If you’re an aspiring writer of speculative fiction – fantasy and science-fiction – you’ve probably heard of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop. Founded in the 1960s, it’s sometimes described as a boot camp for would-be SF/F writers.
The workshop runs for six weeks and is held at UCSD in San Diego (it moved from its previous location in Lansing, Michigan in 2007, and is now further west than its Seattle-based offshoot, Clarion West, which will shortly be renamed Clarion Not As West As All That). Eighteen students – chosen from a pool of applicants through a competitive process – spend their time writing, attending lectures, reading and critiquing each other’s work, goofing off, and not getting enough sleep. A rotating team of six author-instructors take turns teaching, advising, socializing, and shooting the students with water-guns.
This year, I am lucky enough to be one of those students. So here – four weeks in – are some of my impressions. If they seem a bit scattered, that may be because I’ve been sleeping rather less than I normally do.
The UCSD campus in La Jolla is a pretty, sprawling site filled with concrete buildings that all look just similar enough to each other to seriously confuse anyone with poor directional skills. The lawns and open spaces are home to a range of wildlife: rabbits, dark-eyed juncos, hummingbirds, and flocks of crows. The crows are about the size of a small sheep and bounce sideways along the concrete paths as if mounted on springs. In the morning, the fog that has covered the campus during the night rolls slowly back towards the sea, allowing you to savor the odd experience of feeling the bright California sun burning your exposed skin while the more distant pieces of neo-brutalist architecture are still shrouded in mist. In the evening, the fog rolls back in again. During the afternoon, pairs of F-15s fly deafeningly overhead, low enough that I spent the first few days wondering when one was going to finish up in our bathroom.
The campus plays host to a constantly changing line-up of other summer camps and conferences. During our first week we shared the cafeteria with a pack of soccer players in fluorescent shorts, aged from six to sixty, who alternated between limping tragically and looking as if they were about to take off at a run at a moment’s notice. Then the cafeteria was invaded by five hundred teenagers from a youth leadership program, who burst into inspirational songs at a moment’s notice and blocked every available passage with spontaneous orgies of group hugging. Next week, our neighbors will be a selection of local SWAT teams; we have been warned to expect armored cars and helicopters.
My fellow students at Clarion are mostly American, from a wide range of different backgrounds. They are some of the most intelligent, articulate, imaginative, cultured, witty and creatively filthy-minded people I’ve ever met. It’s at once humbling and enormously exciting to find myself thrown in with them. They are also all amazingly nice. No one is arrogant or unfriendly or inconsiderate or needy or attention-hungry. Everyone seems to play well with others. I asked the organizer how they’d managed to achieve such a happy balance.
“We don’t screen for personality,” she told me.
“Only for talent.” I don’t know whether to believe her or not.
The instructors are similarly outstanding. I’m not someone who makes a habit of hero worship but the instructors we’ve had so far – Andy Duncan, Nalo Hopkinson, Robert Crais and Cory Doctorow – have all been deeply impressive: gifted writers and teachers, of course, but also immensely generous and likable. They also struck me as being very wise people. On the one hand, the exposure to ‘the trade’ that you get from Clarion has a de-mystifying effect: it reminds you that successful authors are not some select band of superheroes but ordinary people with lives and concerns not so very different from your own. At the same time, our instructors and their guests make me think that those who make it might just share some special spark, some quality that goes beyond just the ability to keep putting words on the page and sending in the submissions until an editor finally bites.
Not everything about Clarion is idyllic. Four weeks of cafeteria food – served at frighteningly short intervals, so that it sometimes feels as if you spend the whole day sitting down to one meal or another – has everyone longing for something, anything different. The daily routine is genuinely exhausting. When you’re going to class, reading three or four new stories a day and trying to crank out stories of your own without turning into some kind of traumatized hermit, your sleep schedule is the first casualty. It only took a couple of weeks before everyone started to look a little ragged. Emotions run high: writing is emotionally-draining at the best of times and the high-pressure environment only makes it more so (
“You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll give serious thought to swimming out to sea and never coming back”). And when your hyper-kinetic polymath of an instructor, one of those high-intensity people who you can’t imagine ever meeting a setback that he couldn’t blast aside by sheer personal energy, reveals that it took him sixteen years to ‘break in’ as a writer, that’s more than a little daunting.
But those are details. If you aspire to write science-fiction or fantasy, then Clarion is where you want to be. And if you like to read it, then my fellow students are the writers you’re going to want to read in the next few years. One of the things I enjoy most about Clarion is that I get to read their stuff now. You have some amazing treats in store for you.
Everyone here, including me, has made some sacrifices to be here. I don’t think I’ll ever regret it for a second. Being at Clarion doesn’t mean that I’m a writer. But being at Clarion has made me more excited about writing than I have ever been.