Memories and lessons learned at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop:
Nowadays when I teach Clarion (I’ve had the pleasure a few times), I always wind up describing various anecdotes and lessons that Kate imparts in this book: You are not your story, the criticism is tough-minded because people care about your story, first-person viewpoint is the hardest p.o.v. for a new writer to handle. (Maybe that one’s not in this book, in which case, go read Those Who Can, ed. Robin Wilson.)
Last summer I found myself repeatedly describing one other anecdote. It was told to me by Nicola Griffith.
Nicola went to Clarion as a student, learned some good lessons in the first four weeks, and generally got nice feedback from the instructors.
Then in week five, in her individual conference, she heard Kate say, “Nicola, you’re a good writer, you seem to be learning some lessons here, I’m sure you’ve gotten nice feedback, but I’ve read your stories and I don’t see anything of you here. I feel like I know nothing more about you from reading your stories. What are you hiding from?”
Nicola gave a hollow answer, probably said she wasn’t hiding from anything. After the conference, she went back to her dorm room and trashed it. Overturned the mattress, threw things at the wall — did a real Johnny Depp on the room. (Or was that Alec Baldwin?)
Because, of course, Nicola had been hiding, hadn’t wanted any of herself to come out on the page, and she’d thought that if her craft were good enough, no one would notice. A dozen years after the event, when Nicola described it to me, she said, “That was the turning point for me. That was what I got out of Clarion: an idea of what I was about as a writer.”
You can read this anecdote — quite rightly — as an example of Kate Wilhelm’s prowess as an instructor. You can take it as an example of how a book like the one you’re holding in your hands can never fully replace the process of experiencing Clarion for six weeks. But I offer it primarily as advice to a new writer: don’t hold back. Put yourself into your work. Lay it out there. You’ll get feedback that hurts, but you’ll find the feedback will help you grow.
In 2004 I taught in the last two weeks of Clarion East along with Kelly Link. We were in a sorority house without air conditioning somewhere in East Lansing, Michigan in July and it was hot as hell. By the time we arrived, the students had been there for four weeks already. They’d been working really hard and that along with the stress of being away from home and loved ones was starting to show. The group dynamic was a little frayed. We did a couple of days of what they’d been used to, and then Kelly and I had a meeting. Kelly was a veteran of past Clarions, but it was my first time and I was a little nervous as to whether I’d be helpful to the students. I had some writing exercises in mind I was going to roll out for her to see what she thought, but the first thing she said was, “We need to have a party with alcohol and music.” Well, this was something I’d had some practice at, so I readily agreed. Going along with this drift, I suggested we also give them two days off from the group workshop that was held everyday and have them write something very short for the next meeting we had. We decided on a 900 word story. In those first couple of days we’d been looking at some voluminous works whose quality dissipated in direct proportion to length. I thought this was as a result of the pressure of producing steadily at a breakneck pace for four weeks, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. When we announced these changes, a couple of the students seemed a little put out that we were screwing with the format and interrupting the pieces they’d been working on. But some of them got with it, and the party metamorphosed, at the suggestion of a couple of the students, into a cross-dressing party, so the men were to come dressed as women and vice versa. I showed up wearing a tiara, earrings and mascara. I was going for the Audrey Hepburn look. The women, god bless them, had really gotten with the party idea and transformed their rooms — one into a bar, one into a dance floor, and one into a lounge. Beds were dismantled, dressers were moved, lighting was adjusted. The party was a blast. Two days later, we saw the results of the 900 word stories, and many of them were very successful. The students were rejuvenated to the point where we could get some good work done in the remaining week and a half, and they’d had a chance to put what they’d learned into action on a piece that was short enough for them to really scrutinize. I realized that what we were seeing in the successful results of these short short stories was all of the wonderful work that their previous teachers — Andy Duncan, Suzy Charnas, Nina Hoffman, Nancy Kress, Gordon Van Gelder — had done with them.
In the two weeks I was at Clarion, I made friends, helped people with their writing, reinspected my own beliefs about writing and found quite a few wanting, missed my wife and kids, laughed a lot, saw some fine writing, shared in the amazing energy of new writers, and learned that when things get tight it’s a good idea to have a party.
Somebody called me up and asked me if I wanted to spend a week in Michigan, teaching at Clarion. I said yes because I thought it was Ann Arbor. Imagine my surprise! We landed in East Lansing: black squirrels, dozens of picture perfect Barbies and Kens pedaling down sidewalks at tremendous speeds, welcome to downtown Oz. Gigantic campus. Statues of Spartans, to say nothing of the canal. I never worked harder. Great group. Mikey, Lucius, Bob Frazier, Paul Witcover, to name a few, almost all then present are still being heard from in the SF world and that is cool. Extremely cool.
As with so many other good things in my life, I blundered onto, or into, Clarion. As editor of New Worlds I’d had very little idea what I was doing; as a writer, I had even less; and as a teacher, I had no idea at all. A partial list of my students — George Effinger, Vonda McIntyre, Octavia Butler, Lisa Tuttle — attests not just to the quality of the workshop, but to the simple truth that sometimes fools like myself are allowed to stagger offstage without having done permanent damage.
Damon Knight has lost his hearing in the higher registers, so he couldn’t hear the alarm on his wristwatch that went off every day at 11AM sharp. He would sit there beaming at us all Zen, while we stared at each other and wondered if this was a Yoda-lesson: critique through the shrill pips! Someone worked up the courage to ask him about this teaching method and he laughed and said that he’d been pissed because the damn watch alarm hadn’t ever worked (i.e., he could never hear it). Rosie Savage’s high voice was out of his hearing range, but he adored her, and when she spoke, he would cross the room and stand before her, knees bent, hands cupped to his ears, beaming mischievously.
What I learned both as a Clarion student and as a Clarion instructor is that you cannot necessarily point to the members of the class and say “This one will make it and that one won’t.”
Some people arrive with their talents fully formed — Athena has sprung from their foreheads and, really, you’re just there to point her in the right direction now that she’s loose. These people, however, are in the minority, never (in my experience) more than one or two per group.
The majority are still trying to figure out where they’re going with this, if anywhere at all. Most of the guidance, advice, and flat-out manipulation you bring to bear is for them. The greatest pleasure for me as instructor has been getting to watch someone’s craft catch fire right before my eyes; but even so, that person might go home and stop writing, and someone else who was groping in the dark throughout the six weeks will have an epiphany six months later and start producing the best work of all. You never give anybody short shrift, if only because later you’ll have the vicarious if self-deluded pleasure of thinking that you made a critical difference in their climb.
I have taught Clarion four times, and each class has had its own distinctive character. But the class you remember best is the most recent one; like layers of rich soil, the class closest in time yields the freshest memories.
In 2004 the Clarion class held seventeen writers. Even talented beginners make basic mistakes, and by the end of the week I had said some of the same things so often that the class was starting to chant them with me:
“Don’t start your story with a large lump of exposition.”
“Story events should cost your characters something.” Or, more simply, “Things cost.”
“Show us, don’t tell us.”
“You have White Room Syndrome.”
“No sighing — there’s way too much sighing in science fiction.”
At week’s end the class gave me a wonderful gift: a basket of rubber balls, each one inscribed with one of those writing dicta. The idea was that in future classes, I could save everyone a lot of time by just throwing the right ball at the student whose story was being critiqued. I treasure this gift, both as memory of Clarion 2004 and as a profound underlying truth about our genre:
It takes (at least metaphoric) balls to imagine the future.