“They said shoot a problem monkey, and we shot a monkey. They’re all fucking problem monkeys.”
I am getting all nostalgic about Clarion West, as it comes up on acceptance time, as plans form up for this summer’s class and as the CW committee decides on the lineup for 2017 (omg IT’S AMAZE). Classmates, too, have been talking about their own experience and what they think they ultimately got out of it now that we’ve started to recover. It’s become clearer to me in the last few months what I really took away from the workshop, and so I thought I would write it down.
Some of these are oft-repeated, but they do bear repeating. I think if you bring your whole self to the critique table and put your heart into the effort, sparing nothing, being honest, being kind, trying hard, taking feedback and staying openminded, you are almost guaranteed the following. Class of 2016, brace your damn selves.
A network. From the moment CW announced the class of 2015 my Facebook feed became a dogpile of people reaching out to me, and people I didn’t think would ever want to talk to me suddenly interested in who I was. Andy Duncan sent me a congrats message. Andy Duncan! Suddenly I was connected to the pro world, and I had something to talk to them about. Clarion is a great training ground for talking to editors, other writers, and artists you previously would have backed slowly away from–now these people are your resources and you are theirs. Clarion or Clarion West means you are highly likely to do interesting things in the future, so the industry is watching you. You are now officially cool.
What’s more–and you will come to know it in your blood–your classmates, your cohort, are your most important resource. Some of them will be goddamn famous. Some of them will have amazing connections and a deep, possibly-unfounded yet manic belief in you. They will get invitations to anthologies that they will magically extend into invitations for you. They will meet agents that are not perfect for them but are perfect for you. They will think of you when other people don’t. One or two of them may become like family, people whose creative process you know in a deep corner of your heart, whose writing you root for and grind your teeth over and who will do stupid, loving things for you. They will be your conference drinking buddies, your book club, your writer’s group. So don’t fuck it up with them.
Critical thievery skills. When I read a story now, I go, “oh, I see what you did there” 95% of the time. (That last 5% I am going “OMG I am going to kill myself this is impossible” and I am almost certainly reading David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoot.) This is valuable because even if I can’t steal all the skills, I can steal little skills. I wouldn’t know how to even begin researching a book like Nicola Griffith’s Hild, but I immediately noticed how subtly she conveyed character motivation, and started trying my own experiments to do the same. If I had been a coherent enough critical reader before CW, I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to try and steal that skill off of my reading.
The same critical eye for my own writing. I wanted to tell complicated, subtle stories but the mechanics were beyond me, and so I was eternally stuck in second draft. Post-Clarion West, holy smokes, I suddenly and magically know how to identify broken things in my writing. Sometimes I even know how to fix them–not right away, all the time, but the solutions are coming to me faster and faster. I’ve been going back and finding solutions to all my old story problems and it’s kind of blowing my mind. This is a thing! I can do! Holy hell!
The magical ability to get shit done. Writing lost its magic, and by that I do not mean anything negative at all. This is not conjuring, the work I do. It is work. I used to be kind of particular about when and where I wrote–the time of day, the mood I was in. Environmental factors could stop me, or if I felt icky or had too much on my mind or if I thought someone was watching. Thanks to Clarion West I now know I can write a story in 2,000 words, and I can do it overnight; I can write from someone else’s source material; I can finish a draft on deadline even when it feels like pulling teeth; I can write while sick, exhausted, and a giant pile of emotions. I can write no matter what. If I am going to be a pro this has to be a priority, because professional writers have deadlines, and deadlines don’t care if you slept shitty last night. Finish the draft. Just fucking write, okay?
Clarion West truly does set you up to be a professional. While everyone’s experience is different, if you bring a work ethic and a completely open mind I do believe you’ll leave with these resources.
You also might leave with a tattoo. Shrug.
In January I made my first professional sales, one right after the other, to Asimov’s and Strange Horizons. Both are markets I read regularly and admire.
I have been delaying announcing this for reasons I cannot really account for. Well, yes, I can–I don’t have signed contracts and so part of me doesn’t want to believe it until I have absolute proof that I am not imagining this. But I have learned that sometimes signed contracts are lazy, slow-moving things and really, Teegs, calm yourself.
When you have this shit going on all the time:
I’m getting more time to work as the baby dog starts being able to do big-dog things along with the big dog, so I can multitask. And they chase each other when we play fetch so it’s like a two-fer!
I am a cautionary tale.
I’m not warning anyone away from Clarion or Clarion West. It is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life, and the best six weeks I have ever had. It made me a real, grown-up writer. It is Hogwarts. No, it is Narnia.
But if you know anything about magical worlds, you know that once you’ve learned what you need to learn, the doors close and you can’t go back. And anyone who’s been there is changed, one way or another.
