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 Henry Lien (and his Menagerie of Joy), who made his mark before the workshop even started when he proposed writing theand then wrangled us into performing it – with choreography – for our instructors every week.
What was your writing and publishing experience coming into Clarion West 2012?
I’d quietly written, but had never submitted to any magazines and never had anything published.
What sort of expectations did you have for the workshop?
I had dizzyingly high expectations. I expected it to be an utter jump to light speed. I expected it to level me up as a writer. I expected it to kick open every publishing door I cared about. I expected to find the best friends of my life at the workshop. I expected it to launch my career as a working writer. I expected it to make me a better person. I expected it to make me smarter, taller, and sexier, while whitening my teeth and deepening my voice. And I clamped my hands over my ears and said, “Blah, blah, blah, I can’t hear a word you’re saying,” to anyone who gently and lovingly tried to tell me to temper my expectations. And you know what? Four out of six of those expectations got met, more or less. Enthusiasm can be self-fulfilling, if you decide it’s going to be.
What was something indispensable or revelatory that you learned from an instructor or special guest? From one of your classmates?
George R.R. Martin quoting Faulkner’s advice that the only thing worth writing about is the heart in conflict with itself.
How was the workshop meaningful for you? How has it impacted your writing?
I can’t say that Clarion West made me a better writer. I think my skills coming out were more or less what they were going in. What it did teach me though is how to work psychotically hard and that I as a writer have the power to create anything I want through sheer force of will if I’m simply willing to work hard enough for it. That’s very liberating and democratic.
What’s something you’ve accomplished since the workshop that you’re really proud of (doesn’t have to be writing related!)
I was 42 when I started writing and applied to Clarion West, so I didn’t have any time to waste. I ignored advice that I shouldn’t worry about how well the stories I wrote at the workshop turned out and that I should just use them as learning exercises, which I think is generally sound advice. I wanted each of my six stories to be daring a experiment but I was also determined for them to be successful experiments. I poured my heart and guts and soul into my six Clarion West stories. I pushed myself harder than I’ve ever pushed myself for anything in my life. I love those stories intensely. I’m proud that they all were bought by top markets within two years and a couple got nominated for Nebulas. I’m also super proud of the anthems that I wrote: Ready to Launch for Clarion West and Radio SFWA for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.
What are you working on now?
I am finishing up my first novel, Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword (Fall 2017, Penguin Random House), and starting work on the sequel (Fall 2018, Penguin Random House). The first chapters of the novel were my application writing sample, and I got feedback on them from George R.R. Martin, Kelly Link, and Chuck Palahniuk while at Clarion West. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written, by a good stretch.
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?
“Where do you get your ideas from?”
I’m very hard on my story concepts. I value originality in story concepts intensely. I throw up challenges to myself all the time in coming up with unique concepts. Write a fantasy story with rich and memorable worldbuilding that does not rely on magic at all (“Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters”). Write the most interesting story you can about the least interesting subject you can think of (gardening, “The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society”). Write a story regarding a logical way to do something that you have always wanted to do (talk to dolphins) utilizing something that you are baffled and intimidated by (engineering, Twitter, “Bilingual”). I work hard to push myself outside of my comfort zone constantly in my concept-creation process. I only want to write things that I’ve never seen before but have been wanting to read my whole life. And I want everything I write to be radically different from everything else I’ve written (expect for obvious things like sequels). But the reward for front-loading the work in this way is that I’m confident that I’ve chosen the right story for me to write that will be worthy of my time and, I hope, of the reader’s time.
What question do you wish I’d asked? Answer it!
“What advice do you have for writers who wrestle with self-doubt or impostor syndrome?”
Cut it out. You’re being too hard on yourself in all the unproductive ways and too lenient on yourself in all the productive ways. You just need to work harder. That does NOT mean just sitting there and forcing words out regardless of their quality for the sake of saying you produced word count. It doesn’t mean willing yourself to become a better writer, which is ludicrous. One of the things it can mean though is making the effort to understand how your own creativity operates. How is your mind wired? Do your ideas blossom through exercise, exposure to good writing, interaction with the world, isolation, playing with animals, reading non-fiction, dressing up in cosplay as one of your characters, etc.? Does reading bad writing or critiquing other writers’ work truly help you learn how to become a better writer like everybody insists or does it in all honesty just infect your own writing with bad habits and cliché instincts? Does living healthier help you when you have to perform as a writer or do you need to indulge yourself and let yourself go to rot until the project is birthed? It takes work to understand these things about yourself. I think too many writers expect writing to be effortless and assume something’s wrong if it’s not effortless. I’m constantly hearing writers say, “That’s outside my skill set. That’s outside my comfort zone. I’ve got to be me.” I believe in expanding my skill set. I believe in expanding my comfort zone. I believe in expanding me. That’s the most honest response to self-doubt and impostor syndrome, in my opinion.
Henry can be found online at. You can sponsor him in the Clarion West 2016 Writeathon .