What is it like attending Clarion West?

With applications opening for Clarion West 2018, I describe what it was like for me in 2017, and why I think you should apply.

Today, applications open for the 2018 Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in Seattle. I was lucky enough to attend in 2017, and I applied partly because I read the descriptions of previous Clarionites and recognized something I badly wanted to experience for myself. This is my contribution to that literature: this is what Clarion West was to me.

If you’re considering whether you want to apply, feel free to ask questions in the comments below.

*

Clarion West is like a resort if that resort were also a boot camp.

At Clarion West, you don’t worry about the ordinary problems of everyday life. For six weeks, delicious meals are provided by an amazing chef who also cares for you as a person. When you long for a snack, you write its name on a little white board and it appears in a few days. (This does not hold if you write things like, “magical serpent meat” — we tried.) You don’t think about the day job, the kids, cleaning your house, buying the groceries, commuting. I fulfilled a lifelong ambition of having fresh watermelon at every meal for over a week.

At the same time, at Clarion West you constantly worry about the extraordinary problems of your temporary new life. You write a complete story every week (and sometimes — ominous music — more than once a week). You read and offer detailed comments on three or four stories, meet as a group to discuss those stories, and listen to lectures from guest teachers — every day. You attend more-than-weekly social events, sit through readings, seize impromptu opportunities to meet heroes and major figures in the SFF industry, party at the Locus Awards. You also pursue private opportunities to hang out with all your new friends. Among these optional activities in my case were: visiting a dance club, twice; rising early in the morning to buy a big gong at a percussion store fire sale; going out for karaoke; walking many miles to a great sushi restaurant; countless afternoons feverishly multi-tasking in coffeeshops; and starting a band.

It’s exhausting.

I slept — no lie — an average of less than three hours a night during those six weeks. It has taken me the rest of the year to recover physically from Clarion West. It’s not like that for everybody, of course, because some people — most people — are saner about their health. Some went to the nearby gym or ran regularly. Most got many more hours of sleep than I did. Still, everyone reported exhaustion. Several of us wore fitbits, and they showed their biodata: let’s just say Clarion West is objectively, verifiably hard on your body.

[I’ll add a note here about time and expense: Clarion West costs several thousand dollars to attend, and it completely monopolizes six weeks of your life. I would suggest that time is the resource you really need to be sure you have in hand. I was aided by a scholarship and I know that many of my classmates were too. If you’re worried about paying for Clarion West, consider applying anyway, and seeing if the amazingly supportive community around the workshop doesn’t find a way to help you get there, even if you can’t afford it yourself. Don’t self-reject if you have the time and desire.]

*

Clarion West is a welcome mat set out by the friendliest and most supportive corner of the literary world.

I’ve been bumping around various literary communities for a while now. Some connected with universities, some around magazines, some existing only through the internet. None of them is as intensely communal or as supportive of beginners, the underprivileged, and the underrepresented as the community of speculative fiction writers. Oh, it’s far from perfect — the community has been dealing with its own version of the rise of white nationalism for years prior to our present worldwide cataclysm of the same, as noxious elements tried to take over the SFWA and the Hugo Awards; it remains dominated in terms of power and money by the usual suspects (though that’s starting to change, I think); and like the rest of our world it has its avatars and moments and institutions of racism, toxic masculinity, transphobia, militant philistinism, and so on — but in its finer representatives, it’s an extraordinarily welcoming place, trying hard to become even better. (It should be noted that, as a white man, my perception of the general benignity of the community may be heavily path-dependent.) Clarion West is one point of entry to this welcoming place.

What happens at Clarion West is that other writers, editors, and publishers begin to embrace you before you’ve proven yourself. They see you as the future of speculative fiction, and practice the genre-specific ethic of “paying it forward.” I began to realize just how extraordinary an opportunity I had been given the moment I arrived.

I was contacted a few days before flying into SeaTac by someone called “Nisi.” She was going to pick me and another student up and drive us to the big house where we would all stay. How amusing, I thought, that my driver had the same name as the author of the novel I was then reading, Everfair, by Nisi Shawl. You know how this ends. My first moments in Seattle were blessed by the opportunity to talk to Nisi Shawl about writing, Samuel Delany, and what I was about to experience for the next six weeks. The open embrace continued: whether it was Daryl Gregory telling us to email whenever we needed advice or encouragement, Cassandra Khaw dropping by to tell us how to write gore and food (she’s an authority on both), Kij Johnson offering tax advice and being a wonderfully bad influence, Rachel Swirsky introducing us to the envy-dissipating phrase “fuck you, but congratulations,” John Chu singing with us, Connie Willis promising to take us out to dinner anytime we attended the same convention, Daniel Jose Older watching Game of Thrones with us, or Pat Cadigan threatening to show up on our doorsteps and demand a reckoning if we failed to persist as writers — I felt (and it’s strange to say this, but it’s true), genuinely loved.

*

Clarion West is not a test that will reveal whether you can have a career in writing.

As many people emphasized to us at the workshop, how well or badly people wrote during those weeks meant nothing for their longterm success as writers. (And a good thing too: because I wrote terribly! More on that in a bit.) Some people give up writing after attending Clarion West. Some people go on to become career novelists. And, we were told, they’re rarely the ones you expect.

On the other hand, Clarion West will give you a leg up toward having a career in writing, if that’s what you want: you will learn a lot about writing professionally, both the craft and the business; you will secure an invaluable circle of friends and critique-partners with whom you can collectively struggle to climb Mount Getting-Published; and you will see more clearly what it takes to succeed as a professional storyteller.

So, in short: you don’t need to go to Clarion West to have a career and Clarion West won’t guarantee a career for you. But it sure will help.

*

Clarion West is a cold shower.

