The Work of a Workshop

I like to think the Fates don’t hate me, but I did wonder when, for the third summer in a row, an instructor had to cancel two days before they were due in Seattle to teach for Clarion West. The first year, Paul Park had emergency eye surgery and was warned not to fly for two weeks lest his eye explode. Apparently exploding eyeballs are not science fiction or horror, but medical fact. The following year, Connie Willis’s husband called to tell me she was in hospital awaiting surgery after falling and cracking the bone around her eye. The third year I considered warning incoming instructors to be careful about their eyes. Instead, however, Geoff Ryman was beset with passport problems and had to undergo surgery. We’d had instructors cancel for personal or professional reasons, but it had always happened months before they were due to teach, not days. The amazing thing is that within hours of these last-minute cancellations other wonderful, inspirational instructors agreed to rearrange their lives to come teach. First James Patrick Kelly, then Susan Palwick, and finally, Michael Swanwick. The workshops, though different than planned, were stellar.

That’s our community. Just like the year when on the Fourth of July, while class was in session downstairs (yes, we work through holidays—time is precious) thieves climbed the fire escape and carried off a dufflebag of laundry they’d stuffed three students’ laptops into. Clothing, story starts, and un-backed-up files were lost, and the safety of the workshop world violated. But within 48 hours, donations poured in and the clothing and laptops were replaced. The speculative fiction community is truly astonishing and generous.

It’s not all drama. Well, maybe it is. It can’t help feeling dramatic with eighteen writers undergoing bootcamp: not only do they each produce a new story every week, but they must also critique classmates’ stories each weekday, be critiqued, and live with those fellow critiquers for six weeks straight. Every weekday morning at 9:00 sharp they have to face each other and give—or worse, receive—Milford-style assessments of where their efforts to create a new knock-out story succeeded or failed. And each week, there’s a new instructor for those critique sessions—a master of the craft come to challenge and guide them through the perils, and help them build skills and the knowledge of what a writing career can be. It’s demanding in the best ways, but also the toughest, for the students, for the instructors, and for the facilitators.

What is my job as Clarion West’s workshop director like day to day? Most of the year it’s planning: pulling together the housing, the staff, the instructors, the volunteers. Once our readers have selected the students it starts to feel very real, and we coordinate instructors’ travel and student arrivals. Then way, way too fast every year we’re meeting at the place where our workshop supplies and student items (bedding, desks, lamps, fans—the house isn’t air conditioned and believe it or not Seattle can be hot in July) are stored, passing them into whatever vehicles our volunteers have pressed into service, then organizing them in the sorority house. Then I’m helping Joe, our wonderful cook who is an integral part of making the workshop such a success, with his initial shopping trip. Then the students start arriving, first the international students so they have jetlag recovery time, then everyone else and I’m picking our first instructor up at the airport and WHAM it’s orientation night.

From then on, it’s workshop, 24/7. I’m not in the classroom or at the house every day, but either I or my co-admin—previously Huw Evans, and starting this summer, Jae Steinbacher—generally is, and we’re both on call throughout. There’s always something to do, driving people places or picking up extra groceries for Joe, facilitating the workshop sessions, or helping someone deal with a personal or practical problem. It’s a whirlwind.

Students often describe the experience as transformative. When I was a Clarion West student myself, I found the intensity exciting and overwhelming, and while hard to handle it was also one of the best, most invigorating times in my life. There was so much to take in: not just what each new and wonderful instructor and my brilliant and inspiring classmates had to offer, but also how to work through imposter syndrome and the frustrations of producing work under a tight deadline—work whose ambitions I was busy acquiring the skills to envision and produce. I also learned how to look critically at work that was often so powerful I wanted to cry, and how to work through the daily politics of a large group of sensitive people relying on one another so closely. It was magnificent.

For me, it’s still magnificent every year. Because of the students. Because of the instructors. Because of all the people behind the scenes who make it happen. I’m so lucky. I joined the work of running Clarion West when it was already well-established. Founder, eminent science fiction writer Vonda McIntyre, the year after she graduated from the original Clarion Workshop in its final year in Clarion, Pennsylvania, got permission from its founder, Robin Scott Wilson, to start Clarion West. That same year, 1971, there was a Clarion workshop in New Orleans, and following that Clarion workshops ran at Michigan State University from 1972-2005, and from 2006 on has been at University of California San Diego. Vonda ran Clarion West alone for three years before letting it go. Nine years later, JT Stewart and Marilyn Holt relaunched the workshop, and the year after that, a dedicated group of alumni and local writers formed a board, making the workshop a nonprofit and setting it up for a sustainable future. Now in addition to the summer workshop, we run one-day workshops throughout the year, and are working toward launching online classes. We rely on our board, staff, and volunteers, most of whom are alumni, to help us make everything happen. It takes a sizeable village to keep it all going, so while I’m the individual who received the World Fantasy Award “for fostering excellence in the genre through [my] role as Workshop Director, Clarion West,” the award is really for the entire community—instructors, students, board members, volunteers, supporters, and all, past and present.

