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Essays & Reviews

Clarion: Teaching at the premier fiction writers' workshop for fantasy and fiction

I'm home from a week of teaching at this summer's Clarion (East) Workshop for aspiring SF/F authors — Week 2 out of six -- and it was a blast (for me, anyway — and I hope for everybody else as well). The class (18 adults from early twenties up to fifties or more) had coalesced into a pretty smoothly functioning group and was churning out stories at a good clip when I arrived. I found no personal enmities or breakneck, steamy affairs to deal with, no accumulated exhaustion (yet — the pressure is on to produce stories for the class to critique every day, so people tend to stay up very late every night, writing like fury), no entrenched writer's block emitting waves of psychic panic.

Teaching so early in the process was smooth sailing, for the most part. I had to jam most of my lesson-type teaching into a hurried session on the closing Saturday morning; during the week there had been none of those exhausted lulls common to later Clarion weeks, when the instructor-of-the-week gets to talk about publishing's parlous state, discuss writing skills and techniques, and assign writing exercises designed to both distract from the terror of being “written out” and to jump-start new work that demonstrates to that they’re not.

Given the steady flow of stories, my daily job was to be a more experienced participant in the critique sessions, often using a summary of the group's comments as a springboard for a capsule lesson on a particular topic — first person narrative when your point of view character is a young child, say, advantages and pitfalls of; or methods of effectively "dumping" necessary information on the reader within the confines of a short piece (a basic problem in SF and fantasy writing).

Evenings I spent reading copies of the students' stories for the next morning, plus reading or re-reading the submission stories of the three or four students I was to see the next day in individual, hour-long afternoon conferences.

These sessions gave each participant a chance to talk privately about their own work, about writing in general or problems with the group dynamic in particular, or whatever else comes up. I got glimpses into these folks' particular aspirations, backgrounds, and back-home identities: people just out of school and feeling for their footing in the world; established professionals like our doctor, our chef, our physicist, our nurse, or our technical writer, itching to branch out into the literary world ; people withdrawn or retired from one field (teaching, computers) and hoping to start fresh in another.

Some always come right out and ask, "Do you think I've got what it takes to do this?" Others outline elaborate plans for the future career they have designed for themselves, hoping you'll tell them that it all makes sense and will happen. Some are so clearly on their way for real that you end up chatting with them about markets, editors, agents, and professional organizations as you would with a colleague — because this person, unless hit by a bus sometime soon, is going to become one.

Of the eighteen in this group, I'd say that a good half dozen were already producing stories that were only a draft or two away from publishable; some were better than publishable: they were good, a delight to read, and bound for print somewhere. And most (though not all) of the others can probably reach that stage by the end of the workshop, or not long afterward if they keep working at it (some Clarion summers spin off long-lasting on-line critique groups made up of groups of graduates committed to continuing the process they began at their Clarion workshop sessions).

A small handful of the participants are probably not writers of SF/F short fiction now, in the near future, or ever (despite the fact that the rigorous workshop selection process, via story submissions, is very effective in weeding out the truly unqualified) — though some of them may find their niche writing other types of fiction.

Realizing that you are one of these last must be a devastating blow, particularly when you've invested substantial money and time (not to mention hope) in a workshop where you have already begun bonding with a group of congenial people, many of whom will go on to achieve what you now recognize is not for you. For an aspirant to confront this reality in such a supportive and authoritative setting is in itself a step forward, though: energy, time, and ability are freed up to find other directions in which greater contributions may be made and greater satisfaction found.

But, oh boy, it's gotta hurt.

On the other hand, that's one of the well-known risks of going to a Clarion, either East, currently in Michigan; West in Seattle; or, most recently, South in Australia. The workshops are famous for both turning out a remarkably high percentage of professional authors (and, what's more, award winners)— and for stopping some participants cold, either temporarily or for good.

In this summer's group one young woman, a lawyer in "real life", had already sent a romance novel proposal out to an editor. Her book was accepted during my week as instructor, setting up the inevitable ripples of hope, delight, envy, and despair in the rest of the group.

This is also part of the deal, and excellent training for the time when, as a published and paid-up member of SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), you hear of a huge advance garnered by a colleague for a new book, say, or a great movie deal made by someone else for her prize-winning short story. It's all part of the life.

