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Clarion

–originally published 5/9/2007 @ LiveJournal

In comments yesterday, wordyk asked me: “Get out of town, I didn’t know you’d been to Clarion; what was that like?”
And there’s really too much to be said in just a reply so I figured a new post about it would be worthwhile.

What was Clarion like? It was by far the most frantic and exciting six weeks of my life. I think it’s also responsible for the fact that I haven’t given up on writing despite my lack of any real significant success almost five years later. It taught me perseverance.

I went to Clarion West in 2002. I applied the first time in 2001 and was turned down, and that was quite a blow for me. I don’t think I did a whole lot of writing in the year following that, even though I’d sold my application story for what was professional rates back then. It wasn’t until I took the Science Fiction workshop for my major that I got back into it and wrote a couple chapters of a novel for that class. I sent in the first chapter after I polished it and wrote up a hideous outline of the rest of the atrocious novel and tried to forget about it and steel myself for another rejection. So imagine my surprise when a couple months later I got a call from Neile Graham–one of Clarion West’s administrators–telling me I was accepted. Actually, Jeff had called me first to tell me she’d called while I was in class and I thought he was being mean and joking with me (I’d had a bad day at school and wasn’t in a good mood). But when I finally realized that he was serious, I nearly backed into another car in the school parking lot. I was the second person chosen for the 2002 Clarion West class, so that really took away the sting of the previous rejection.

Our professors for the six weeks were Paul Park, Kathleen Acala, Pat Cadigan, Gardner Dozois, Joe & Gay Haldeman, and John Crowley (though the original lineup included Nicola Griffith and Dan Simmons instead of Park and Crowley, but things came up that made it necessary for them to bow out). The first Sunday night there, we had a writing assignment and we were pretty much writing non-stop from there until end. Paul Park assigned us character and setting exercises (both of which I eventually sold) and Kathleen Acala assigned a frame story for her week, but for the rest of it we were pretty much free to write whatever we wanted. Gardner did give us a small assignment to write a small scene that evoked emotion, and Joe Haldeman had us write some speculative poetry (I was supposed to write a cyberpunk sonnet, but never quite got around to it.). Gardner also gave us the secret to instant success in SF/F writing (yes, he did, but I’m not sharing:). We also had weekly one-on-one meetings with the professors to discuss our writing and where we wanted to go with it.

Many folks say that Clarion will make or break your desire to be a writer, and in all honesty, by week six I was approaching the point of breaking mine. Thinking back on it now, I’m not even sure why I was feeling so down on my own work and my abilities, but I did and really wondered if I was wasting my time with this whole writing thing. Then I went for my conference with John Crowley and all that changed. I’d written a couple of Quetzalcoatl stories while I was there, and really hadn’t thought of doing anything further with them (of course I was in the state of mind that after Clarion I wouldn’t be doing a whole lot of writing anymore), but almost as soon as I arrived at my conference, Crowley wanted to know what I intended to do with those Q stories. He laid out a strategy for me on where to go with them as a series, what I needed to do with them thematically to make them work together as a whole, and encouraged me to keep working at it because they were good stories. I left the conference feeling like a brand new person and my faith rejuvenated. I took about a year off from writing after that, just to let it all soak in and to finish up school. I then spent two years writing a novel then decided to focus on short fiction and following Gardner’s formula for success (though I have yet to master all the steps, hence my lack of true success yet 🙂 ).

The best part about my Clarion experience was all the great people I met and became friends with. My class was nearly equal gender-wise, with there being one more female than males, and we weren’t just a bunch a young whippersnappers either; quite a few of my classmates were over forty. Dynamically speaking, we all got along really well, better than some past classes had, and a few of us have gone on to publish in the big mags or prestigious semi-pros. One of us has even published her first novel. My best memories of Clarion involve hiking down to Pike Street Market with some of my classmates to buy crabs to cook for dinner, or gathering in one of our rooms to drink and talk and listen to music after the weekly parties. On Friday nights there were parties put on by the SF community in Seattle and it was a good opportunity to meet some of the professionals who lived in the area. We even attended a day-long party at Greg Bear’s house. On the weekends we had a few guest speakers come to talk to us, folks like China Mieville, Octavia Butler, and Lucius Shepard. On Wednesdays a bunch of us would trek downtown to Elliot Bay Books to listen to that week’s professor do a reading. And once a week all of us as a group would cook and serve dinner and eat together along with the administrators and the professors. It was really quite wonderful.

The only negative I remember of the whole experience was breaking one of my wisdom teeth during week five and living in agony for several days because I wasn’t willing to go to a dentist in a strange city (and we didn’t have any good dental coverage at the time.).

If given the opportunity to attend, I highly recommend it. Just be prepared to work the hardest you’ve ever worked.

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