine with a bunch of very smart strangers and some brilliant teachers. I feel like we're all emerging from a close-quarters voyage under the polar ice cap, blinking on unfamiliar shores that turn out to be home.

Listening to a litany of someone else's peak experiences can be as monotonous as hearing them recount that suuuuuuper-weird dream they had last night, so I'll spare you. 

Just this:

You leave port, not on a modern submarine, but in an old wooden sailing ship. As you follow the wind around the globe, you make little repairs: a gunwale, a rudder, a keel. Storms cast you up on far shores to replace a broken mast and rig the sails with fresh ropes. As you approach your home, you realize that every piece of your vessel has been substituted with new materials over the course of your long voyage. Do you still stand on the deck of the same ship on which you left? If not, when did it become a new boat? 

I now know the answer to this question. It might show up in a new story, or it might not. There are fragments of magic like that lodged in my memory of the last six weeks - moments of wonder and inspiration that I can never fully explain, and won't bother trying. Dreams are like that. 

(elevator music)

Except things to be a little slow around here while I'm attending the Clarion West writers' workshop, which is fucking amazing. I've run out of reserve posts and have no time to graze for more, or to write anything but stories for the workshop. 

Look for me when I'm done in early August. In the meantime, if you're an aspiring writer and ever have the opportunity to be part of a workshop with serious writers and accomplished teachers, take it. I'll do a comprehensive recap of Clarion West some time after I return, but the interim report is that it's worth everything it took to get here.

Clarion West 2017

Tomorrow is my first day as a student in Clarion West, a program for writers of speculative fiction. This is something I've dreamed about doing since I attended World Fantasy 2015 and began to think seriously about how to lay the groundwork for a writing career. It's exciting, intimidating, and humbling, to name only a short list of the cacophony of feelings that I am experiencing on fast rotation. Spending six weeks far from home isn't easy. My fire department showed tremendous support, and my wife... well, I'm not at all certain how to begin to express my gratitude for her role in this. I'm sure she has some ideas in mind. 

I'm told there are many sleepless nights ahead, that this workshop is a profoundly deep dive into the rigors of writing, a transformative experience for many who attend. Do I feel ready? Doesn't matter now. 

I've been in fires and I've treated many a grievously injured patient, so you wouldn't think this could make me nervous. But you would be wrong. 

And away I go

I've been keeping a lid on an exciting piece of news until I could be completely certain it was going to happen. I'm going to be attending the Clarion West writers' workshop this summer. This is an amazing opportunity to study under six accomplished writers of speculative fiction. I wasn't sure my fire department would allow me the (unpaid) leave to attend, so when I finally received word this week that they had approved my request, I was flooded with excitement, followed by a second, fast-moving wave of anxiety. I feel like I'm going to college again for the first time.

I applied to Clarion West's spiritual twin, the Clarion workshop, last year, but did not get in. So hey other writers, what they say about perseverance might just be true. 

Things I think about, some of them nonsensical: Will my work stand up to the talents of my fellow students? Will everyone else be from some variation of academia? (Who else can take off six weeks in the middle of the summer?) Will they have previous formal education in creative writing (unlike me)? Will I be the oldest one there, or the only one with a traditionally blue-collar career? (One of the instructors is Daniel Jose Older, author of Shadowshaper, who was an NYC paramedic for many years, so that's a very exciting connection for me.) Will I write crap while I'm there, a rag-doll in the mouth of my fickle creative energies? How can I last 6 weeks without my dog? Will my wife decide she prefers life in my absence? I guess I'll find out around the middle of June.