So there we all were, living not in a campus dorm as in previous years (and not eating campus food, yagh, hurray), but occupying an off-campus sorority house rented for the purpose. This was a handsome, three-story brick edifice with big common rooms downstairs and a kitchen that was largely off limits to us, because there was a rumpus about men being part of the group after the rental contract was signed with the sorority. There's more to it — some further complications that I don't know the ins-and-outs of and couldn't spell out here if I did.

Anyway, the deal once struck was not breakable, but the sorority women in charge did clap on some ironclad rules, either to make our lives miserable or to protect their property from unwanted testosterone crazed inmates, depending on your point of view:

No liquor on the premises, no using the big range to cook on, no smoking, no food to be consumed outside the dining room (i.e. no coffee and donuts in the big room we used for critiques in the mornings), no sleeping anywhere but in the bedrooms (despite the fact that we weren't permitted to turn on any of the air conditioners in the place and the big basement living room was the coolest space in the building on hot nights); and probably no some-other-stuff that escaped my notice.

Somehow, despite this or perhaps in part because of it, the group bonded warmly and quickly. Instead of small cliques of people having desperate drinking sessions in each other's rooms late at night as an escape from writing, the students could be found of an evening sitting together on the sofas, chairs and floor of the big TV room, all facing the same way (toward the screen, tuned to The Iron Chef) and all clicking away on their laptops in companionable silence: writing stories.

No provision had been made for meals this year. The sorority house was a stopgap measure, made necessary because the university administration had essentially disowned Clarion after some twenty years or so of association. This meant no compulsory meal tickets to horrible cafeteria food any more (thank God) but also no food service.

There is a tradition in Clarion West for the participants to do at least some of the cooking for themselves. This crew, adopting that pattern, agreed to pass around the job of cooking dinners for the group on a rota (including the option of sending out for pizza or Chinese food in the case of the non- or even admitted anti-cooks in the group). Lunches were scavenged from the leftovers, plus some general supplies the group brought in for itself. Occasionally a few people would go out for lunch off campus.

So another factor in the easy cohesion of the group was the agreeable struggle to prepare meals in half of a kitchen, with or without additional resort to the patio grille (no one said we couldn't use that, so we did). Our professional chef (the author of a hilarious short story about, er, alien abduction as a business opportunity) turned out an astoundingly simple and succulent pork dish one night during the week I was there, for which I thank my lucky stars.

Five short blocks away — short suburban blocks of large houses (now given over to fraternities, sororities, and other groups of students) shaded by huge old trees — lay the cheerful, if short, commercial street bordering the university campus. This was not some dreary strip mall but a small neighborhood of older buildings housing small businesses, bars, and restaurants, all clustered around a huge parking structure and a miniature Marriott hotel. If you ran out of toothpaste there was the drug store only a short stroll away, instead of the long, mosquito-plagued trek I remembered from housing deep within the campus in previous years.

In fact, I quit using the bug repellent I'd brought and still never got bitten. If you kept your wanderings to midday rather than early morning or late evening and if you walked very fast, your chances of having your blood drained were minimal. I left the bug spray in the "tutor's quarters" for my successors.

There was one street festival and one outdoor concert downtown during my stay (both of which I looked in on), but the workshop people did most of their recreation on the premises, hanging out together in the big, airy dining room or playing frisbee on the lawn adjoining the patio. If you needed something from the (fairly distant) health food store, you could ask Peter for his car keys and drive over there. A good third of the group had driven in from somewhere nearby, so we had some cars among us. Yet instead of piling into them on the weekend to go see the second "Riddick" movie (as had been suggested) people stayed home at the sorority house — and wrote.

Well, they also got a DVD of "The Secretary" and watched that one night; but, so help me, they were all busily working on their laptops through the whole thing.

We had three or four stories per morning to critique, which is ideal: fewer makes the group feel as if time is a-wasting, and more makes everybody so tired that the last story in a set may get cursory treatment, satisfying no one.

Let me put you in the picture: there we are, assembling at nine a.m. after sleepily foraging for bagels or cereal and coffee. We drop or slump or throw our yawning selves into the oval of assorted chairs, settees, and sofas ranged around the walls of the big front room. We have to shout a little over the humming of the two standing fans (four of our five of our work days were blisteringly hot and muggy, with little relief from the rain showers in the afternoons). Some of us sleep where we sit.

