The Clarion Writers’ Workshop

As best I can remember, my journey to Clarion began in 1989, with a classified ad in the the back of Asimov’s magazine. Fast forward through fifteen years or so of life and career. I’d retired from writing a tech column online to take some creative writing classes at my local community college and was starting to pursue my dream of writing fiction.

The regulars on a tech forum I frequented ran a secret santa gift exchange. Maggie, the then-wife of the person who received my name, was also interested in writing, and sent me “Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop” by Kate Wilhelm. My interest in the workshop was rekindled; I applied in 2007 and again in 2010, when I was accepted.

Clarion is not without controversy. Ask a room full of writers if you should go to six-week workshop and you’re bound to get mixed opinions: go, don’t go, it’s the best experience in the world, it will ruin your life and you’ll never be able to write again. Sorting out who’s wrong and who’s right is complicated, especially when they’re all right.

I’m a bad traditional student. I don’t do well being lectured to and being assigned tedious homework. I floundered in high school and dropped out of college during my first semester. I taught myself most of what I know about software engineering. I read dozens of books about writing and, more importantly, written hundreds of thousands of words in practice. I studied the history and format of the workshop, and read both sides of the debate of its value. If I was going to apply, it was going to be a well-informed action.

There’s no question that going to Clarion is hard. Six weeks away from home cascades into questions of finance, career, and family.

I’d been in the process of preparing my paperwork for immigration to Canada when I was accepted to Clarion. Shortly after that, I was kicked out of Canada after a work trip to Detroit and separated from my wife. The six weeks at Clarion overlapped with that, which was a blessing and a curse. It was time I would probably still have been barred from home but I felt doubly guilty for the separation.

The workshop fee stopped me from applying more than once, but it’s a problem to be solved after you’re accepted (no rejecting yourself). I didn’t have that kind of savings, especially while paying alimony and being underwater on a house I couldn’t sell. I received some scholarship money and I am eternally grateful to the donors who sponsor them. I lucked out with my taxes that year. Because of the alimony I’d been paying post-taxes, I received a larger than expected tax return.

Time away from work was the issue I was most scared of. I’m a bit of a workaholic. I’d skipped vacations for three years prior to my acceptance but my job at the time balked at giving the time to me, despite several months notice. I’d counted on the paid time off but ended up with a partial sabbatical and advance to cover the extra time off. I didn’t get final approval until the day before I left for the workshop. Because of the alimony obligation, I would have had to back out of Clarion and forfeit my workshop fee without that approval.

For all of that stress, the anxiety of separation and uncertainty over money and job, it was worth it for me. Clarion is an intense experience. It’s not just the hard work or spending six weeks with people who you’ve just met. You’re pushing yourself each and every day, being inspired by your classmates, making new friends, and discovering new things about yourself.

Clarion isn’t for everyone. You get from it what you give to it. You’ll work hard and you’ll play hard (I might hold the record for the only student to get a concussion). I think of it as tearing you apart to find your weaknesses and putting you back together again. You’re still you, but the way you look at the world has changed.

Did Clarion worked for me? Yes, because I made it work for me. I would have had the same successes without attending, but it would have taken me longer. A lot longer, maybe. Clarion was the leap of faith I need to take in myself and for that it was worth everything.

Clarion isn’t just a workshop; it’s a community within a community. Seventeen classmates, friends who shared the journey applying. And Maggie, who so thoughtfully sent me the book that restarted my journey towards Clarion? She herself attended Clarion West in 2008. Thank you.

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  • Jim Harris

    I attended Clarion West in 2002 and it was an intense memorable experience, almost like being on Survivor.  I’m still in contact with many of those people.  Not everyone becomes a SF writer afterwards – I didn’t, but some did.  But if you think you really want to write SF/F then its a good test of your commitment.