Preparing for Clarion West

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It’s been two years since I was anticipating beginning my Clarion West experience, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what to take into the workshop and what advice might be useful to up-and-coming CWies (I pronounce this in my head as “Cee-Dubbies,” because I’m a nerd).

Of course, first there are all the things you have to set in order before you leave—the day job or jobs (or the freelance work or however it is you make your way through the world), the family (once again, however you interpret this), getting your health affairs and bills and everything else in order. But how do you prepare for the workshop itself? I wish I had done a better job of this, so here’s my hindsight advice, take it or leave it:

  • Set writing goals for yourself, big or little. Have you always wanted to write a second-person story and never had the guts? Clarion West is a great time to experiment and try new things. How about playing in the sandbox of a different genre? You’ll be surrounded by folks who’ve got a little experience here and there in just about everything, so allow yourself to go out on a limb.
  • Come with some ideas in mind, whether that means you’ve got a spreadsheet of six interrelated stories or a notebook in which you jot lines that pop into your head. It could be that you write none of these things and go with whatever moves you in the moment, but there’s nothing worse than keeping yourself up until 4 in the morning struggling with ideas until you have something to type up and print before class at 9. (It happens… but I don’t recommend it, even if two stories I’ve published began as very early morning ideas.)
  • Figure out your comfort zone, when it comes to writing, and consider how you might stretch it. You might be leaning a lot on your classmates here, and making yourself particularly vulnerable. The good thing is, Clarion West works to foster community. For the most part, your classmates will have your back—if you make a mistake, you’re doing it in a controlled environment in which there’s time to reflect on it and move forward. It’s a lot better to make mistakes with beta readers—or in this case, 17 dedicated classmates and a worldly-wise instructor—than to make them on your own. If you’re pushing your boundaries in a way that remains respectful to your fellow writers, you might make a mistake, but you have the opportunity to learn from it and get a wide variety of feedback on it.
  • Read works by your instructors to get a feel for their voices and areas in which they have particular knowledge. I searched for short story collections by each instructor (since the focus of the Clarion workshops is producing short stories) and tried to read at least a sample of each before going to Seattle. I even brought some of their books with me to get signatures (you’ll also have the opportunity to buy books at the weekly readings). This might be more difficult to do if you’re flying in from another country, but there are always e-books (or there’s ground shipping).

I’ve also considered a few more ways to prepare for what you’ll experience during the workshop—here are some final suggestions:

  • Set boundaries. This works on many levels—you may need to be selfish with your writing time. You will only have so much! Bonding time with your classmates is invaluable, and you’ll inevitably have to pick and choose at times between going to the café alone to write or going out with new friends to get sushi (or daytrip to Mount Rainier, or play board games in the living room, or go out for drinks and karaoke, etc.).

You also need to set boundaries for the loved ones who stay at home. Will you call your kids every other day? Will your life partner come visit you during Week 3? Will you send postcards to your mom and boyfriends every other week, or set a date to Skype your bestie at least once? Don’t forget personal maintenance in these areas. You’ll be away having an Experience, and these people will be living the daily grind minus you. If that isn’t something that the collective “you” are prepared for, lay the groundwork now to make the best of your time away without forgetting that someone may be back home washing dishes or busting their butt on third shift to pay rent while you’re away.

Finally, be mindful of boundaries in your friendships with your classmates. Some people will want to snuggle on the couch. Some will join in deep conversations but never want to be touched even for hugs. It’s very important to make your own rules and to respect others’; after all, you’re about to live with 17 strangers for six weeks. You will be part of a very small, very close community, and you must be a responsible and respectful member of it.

You will bond more with some people than others during the workshop. You will find you stay in touch with some people more than others after the workshop. If you want to be calculated, consider who is a great reader for your work, or who most appreciates your work, or who is so very different from you that they always pick up on your blind spots. But you don’t always get to pick your friends (I’m so grateful for the enduring friendships that have surprised me!), and having an open mind will get you the farthest.

  • Respect others’ backgrounds and experience. People are coming from so many different places—places on a map and places in their lives. Don’t make assumptions. Listen and pay attention to what you have to learn from them. Be mindful of your prejudices (we all have them) and let your classmates teach you—that is, let yourself be taught by being a good pupil. Yes, someone might take the time to explain to you why something you’ve said is offensive, but it is not their job to give you a lecture and take you through the history behind the offensive statement. (They might be nice enough to do this for you, but it’s their choice to use their valuable time in this way and not an obligation.) Don’t tell a beekeeper how to keep bees. Don’t explain the London underground to a Londoner. And if she tells you that in your story, that’s not how the underground works, thank her and listen.
  • To take that a step further, learn how to give and take criticism. I’ve been commenting on this throughout, but your classmates are there to be your supporters and biggest fans, not to tear you apart. That being said, we all at some point write something cringe-worthy, and embarrassing learning moments will stick with you. No one should be out to embarrass anyone, but tensions flare and people may unknowingly trigger others, or ignorantly invoke a trope or stereotype. Clarion West is the place to be gentle about these things (within reason), and also the place to learn how to take this kind of criticism humbly and learn from it.

I hope this primer gets you thinking about how big an experience Clarion West is, and how much you can learn from it. You will grow in more ways than one if you go in with an open mind!

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