Editor’s note: As a site primarily focused on science fiction and fantasy literature, this blog considers itself lucky to have a few genuine practitioners of the genre on staff. When we learned one of them, Lauren Naturale, had attended the famed Clarion Writers’ Workshop, an intensive six-week program that’s like a condensed Iowa Writers’ Workshop for the genre world, we immediately asked her to share a little about the experience of honing her craft with the help of instructors the likes of Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Geoff Ryman, James Patrick Kelly, Nalo Hopkinson, and Mary Anne Mohanraj. Lauren recently published a story in the collection Phantasm Japan.
Clarion applications close March 1st. The workshop is a big deal: there are only a handful of writing workshops dedicated to speculative genre fiction, and Clarion is the most prestigious. Clarion alumni become famous; Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Nalo Hopkinson, and Kelly Link all attended (in fact, all these people did). Getting in won’t make you, but it can make a difference in your career.
I went to Clarion in 2008, and it was a good experience. It was also useful: there were eighteen people in my workshop, and ten of us have published stories in professional markets since then. Three have sold novels. Yet while I’m glad I went, I cringe when people get romantic about Clarion, not because it’s so grueling, but because I am deeply unromantic and Clarion is (1) expensive and (2) not for everyone.
I’m not a Clarion evangelist. If you can’t afford it, or your job won’t give you the time off, or you hate short stories, or you’re somehow Other and the possibility of representing The Other in every discussion all summer sounds like a bad match for your personality type, don’t feel like you need to go. There are plenty of important SF/F writers (and Clarion instructors) who succeeded without it.
If you can go—if your friends all love your stories, but you’re still getting (nice) rejection letters; if you feel you’ve gone as far as you can go without help; if you’re caught in a rut and want to break free in a particularly dramatic way, preferably one involving bad food and good beaches—you should apply. Here’s why:
Clarion condenses years of feedback into a single summer
I’ve always written, but I didn’t get serious about it until my 20s, and I only showed my fiction to two old friends. They’d known me since I was a teenager, which limited the critiques they could give me; my blind spots were their blind spots. I submitted two short stories for publication, got rejected both times, and stopped submitting short stories. From ages 23 to 25, I wrote in a near-vacuum. I could tell that I was getting better, but I had no idea whether I was any good (I am) or whether the novel I was trying to write worked (errrm…).
Clarion changed that: suddenly, writers I didn’t know but had admired for years were telling me that I had potential, and could do this. I also had readers who were very different from me and weren’t afraid to tell me when a section felt too slow or too arcane. Part of workshopping your work is learning what feedback to take and what to discard. I could safely ignore the dude who told me to stop writing because “the feminists have had their say, and I’m tired of getting beaten up,” but when Geoff Ryman told me a story was too campy, I knew he had a point. The diversity of students and instructors is such that you’ll meet your ideal readers and people who aren’t your readers at all, and both critiques will clarify your work.
The instructors are brilliant, interesting people who just happened to write your favorite books
There are two Clarion workshops: Clarion West, in Seattle, and “Clarion East,” or Clarion, in…San Diego (it’s complicated). Both workshops draw incredible, award-winning faculty, and it’s not unusual for a writer to teach at Clarion one year and Clarion West a few years later. Applicants tend to choose whichever workshop has the teachers they want to work with, and they are right to do so, because the instructors are integral to your Clarion experience. You don’t just see them in class—you live with them.
Years out, I’m still stunned by how supportive some of my instructors have been. They’ve been personally and professionally generous to me and to the other writers in my cohort; they’ve connected people with agents, published our stories, cheered on our successes, cooked us dinner or lunch and invited us to strange garden parties. They’ve acted as more than teachers—they’re mentors.
There’s more financial aid than you think
Clarion is expensive, but there are scholarships available, and many people receive partial financial aid. If you identify as a person of color, you’re eligible for the Octavia Butler scholarship, which covers tuition and housing; there are additional scholarships earmarked for UCSD students, emerging writers over 40, and writers from the NYC metro area. There are also named scholarships in honor of specific individuals and a number of miscellaneous small grants from the alumni fund. It’s not unusual for students to receive some combination of funding from multiple sources; for example, I got both a named scholarship and a grant from the alumni fund, which made attending the workshop much more feasible.
It’s the best place to study speculative fiction in an academic setting
Clarion has more in common with an MFA program than it does with the life of a working writer, and that’s a feature, not a bug. It’s no longer true that you can’t write SF/F in writing programs, but few universities have enough SF/F writers on the faculty to make it worthwhile. Many Clarion instructors teach or have taught in writing programs, but no program brings together as many superstar SF/F writers in one place.
Your instructors and peers will be astonishingly well read in the genre. Most importantly, there are enough instructors for students with varying interests to coexist. Yes, there were weeks when my roommate who wrote military SF got grumpy, and other weeks when I shut myself up in the library rage-reading To Write Like a Woman, but the breadth of the faculty may be the workshop’s biggest strength. Clarion assembles an extraordinary amount of knowledge in one program.
If this all intrigues you, what should you do? You should probably apply. Whether you go or not, read Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing, which will give you more than enough to process between now and June.
And if you don’t get in? That happened to a friend, and she went on to publish more stories than half the people from my workshop. You don’t have to go.
But if you can, you should.