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).