Thursday, December 2, 2010

The most wonderful time of the year

One of my students stopped by my office hours today. "I've been looking at the Clarion website," he said. "Do you think I should apply?"

It was very easy for me to tell him yes. He's a talented writer already, and someone who is serious about the idea of writing.

But since the application period opened yesterday (1 Dec.- 1 March) it seemed like a good time for me to go into some depth about why I think applying to Clarion is a good idea.

I attended Clarion (sometimes called Clarion East or Clarion UCSD) in 2008. For six weeks, seventeen people who became my family and I studied writing with Kelly Link, James Patrick Kelly, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Neil Gaiman, Nalo Hopkinson, and Geoff Ryman. It was one of the most challenging, terrifying, and wonderful things I've ever done in my life. There may come a time when I no longer consider attending Clarion as the best thing I've ever done for my writing, but I don't see that happening any time soon.

Was it difficult? Yes. Clarion gets called boot camp for writers, and while that's an amusing description, it's also an accurate one. Someone did the math, and figured out that we were reading about 20-25K words of fiction a night in order to prep for the next day's critiques (and usually reading them twice.) At the same time, we were writing our own stories. Sleep was very far down on the priority list. I'm pretty sure everyone had one really bad crit, that made them rethink whether or not they belonged there, or should keep writing, or even if they knew how to write in the first place. I know I did.

Is it expensive? Yes. Education is. And attending Clarion is an education in being a writer. I don't just mean how to write a better story, although you will certainly learn that, but when you live like a writer for six weeks, you can start to think about whether or not this is something you want to continue. And while I realize this is the kind of phrase that can start shouty matches on the internet, I believe attending Clarion is the useful equivalent of an MFA. That puts the tuition in perspective. There is also financial aid.

Is it the only way to become a writer? No. Obviously not. I know many people, good, great, and brilliant writers who didn't go to Clarion. Would I be a writer if I hadn't gotten in? Yes. Would I be a writer if I hadn't applied? Well, now, that's a trickier question.

I've said before that the only reason I got up the guts to apply was that I was sure I would never get in. That way, I didn't have to worry about how I would afford it, or who would take care of my animals, or the effect running off to San Diego for six weeks to write fiction would have on finishing my dissertation, or my ability to survive an increasingly ugly divorce. And I'd never really tried writing short fiction before. (When you apply, you do so with a portfolio of two short stories, both between 2500-6000 words. This word length is still a problem for me. Nothing I've sold is long enough to be part of an application portfolio.)

But the act of sitting down, and working on fiction, of letting myself take the crazy ideas in my head seriously, that's what made me a writer.

So yes. I think you should apply to Clarion. I wish you the best of luck, and I hope you get in.


  1. "...the only reason I got up the guts to apply was that I was sure I would never get in."

    My husband has convinced me to apply this year, but I'm dragging my heels already. I know one of the stories I'm going to submit, but I think adopting this particular mindset might help. I'm halfway there already. :-/

    Thanks for the post!

  2. You're very welcome.

    Good luck writing, and with the application process.