I’ve had embarrassing moments, from getting so stuck in traffic driving Neil Gaiman to his reading that he finally got out and walked, to shielding George R. R. Martin from the crowd in front of his reading venue. But also special moments, like driving Octavia Butler to the grocery store while talking about horrible first drafts and the blessing of revision. I would love to mention each instructor who has offered so much and given so much of themselves, but we’d be here all day. It has been a privilege hearing all these experts discuss writing while critiquing the students’ work and giving lectures and Q&As about writing and writing careers. Really, there’s at least one inspiration a day. Sometimes many. Something an instructor says. Something in or about one of the stories. Or it could be a casual conversation between the students.

I’ve been able to watch people I met as beginning writers establish solid careers, sometimes with a slow, steady arc like that of Nisi Shawl, and sometimes quietly working under most people’s radar and exploding like Ann Leckie, who nearly ten years after attending Clarion West burst onto everyone’s consciousness with Ancillary Justice. There are dozens of variations on these themes, dozens of novels and now hundreds of stories that come out every year—in Year’s Best collections, multiple award nominations and wins: it’s all so damn exciting!

One of the most exciting things about Clarion West is that from the very beginning the organization has been strongly committed to inclusivity in instructors and students. Samuel R. Delany was one of the first people the founders asked for advice when re-launching the workshop in the 1980s. Octavia was one of our favorite instructors, and sorely missed. Now students attend Clarion West (and Clarion) with a scholarship named in her honor funded through The Carl Brandon Society. Creating an instructor lineup is a set of puzzle pieces, because not only do we feel different weeks of the workshop require different types of instructors, but we try to make the line-up inclusive in every sense, representing not only many spectra of personal attributes, but a broad range of interests and areas of speculative fiction as well. The meetings where we choose instructors are, shall I say, lively. And fun. Every year the line-up seems to click—almost magically—into place (even with last-minute changes).

Our applicant pool is delightfully diverse. People often ask if we manipulate our acceptances in order to have inclusive classes. We don’t have to. Our instructor list and our alumni history draw a wide range of applicants, and each applicants’ materials are read by a diverse group of readers. Whatever we’re doing, it seems to be working. Every year brings a dazzling group of people who fall in love with each other each year the same way I fell in love with my classmates. The same way that I fall in love with each new class, every year.

Every class has a different flavor, a different mix of individuals going through this astonishing, transformative experience. Note that Ann Leckie’s class included Rachel Swirsky, Cat Rambo, and E.C. Myers, and others whose names will be recognizable soon. Don’t ever try to tell me the workshops encourage homogenous writing. In fact it does the opposite, helping identify and foster individual strengths while building up a writer’s toolkit.

Occasionally someone comes out of the workshop realizing that they don’t want to dedicate themselves to writing. Some come out jazzed and ready to take on the universe. One interesting thing I’ve discovered over the years is that I never can predict which students will be the best published or win awards. I’ve seen every kind of writing career. Often the graduates who shone brightly during the workshop get distracted by life and are outstripped by those who gradually continue to build their skills and persist at getting their work out.

People ask why I’ve stayed with workshop so long (this summer will be my 18th—though Leslie Howle ran the workshop for 30 years). The answer is easy: watching what happens to individual students—and to each class—over the course of the workshop is a fantastic experience. It’s exhilarating to see people take chances with their writing and up their game by leaps and bounds. Whatever stress and strain I suffer, I’m paying back to the community that has supported me as a writer, and that by helping provide students with a challenging group, writerly, and personal experience, I am also helping build that community. It’s not an exaggeration to say that workshops like Clarion West help writers discover their people, discover possibilities for their career, and often discover themselves and their own capabilities. Most leave the workshop not only having grown as writers and individuals, but also as stronger contributors to the community.

What do I get out of it? Well, just like the students and instructors, exhaustion for sure. I get to work with our wonderful staff, board, and volunteers. I get to make a personal connection with our instructors and watch them share what they’ve learned in their careers with 18 people who give up six weeks of their lives to pursue their dream: writing speculative fiction. I get to watch the students take chances, with their writing and with each other. I get to watch them fail and pick themselves up and succeed. And after the workshop I have an emotional investment, both in them and in their careers.

There is nothing, nothing more rewarding.

Neile Graham

Neile Graham’s life is full of writing and writers. Canadian by birth and inclination, she currently lives in Seattle, Washington, where she has been wrangling writers for the Clarion West Writers Workshop for 18 years. She has been widely published as a poet, narrowly published as a short story writer, and is currently struggling with novels. Two new poetry collections are scheduled for next year. See neilegraham.com for more info.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.