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Dispelling the Clarion Myth

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  • August 9, 2012 11:48 AM PDT
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Dispelling the Clarion Myth by Kurtis N. Roth (from The Market List #8)

 

We all want the Magic Key. Whether we admit it or not, whether we know it or not. Somewhere deep down, at one time or another, we wish desperately for the Key--or for the Secret Handshake or some mystical incantation or whatever it is that will finally open those heavy iron doors that bar us from the professional marketplace.

Ever hear of Clarion? The workshop for aspiring writers of science fiction and fantasy? It has been held forth as a kind of Magic Key. It has also been lauded as the Kiss of Death. "Some writers are created by it, others destroyed." That's the myth, anyway.

And I'm here to dispel it. That and a host of others, if I can.

Myth #1: Clarion (East) and Clarion West are not affiliated.

True, but only in the most technical sense. The original Clarion -- Clarion East -- and Clarion West are not legally affiliated. Administration is separate. Funding is separate. The organizations function independent of one another. But they came from the same place and they're true to the same vision.

First came the Futurians: a collection of SF pioneers (c.1940, including Damon Knight and Judith Merril) that met once a week for manuscript readings. Out of their pattern of mutual help and criticism grew the Milford Conference and, later, the Clarion Workshop as established by Dr. Robin Scott Wilson. The Clarion West Workshop ran for a few years in the 1970s, perished, and in 1984 was revived by Vonda McIntyre, herself a graduate of the original Clarion.

Myth #2: East is "better" than West, or vice-versa.

This one is completely subjective. It depends on who you are, what you want, and what you think you need.

Both workshops run for six weeks every June and July. Both are taught by established professionals--five writers and one editor. Instructors are often graduates of one workshop or the other, and there's a fair amount of crossover from year to year. Both function in the same basic manner, with weekday mornings reserved for lectures and round-robin critique; afternoons and evenings are generally set aside for writing. And both have an occasional "guest" instructor--a seventh pro that shows up for a day or two of lectures and Q&A.

That said, there are differences. Their significance will vary from person to person. Perhaps the most tangible difference is locale. Clarion East takes place in East Lansing, Michigan; a traditional mid-western academic setting. Clarion West is in downtown Seattle, at the epicenter of a cultural earthquake. If you're easily distracted, East might be the right choice for you. If you're hungry for inspiration, consider West. But when it comes down to it, both workshops have all the bases covered. You can find inspiration at East--it just isn't screaming in your face. And you can have plenty of privacy at West. All you have to do is close your door.

Another difference is cost. Tuition for West in 1996 was $1,300. There was a $100 discount for early applications and a few scholarships were available. Dorms ran about $770. Tuition for East--which enjoys a certain amount of external funding--was closer to $1,000 and their dorms were slightly cheaper. Food and transportation are up to the individual. Most students are traveling from out of state, either by plane or by car, and meals add up no matter what. The total cost is likely to run somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000 for either 'shop. Other expenses--like time away from family and negative income--are more difficult to tabulate.

Finally, there is the question of who is instructing in a given year. For some of us, this is a major issue. Others don't really care as long as they're working with professionals. The original slate for Clarion East 1996 was Maureen McHugh, Elizabeth Hand, Spider Robinson, Judith Tarr, John Kessel, and James Patrick Kelly. West had Terry Bisson, Pat Cadigan, Geoff Ryman, Jack Womack, Ellen Datlow, and Rachel Pollack. For me, the choice was clear. While I admired the line-up for East, the roll for West could have been chiseled in stone as my God List. I didn't even apply to East. One of my fellows applied to and was accepted by both, but ultimately chose West. Others went straight for East with no hesitation.

Myth #3: Clarion is a school for the Elite.

Yes and no. It's true that between the two workshops only 40 students are accepted each year--but only a few hundred apply. Insofar as the odds can be calculated, most applicants have a ten to fifty percent chance of being accepted. It's nowhere near as bad as a lotto. Heck, it's better than your average crap shoot.

Still, there's an initial screening process that's hard to quantify. The self-screening process. Clarion is a huge investment in both financial and spiritual terms. Three thousand bucks is a lot of money. Six weeks is a long time to drop out of Life. Never mind the enormity of what might be riding on the investment. Few would-be applicants can buzz by those items without a second or third glance. Many find themselves thinking it over right up until they're accepted or rejected. So while few apply, those that do apply tend to be dedicated individuals who are extremely serious about their professional development. Half of the students at Clarion West 1996 were published in some way, shape, or form--many at the professional level--before they considered themselves ready.

On the other hand, half of my mates had no publication credits of any kind. Several had been writing with serious intent for less than a year. One Clarionite had only written four stories before he decided it was time to give it a shot.

Myth #4: The Clarion "Life Change."

You hear some interesting stories. "Clarion is six weeks of sheer Bohemian abandon, fraught with sex and booze and animal sacrifice." Adultery abounds. Old marriages are destroyed. New unions rise from the ashes. Et cetera, et cetera, et al.

They say people come away Changed Forever.

