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 Kim Neville, who makes even Fairy Godmothers seem badass, and whose secret mission in life might just be to fill the world’s pockets with gummy bears.
What was your writing and publishing experience coming into Clarion West 2012?
I had sold two short stories to semi-pro magazines and written a handful of others, probably less than ten total. I was shopping a novel around to agents (which I trunked post-workshop, once I revisited it with my new eyes).
What sort of expectations did you have for the workshop?
I tried not to expect too much. I knew I had a lot to learn about the writing craft, and I wanted to go into the experience with an open mind and heart. That said, I did expect the workshop to be both terrifying and exhilarating (it was). I expected it would push me way out of my comfort zone. (Definitely, but I’m a Piglet so it doesn’t take much. Applying for the workshop was out of my comfort zone. Everything after was free fall.) And I suspected it would change me forever (it did, though perhaps not in the ways I’d imagined).
What was something indispensable or revelatory that you learned from an instructor or special guest? From one of your classmates?
The revelation, for me, came from stepping into a larger community of which I’d previously been largely unaware. I’d been involved with writing groups over the years, but for the most part I’d always worked in isolation. I read a lot, but I read only what I liked (or what I thought I liked). I’d been missing out on so much, so many rich and diverse voices in the field. Clarion West gave me a new perspective on my own work and how it fit into the tapestry of speculative fiction. I realized that my early stories were not particularly unique or memorable, but that I had developed a distinct voice, one that I ought to be putting to better use. I’m still working on this. During the critique of my week five story, one of our classmates (and I can no longer remember which one) told me, “You need to figure out what you’re trying to say.” I think about those words all the time.
How was the workshop meaningful for you? How has it impacted your writing?
The most meaningful and lasting impact for me was connecting with a group of peers who are now dear friends and invaluable mentors. Besides that, the workshop made me take my writing seriously in a way I never had before. It meant a lot to have a room full of writers—both the teachers I admired as well as the classmates I grew to admire—treat my words on the page with the utmost respect. It allowed me to do the same, and to treat myself as a professional. I know my work has improved as a result of regarding it in that light.
What’s something you’ve accomplished since the workshop that you’re really proud of (doesn’t have to be writing related!)
I kept writing when it got hard. My husband is also a creator; he makes games. Since his industry is more likely to be lucrative than mine, we decided getting his indie game out into the world would be our family’s main focus. For two years I was the primary income earner. Fitting writing into my schedule was difficult between the day job, family, and my husband’s increasingly demanding work schedule. I woke up early and wrote every weekday morning from 5 to 6 AM. A lot of weeks that was the only writing time I had. A lot of days my writing hour was literally what got me out of bed in the morning. I didn’t accomplish much during that time. I made creeping progress on a novel. I wrote no short fiction. I sold no stories. But I kept going—what you called “quiet persistence”, Alyc. It’s the most important thing I’ve done since the workshop ended. [Ed. Note: <3. This touches on what I took from the workshop: all the little things you guys said that stuck with me, the seventeen voices in my head.]
What are you working on now?
I’m currently in the later stages of revising a novel whose seed came from a short story I wrote for George R.R. Martin in week three of the workshop. Also, this spring my husband’s game shipped and I was able to reduce my day job hours, so I’ve got several short stories in various stages of development (see my Write-A-Thon page for details!).
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?
What are you going to do right now when you’ve finished this ordeal?
One of my favourite daily rituals—bedtime stories with my daughter. We’re almost finished with The Hobbit, next up is Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate. After that I’ll pour a glass of red and start watching the new season of Orange is the New Black.
What question do you wish I’d asked? Answer it!
How are you feeling about your writing career, four years post-workshop?
At first, I wanted things to move more quickly. I had ideas about what would mean “success” for me and they didn’t happen immediately, and I was disappointed. Now I try to keep the words of Connie Willis in mind. She told us, “Writing is not a career, it’s a holy vocation. You put in as much time as it takes.” And I’m excited about the next year. I’m more productive than ever, and I know my new work is better than anything I’ve produced up to now.
You can find Kim on Twitter @kaneville, and you can sponsor her in the Clarion West 2016 Writeathon here.