Clarion 2014: An Overview

by Kayla Whaley

Clarion group shotThis summer, I attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. I spent six weeks in La Jolla, CA with 17 other writers from across the world. We wrote, critiqued, and learned from six incredible instructors. Our first night, Greg Frost (our week one instructor) told us Clarion was like an entire MFA squished into six weeks. I remember thinking, “He doesn’t have to sell us; we’re already here,” because clearly he was exaggerating. He wasn’t—not even a little bit.

I knew going in I wouldn’t be able to blog while I was there. I figured I wouldn’t have the time to devote to it, which was true, but I also didn’t have the emotional or mental capacity to process everything as it was happening. Truth be told, two weeks after getting home, I still haven’t processed it fully, but I wanted to blog while it was still relatively fresh in my mind.

I’ve decided to structure this as a series of posts each focusing on a different aspect of my experience. I think it’ll be easier for me to stay focused if I pull out one thread at a time.

I’m writing these posts for two reasons:

  1. I want to record my experience for my own benefit, because I have a terrible memory.
  2. For any future Clarionites who stumble upon these posts, preparing for their own adventure by reading about those who ventured before them. Like I did when prepping.

That said, this week I want to provide something of an overview of my whole experience while focusing on our fabulous instructors. I realize that sounds a little contradictory, but roll with me here.

Week One: Gregory Frost

As mentioned above, Greg started us off with some truthbombs about what Clarion is (writer boot camp) and what it isn’t (“like any other workshop out there”). He told us from his own experience that while we should absolutely focus on our writing, we should also party. We should take the opportunity to get to know our Clarionmates, because these are relationships that would likely last a lifetime, and we’d never be together in the same way we would be at Clarion.

One of the things I most appreciated about Greg was that he knew how important it was that we all bond, and quickly. He drank with us on the roof Monday night, went to (and killed) the first of many karaoke nights on Tuesday, left his door open for us anytime, and stayed up with us his last night, hanging out, offering advice, and (as would become a theme for us) drinking.

But Greg also taught us a ton in his lectures and the one-on-one conferences. Perhaps my favorite aspect of class this week, though, was the prompts he gave us. Before Clarion, I thought idea generation was one of my weaknesses, and I was terrified I’d have nothing to write about even in the first week. But Greg threw a bunch of prompts at us and encouraged us to play. Several of us turned the snippets created in those sessions into full-fledged stories. The first story I turned in for Clarion (not to mention the most well-received of all my stories) came from one such prompt.

Greg’s week, for me, was all about embracing the unknown:

Who are all these people?

What am I gonna write about this week?

Should I embarrass myself at karaoke?

Should I trust myself?
Yes. A million times, yes.

Week Two: Geoff Ryman

It was cure how in week one, we were all like, “Man, this isn’t so tough!” Yeah, that’s because Greg was letting us get our feet wet. Then Geoff turned everything up to eleven, and suddenly we all had this excited and terrified look in our eyes.

We’d started critiquing toward the end of the first week, but by week two we were critiquing four stories every day. We’d spend the morning going over the stories in workshop. Afternoons were dedicated to reading for the next day (if the stories were up early) and/or writing. After dinner, Geoff led lectures/discussions for an hour or two, and then it was critiquing until bed. (One of the precedents Greg set was for us to read each story twice. That was an excellent strategy for thorough critiques, but it doubled the time it took to finish.)

I absolutely don’t want you to get the wrong idea here, though. Was this schedule tough? Yeah. But it was exactly what we needed to kick us into gear. Our group was particularly ambitious as we all had designs on writing six stories (a goal I did not meet, but more on that in another post). That meant a heavier workload than we might have otherwise had, but it didn’t feel like a sacrifice. It felt like a challenge we all wanted to beat.

Also, Geoff taught us so much. My favorite parts of his instruction were somewhat related. First, I absolutely loved the lectures he held in the evenings, which were guided, line-by-line readings of various stories. Each story was selected to teach us specific lessons. For instance, we did a deep reading of “Hills Like White Elephants” to learn how dialogue is action, how it is plot. To learn how a reader takes the words on the page and fills in the rest, and how no two readings will be exactly the same—even if the same conclusions are reached—and that’s okay. To learn the difference between the reading protocols of literary and speculative fiction. We did this kind of intense reading/discussion almost every night.

My other favorite aspect of Geoff’s week came in my individual conference with him. We had one-on-one conferences with all the instructors, and it was fascinating how they differed depending on the instructor. All were immensely valuable for different reasons, but Geoff’s was the starkest departure from the others. In our conference, he took my story (which we’d critiqued that morning in workshop) and went through it line by line. He broke my story down the same way he approached teaching the stories in his lectures. In workshop, we never focused much on line-level issues because this is a first draft, but Geoff said he would treat it as a final draft so we could get the most from our time with him. So not only did his method provide incredible feedback on that particular story, but it was unspeakably validating for him to treat my story with the same respect and care and attention he did with the classics he taught us.

Geoff’s week for me was about validation, about feeling like I belonged here. My first story would end up being my most successful, and Geoff’s particular brand of critique reinforced that I belonged, not just among my peers but also among writers in general. This would be a recurring them of my Clarion experience, but this was the first time I felt it acutely.

