You know where I had a really excellent time? The Clarion Writer’s Workshop

How you sometimes feel after a Clarion workshop
How you sometimes feel after a Clarion workshop

Clarion and Clarion West (for those not in the know) are six-week summer workshops for science fiction and fantasy writers. You go, you live in a dorm with twenty other writers, you get instructed by a different professor each week, and every week you write a story and have your story critiqued.

It’s a pretty intense experience, for three reasons: a) it’s not that easy to write a story every week; b) it’s very emotionally trying to finish a story in a flush of inspiration and then, almost immediately, have it be ripped apart by twenty other people; and c) you’re separated from your friends and family, and are forced to live with people who start to, at times, feel like your rivals for the approval of the world-famous writing instructors.

(Oh yeah, the teachers at Clarion are amazing. They’re usually people you’ve heard of and admired. And if they’re not, then they’re people you should have heard of. My year, it was Michael Swanwick, Joe Haldeman, Samuel Delany, Nancy Kress, Kelly Link, and Holly Black. Even when I was a callow and poorly-read twenty year old, that list included several authors whose work I loved.)

Anyway, so, long story short…Clarion can be pretty terrible. The worst thing it can do is tear you down and shake your confidence in your own voice and your own subject matter. My Clarion workshop was much more reductive than most workshops I’ve been in. There was no hesitation about rewriting peoples’ stories and critiquing their core elements. And that’s hard. I mean, I think we were generally fairly decent at spotting when a story was working. But when a story’s not working, it can be for two different reasons: a) it’s trying to do something that shouldn’t or can’t be done; or b) it hasn’t yet figured out how to do the thing that it wants to do.

And I don’t think we were that great at spotting or identifying b).

However, I had a really good time there. I mean, I’m pretty sure I did. Memory is a pretty hazy thing, you know. And I got very sick right after coming back from Clarion. And I wrote nearly nothing for the whole year that came afterwards. But I think it was very good for my writing. Before I went to Clarion, I wasn’t really writing stories–most of my work was missing either plot or character motivation or concept or setting. But when you’re getting your stories torn apart week after week, then you realize that you just can’t get away with that crap. After I left, my stories were much better. I feel like I advanced about two years while I was there.

So I do still recommend it. I would say, though, that I recommend it more for earlier-stage writers than for later-stage ones, because early-stage writers are more likely to actually have the sorts of problems that a workshop is going to try to find. I know a few fairly-advanced writers who’ve gone to Clarion, and I question that decision a little bit, because it feels like they’re almost going there in search of validation. Which is fine and natural…but I think it can be a pretty shattering experience to expect validation and not get it.

(Oh, this post was apropos of two recent online posts. Ferrett posted about getting his novel deal, and how Clarion was the turning point in his writing career. And this queer writer, Nicole Cipri, is hosting an online fundraising campaign [to which I donated] to enable them to go to Clarion).

Coming up on my last workshop at Johns Hopkins (and perhaps my last one for a long time)

workshopAlready some of the other people I’ve spent the last two years with are figuring out their next steps. And I’m working on my final story for workshop. There is a bittersweetness to it, just as there is to all endings. For the last 20 or so months, our MFA workshop has been a constant presence in our life. Even when we’re not actively in workshop (i.e. during the winter breaks or the summer), I’m still very aware that I am going to have to produce work which is going to need to be subjected to workshop.

I don’t believe that I’ve been harmed by workshop (though I do think that it’s possible for a person to be harmed by it). However, it (and this whole environment) has changed me more than I thought it would. The very first story that I turned into workshop was this one, but I also don’t think I could write a story like that today. It has too much exterior and not enough interior. Nowadays, I prefer to write stories that are a bit quieter, and it’d be hard to say that the MFA environment didn’t have an influence on that. It didn’t operate by making me afraid to turn in certain kinds of stories. It operated by changing my value system: my sense of what kinds of stories were good.

I don’t know, maybe that was a certain kind of harm.

All I can say is that I don’t think the stories I was writing before I came here were particularly great, and I’m happy with my creative evolution.

However, I do wonder what it will be like to write without the influence of workshop. I think there’ll be something about it that’s very freeing. Probably I’ll slide into some bad habits. My practice is to make sure that everything I turn into workshop is as perfect as I can make it. And that makes it very difficult for me to ignore the problems that the workshop finds. These aren’t things I haven’t yet gotten around to fixing; they’re things that I never even noticed. However, when I’m writing on my own, I’m never gonna notice those things.

Still, I’ve written and sold plenty of stories (like…almost every story I’ve ever sold) that didn’t go through a critique process, and I have confidence that I can navigate the world on my own.

