The Clarion Workshops (Clarion in San Diego and Clarion West in Seattle) are by-audition workshops for writers of speculative fiction (SF/Fantasy/Horror). For six weeks during the summer, eighteen writers come together under the instruction of six seasoned masters of genre. The students churn out one story and seventeen critiques a week. It’s an intense experience, the sort that can break people down and break them through to becoming better writers. The intensity of the shared experience can help build lasting bonds between classmates that are as much family as friendship.
It isn’t the right experience for everyone. Some individuals shut down under that kind of pressure. Some classes run into interpersonal conflicts that muddy the potential for bonding. Some people can’t afford to go in terms of time or money. But for me (and for my seventeen littermates in the class of Clarion West 2012), it was a life-changing experience in the best possible way.
This week, the classes of Clarion and Clarion West 2016 are starting on an amazing journey. It’s a time when Clarion alums get nostalgic, and I’m no exception! For the next six weeks, I’ll be checking in with my cohort from CW2012 and asking them to talk about their CW experiences: where they were as writers before the workshop, how the workshop impacted their writing, what they’re working on now, etc.
Like dandelion seeds, we’ve dispersed along different courses, some of us hitting ‘measurable’ success markers earlier than others. For better or worse, that’s how this writing thing works. But that’s not the full measure of our potential. One of my classmates in her interview quotes our Week 4 instructor, Connie Willis: “Writing is not a career, it’s a holy vocation. You put in as much time as it takes.” Our vocation is subject to the whims of chance and opportunity. It’s never easy, it’s never over, and it’s different for every person.
Today we have Helen Marshall, who loves sharks and soup (but NOT together), and who taught me that the trick to writing children is to understand that they are sociopaths who just want love.
What was your writing and publishing experience coming into Clarion West 2012?
I had mostly published poetry at that stage, but I was also working as the Managing Editor for ChiZine Publications. I had just received the commission for my first short story collection, Hair Side, Flesh Side which came out in late autumn following the workshop.
What sort of expectations did you have for the workshop?
I had been told that Clarion West would either be the best experience of my life, or the worst. I went in with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. At the time, I was completing a PhD in medieval literature at the University of Toronto, and what I wanted was the chance to spend six weeks focusing on my creative writing. But the experience was so much more than I had expected. I found a family, a network of friends across multiple countries, a store of experience which I continue to draw upon.
What was something indispensable or revelatory that you learned from an instructor or special guest? From one of your classmates?
Oh, gosh. I suppose the most important thing I learned was that everyone writes differently: the rules for one week didn’t necessarily apply the next week. For someone used to structured learning, this felt unnerving initially, but as the weeks went on it became more and more liberating. It meant there was room for me to experiment, to be playful; it meant I could break rules, try to do things differently, and invent new ways of telling stories for myself. At the same time, I learned that a story is a story, and as much room as there is for play, stories still work in precise ways. Sometimes I had to translate what I was being told into my own grammar, but the criticisms I received were never wrong. There was always something to learn from them.
How was the workshop meaningful for you? How has it impacted your writing?
I think it was at Clarion West that I really discovered who I was as a writer—and more importantly that I was a writer, not just an editor or an academic. The workshop pushed me to think deeply about my writing and how it worked, and to question the assumptions that I made. But honestly one of the greatest things I gained from the workshop were the friends—not just those in my year, but the wider Clarion West (and Clarion San Diego) community. I have to say that my life would be far lonelier if it weren’t for Clarion West.
What’s something you’ve accomplished since the workshop that you’re really proud of (doesn’t have to be writing related!)
I’ve just taken on the position of Lecturer of Creative Writing and Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University. This is a dream job for me: my colleagues are very supportive of science fiction and fantasy, and it’s giving me the opportunity to build in England the kind of community I saw in Seattle.
What are you working on now?
I’m completing a round of edits on my novel Everything that is Born, to be published by Random House Canada in 2018. I’m also reading for The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, which will be released by Undertow Publications in 2017.
Pick one and answer: What do you say when people ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?” Do you have an unusual talent or skill? What keeps you awake at night? If you weren’t a writer what would you be? What are you going to do right now when you’ve finished this ordeal?
If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
An axe thrower.
What question do you wish I’d asked? Answer it!
Why so many sharks?
I’m glad you asked…. at Clarion West we had a giant, inflatable remote control shark that cruised the stairwells and hallways of our accommodations. She still haunts my dreams. [Ed. Note: Nooo! Sandina loves you! With the love of a small child… oh. Wait.]
Helen Marshall is a Lecturer of Creative Writing and Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England. Her first collection of fiction Hair Side, Flesh Side won the Sydney J Bounds Award in 2013, and Gifts for the One Who Comes After, her second collection, won the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award in 2015. She is currently editing The Year’s Best Weird Fiction to be released in 2017, and her debut novel Everything that is Born will be published by Random House Canada in 2018. She can be found online at www.helen-marshall.com and on twitter @manuscriptgal.
You can sponsor Helen in the Clarion West 2016 Writeathon here.