On Clarion West

I harbor only three major goals. I want to contribute something to emancipatory social theory; I want to excel in literary journalism; and I want to write and publish novels. The last goal figures largest to me, though I rarely talk about it, because it’s also the most difficult, and it’s the arena in which I’ve had the least visible success. But earlier this month I was accepted to attend Clarion West Writer’s Workshop, and I’m finally allowed to talk about it. (There was a reasonable embargo on rooftop shouting until they formally announced their 2017 class.)

Clarion West probably doesn’t mean very much to you if you only read this blog because you like my book reviewing elsewhere or the essays I write here, or if you know me through academic philosophy or because we chat about books on twitter. But I’m writing about it anyway, because it’s the most exciting thing to have happened to me in several years, and because it marks the biggest break yet for my deepest ambition.

So what is Clarion West?

Each year 18 aspiring writers go to Seattle (for Clarion West) or San Diego (for Clarion) for six weeks. Each week a different author prominent in speculative fiction comes in as a teacher, presiding over daily story workshopping, meeting one-on-one with the students, and hanging out with the whole group. There are lots of related events and opportunities during the six weeks, but the core of the workshop is reading and critiquing each other’s stories, meeting with the writer-teachers, and writing original stories of your own. The story workshopping resembles what most MFA programs do, but Clarion West is not an MFA program and differs from one in its concentrated and demanding six-week schedule, the fact that many of the teachers are not primarily creative writing teachers but professional writers, and, of course, the focus on speculative fiction.  

Many of my favorite speculative fiction writers attended one or the other of the Clarions: Kim Stanley Robinson, Octavia Butler, Kelly Link, Cory Doctorow, Ted Chiang, Jeff VanderMeer, Daniel Abraham, Ann Leckie, Nisi Shawl. Many of them describe the experience as life-changing, and have returned to Clarion as teachers. On the other hand, lots of other people have attended Clarion and subsequently failed to become professional novelists, or to publish very many stories, or even to persist in writing at all. But Clarion can be an opportunity and a distinction if you make the most of it.

In my case, Clarion West has already benefited me tremendously. While I have a certain dogged faith in myself as a writer in general, as a fiction writer things haven’t been terribly encouraging. I’ve been writing fiction for years, but not really submitting my stuff in hopes of publication, because the taste gap was simply too large. Only a few months ago did I really begin writing things that I wouldn’t be ashamed to publish. I think I’m ready to appear on the public stage as a storyteller, and it’s good timing because I’m about to finish my PhD in philosophy. But I haven’t published a story yet (we won’t count “The Entomology of Village Life,” which was written for a class in college and picked up for a textbook) and have no real way to gauge whether my feeling of readiness is a private delusion or an accurate assessment of my work. Sure, I swept the student writing awards at my tiny midwestern college for three straight years, but that felt, even at the time, like a very small pond. Since then I’ve just been quietly laboring away, gathering stories and learning how to tell them. But as I’ve said on this very blog, the best writing emerges from objective rhetorical stimuli. The trouble with creative writing is that such stimuli are hard to come by at first. Getting accepted to Clarion West is, therefore, a benediction, a permission, and an enormous, breath-taking objective rhetorical stimulus.

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I’m not a fan of slick samey stories, and so I listen with a certain amount of sympathy to complaints that MFA programs are damaging literature. I’ve never considered getting an MFA and in general think a writer would do best to approach their career slantwise, by learning about things other than writing so they have something to write about, and learning to write by just writing. To each their own, of course, and things work differently for different people, and some writers were perhaps made by their MFA programs. But when I determined to become a novelist, way back in my teens, slantwise is how I decided to approach it, why I’ve studied philosophy and ground away in private at my writing.

So why did I even apply to Clarion West?

Well, in the last three years my attitude to feedback about writing was transformed by the tremendous experience of working for Open Letters Monthly. The smart, no-punch-pulling editors over there, and their practice of giving two sets of comments on every piece — and working with virtually any half-competent reviewer willing to endure the fire and revise their work up — taught me more, with ruthless efficiency, than years of private practice and all my college courses combined. I went from someone incapable of genuinely readable prose, to, well, someone pretty damn readable, if I do say so myself. That’s how you learn: by repeatedly attempting something, and adjusting according to feedback. You can make even better use of the experience if you reflect on, and generalize as principles, the feedback you get. OLM taught me that my essays needed more thematic unity, fewer ideas more fully developed, better narrative hooks; that I was addicted to pretentious diction, em-dash asides, over-complicated sentence structure; that simple expression of things I know is better than fancy misdirection; and lots of other stuff. After a while I was invited to join OLM as an editor myself, and the learning process sped up even more. The sacredness of your precious tics melts away when you find how much you hate them in others’ writing. When I finally retired as an editor from OL at the end of 2016, I was a very different writer.

