Some observations and notes by Jed Hartman
[Note: This was one of the first web pages about Clarion West; I posted it
in 1996 or so, made a small change to it in January 1997, and then left it
alone for six years. I've now made a couple more small changes to make it a
little less outdated, and I've updated the URL to point to CW's new home page,
but at this point there are plenty of better and more complete sources of information
about CW online; I'm leaving this page in place for basically archival and
Clarion West is an annual six-week science fiction writing workshop, based
on the model provided by the original Clarion (sometimes called Clarion
East). The main difference between the two workshops is that Clarion West
is in Seattle, while Clarion East is in East Lansing, Michigan. The
workshops are not, technically, affiliated, but they're quite similar, and
each is sometimes referred to simply as "Clarion."
Forofficial info on the workshop, including information about who's teaching
any given year, see the Clarion West home page.
For general discussion of the workshop from my perspective, read on.
Some day I may add a page of reminiscences, but this page
isn't it; this page focuses on info that might be useful to anyone
considering attending the workshop. If you want reminiscences, try
following links from Connie Hirsch's Clarion page.
Both Clarions are, in most ways, much like any American writing
workshop(1)the basic idea is that you spend a lot of time writing and then
show your work to the other workshop members, who critique it. Clarion has been
described as "literary boot camp"; that isn't quite accurate for my
experience of it, but the phrase does give something of the flavor and
intensity of the workshop.
Each week has a different "instructor" or "writer-in-residence." The first
week is taught by a relatively new writer (my year, Emma
Bull and Will Shetterley co-taught) just to get the students into the feel of
workshop and show them how it works; the next four weeks get progressively
more intense (including one week taught by a professional editor or
publisher, to give you a different perspective on things), and the workshop
culminates with someone very impressive (my year it was Samuel R. "Call me
Chip" Delany; other years they've had Le Guin, Ellison, or others of roughly
comparable stature). The
writer-in-residence gives critiques just like everyone else, but also gives
occasional lectures, assigns occasional exercises, meets one-on-one with
each student, and generally attempts to help the class become better writers.
There are 17 students in each class/workshop these days; but back in my day it
used to be 20. My year I was told that 24
people had applied; I don't know how many people apply each year these days.
At any rate, if you're interested, you should apply; don't talk yourself out
of it on the grounds that the competition is too tough.
Clarion (East) was started twenty-some years ago, by Robin Scott Wilson and
others, as a way to help out young sf writers. A couple of anthologies of
Clarion stories were published, including early stories by various folks
who later went on to become Big Names in the field. Some years later, some
Seattleites decided to form another workshop for those west of the
Mississippi. (There's more to it than that, but that'll do for a rough outline.)
Unfortunately, the professional sf world is sharply divided over The
Clarion Question. [Note added in 2003: I think this is much less true now than
was a dozen years ago.] Some
vicious invective about "the Clarion writing style" and the cliquish
mentality of Clarionettes. To some extent, they're right; people who've
attended Clarion (even if they attended different years) do tend to flock
together at sf parties, "doing the Clarion thinghanging out in the kitchen together and shutting everyone else out"
as one writer put it. But it's not an intentional snub, at least not in my
experience; just the human feeling of wanting to be around people with whom
you've got something in common. And as a fairly shy person who has a hard
time talking to people I don't know (especially those whose work
I've long admired), I'll take any common ground I can get.
At any rate, it's worth noting that attending Clarion does automatically
mean taking sides in the battle. Clarion-friendly editors will be more
friendly to you if you mention attending Clarion; anti-Clarion editors (if such
exist) may be biased against you.
Lifelong friendships and feuds alike can flourish in the fertile ground of
a six-week writing workshop. The students may be drawn together by a
common causelack of sleep, poverty, the quality of dorm food, or even
irritation at a particular fellow studentand a great deal of camaraderie
can result. Some students write up various tidbits and leave them in the
Clarion lounge for the amusement (or so one hopes) of other students; for
example, in '91 Connie
Hirsch created the Agony Scale with
the assistance of several other students.
Like any small social organization, Clarion provides a large number of
in-jokes. In '91 we printed a couple dozen of them on the back of a
t-shirt. I still don't get half of them. My favorite was the stuffed
amphibian that the student being critiqued got to hold (it's oddly
comforting to hug a stuffed amphibian while your work is being shredded):
we borrowed the name another class had given it, calling it the
Verisimilitoad. I have a long list of great comments and quotes that would
mean nothing to anyone who wasn't there, and probably very little to most
of those who were.
Is It Worth Attending?
That depends on who you are and what you want. If you're just looking for
a workshop, to improve your own writing, you're probably better off
starting your own local workshoptry posting (local) notes to
writing-related newsgroups, or looking in writing magazines for workshop
ads. Or join an online workshop, such as Critters.
Clarion provides several valuable things that aren't usually available from
Clarion doesn't often provide any of these things:
- A place to do almost nothing but write, for six entire weeks.
- Impetus to write. Anyone who's tried to start a local workshop and
seen it fall apart when nobody has time to write will know how important
this can be.
- Occasional valuable feedback and criticism from professionals (though
this is arguably overrated; other "student" workshoppers can often provide
more insightful critiques than established pros).
- Occasionally useful "how to write" lessons from professionals, plus
some good writing exercises.
- Detailed information on editing and publishing, and other advice on
the business side of writing (such as four contradictory statements from
four different pros on when one should get an agent).
- Perhaps most importantly, many valuable contacts in the sf field (pros
at Clarion, the Seattle sf community, your fellow students, and everyone
else in the sf world who's Clarion-friendly).
(And yet, contacts aren't everything. Saying you went to Clarion might get you
past the first reader in a slushpile, but it won't get you published unless
your work is good.)
The most valuable part to me was the industry contacts—although that value didn't
come in any obvious or direct way.
learn a few things about How To Write, which I'll sum
up to prevent you from having to attend Clarion solely to gain these
pearls of wisdom.
- A life-changing experience.
- Profound insights into The Writer's Life.
- The deep dark secrets of How To Write.
The workshop charges about $1400 (up from about $1000 when I attended),
which covers fees for the teachers, copying costs, and probably some money
paid to Seattle Central Community College, where the workshop is held. I
believe the staffwho are wonderful and underappreciatedare all volunteers. For an additional $1200 or so, you can live
in a dorm room (usually in the dorm of a nearby Jesuit university); as someone
who didn't live in the dorm and felt very left out of a lot of the workshop
culture, I highly recommend the dorm if you can afford it.
Financial aid is available to those who can't afford the full tuition.
This is one reason that Clarion can use your money. I couldn't have
afforded to attend without the financial aid they gave; I now send them
money regularly to pass the gift along.
340 15th Ave. E., Suite 350
Seattle, WA 98112
(1) I don't know what writing
workshops in other countries are like, but I gather they're similar.
Jed Hartman <email@example.com>