Week Three: Catherynne Valente

Cat was probably the number one reason I applied for Clarion at all. I figured there was no way in hell I would get in, but I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t try, because Cat would be there. So, I was really impressed that I didn’t fangirl too terribly much her first night, or any day after. (Although, Cat telling me my rapping was “fucking amazing!” at karaoke was definitely a highlight of, like, my life.)

Cat’s week was a fantastic combination of the social feel of Greg’s week and the academic feel of Geoff’s. In workshop, we worked. Cat especially. Her critiques were so thorough (and passionate) that she’d usually talk for 20 minutes per story, and I think I speak for all of us when I say we’d have been happy to listen to her critiques forever. She was intimidating in a way that made me want to step up my own critiquing game.

Outside workshop, though, she was ever-present and ever-ready for adventure. Karaoke that week was perhaps the most enthusiastic all around, and I fully believe it’s because she was so into it. Not to mention into us, into getting to know us.

I felt it most strongly in my one-on-one with her. She was so invested in me, in my writing, in my interests and desires and goals. I definitely got teary in our conference, and that was only 30% because of the early stages of exhaustion. Mostly it was that I couldn’t believe this woman who I so admired was so interested in how she could help me. (Especially since this was the week I turned in my most epic failure of a story, which could have been devastating, but she somehow made me feel good about the concept even if the execution was less than perfect. Which, let’s be clear, is a laughably nice way of putting things.)

Cat was endlessly encouraging to all of us, as a group and on an individual level. Her last night (which was perhaps our rowdiest…and definitely my drunkest), as each of us trickled out of the common room for bed, she’d say, “Can I hug you?” I came to Clarion hoping I wouldn’t make a fool of myself in front of Cat, and at that moment I realized I’d made a friend.

(Man, this post is getting cheesier and cheesier, but whatever! Let’s embrace that cheese. It’s delicious, or something.)

(Ooooh, speaking of delicious things, Cat definitely made us scrambled OSTRICH egg. He was our sacrificial plotstrich. We ate him and consumed his powers. And he was super tasty.)

Week Four: N.K. Jemisin

Oh, week four. We were warned that week four was traditionally the hardest week—the week when people started breaking down from mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. And while our week four apparently wasn’t quite as explosive as others have been, we were not immune.

Thankfully, Nora came to our rescue! I honestly don’t think we could’ve made it through week four as gracefully as we did if we’d had any other instructor.

Nora was kind and caring. She listened and counseled us both individually and as a group, but she also put up with exactly zero bullshit. It was exactly what we needed. It was what I needed anyway. Week four for me was more physically draining than emotionally, but in our one-on-one, Nora hit on one of my major writing insecurities and called me on it without hesitation. She essentially told me to quit putting myself down, to believe in my writing, in my ideas, in my talent, and in my effort. (Noticing a pattern yet?)

Nora also brought so much knowledge. She talked with us about empathy, worldbuilding, writing the “other”, proof of concept stories, etc. What was really cool that week, especially in workshop, was that her critiques frequently led to group discussion/impromptu lectures, because we all wanted her to expand on what she’d said. Friday night, she also gave us our first real discussion on the business side of things.

Annnnd then she doused us with water. We all needed a night off, a way to let loose, and she provided that via our one and only water fight. I will never forget Nora slowly putting on some shades, pulling out a massive water gun, and warning us, “You have sixty seconds to choose your weapon…and then I’m coming for you.” It was, again, exactly what we needed.

She was exactly what we needed.

Weeks Five and Six: Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

I’m combining the final two weeks, because honestly? Those weeks are all kind of one big blur, so I’m not even going to attempt to figure out what happened when.

All you need to know is that Ann and Jeff are fucking fantastic, k? K.

One of the coolest things about critiques with Ann and Jeff was that they both brought an editorial view to them. We hadn’t had that perspective before. They were able to tell us where in the story as an editor they’d lose interest and why. They’d tell us if the market was saturated with a certain kind of story, and if we brought something new to the table. (One of my proudest moments was when Ann and Jeff both said I’d created a concept they’d never seen before.)

They also taught us so much about the industry. I can’t tell you how incredible it was to just hear them talk about their experiences, to ask questions, to absorb all of their advice. They scheduled several sessions outside of class for these discussions, and also also made time in class to go over any other topics we wanted covered more. Those two weeks were a crash course in The Industry from two of the best.

While I will be forever grateful for all of that, I’m perhaps even more grateful for their talk on our last day of workshop. They told us to be generous with ourselves. We’d gone through an intense experience unlike anything else, so we need to be kind to ourselves, to allow ourselves time to recover and process.

They also told us that while Clarion is a once in a lifetime experience, it isn’t the best one we’ll have. This is only the beginning, and we have so much more to look forward to in our careers.

I’ve been home for two weeks now, and they were more right than I expected about that first part. I needed a lot of time to recover. I’ve had a hard time reading, watching TV, focusing on much of anything. I haven’t written anything (apart from this, of course), and I imagine I won’t for some time still. And that’s all okay. I’m trying to be generous with myself.

But I believe they were right about the rest, too. I couldn’t be more excited about the future, about putting everything I’ve learned to use, about practicing and improving for the rest of my career.

And that might be the biggest point I want to make. I knew I wanted writing to eventually be my career when I started Clarion, but thanks to these incredible people and their belief and encouragement, I know now that it’s not some distant goal.

Writing is my career. Now.

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