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How I spent my summer vacation, Or:

  • Posted by Admin
  • August 10, 2012 9:39 AM PDT
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How I spent my summer vacation, Or: Six weeks without sleep in the wilds of Seattle (Clarion West '98) by Diana Rowland (from The Market List Web)

 

I never thought I'd be the type to go through a writer's workshop. When I first heard of Clarion a couple of years ago, my first reaction, on hearing that the main thrust of the program was to write and then have 16-20 other people rip your writing apart, was "Not no, but hell no!" Why would I want to put my ego through that sort of wringer? How could that possibly improve me as a writer? Not to mention the fact that it wasn't cheap, and it would require taking six weeks off of my job and my life to go.

But then I started hearing of more people who'd been through the program, and began hearing what some of these people had gotten out of it. Feedback on your writing--which is something to be feared and desired at the same time--as well as the chance to get to know some of the biggest names in the SF community. And lifelong friendships--close bonds with others struggling to make it.

The horror stories were there too, though. People who went through Clarion supposedly became part of an annoying clique. Some people went into slumps after Clarion, and never wrote again. Or, those who were able to write after Clarion, all wrote in a "Clarionized" way--all the stories sounded the same.

So many conflicting opinions were tossed around that it was difficult to tell what was true. However, I knew enough Clarion grads that I was able to discount some of the more horrific of the stories. But more than that, I felt like I'd reached a point in my writing where I needed some in-depth feedback, and, moreover, that I was ready to receive it. I decided to give it a shot and see what happened.

My plan was to apply to both Clarions. However, my first preference was certainly Clarion West. While the instructors at both Clarions were top-notch, the ones for West were some of the writers whom I admired most in the industry. All of my friends who'd been through a Clarion workshop had been through West, and moreover, I had family in the Seattle area whom I was eager to visit. But still, both workshops are highly regarded, and so I decided to double my chances and apply to both.

The Clarion West workshop offered a $100 discount if they received your application by March 1st, so I got my stories together and sent that application off first, then worked on my application to the other Clarion. But, to my everlasting shock, I heard back from Clarion West in just 9 days, before I had a chance to mail the other application off, and thus, my summer plans were set.

In the months prior to my departure for Seattle, I began to hear more and more about what I was getting myself into. I heard stories about how some members of each class were made into "goats" or outcasts. Cliques would form, I was told, and infighting would occur. Impossible to avoid in such a high pressure environment.

But a funny thing happened. About two months before the workshop was to begin, we received a list of program participants that included email addresses, and we got in touch with each other. At first it was just seven of us, since email addresses were not listed for the others. But one member mailed hardcopies of our introductory emails to the others on the list, and gradually more people started showing up in email. In the span of about two weeks, everyone in the class managed to make their presence known, and eventually a formal mailing list was set up for our class.

This was when things really started getting fun and interesting. It began hitting home to us that we were all really going to Clarion, and would be spending six weeks in very close quarters. In the next month and a half, over 400 emails were exchanged. We talked about our mutual fears and anxieties, shared any experiences that we felt might be pertinent, and even made arrangements for picking people up at the airport. We joked about how we'd become Our Gestalt Mind, and the self-applied moniker "OGM" stuck.

We also learned that we were the first class to have everyone in communication before the start of the workshop. Some of the instructors had misgivings about this, afraid that we wouldn't be able to give good critiques, that we'd become too close to have the necessary bluntness and honesty. It was feared that we might fall into the "What a great story, Alice!" trap, where everyone likes Alice so much that they insist her story is great just how it is, whether it is or not.

We discussed this in email, and decided that while it was a valid concern, it would not apply to us--because we would not let it. We all wanted to get as much as possible out of Clarion, and instead of making us like each other "too much," the mailing list was allowing us to get to know each other and relax enough to know that a harsh critique was nothing personal.

When the day finally came and we arrived at Clarion, meeting all of the other participants was like seeing old friends. We were all quickly thrown into a high-pressure situation, but instead of spending the first week trying to get a feel for the other people in the class, we were able to settle in and get to work.

If it sounds like I'm gushing about how friendly we were, it's because we all felt that our cohesiveness was a major factor in the productivity of the entire class. After I was asked to write this article, I asked the OGM what kind of "angle" I should take in it. Every one of them responded that I should write about how well we got along, and how important that was to the workshop.

We knew we were lucky. Not every workshop had such an experience. We heard several unpleasant stories from Clarions past--both East and West--about infighting, goats, mental breakdowns, and even class-wide screaming arguments about what to put on the T-shirt. And even on a smaller scale, we'd heard that in past workshops the attendance in class sometimes dropped off sharply during the last weeks.

But one of the benefits of our feeling of "community" was the mutual realization that not only did we pay all of this money to pick the brains of the instructors, but we also paid for the minds and opinions of everyone else in the class. Clarion loses most of its effect if there is no critique of stories by the group. In order to not feel as if we were letting the rest of the class down, there was an unspoken agreement that attendance at class, and critique of stories was not optional. Obviously there were some accepted exceptions; a few people had to miss a couple of days due to family obligations, or medical reasons. And there were some days when some of the people were not able to read and critique all of the stories. But in the latter case, there was always an apology, and a promise to finish the critique and deliver it to the author later.

