But it helps.
For those not in the know, the Clarion and Clarion West Writers’ Workshops are intensive six-week residential programs where aspiring, semi-professional, and early-career professional writers are exposed to and connected with accomplished working professionals in the speculative fiction field. The focus is on writing short fiction, and critiquing it (building a less-shitty first draft, if you will). But as much as that, it’s about learning what it is to be a professional or at least serious writer, both in terms of lifestyle and in terms of the business of speculative fiction and the people and standards within it. I have, for many years, described it as a provisional membership in the kool-kids club (please note the tongue planted firmly in cheek).
As you’ve likely guessed, or knew already, I attended Clarion in 2010. It was, in many ways, a watershed experience. I met and studied under some of my personal heroes. I made friends I expect to keep for the rest of my life (many of whom have gone on to do amazing things). I got the aforementioned provisional membership in the kool-kids club. But more than anything, I had the incredible privilege and luxury of six whole weeks where writing, critiquing, and talking about writing and critiquing with seventeen peers and six bad-ass instructors was all I had to do and to worry about. For someone who was insistent on toiling away in solitude and obscurity until he applied on a whim six months after his mother died, it was a life-changing event.
Then, today, this happened:
And, this being the internet, outrage ensued.
Now, I can understand that a literal interpretation of what Mr. Gaiman tweeted could be, indeed is, quite insulting to those without the time, wherewithal, inclination, or, let’s face it, privilege to take six weeks out of their life (and spend the few thousand dollars it costs) to go to a writing workshop, and yet who are still writers. It seems to me that someone whose avocation or profession is the nuanced ordering of words into narrative ought be able to parse Mr. Gaiman’s meaning, but let’s set that aside and ask if what he said was true.
As the post’s title would indicate, the answer is no, you don’t *need* to go to Clarion or Clarion West if you want to be a writer. But it sure as hell helps.
Let’s take my own case. And keep in mind, I haven’t sold a single story or novel. Not a one. I’ve gotten some lovely and heartening rejections, it’s true. But nobody’s offered to publish a single thing I sent them, aside from a 90-word ultra-short about five years ago to a magazine everybody hates now, if it even still exists (RIP, Weird Tales). In fact, I have pretty much given up on writing short fiction these days, which is the whole of the workshop’s focus. Partly because nobody’s buying what I’m selling, and partly because I think I’m more suited to writing novels.
But that’s neither here nor there. Because I wouldn’t trade my experience at Clarion for the world. Even if I did not so deeply love and respect my classmates and instructors, that would still be true.
Aside from the relationships I’ve built as a result of attending (and the aforementioned provisional membership in the kool-kids club), which comprise a significant portion of my friendscape these days, especially online, the effect attending Clarion has had on my writing practice is almost inexpressible.
They say writing can’t be taught, only learned. And that’s true. But some circumstances are more conducive to learning than others, and my six weeks in San Diego made me level up in ways that I would never even have known were necessary, much less possible. To have that much impetus and opportunity to work was eye-opening, and to receive such cogent and immediate feedback was amazing (in retrospect; at the time it was quite painful, which has been immensely helpful in the whole getting-used-to-rejection thing). To get that kind of insight into what works and what doesn’t in your fiction is immensely helpful, and difficult to come by in the outside world (I have it now, thanks to my writers’ group, but my attendance at Clarion was my Golden Ticket to entry).
More than that, I think there’s something subtly transformative that happens, simply as a function of the time, expense, and sacrifice of putting the rest of your life on hold for a month and a half to follow your passion exclusively.
I am proof that Clarion doesn’t guarantee success as a writer. And there are countless others, including Mr. Gaiman himself, who are proof that you can be as real and successful a writer as it’s possible to be without attending one of the Clarion workshops. And I’m aware to what a privilege it was to be able to do that, a privilege not universally or necessarily even widely available. And to those slaving away at their notebooks and keyboards in whatever small windows their busy and difficult lives allow them, I offer salute, and I say unto you: keep on with your bad self.
But if you can attend one of the Clarions, I highly urge you to apply. It can, and will, change your writing, and your life.