Friday, January 14, 2011

The Clarion Writers' Workshop

Established in 1968, the Clarion Writers' Workshop is the oldest workshop of its kind and is widely recognized as a premier proving and training ground for aspiring writers of fantasy and science fiction. Many graduates have become well-known writers, and a large number have won major awards. 
Clarion has been known as the “boot camp” for writers of speculative fiction. Each year 18 students, ranging in age from late teens to those in mid-career, are selected from applicants who have the potential for highly successful writing careers. 

 Applications are currently being accepted for the 2011 Clarion Writers' Workshop, and will be until 11:59 pm Pacific time on March 1st.  It costs $50 to apply and most of $5000 to attend, and if you are or aspire to be a writer of fiction of any sort, but most especially a writer of speculative fiction (understood loosely as science fiction, fantasy, horror, and slipstream), it will, without shadow of a doubt, be the best money you ever spent.

Scholarships are available.

Something like one-third of all Clarion graduates have gone on to publish, and many have gone on to successful careers as writers (no easy feat, as you will learn).  Instructors are all certified bad-asses (one of this year's is John Scalzi, president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; kind of a big deal), people who have studied and mastered the craft of writing, and can and will teach you the fundamentals of what you need to know in order to one day achieve that mastery yourself.

So what's the secret?  How does it work?  Why does it work?

The answer is, as most answers are, kind of complicated.  First, there is the workshop structure itself.  Each weeknight, between two and four students submit a draft of a story, which everyone then reads with their newly-developing critical eye.  The next morning, everyone gets two minutes to talk about each story, either going around the circle, or, in the case of Clarion 2010, raising hands and volunteering.  You talk about what works and what doesn't; you riff, sometimes, on other critiques, dittoing and undittoing the commentary of others; you marshall specific examples to illustrate your points.  Then, it's the instructor's turn.  Instructors get all the time they want (because, as has been mentioned, they are all certified bad-asses, and you want to hear what they've got to say, even, especially, when it hurts.  And it will hurt.  After all, they are vivisecting your baby, metaphorically speaking).  Critiques are directed at the work, never the author, and man alive can they smart.  But they will make you better, which is what they are supposed to do.  After everybody's taken their whack at your story, you get your two minutes to say 'thank you, sir or madame, may I have another' and tell folks what you were trying (and probably failing) to do.

Then everybody takes a break.  Then it's the next person's turn, and you nurse your wounds and hope they will scar over quickly, making you stronger for next time.  Sometimes you cry.

Depending on the instructor, and the critique-load, there may or may not be lectures during workshop hours (it's four hours per day, and each critique session takes about an hour, usually).  Lectures might be on craft, or the business end of things, or sometimes, if there is enough general interest, you might get a talk about writing novels, or the history of the genre, or any other thing an instructor thinks you should know.  These talks might also occur in the evening (and will be optional).  During my Clarion, we got a lecture from George R. R. Martin on the history of science fiction and fantasy one night that ran over three hours and caused more than one person to collapse from exhaustion, and that was only the second week.

You will, also, once per instructor, have half an hour scheduled to talk to them one-on-one, a half hour whose content is entirely up to you.  They can critique another story you've written, talk about careers and publishing, tell you funny stories about writers whose work you admire, explain what you do well and poorly (I had a great/horrifying/quite pleasant meeting with Delia Sherman in which she told me the story I'd asked her to read over needed to be torn apart and totally reconcepted and, having concluded that in the first two minutes, we had a lovely chat about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer and about the writer's life in general), or any other thing.  It's up to you.

Other than that, you're on your own, more or less.  You could, conceivably, just wander around in the sunshine (there is no sunshine, San Diego has its worst weather in summer) and chase bunnies (there are thousands, and they are too fast for you to ever catch, but you will try, at least once).  Most folks in my Clarion turned in a story a week, which is the upper end of the average output and can, as I can personally attest, drive you to the brink of insanity and perhaps a little beyond.  Most people write and workshop three to five stories while they're there, written mostly in the afternoons and on weekends, because every night you have to read and critique the stories of your fellows, and you'll probably want to sleep a bit from time to time (I averaged about six hours a night, I think).

But the experience is more than that, and the secret of Clarionite success is somewhere in that nebulous more.

Don't get me wrong, the crucible of the workshop process will indeed help to crystallize the precipitate that is you the writer from the gooey mess that is you the person, and it will hurt and be awesome all at the same time (and, as time passes, the hurt will fade, and the awesome ascend to prominence).  The words of wisdom and professional contacts that you glean from the instructors will help you parlay the experience into publication and success (or at least make it much likelier than it was before).  You will, by dint of your attendance, receive at least a provisional membership in the spec-fic cool kids' club.

All of those things are good things, helpful things, facets of the shiny sparkly gemstone that is the Clarion experience.

But what makes it the thing that it is, makes and remakes you in the form of a better, more serious writer, is something more nebulous altogether, something that even after having been through it myself I have some difficulty putting into words.  It's the kind of thing you can't so much articulate the essence of as just write around and around and around it, giving shape to its contours and dimensions and leaving the ineffable essence of it in the negative space in the center, for others to peer at through the fog of unknowability that surrounds it and try and guess what it could be.

Somewhere among the camaraderie of your class, the eighteen of you putting aside everything else in your lives (as much as is possible) and devoting a month and a half to this and only this; among the late nights and hazy afternoons wrestling a story out of the churning mess of your creative subconscious; among the revelations and realizations that yes, this is what you want to do with your life (or hell no, after this you're done with this bullshit), that even with the pain, the sleeplessness, the unreasoning anger you might feel when people just don't get what you're trying to do: somewhere among all the madness and hard work a transformation occurs, down inside you, so deep you'll never be able to fully understand or articulate it, at least not until you've got way more distance from it than I do as I write this.  The metamorphosis is subtle, and complete, and what you are when you come out the other side is different from what you were when you went in.

That's the best I can do to put it into words.  I hope it's been, if not illuminating, then at least informative.  But I will say this:  if you're serious about being a writer of fiction, speculative, literary, whatever, going to Clarion is something that will make you better, no matter how talented you are or where you are in your career.

I know it made me better.

The 2011 Clarion Writers' Workshop runs from June 26th through August 6th.  Instructors are Nina Kiriki Hoffman, John Scalzi, Elizabeth Bear, David Anthony Durham, John Kessel and Kij Johnson.  For more information, or to start the application process, click here.

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