Inside Clarion West: The most fun you can have locked in a room with writers

 Marlee Jane Ward managed to snap up one of the high desirable and competitive residences at Clarion West Writers Workshop. She was also kind enough to write us a blog post about what the hell it was like.

I’m not sure what you did over the dreary months of the Australian winter this year, but me? I got to skip it. Instead, I went half-way around the world to summertime Seattle, to learn from some of the finest names that SF/F has to offer, and live in a giant house with some of the genres most talented up-and-comers. Oh yeah, and a chef cooked our meals – out of everything, people seem to get the most excited about this. Sounds like some kind of really nerdy reality TV show, right? It’s not. It’s Clarion West.

Editor's idea of Clarion West

Editor’s idea of Clarion West

The Clarion West Writers Workshop is a pressure-cooker of a course that has run every year since 1984 and seen some of the best names in SF/F through it’s doors. It’s based in Seattle and runs over six weeks in the US summer months. The organisation takes over a sorority house (thankfully free of sorority girls, though their ghosts are ever-present) and jams eighteen emerging writers in together to live, write, and support each other through the madness. Students write a short story each week and workshop seventeen others, as well as attend six of the finest parties the Seattle SF/F scene has to offer. Each week workshops are led by a different author from the field.

Coming up with airfare, course fees and spending money, wrangling six weeks off work, getting my shit together and totally mixing my life around in preparation in only three months is a tale full of wacky adventures better told another day. Suffice to say, I showed up at the airport in late June with a bag and absolutely no idea what to expect. My advice? Arrive early, delirious with lack of sleep from a far-flung country and timezone, just to enhance the madcap experience. I got to enjoy a few days of getting to know my classmates before the real madness began.

James Patrick Kelly zoomed in on the first day with wit and warmth. He opened us up, made us revelatory and raw with exercises designed to pull out our emotions and quick-and-drity flash pieces to get us in the mood for words.  In week two, Kij Johnson led us through our first round of full-length stories with utterly precise deliberation, urging us to avoid drabness and to use the emotional vulnerability that we’d unlocked in the first week (she also kicked all of our asses at various wrasslin’ games – don’t get on the wrong side of Kij!) Ian Mcdonald told us to say ‘yes’ to things: ideas, new forms of sorytelling, getting up stupid early in the morning to play improv games in the loungeroom after breakfast. In week four Hiromi Goto shared her perspective on narrative through a focus on race, gender and sexuality and told us a bedtime story that I, for one, will never forget.  Charlie Jane Anders showed a singular devotion to reading all of our stuff, from submission pieces to our most recent stories and came into our one-on-one meetings armed with a knowledge of where we were heading, as writers. She also brought a fantastic insight into the trends and the market gleaned from years as the managing editor of Our final instructor, John Crowley was a gruff master of words who shared his perspectives on Speculative fiction gleaned from a long career in the genre.

My instructors taught me a great deal, but I was surprised at how much I learned from my classmates. Seventeen of the most wonderful folk who’ve ever put pen to paper or touched fingertip to keyboard, I feel just indescribably lucky that I got the chance to meet them, and then live with them for forty-two mad, exhausting, wondrous days. From all corners of the US, all over Canada, from Portugal, Nigeria and little old Antipodean me…

We were an eclectic mix of people and I can honestly say I adored every last one of them for their own special reasons. Clarion West, for me, wasn’t just about the writing, it was about the people, too.  Some of my best memories are late-night card games, Kraken rum and spilling all my secrets, epic beer-pong tournaments, early-morning-first-awake deep confessions, raiding the fridges for leftovers at 2am, cuddle parties on the couches before the sun came up, half-price sushi on the Ave, late nights on the balcony, our quick-n-dirty roadtrip to Mt Rainier, the fake-moustache party on our last day.  Everything I gained in regards to my fiction, I took away in equal measure, personally.

Put simply, I learned a lot and I had a lot of fucking fun.

Before Clarion I was busting out a short story every couple of months and idly tapping out a few terrible novels here and there (okay, a few terrible beginnings of novels), so naturally, I worried I wouldn’t be up on the creative level, you know? And I’d be expected to slam a short story every week? I brought with me a few scribbled ideas, most consisted of a sentence or two; one was three words. Not to fret: being in such a ripe environment revealed in me a creative well I wasn’t aware existed. I was inspired by my instructors to extend myself further than I ever had before.

Even more of a push was reading stories from my classmates daily that made me want to be a better writer, a better person, just fucking better. I didn’t know I had it in me, and I marvelled to learn I did, that I could accomplish so much more than I thought I was capable of. I have never been surrounded by so much buzzing creativity, been engulfed in such a well of motivation. I’ll never forget what that felt like and I’ll carry it with me forever.

Clarion West was a singular experience. I’m well aware that I’ll never be in a situation like it again. I was spoiled, we were all spoiled. I’m so grateful and honoured I got to be a part of it, so thankful to the board and the organisers, the instructors and my fellow students for giving me that opportunity. And you know what? Clarion runs yearly, so you could have it too. Applications open soon, and there’s a stellar lineup next year. Polish up your best shorts, babes, and get ready to apply.

Read more from Marlee at her website. Follower her on Twitter @marleejaneward

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