Of the waking majority, what have people to say? Things like this (with exposition of course; and these comments are freely reconstructed from memories of five or six turns teaching at various Clarions over the past two decades):

"I didn't see this ending coming at all — it's a good twist, but it needs more foreshadowing earlier in the story . . ."

"I loved this character, but I couldn't figure out why she did what she did."

"Was this supposed to be a sort of a myth, or a fable? Because it doesn't make it as a regular short story . . ."

"I'm just in awe; I think this is could be published exactly as it is."

"You never made me care about any of these people. Do you like any of them?"

"The Alpha Centauri system has habitable worlds a lot closer to earth; why did you put your space colony way out there in (Beluga Minor)?"

"She's such a stereotype; did you mean for her to turn the reader off?"

"Well, this guy is just an idiot."

"I've been to Stockholm, and you've got it exactly right; but I don't know if it will work for somebody who hasn't been to Stockholm."

"I think this was supposed to be satirical, but to me it felt offensive and I think a lot of readers would have the same reaction."

"You made me work hard, and I'm gonna get you for it."

"It's a vignette, not a story . . ."

"There's too much going on in here, I got really confused. I think it's a much longer story than what you've given us . . ."

"There's too much passive voice."

"I loved this story, it made me laugh and laugh . . ."

"I'll be honest with you: I really hated this story . . . "

"I needed to know a lot more about (these people, this place, these events)."

"The style is too lurid for what's happening in the story; it's overwritten."

"You saw 'Spiderman', right?"

"I didn't like this as much as the other bogeyman story that we had last week . . ."

"I really loved the Hellspawn Beanie Baby, but you lost me with the octopus's dream sequence."

The last person to speak — the person who has been denied the privilege of speaking (ie arguing and defending the story) — is the author of the story in question. The author, in turn, says things like:

"I was trying to make you really hate this guy. I didn't know he was funny."

"Yeah, this came out of something so-and-so said the other night . . . "

"Actually, all your questions are answered in the three books I've already written about the universe where the whole saga of my space empire takes place, and, uh, this story too."

"It's a first draft. I thought I'd kind of let all of you figure out what should happen."

"Hasn't anybody here read any Kafka?"

"I wasn't sure if this would work. I guess it doesn't."

"You're right, I don't really know anything about worm-farming, but I thought I could research it later."

"You've given me a lot to work with, and you'll see a revised version of this story later in the summer."

"Thanks, everybody."

One of the instructors this summer, as every summer, will be an editor, and some of these stories I know I'll be seeing in print next winter; so will you, if you read such things. Keep your eyes open. These people did good work, and by summer's end it will be even better.

One reason I love to teach at Clarion, any Clarion, and always say "yes" when asked, is that it lifts my spirits and revives my optimism every time, to see these fresh, eager, energetic people champing at the bit to join my profession, and bringing their talent and their skills and their new ideas with them. After thirty years I sometimes need reminders of the joys of creation, the wonderful charge of discovery you get from reading a really good story from a newcomer, the enormous power of that old but never outdated source of hope and excitement, the sense of wonder.

You can lose sight of these things sometimes, but they are some of the best of what has always drawn new writers to SF. It's great to bask in all that innovative energy again and recall that no matter who falls by the wayside (as we all must, in our turn), there are new folks eager to take up the telling of the story — the stories, really; the stories of stunning possibility, of deep reflection, of astounding contacts, and of the imagination risking all out on the high wire, without a goddamned net.

Well, someone has to do it, lest we all sink into stagnation, close horizons, and acceptance of what is and what was at the expense of what might yet be.

I'm glad to have been one of those someones, from time to time, over the past years.

At the end of the six weeks, each Clarion crew usually puts out a T-shirt with "Clarion" on the front and a list of memorable (and usually ridiculous) quotes on the back. Watch for them at this year's Noreascon 4 (World Science Fiction Convention, Boston, first weekend in September) and World Fantasy Con in Tempe, Arizona, in October; and, if you're interested, ask the wearer of the shirt how his or her Clarion went, and what they're working on now . . .

June, 2004