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Clarion West

“Explain this thing to me,” my friends would say to me, while I was reorganizing my life around getting myself out to Seattle for Clarion West.

“I’m moving into an empty sorority house for six weeks with 17 strangers. And it’s not a reality show. It’s a writing workshop.”

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I was sitting on my bed in the back of my van at a truck stop in Arizona when I got the call. It was an unknown number. I don’t understand people who don’t answer unknown numbers. Sure, nine times out of ten it’s a wrong number or a robotic sales call, but if I don’t answer, curiosity would just get the better of me. Hell, if I don’t hear my phone ring, half the time I call unknown numbers back.

I’m glad I answered.

“I’m just calling to let you know that you’ve been accepted to Clarion West,” she said.

“Holy shit,” I said.

“Did you say ‘oh shit’?” she asked, like maybe I thought that getting in was a bad thing.

“No, I said ‘holy shit.’” It wasn’t a bad thing.

“I’m too old to feel like I’m heading off to Hogwarts,” I assumed, but I was wrong.

Clarion West is a hard-to-get-into speculative fiction writers’ workshop aimed at those of us just starting out in our professional careers. I’d applied once, a few years back, and hadn’t gotten in. It’s not cheap to apply (not cheap by my standards), but I’d applied again on a whim this January as soon as I’d made my first professional fiction sale.

The workshop is six weeks long, and it’s expensive (again, by my standards), and it’s in Seattle. When I got the call, I was in my van, driving myself towards commitments on the east coast and functionally broke.

I spend a lot of my time scrambling for money, same as anyone else I know, but I started taking every freelance job I could. I started taking mental note of which of my friends I’d try to weasel micro-loans out of.

My van and its transmission got into a bit of an argument a few thousand miles later, and I left the van in my friend’s yard and kept going with just a backpack. I took buses and trains and bummed rides and everything I could to get myself out to Seattle.

I had high hopes and high expectations for the workshop. It met and exceeded those.

Every week, we wrote a short story for critique. Every weekday, we critiqued 3-4 of each other’s stories, then listened to lectures and asked questions from the rotating cast of professional speculative fiction writers who served as our instructors. People call it “writer’s boot camp,” and they’re not wrong to call it that, but I’ve talked to my dad about his time in boot camp and so maybe they also aren’t right, because Clarion West was a good thing.

There’s this attitude of “what happens at Clarion West stays at Clarion West,” so I can’t get into too many details. But honestly it wasn’t wacky adventures that made the experience for me. I’m not going to be telling too many stories about what happened to me there around barrel fires anytime soon. The closest to adventure was probably when Evan started driving away without me so I jumped on the back of his car and climbed over to the passenger seat and he was pissed because I could have dented his roof. Sorry Evan, that was an oogle move on my part. (No one knew what an oogle was, even though we were in the U district in Seattle. I had a lot of teaching to do.)

I got two things out of Clarion West, and both are hokey as fuck and real as fuck.

First, I got an education. I’ve never been all that keen on formal education. I don’t learn things well until I’ve already tried them myself, figured out what is and isn’t working for me. But I’d been writing fiction for a decade (well, longer than that, but it’s only the last decade or so that I’ve put things out anyone is likely to run across) and I’d reached the point where I knew what I was succeeding at and what I wasn’t. Clarion West tube-fed information down my throat. I learned about the craft of writing, from the prose level to the level of story structure. Dozens of working professionals taught us about the business and the (damnably hard and low-paying) career of writing speculative fiction. I learned how to take apart stories — my own and other people’s — and figure out what was working and what wasn’t. That’s what I was expecting to learn, and I learned it. Faster than I thought possible.

But I also learned big hokey things about life that caught me by surprise. “I’m too old to feel like I’m heading off to Hogwarts,” I assumed, but I was wrong.

It’s worth noting that my entire life, I’ve felt like an outsider. In elementary school and middle school, I was beat up a lot. In high school I bonded with a pack of weirdos and we fought back (sometimes literally) against people who tried to hurt us. We were outsiders together, that felt good. Then I went off to art school, and I thought I was going off to some mythical land populated with other people like me, but instead I entered one of the most alienating social environments of my life. (Years later, I cynically — and accurately, fuck it — decided that this was because I’d moved to the heart of hipster Brooklyn in the year 2000 and I’d mistaken ironic detachment for genuine weirdness.)

Then as a traveling anarchist, I’m an outsider by choice. I mean, I was (am) against the existent society and most of its functions, which obviously put(s) me in conflict with a lot of its functionaries… er… people. I grew comfortable in my role as an outsider.

I can get along with normal people well enough (we call them “muggles” because anarchists are assholes and are apparently sorted into house Slytherin, but that’s a different rant I’ll write up one day about how the fuck did we end up Slytherin what the fuck is wrong with us). But I was nervous to move into a house with so many people from all walks of life, because I just kind of assumed no one would connect with me. I was just going to be the weird punk kid no one understood and no one wanted to hang out with. I figured I’d likely spend most of my time holed up in my room, maybe make a few friends.

Instead, everyone was amazing.

Everyone was like me and utterly different from me, each person in different ways. Everyone wrote amazing fiction, none of it like mine. Every one of them was a character. How well I connected with them, how well we worked together as equals, taught me more about the egalitarian possibilities of a diverse group of strangers than I’d learned in years.

My (non-Clarion) friend Maria, she always jokes “oh shit, let me guess the real treasure has been friendship all along.”

When some dudebro motherfuckers blew up a trashcan across the street because america fuck yeah (this was near July 4th) and I got triggered and jumped out of bed and literally threw my laptop on the floor and almost destroyed it and curled up there on the floor panicked… when that happened, two different people there remembered that I had PTSD and came to check on me.

Womp womp, the real treasure was friendship all along.

I met a lot of people really different from myself and lived with them for six weeks and we were all crying when we left and I hope they’re in my life for the rest of it. That’s what Clarion West was.

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