I went to Clarion West in 1997. Over that six-week period, I wrote five stories and a book proposal, averaged five hours of sleep a night, lived on coffee, gained ten pounds, didn’t get out to train in Aikido, and asked myself at least once a week why I was doing this.
I’ve never been so happy in my life.
There are lots of reasons to go to Clarion West or Clarion. Yes, you will learn a lot about writing. Yes, you will get to know writers and editors. And yes, the intensity of the workshop will push you to do your best work. I’m glad for all those things.
But what really made me happy was living in a community of writers for six weeks. There is nothing like pacing the hall at two in the morning, trying to figure out how to fix a scene, and finding that someone else is also up struggling with a story.
By the end of the workshop, I wanted to figure out how to live permanently in a community of writers. I’d gladly have spent the rest of my life at Clarion West. Well, OK, with a bit less intensity, because I couldn’t have kept up with the lack of sleep and exercise much longer.
Alas, I have never figured out how to do it, though I still have fantasies about getting together to buy an apartment building with a bunch of other writers. Hell, I’d probably even be willing to live in a dorm room with the bathroom up the hall as I did at Clarion West.
It probably goes without saying that I made some lifelong friends there. Some I see regularly; others I see every few years. I find with most of them that we pick up wherever we left off last, because over those six weeks we got to know each other in a deep way.
In Aikido, I often find that I get to know other people very well even when I can’t remember their name. Training tells us so much about each other. Regularly reading other people’s stories while living with them and watching how they work also teaches people a lot about each other.
Of course, that depth of experience means that our shortcomings were as well known as our strengths. But in the right atmosphere, that can be an advantage. When you can’t hide from others, it’s also hard to hide from yourself. The whole experience left me with the desire to write something great. That desire has never left me.
I’m sure some people will read this and be appalled. They should not apply for the workshops. It is not the right path for them. One of the most important truths about how to be a “real” writer is that there are many – perhaps infinite – ways to do it. So I would never say you have to go to Clarion to write science fiction.
But for me, finding other people who understood what I was trying to do made all the difference.