Clarion West 2008 – Part 1 of 10

This post is the first in a series of ten about my experiences at Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2008. Clarion West is an intense six-week writers’ workshop held at a mysterious space station in geosynchronous orbit above Seattle. Writers live in the station over the course of the workshop. 
My year Paul Park, Mary Rosenblum, Cory Doctorow, Connie Willis, Sheree R. Thomas, and Chuck Palahniuk instructed. I’ll post two entries (counting this post) for just before Clarion West, one for each of the six weeks I spent there, and two for just after what turned out to be the best experience of my life (so far!).

During my final semester at my alma mater, TCU, one of my profs, Neil Easterbrook, handed me a flier for Clarion West. He knew I’d taken creative writing classes and that I enjoyed speculative fiction (a vague umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc. — whatever those labels mean). I’d heard of the Clarion West Writers Workshops — there’s three: East (San Diego), West (Seattle), and South (Brisbane) — from the Web and from Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Card writes that a Clarion workshop:

isn’t for fragile people. It’s a tough experience […] If you’re just starting out and completely uncertain of your identity as a writer, Clarion can be the end, not the beginning. But if you know you’re a writer, […] apply to Clarion.

Well, I knew I was a writer, but I was also timid. I’d written fiction for only two years, and only completed about ten short stories! How the heck could I complete a short story every week for six weeks? And possibly more, depending on the instructors? Not to mention I was unaccustomed to travel. How could I manage six weeks in a space station with writers undoubtedly more talented than I?

Neil encouraged me, as did Cynthia Shearer. (Which goes to show the importance of surrounding yourself with good, positive people.) So I carved a 29-page short story out of novel-in-progress; application manuscripts couldn’t go over 30 pages. I don’t believe I slept the last 48 hours before the deadline. Revising, revising, revising. I emailed my application off at the last minute.

Clarion West LogoFor future applicants’ reference: my application story had no speculative elements. During our workshop, a few people did write some non-speculative stories.

What do you know: in March I received The Call — Clarion West notifies successful applicants by phone. At first I figured The Call was actually A Prank Call. Once I realized it wasn’t, I calmly explained I’d jump up and down after shock wore off. =p

Over the next three months, my nerves popped away. My biggest anxiety: six-plus stories, six weeks, how?! The info packet said we couldn’t bring trunk stories. Rightfully so. For one, the no-trunk-stories policy makes everyone equally anxious! =p

So what jottings could I take with me without taking a “trunk story”? The info packet suggested we bring “images, titles, notes” (something like that). After much unnecessary consternation, I decided a few rough paragraphs counted as “notes.” I needed a security blanket, and I made one out of words — about 1000 of them, not many of which went into my final Clarion West word count, which was something like 25,000.

I made a wise decision (for me) before I left. In the “advice from former students” section of the packet, some blessed soul said (something like) “Don’t feel pressured to do the six-stories-in-six-weeks thing if it’s not for you.” I knew I couldn’t write a coherent short story in a week (at that stage in my life), so I didn’t. Not counting Paul Park’s exercises, I wrote a total of three stories, each spaced out by two weeks. And by the time the workshop was through, each instructor had read at least one of my works. My plan worked out fine. Future Clarionites, feel free to follow it if it serves ye well.

With my writing worries sorted out, I then packed a bajillion suitcases with the help of my now-girlfriend, and blasted off to the space station.