Clarion West

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 I've now made a couple more small changes to make it a little less outdated, and I've updated the URL to point to CW's new home page, but at this point there are plenty of better and more complete sources of information about CW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 historical purposes.]

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 a 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 it was a dozen years ago.] Some writers and editors take any excuse to launch into 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 thing -- hanging 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 cause -- lack of sleep, poverty, the quality of dorm food, or even irritation at a particular fellow student -- and 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 workshop -- try 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 local workshops:

Clarion doesn't often provide any of these things: The most valuable part to me was the industry contacts—although that value didn't come in any obvious or direct way. However, I did 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.


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 staff -- who are wonderful and underappreciated -- are 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.

Contact Info

Clarion West
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 <>