So I have a great deal of respect for the process of improving through critical feedback, when everybody involved is oriented to a practical goal. There is such a thing as professionalism in writing; it’s not a bad thing or necessarily compromised by commercialism; it’s just taking the work seriously. Workshopping stories is an attempt to secure such feedback, and what makes Clarion West stand out is its highly professional orientation. It’s taught by people who have made fiction their lives and work. It’s attended by people who want to do so. And by all accounts it’s tremendously practical. I’m excited about it because I think it will be the equivalent of OLM but for my fiction. And the objective rhetorical stimulus won’t end when the six weeks are up: from what I hear, most Clarionites remain in close contact long after their summer of study. Could I use a 17-person permanent writing group, carefully selected for me through a story writing contest? Hell, yes.

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The Clarion journal or memoir is a minor genre of its own. It ranges from published books like Kate Wilhelm’s The Storyteller, to a multitude of blog epics. As a fanatic for minor literatures of all kinds, naturally I’ll want to contribute to this genre. My intention, therefore, is to record the Clarion West experience while it’s happening, in one blog post a week during the course of the workshop from late June through July.

Until that odyssey begins, this blog will return to its regularly programmed ruminations. Perhaps a bit fewer, actually, as I now absolutely have to finish my dissertation in the next two months.

 

8 thoughts on “On Clarion West

  1. What an amazing opportunity, Robert. Lately I have entertained the thought of trying some fiction, but I don’t know if my drive or inclination is there, save for. perhaps, in a highly experimental context. What you are about to embark on is exciting and brave. I wish you the best, first with that dissertation, then with your literary adventure.

    1. Thanks Joe. If you ever did decide to try your hand at fiction, I suspect the results would be very interesting. Your more narrative writings — memoir, and when you mix narrative into your criticism — have always stirred me.

      1. For years I tried to fictionalize my experiences—I was deeply closeted, and afraid to own my identity, history, etc. It took me a long time to embrace myself as an essayist and to critically read essay/memoir to find out how personal stories can be told. I sometimes think I need to process all the personal baggage before I can free myself up to “make things up,” if you will. Then again, I increasingly see possibilities in the type of fiction that skirts nonfiction, blurring the lines, like Sebald, Alexander Kluge and such. Who knows?

      2. I’m also attracted to those fiction/fact mashups. At some level, I suspect all decent fiction is such a mashup, and a writer like Sebald simply makes overt the seam of personal experience that usually remains covert within a fiction. I prefer to think just of “story” — it can begin in fact and end in fantasy, or vice versa, or whatever. The important thing is form, not genesis. That’s what I think anyway.

  2. Please accept my most sincere congratulations, Robert! I enjoy your reviews and your essays and I very much look forward to what you have in store for us with your fiction. I recently submitted a review to Open Letters and I have to completely agree with you on their wonderful process. Their feedback was professional, most helpful and gracious. I learned more from their editors than any other magazine I have written for.

    1. Thanks Melissa! — I noticed and read your OLM review, by the way. Good stuff. And you’re right, nobody anywhere (that I’ve encountered) edits quite the way they do. What’s fun is to keep writing for them, and formulate remedial rules for yourself based on patterns in their advice, and then watch as the criticism to praise ratio slowly inverts. It provides a real sense of accomplishment in my experience — that rare thing, an objective measure of improvement in writing.

  3. Congratulations! And couldn’t agree more to this “a writer would do best to approach their career slantwise, by learning about things other than writing so they have something to write about”. It makes me cringe how many young authors take it upon themselves to write about the world they know nothing about.

    1. Thanks.

      Yes, having something to write about is important. The craft of fiction can be taught and learned, I think — how to structure a story and so on — but experiencing things, caring about things, knowing concrete and material things about the world and history, only happens through a non-reflexive engagement with the world.

Your thoughts?