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 Bryan Camp, whose super power is to say that thing you’d wished you’d said, beautifully elegant and perfectly on point. He is a Logomancer. Seriously, check out his answer regarding what he learned from Chuck Palahniuk.
Look at this picture. You just know some literary magic stuff is about to go down.
What was your writing and publishing experience coming into Clarion West 2012?
The very first email I ever sent was to someone at Tor publishing when I was 16 or so, back in those ancient days of hotmail, asking how one would go about publishing a novel, were one so inclined. My email address was the acronym for the title of my very earnest, very cliché portal fantasy of which I had 30 pages written. The reply I got back (which in my memory was from an editor of some kind, but was likely some kind-hearted intern) told me that typically one finished the book, got an agent, and then sold it to a publishing house. Since that first email, my path wound its way through a minor in Creative Writing and an MFA from the University of New Orleans, and I was somewhere between steps one and two, which more or less led me to Clarion West.
What sort of expectations did you have for the workshop?
My first answer to this question was a cynically funny (at least I thought so) breakdown of what a nightmare workshop can look like: more or less those scenes in Girls where Hannah is at Iowa. But then I thought back and remembered that I wasn’t expecting that of CW at all. Once it sunk in that I’d actually made it in to the sort of program that attracted instructors who earned swears in the middle of their names (Kelly effing Link!) when you told your friends about them, I basically thought I’d won the lottery. No, the golden ticket in Willy Wonka. Only there weren’t going to be any bad kids, just a bunch of delightfully bewildered noob writers suddenly ushered into fantasy nerd Space Camp. You know that gif of Will Ferrell in Elf just running around and around a revolving door yelling in glee? That was my brain for the first half of 2012.
What was something indispensable or revelatory that you learned from an instructor or special guest? From one of your classmates?
Whenever you’ve got a big group of people together talking, two people are going to start talking at the same time. It’s inevitable, like taxes and typos. Sometimes one of the two people will pause just long enough to see that they have the floor and keep talking. Sometimes a person is ALWAYS the person who gets to go first. Sometimes people do the verbal equivalent of stepping to one side, and then other, in embarrassing sync with the person you’re trying to step to the side for.
Whenever that happened in workshop with Chuck (Chuck effing Palahniuk!) he would do this incredibly gracious thing where he would hold out his hand to you and say, “Please,” inviting you to speak first. EVERY TIME.
Even though my classmate’s opinions were, and still are, very important to me, a big draw of the workshop is getting the varied opinions of professionals. So the fact that he would stand aside like that every time really stuck with me.
The more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that this impulse is often where great writing comes from. From holding your tongue and listening to someone else, anyone else, from being genuinely and deeply interested in how another human being sees a thing that you’ve already formulated an opinion about. I’ve tried to emulate that as a teacher, as a writer, and as a person.
How was the workshop meaningful for you? How has it impacted your writing?
Oh, man. How meaningful is your skeletal system, you know? In On Writing, Stephen King says that everyone has an ideal reader that they write for, and for me, it’s the 17 other members of the class of 2012. It’s their voices in my head along with my own when I’m editing something. It’s their discerning tastes I’m trying to impress when I twist a plot or subvert a trope.
I’m a high school English teacher in my day job, so I’ve always been aware, logically, that groups of writers in particular time periods could be grouped together in terms of interests and styles and subject matter, writers who often knew one another and shared their work. Until the workshop, I never really got WHY people would go to so much effort to share something which, from the outside at least, is such a solitary art.
Now, I get it. CW 2012 is my literary movement.
What’s something you’ve accomplished since the workshop that you’re really proud of (doesn’t have to be writing related!)
In the past four years since the workshop, I’ve been employed at a high performing private high school in New Orleans. It seems like a logical symbiosis, teacher/writer, (I certainly thought so when I set out on this path in college) but they’re actually incredibly hard to balance, because the bulk of an English teacher’s job uses the same “muscles” as writing. A surprising number of my colleagues find it difficult to even READ during the school year.
So while I don’t have any tangible writing results from these past four years, for me, just sticking with writing has been an accomplishment.
(For the record, I read about 80 books last year, too. So take THAT pile-of-essays-that-never-dies!)
[Ed. note: Bryan doesn’t mention hosting our 2014 Mardi Gras class reunion as one of his many post CW accomplishments. He is too humble.]
What are you working on now?
The revision of a novel that I have spent far too long revising, a mystery investigating the murder of a fortune god in post-Katrina New Orleans. After that I’ll be outlining the next project: a steampunk spy novel set during an alt history version of Colonial New Orleans. (Write what you know!)
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?
I’m not entirely sure what someone does at a think tank, but in my imagination, someone brings you a problem, and you learn a whole lot in a very short time about something you’ve never really been interested in before, and then you apply lateral thinking (read: crazy pants) until you come up with a solution that will be someone else’s job to implement.
If that’s what a think tank is? Then that. If not… can I just be disgustingly rich? No?
Then I guess a librarian. That’s like an English teacher without the grading, right?
What question do you wish I’d asked? Answer it!
One of our instructors asked us to describe what success as a writer looked like to us. What’s your answer, four years after the workshop?
I’m so glad you asked me that, Alyc! I was just telling my wife about this very exercise. I honestly don’t remember what my answer was in 2012, but today, it would be getting interviewed by Susan Larson on The Reading Life on NPR. That’s when I’ll know I’ve “made it” as a writer.
Bryan Camp is a graduate of the University of New Orleans MFA program and the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop. He is a fan of the Saints, mythology, and the Oxford comma. When he’s not translating ancient languages or restoring antique motorcycles, he spends his time making up lies about himself in website bios. He lives and teaches in New Orleans with his wife and their three cats, one of whom is name after a superhero. He can be found online at bryancamp.com and on twitter @bryancamp.
You can sponsor Bryan in the Clarion West 2016 Writeathon here.