The truth is that, on a creative level, every year is very different. I am constantly writing this story or that story and saying, “This is the best thing I’ve ever written.” But even in the moment when I write it, I know that I’ll someday have to write something better. Sometimes I can’t even believe it. Sometimes I look on stories or novels I’ve written, and I don’t even understand how they came out of me: they just don’t seem like things that I could have produced. But what’s even stranger is to know that if I’m ever going to get anywhere, then someday in the future, I’ll need to sit down and produce something that’s even better.

If you go to a workshop with the expectation that people will lavish praise on your writing, there is a nonzero chance that you will be destroyed

you suck

A bunch of my friends are going to writing workshops this summer, so I thought I’d share the most hard-won piece of advice that I possess: don’t go there looking for people to tell you that your writing is great.

What makes this advice so hard-won is that I’ve gone into so many critique situations looking for that kind of validation and I’ve rarely gotten it and the not-getting-of-it has melted me into a boneless jelly of self-hatred. And now I don’t look for it, and I am much happier and much more willing to take criticism.

Now, I know I am going to get a ton of comments where people are like, “Oh, of course it’s stupid for people to look for validation at workshops,” but c’mon, let’s be real. You do it. Or at least you’ve done it. You don’t admit to doing it, because that is gauche. But you know if, deep down in the back of your brain, you’re really hoping that the instructor will tell you that you are amazing. Honestly, it’s really hard to not hope for that…at least in the beginning.

The reason it is so dangerous to look for validation is not because you never get it…it’s because you sometimes do get it. Let’s face it: in every MFA program, Clarion class, and workshop, there is a star. And when you are that star, the validation that you get from your teachers and classmates is so intoxicating that it can become addictive. The impersonal world of submission and rejection offers no pleasure which is as exquisite as when your workshop leader—frequently a well-published and critically acclaimed author—tells you, in detail, why your story is excellent.

That has almost never happened to me. But the few times it has, I’ve gone home shaking. The excitement frequently rendered me unable to sleep. That joy was capable of nourishing me for days.

I think I am lucky to have not been given too many tastes of this joy. Because when you take too many hits of that crack-pipe, you start to need it. And chasing after validation starts to affect your behavior. You feel the need to run all of your work through some kind of critiquing process. And if the critiquers don’t like it, then you start to hate it too. And you start waiting for people to validate you: you wait for an authority figure to tell you that you’re ready to publish, or ready to write a novel, or ready to send a story out.

Recently, a writing colleague told me about a person who’d been working on a short story for ages and ages and felt like they had finally finished it, and then they’d put it up for critique and received a really wonderful and positive critique from a well-known SF writer.

Which, okay, is wonderful…until you stop to think…if they’d finished the story, why did they put it up for critique? And the answer is that they were looking for someone to tell them that it was finished.

But what if it hadn’t gone that way? Many very well-regarded novels have received a few negative reviews, after all. What if this story had received a lukewarm or a negative critique? The answer is that the author probably would’ve spiraled down into another round of revisions and rewrites.

That’s insane. At some point, a writer should be able to take control of their lives and their work and say, “No. This is finished. This deserves to be published. I believe in it, even if no one else does.”

Because the alternative is to put your self-worth into the hands of anyone who might possibly offer you a kind word.

And that’s a terrifying place to be. I should know; I used to be there. Sometimes I’d get negative critiques that would haunt me for days. Several summers ago, I got one that I literally could not stop thinking about. When I woke up, the first thing I’d think, even before “I’m hungry” or “I need to pee,” would be “Shit…I got that critique.”

I was so devastated by this critique that it called my whole future into question. I could not go to an MFA program if I was going to continue to react to criticism in this way. I couldn’t ever enter a workshop situation again if I didn’t sort this out.

So I did. I was driving on the 880 (I have a lot of epiphanies on the 880) when I realized that the reason the critique had affected me was because so much of my self-worth is tied up in being a good writer. And if someone had had such a negative reaction to a story that I’d liked so much, then it meant I might not be a good writer, and if I wasn’t a good writer, then I wasn’t really anything.

Right there on the highway, while I was crossing the Dumbarton Bridge, I did some mental reshuffling. I told myself that I was not, first and foremost, a writer. I was just a guy who wrote stories. And if the stories were bad, it was no big deal, because that was not who I was. And it worked. Ever since then, I’ve gone into critique situations with zero expectation of validation and no matter what gets said, I tend to walk out of them with very little angst sitting on my shoulder.

Yes, this is a really hokey and shopworn epiphany, but it’s also an epiphany that people can go their entire lives without having. There are really famous writers who die inside when someone says something negative about their writing. Don’t be one of them!