Thursday, May 3, 2012

Clarion West - Surviving the Crucible

I get Clarion West flashbacks every time I see an episode of Survivor. I remember what it felt like, being overworked, exhausted, and struggling through what felt like a one against the world competition to see who would crack first (never seems to be the rest of the world.) But while Survivor is about voting people out and avoiding elimination, our Clarion West class did something much more ambitious. We worked to keep everyone in the game. If you think Tribal Councils are hard, imagine not letting yourself have them.

The format for the Clarion workshops is relatively straightforward. Seventeen people get in, they live communally, often in university dorms, and each person writes at least six stories in six weeks. Every day, 3-4 stories are critiqued in a morning critique session led by that week's instructor - always a professional writer or editor. The instructor then gives us a lesson or lecture, and then we're free to go write, read and prepare critiques for the next day, eat, sleep, try not to scratch each other's eyes out, etc. Critique is an elegant word for a downright brutal process. Imagine what it's like to have seventeen other people analyze and tear apart the story you finished in the wee hours of the morning the day before yesterday. Imagine spending the rest of the time reading other people's stories with a critical eye, so that you can do your critiques each and every day.

Clarion-style workshops are known for burning out a certain percentage of their attendees. The usual statistic is that only one third of the students are still writing ten years after graduation. They're also known for putting people's personal and emotional lives through the blender, causing divorces and separations, sometimes months after the workshop's close. Imagine going through that, and trying to not just get yourself through, but everybody else as well, including the jerk who tore into you with a personal attack a that morning's critique session.

You know things are intense when Connie Willis (yes, this year's SFWA Grand Master) hands out her personal telephone number and says it's all right to call her at home, in Colorado, to cry or vent or scream or whatever else we needed after her time as our fourth week instructor was over. And yes, she really did do that.

So how did we do? Ten years out, at least two thirds of us are still writing - a few don't keep in close contact with the rest of us, so I can't give a definitive breakdown. Eleven of us joined up for the reunion anthology, Under the Needle's Eye. At least six of us have books out or book deals locked down (I'm having a hard time counting straight because I've been running myself ragged with work on the launch today.) Every single one of us made at least one professional short story sale, a percentage that is almost unheard of. When I told Connie Willis this, she said, "Yes, but everyone talks about your class. You guys were special. You were professionals." Kind words from someone who'd seen some of our worst moments in fourth week when we'd been workshopping long enough to have our nerves rubbed raw, but weren't far enough along to feel the end was in sight.

I had the privilege of organizing the edits and doing the ebook conversion for Under the Needle's Eye, and I can testify, it's a spectacular array of speculative fiction writing by people who've worked hard on their craft for over a decade. But what's been even more gratifying is getting to share the experience of a successful launch with my classmates who didn't vote me out (even when I might have wanted to vote me out) and who continue to rally around and support one another. As I type this, Under the Needle's Eye is Number 1 in genre anthologies on Amazon, much higher than I anticipated we'd climb, especially on the first day of the launch. I'm proud of that, but more importantly, I am thrilled I get to share this experience with my fellow Clarion West survivors.

The rest of them are all quite a bit more eloquent than I. Check out the blog postings by Samantha Ling, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Kiini Ibura Salaam, Susan Ee, Ari Goelman, Raymund Eich, and Patrick Samphire. And then come find us Under the Needle's Eye.


  1. That's what competition means. You shouldn't be giving up. You should go beyond your limitations. Be creative and be determined. Or else, you'll end up a loser.