It's true that the average Clarionite comes away changed. Who doesn't change at least a little over the course of six weeks, regardless of where they are or what they're doing? Add the unfamiliar surroundings, the new faces, the new experiences, the stress and so on, and you have are fairly sure recipe for Change. But does the Clarion environment foster adultery? No. No more than any other cat's-away-mice-will-play scenario. How about divorces? Nope. No more than any other crossroads in life. Marriages? Same thing. These are all issues of choice. Adultery isn't thrust on anyone. Divorce is a decision that at least one partner has to make. And marriage--well, marriage is about as mutual as it gets.

Clarion is intense. It presents opportunities that some of us don't face in our everyday lives. That's the extent of it. We feel better when we can blame something external for our mistakes, or when we can credit something we love for the good things that come our way. But in the end it's all about us and the decisions we make.

Myth #5: The Clarion process breeds conformity.

Clarion West 1996 was about everything but conformity. We ventured well beyond conventional seven-point plotting. We explored the fiction gestalt as thoroughly as could be managed in six weeks, and were encouraged to keep exploring on our own. We wrote everything from Low Comedy to High Literary. For many of us, our only observance of "rules" was in the breaking of them.

We were uniformly adventurous. It that's conformity, I'll take it.

Myth #6: Clarion is the Kiss of Death.

Some grads claim that the workshop destroyed them as writers. The emotional stress was too much. The competition too intense. The realities they discovered about the publishing industry left them feeling soiled. The things they learned about their own abilities--or lack thereof--left them crumpled, wasted. They walked away from Clarion and never wrote again.

There may be some truth to these tales. Maybe if those writers hadn't gone to Clarion they would have carried on. They might have matured and eventually found their way into successful writing careers. It's possible. But probable? I don't think so. If a writer can't handle the stress, the competition, or the ugly truths revealed at the Clarion level, I have to wonder if they ever had a fighting chance. Publishing is a tough business. There's no way around that.

I'm more inclined to believe that the workshopping process itself did them in. Not everyone is cut out for it. Some folks' egos are too fragile. They just can't handle constructive criticism. Or they're too brusque in giving it, and when caught in the backlash of negative response, they're overwhelmed. They come away feeling like outsiders.

My advice: find out how workshopping works for you before committing to something like Clarion. Try a local writers' group or an on-line workshop. Subject yourself to some criticism. Dole some out. If you thrive in the workshop environment, go for it.

Myth #7: Clarion is a Magic Key.

The Clarion workshops do boast an impressive track record. About thirty percent of Clarion grads go on to publish fiction professionally. At this writing, two months after graduation, three members of my class have pulled it off. That's fifteen percent already. But remember what I said about our pre-Clarion sales? Two of these students had professional credits going in. The stories they sold after Clarion were actually written beforehand. One was a pre-Clarion submission. And only one of the three was written at Clarion. So Clarion's success rate has as much to do with the quality of the students as anything.

Which isn't meant to detract from the organizations' efforts or their accomplishments. They do excellent work. They screen the students. They sift through the applicants and chose the ones they feel will benefit most from the experience--and from one another. Instructors are chosen not only for the knowledge they possess, but for their ability to communicate it. The work environment is outstanding. I can't think of a better way or a better place to hone one's abilities.

It's also true that a Clarion credit looks good on cover letters. It can get a manuscript moved to the top of the slush pile. In some cases, it extracts a manuscript from the slush and places it directly on the editor's desk. But it doesn't sell the story. Only the story can do that. What this "special treatment" usually nets is a faster rejection. In an age when the average response time is longer than two months--slowing a manuscript's circulation to four or five submissions a year--a quick rejection is no small thing.

But is Clarion a Magic Key?

Well--the students certainly make some nice connections. They come away knowing at least six established professionals who will, in all likelihood, take a mentorly interest in them for years to come. In the case of Clarion West, which is set smack-dab in the middle of today's fastest-growing SF Mecca, there are a lot of other friendships to be made as well.

Notice the term: friendship. Because, despite what the cynics would have you believe, that's what this type of "networking" is about. Friendship. And Community. It's not about fast-talking. It's not about rubbing elbows or schmoozing. It's about being invited up onto the front porch for a tall glass of lemonade. It's about talking shop and enjoying one another's company.

Yes, that's nice--but what about the Key? Like so many things in life, a Clarion workshop is what you make of it. First you have to figure out what you want. Then you have to find out if Clarion is where you can get it. Then you decide if you're willing to pay the price--in dollars, in sweat, and whatever else it might take. If you go and you piddle around, you come away with nothing. If you write a few stories, if you keep your ears open during lectures and critiques, you're doing all right. If you give it your all--if you dig deep and you find a way to put the core of what you are on the page--you win.

Is it a Magic Key?

That's entirely up to you.

--------------------

About Kurtis N. Roth

Kurt is a graduate of Clarion West 1996. His short story "Drawing Blood" will appear in Britain's Valkyrie early in 1997. Watch for his articles in forthcoming issues of The Market List and Speculations.

Copyright © 1996 by Kurtis N. Roth. All Rights Reserved.

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