I am getting all nostalgic about Clarion West, as it comes up on acceptance time, as plans form up for this summer’s class and as the CW committee decides on the lineup for 2017 (omg IT’S AMAZE). Classmates, too, have been talking about their own experience and what they think they ultimately got out of it now that we’ve started to recover. It’s become clearer to me in the last few months what I really took away from the workshop, and so I thought I would write it down.
Some of these are oft-repeated, but they do bear repeating. I think if you bring your whole self to the critique table and put your heart into the effort, sparing nothing, being honest, being kind, trying hard, taking feedback and staying openminded, you are almost guaranteed the following. Class of 2016, brace your damn selves.
A network. From the moment CW announced the class of 2015 my Facebook feed became a dogpile of people reaching out to me, and people I didn’t think would ever want to talk to me suddenly interested in who I was. Andy Duncan sent me a congrats message. Andy Duncan! Suddenly I was connected to the pro world, and I had something to talk to them about. Clarion is a great training ground for talking to editors, other writers, and artists you previously would have backed slowly away from–now these people are your resources and you are theirs. Clarion or Clarion West means you are highly likely to do interesting things in the future, so the industry is watching you. You are now officially cool.
What’s more–and you will come to know it in your blood–your classmates, your cohort, are your most important resource. Some of them will be goddamn famous. Some of them will have amazing connections and a deep, possibly-unfounded yet manic belief in you. They will get invitations to anthologies that they will magically extend into invitations for you. They will meet agents that are not perfect for them but are perfect for you. They will think of you when other people don’t. One or two of them may become like family, people whose creative process you know in a deep corner of your heart, whose writing you root for and grind your teeth over and who will do stupid, loving things for you. They will be your conference drinking buddies, your book club, your writer’s group. So don’t fuck it up with them.
Critical thievery skills. When I read a story now, I go, “oh, I see what you did there” 95% of the time. (That last 5% I am going “OMG I am going to kill myself this is impossible” and I am almost certainly reading David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoot.) This is valuable because even if I can’t steal all the skills, I can steal little skills. I wouldn’t know how to even begin researching a book like Nicola Griffith’s Hild, but I immediately noticed how subtly she conveyed character motivation, and started trying my own experiments to do the same. If I had been a coherent enough critical reader before CW, I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to try and steal that skill off of my reading.
The same critical eye for my own writing. I wanted to tell complicated, subtle stories but the mechanics were beyond me, and so I was eternally stuck in second draft. Post-Clarion West, holy smokes, I suddenly and magically know how to identify broken things in my writing. Sometimes I even know how to fix them–not right away, all the time, but the solutions are coming to me faster and faster. I’ve been going back and finding solutions to all my old story problems and it’s kind of blowing my mind. This is a thing! I can do! Holy hell!
The magical ability to get shit done. Writing lost its magic, and by that I do not mean anything negative at all. This is not conjuring, the work I do. It is work. I used to be kind of particular about when and where I wrote–the time of day, the mood I was in. Environmental factors could stop me, or if I felt icky or had too much on my mind or if I thought someone was watching. Thanks to Clarion West I now know I can write a story in 2,000 words, and I can do it overnight; I can write from someone else’s source material; I can finish a draft on deadline even when it feels like pulling teeth; I can write while sick, exhausted, and a giant pile of emotions. I can write no matter what. If I am going to be a pro this has to be a priority, because professional writers have deadlines, and deadlines don’t care if you slept shitty last night. Finish the draft. Just fucking write, okay?
Clarion West truly does set you up to be a professional. While everyone’s experience is different, if you bring a work ethic and a completely open mind I do believe you’ll leave with these resources.
You also might leave with a tattoo. Shrug.