There are many writing workshops out there. Clarion West is by no means the biggest, nor can it be necessarily called "the best." It's different for every class, and the results depend on the individual. Our class accomplished a great deal; we worked hard, and pushed each other, and tried hard to support the others' efforts. 126 stories were submitted to the class during our six weeks. Most students wrote at least 5 stories, with some writing as many as ten.

Clarion is not for everybody. It requires the ability to live in very close quarters, physically and emotionally, with at least 16 other writers. It necessitates an honesty that must be coupled with tact, and maturity above all else.

Throughout our six weeks, we had observers and instructors comment repeatedly on how cohesive a group we were, how well we got along. There was no fighting, or bickering. No one burst into tears during critiques, and there were no murders or suicides. In fact, we were dubbed "The Boring Clarion"--a name we took with pride.

But it was truly only boring to an outsider looking for lurid scenes. To us it was stimulating and thrilling, and there were occasional soap-opera-ish moments that could have easily degenerated into fighting and unhappiness. Yet, throughout it all, we remained determined to make it through the program with a positive attitude. There were many occasions when we would look at each other and say, "Do you realize how lucky we are?" And other times when we'd say, "This sucks, but let's just be grownups."

Our group was an older group, compared to some other workshops. Our youngest participants were 28, but age played little part in relative maturity. We came from an extremely diverse assortment of backgrounds and careers, and we were all at relatively similar points in our writing careers, though some had more experience than others. We had two published novelists in our group, as well as one person who'd been accepted to Clarion on the basis of the first short story she'd ever written. Looking back, it's hard to say whether it was really luck that we all bonded so well, or simply the fact that we'd made a conscious decision to be grownups. After all, Clarion is a workshop for people who are interested in writing careers.

Oh, there was childishness too. Practical jokes abounded, and revenges were plotted. Tricks were played on students and instructors alike, and it became a point of pride to be plotted against. We all worked hard, but we also had a great deal of fun. By the third week we were taking breaks to go to the movies, renting videos, and exploring the city. I found Seattle to be a terrific environment to hold a writer's workshop in; it's a vibrant and interesting city, with no end of sources of inspiration.

In the end, it doesn't matter what workshop you attend. Each has something different and unique to offer, either in terms of the instructors, the environment, or the style. What matters is the people in the workshop, and their attitude. These are the people who you're going to be critiquing and receiving critiques from. These are the people whom you are going to be alumni with for the rest of your life. By maintaining a mature and professional attitude we all came away from the workshop feeling like we'd passed through to a larger world. Moreover, we still feel like a class. The mailing list is still going strong. We continue to trade critiques and advice. We commiserate about rejections, cheer the successes, and we make plans to see each other again.

I went to Clarion with the desire to improve my writing, get accurate and honest feedback, and learn how to critique, both my own work and others. I came away from it with all of that and more. I feel incredibly fortunate that I ended up with the classmates that I did. Whether by chance or design, the administrators of Clarion West put together a class that was motivated and professional.

In the end, though, it's up to the workshop participants to make it a good class. Everything can be disrupted by one person who doesn't want to be a grownup, one person who decides to attack the writer instead of the writing, or one person who tries to create factions within the class. Yet, even then, if the remainder of the class remains focused, that one person won't have any effect.

You don't need Clarion to get published, nor does attendance guarantee publication. It's a very high pressure environment that may or may not improve your writing, and it's by no means appropriate or beneficial for everyone. There are many writers out there who do not need or want the type of intensive experience that Clarion offers, and still manage to have highly productive careers. Clarion is not a ticket to success, or even a ticket into an inner circle of professionals. In the end it's entirely up to the writer to make the workshop experience a useful one.

I had a terrific and positive Clarion experience. I had, and still have, a wonderful and supportive class. I learned more in six weeks than I have in the past three years. I worked hard, lost sleep, and went through some emotionally wrenching times.

I never want to repeat Clarion. But it will certainly go down as one of the greatest experiences of my life.

--------------------

Clarion West Writers Workshop 340 Fifteenth Avenue East, Suite 350 Seattle WA 98112 http://www.sff.net/clarionwest/

 

About the Author:

Diana Rowland was born in Louisiana and since then has lived her entire life in some part of the southern United States. She holds a first degree black belt in Hapkido, as well as a BS in Math from Georgia Tech. She works as a Pit Boss in a casino on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where she uses her math degree to help her count to 21 really fast. She is a graduate of Clarion West '98, and enjoys writing speculative fiction that addresses aspects of the human condition, especially when seen in alternate or other-worldly situations.

During Clarion she maintained an online journal of her experience, which can be found at http://www.sff.net/people/diana/journal.htp

 

Copyright © 1998 by Diana Rowland. All Rights Reserved.

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