I admit it: I had my self-perception as a fiction writer all wrong before Clarion. What I thought I was good at and what I thought I was bad at were nearly opposite the truth, and consequently I experienced an excruciating crisis.

Prior to Clarion West I was a pure pantser: I would get a story idea, sit down, and start out from the first sentence. This carried me through the first two weeks of Clarion, before I realized — and everybody told me — my besetting sin was lack of structure.

After that, I struggled to finish anything. I was stricken with a sense of weakness. I had no idea how to get the structure I was so glaringly lacking, and the weekly deadlines became a forced death march. Every week, I turned something in, though twice my pieces were unfinished — which felt like terrible, soul-shattering failure — but I wrote and fizzled out on an obscene number of stories for every one I turned in. I tried to make a joke out of how many times I was starting over each week, but inside it was nightmarish. This was extraordinarily painful, since I’ve spent the last three years building the habit and reputation of a literary journalist who does not miss deadlines or leave pieces unfinished. Yet I seemed to have lost the ability to write a simple story straight to the end.

I watched my new friends, turning out brilliant, moving stories with apparent ease, and I wondered: what the hell am I even doing here? Am I any good? Should I just give up writing fiction and stick to the reviews and essays that I know I can write? I haven’t felt imposter syndrome that strong in graduate school, as a journalist, as a professor — anywhere.

There was a grand piano in the house where we stayed. My friends kindly permitted me to spend hours playing at it, a form of contemplation and inner struggle I hadn’t used since college. I poked listlessly at the keys and brooded on the apparent untruth of the vocation I had always felt to write stories.

Fortunately, there were glimmers of hope in the wreckage of my self-perception. I discovered, for example, — this surprised me — that I could write humor. Many instructors saw promise in what I wrote and told me about it, in comments on my stories and in our private conferences. My friends, above all, were encouraging.

I’ve spent the months since Clarion following the advice of Connie Willis and studying screenwriting and movie structure, analyzing and outlining successful short stories, practicing various ways of developing my own stories into architecturally sound units, and generally transforming myself from a pantser to a plotter. It’s worked: whatever else you can say about the stories I’m writing now, they’re damn well soundly structured, and they are so before I begin writing. I wouldn’t have even known to focus on this without Clarion West.

In November I tested my new skills by trying to write a story from scratch every day. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t quite meet that mark: but I wrote 14 stories, each in a day. Some bad, some better: all reasonably well-structured.

It was hard to face my real weaknesses, to feel more or less like a failure for the last four weeks, while surrounded by brilliant artists who were doing what I seemed incapable of doing. And yet it was probably the best thing that has ever happened to me as a writer. Be aware, if you apply, that you may come face to face with yourself at Clarion West, that you will probably not be or feel like the best writer there, that you may be tempted to give up.

*

Clarion West is a 17-way summer romance that will break your heart.

I knew that people often made friends at Clarion. I knew this. But I didn’t expect to genuinely fall in love with every single one of my fellow students. I want to go on a litany of personal praise here, but I won’t embarrass them that way. Our chemistry was a result of the unique combination of personalities more or less accidentally brought together in that place and time; but in other ways, I think our friendship is the result of the structure of the workshop itself.

You meet seventeen other people, write with them, read with them, eat with them, play with them, suffer and complain with them, joke with them, help them and receive help from them. But they’re not just seventeen other people. They share many of your cultural affinities and your verbal ingenuity. When someone makes a joke at Clarion, you don’t laugh and pass on: it gets taken up by all the other writers in the room, morphed and developed like a group story-telling exercise. The least throwaway absurdity blossoms into a hilarious ongoing joke.

For example, early the second week of Clarion, I read aloud some passages from one of my favorite historical relicts: the futurist’s cookbook. The joke was so well-appreciated, burnished by others, repeatedly brought up, that somehow, a week later, I found myself, with help, organizing a feast along the same lines. Not wishing to affiliate ourselves with the proto-Fascist futurists, we called our feast “a fabulist dinner.” We issued formal invitations — to attend in formal wear, pajamas, or formal pajamas — and I sacrificed a full day preparing this nonsense. It was… let’s just say we bought everybody apology pizza afterwards. But at the same time it was great fun.

We went rowing (well, I stabbed ineffectively at the water with some oars) in the beautiful lake behind Greg Bear’s house; we witnessed and engaged in foam sword fights; we tramped all over Seattle discussing literature and writing and life with great intensity; we brainstormed a novel called Mars is Burning in a basement; we went to a pie bar; we wrote songs for each of our instructors (“Clarion my Westward Son,” for example)… I could go on, but these memories mean more to me than to any reader, so I’ll stop.

Leaving Clarion West was horrible. There were many tears.

I was depressed for the next five weeks. Home, surrounded again by my everyday friends and family, I felt bereft, banned from Narnia, a ghost. We made plans as quickly as we could to see each other again. But it’s hard: I’m not sure we’ll ever be all together again. We’re scattered around the globe. 

Fortunately, we have a Slack channel where, every day, we still interact. In January, all of us who can swing it are getting together again. I miss everyone every day.

Clarion West is dangerous and beautiful for the heart. Be warned. Be invited.

6 Comments

Mark Galarrita December 1, 2017 Reply

Excellent write up Robert.

Robert Minto December 1, 2017 Reply

Thanks, Mark!

Les Howle December 2, 2017 Reply

Thanks for writing this Robert. This is one of the most honest, engaging, and spot on accounts I’ve read of the CW experience. Makes me proud! Looking forward to reading your fiction one day. Cheers; Les Howle

Robert Minto December 2, 2017 Reply

Thanks Les, — hope I don’t disappoint you!

Andrea Pawley December 2, 2017 Reply

You captured the feelings so well, Robert!

Robert Minto December 2, 2017 Reply

Thanks, Andrea!

Your thoughts?