Thing is, when everyone leaves the big old house north of the UW campus, we seem to go through some sort of Fate Scrambler. There’s no predicting whose careers will suddenly take off. And there’s no predicting who will return to the real world with a belly flop instead of a splash.
I arrived at CW with too much confidence. Not in my writing–I’m proud of the work I did during my six weeks and in the work I’ve done since. But I really thought I had my shit together, personally, 100%. I knew who I was and I was happy and fine, and Clarion West was a challenge I could handle. My friendships and experience there were intense and unprecedented but I was certain I could transition them back into the real world and I would be okay.
I was totally confident until I got home.
It was a complete surprise to discover that I am one of those people who leaves the workshop and suddenly, out of nowhere, has a major existential crisis. Before Clarion West I thought I was happy, stable, content. Returning home I felt like I had lost my sight and hearing. This place was colorless, passionless. My job was meaningless, my relationships too quiet, my life far, far too careful.
It’s been a little over three months since I left the back driveway of our magical house, and I don’t have answers yet. I’m still trying to figure out how to incorporate the me that I found at the workshop–a person far more passionate and unpredictable than I thought she was, someone who drinks too much and talks too much and indulges immoderately in the joy and pain of her work–into a life with a paycheck and mortgage and husband. There have been big changes and might be bigger ones.
Anyone who has asked me how I’ve been, post-workshop, knows already: it has been hard. It has been harder than I ever imagined it would be. I have cried, and scared my husband, and hurt feelings, and compromised my job. It is frightening.
The point is, I was not expecting this. I thought I knew my shit, and I thought I knew myself. I wasn’t young, I wasn’t searching. I found something anyway.
It has been painful but very, very worth it.
So bear that in mind, as Clarion and Clarion West application season begins. You might learn something you aren’t expecting to learn.
“That’s not a sandwich,” Elise said as her sister swung the refrigerator door open. “It’s a monster.”
I was given the opportunity to do a little write-up on the Hugo Awards for the Stranger, Seattle’s only newspaper, which you can find here. It is my first piece of paid journalism. That feels kind of special.
I knew Clarion West would be a good experience, and I knew it would be impactful, and I was expecting it to be some of the craziest and weirdest and hardest fun and work of my life. All true. But more intense. Harder. More fun, more work. Way weirder. I don’t feel like the same person, even though I know at my core I am. I’ve mutated. Leveled up. Evolved.
I wrote things I didn’t expect to write. I critiqued better than I thought I could. I learned more than I think I even realize. It was absolutely, totally worth it.
Six weeks ago if you’d asked me what I do I would have told you my day job, the thing I get paid for. That’s not true anymore. My most profound change is I no longer question who I am or what I’m doing. I’m a writer. Nobody who succeeds in this type of workshop is anything but a writer. Whether I stay one is up to me, but for the last few months there was no questioning it. Now I just have to keep going, keep looking up, and keep my priorities straight.
For vast moments since I left that house I am heartbroken by the absence of my classmates. It is profoundly bittersweet. I have friends around the world, amazing people. But they no longer live down the hall from me; I don’t get to have coffee with them every morning, or hear them singing or playing music as I go about my day. I miss that deeply. I didn’t think I would connect with that as much as I did.
I am so tremendously grateful that I had this experience. I still can’t believe I was so lucky: lucky enough to get in, lucky I was in a place in my life that I could accept the spot, lucky I had friends and family to help me raise the money to go, lucky to land with the class I did. I don’t know who to thank or how to start. The only thing I can think of to do to show how deeply I have been moved and changed by this experience is to work my goddamn tail off, to write like I’ll die next year, to sink my heart into my writing and make good art even when it feels like I don’t have a free moment in the day.
I can at least do that.
Week Six Instructor: Cory Doctorow
Week Six Instructor’s Superpower: Everything. Articulate charm? Absolute sincerity? Awesome absurd outfits? Endless ability to get shit done? Cory is the only person on the planet who gets choked up when he talks about DRM. He bursts out into song. He is way less intimidating in person than he might seem from his writing. He is so fucking nice.
Unexpected Week Six Discoveries: It wasn’t the writing that was the hard part. I could keep writing. I could write another story right now. It’s the reading. God, please, nobody make me read another piece of short fiction for critique for at least a month. I will put out my own eyeballs.
Week Six Bummer: We didn’t learn the secret word you put in your manuscript so that it automatically sells. I Cory forgot to tell us. Maybe it was corpuscle? Gloaming?
Week Six Highlight: I finally dragged some of my people out of the house, whining and complaining, all the way to Discovery Park. Once we got there and I showed them the Puget Sound and our pet mountain they stopped complaining.