Thoughts on Clarion, Privilege and Gaiman

So Neil Gaiman—a writer whose success and public image make him a hero to many aspiring writers—tweeted this:

Gaiman tweet

It got noticed.

Clarion is a workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers, taught by successful established authors in those fields. Its also expensive, long (five to six weeks), and so beyond the reach of a great many aspiring authors. To quote a tweet by author and attendee Kayla Whaley:

Whaley tweet

Now, I don’t for a moment believe that Gaiman literally meant need, as in you can’t consider yourself a real writer unless you have Clarion on your CV. But at the same time, I understand the outrage of those who see his statement as an unthinking beacon of privilege. Who the hell is Neil Gaiman, who will never again have to worry about paying bills, or child care, or taking time off from work, or any of the day-to-day struggles that most of his readers experience, to tell us what we need? It’s in the same ballpark as Gwyneth Paltrow’s famous statements about her being a “typical” mother.

Like a lot of writers, I never went to Clarion, or any professional writing workshop. I learned to write via journalism, both from studying it and working at it. I like to say it’s one reason my books are so short, but in another very important way, it taught me to approach writing as a job. A reporter is no special snowflake: if he or she can’t do the work, there’s always someone waiting to eagerly step up. So you get on with it, and do the best you can with what you have. That lesson has been incredibly useful as a fiction writer, too.

I did, however, have an interesting chance to observe, from the outside, an MFA creative writing program, thanks to having a girlfriend who was in it. I watched the same group of writers work their way through and all publish their first novels at about the same time. And the biggest thing I noticed was, all those novels were the same. Sure, the backgrounds and styles might be different, but the themes were identical: thinly-disguised autobiography of young misunderstood artists struggling for vindication, dealing with parental issues and, more often than not, finding the kind of love that’s been described as the “manic pixie dream girl (or guy).”

What this taught me was that workshops are a limited kind of help to a writer. A writing teacher can’t really teach you how to write; they can only teach you how they write. Some of their techniques may work for you, some may not.  But if you follow their example too closely, you end up writing just like them, and so does everyone else in your class. It’s a lesson I try hard to remember when I teach workshops and classes.

I’ve always held that the best way to learn to write is, simply, to start writing. Writing teachers (whether in schools, writing groups, or workshops like Clarion) can help, to an extent, speed up this process, and certainly the validation is no small thing; having someone you respect tell you they like what you’ve written is a thrill that never gets old. But unless you have it in you to plow through, to learn to spot errors on your own and fix them, you’re probably not cut out for the job.

So again, I’m certain Neil Gaiman didn’t mean his tweet to be taken literally. But someone of his stature should understand the power of his words to those struggling up the ladder after him. Or to quote another tweet, from Fran Wilde:

Wilde tweet

(You can read the rest of Fran’s tweets on the topic here. They’re worth it.)

26 Comments on “Thoughts on Clarion, Privilege and Gaiman”

  1. Amen to that. Like you, I learned to write as a member of the Fourth Estate, first as a stringer for a daily, then at the news desk, and then writing and editing features for a dozen different publications under my byline and as a ghost-writer. Nothing teaches you better, and you know that if I didn’t deliver the right words at the right time, the contracts were going to go elsewhere.

    My own voice and style never got lost in that, only enriched. And my experience covering everything from crime to computers taught me how to look outside for other people’s stories, rather than focus on my own. Once your source material is something besides yourself, your possibilities are endless.

  2. I took a few creative writing classes in college. I had fun, but honestly, I don’t think I learned much. I remember we had editing partners for short stories. I wrote a terrible short story about a girl my age who falls off a swing and has a miscarriage. It was terrible! And I knew it was terrible. I was just in a slump. And my writing partner wrote a short story about getting her hair cut short. Half the story was describing washing her hair, and how much quicker it was with short hair.

    We both got A’s on our short stories, and to my horror, mine was read out loud to the class by the teacher. I still thought it was complete crap. I was bright red for the entire time. Hers, too, was terrible. Tuition was around $1700.

    In the end, I decided that the best part of writing class was that they made you write. Other than that, it was worthless. If you want to write well, read great authors. And then, if you’re lucky, they write some advice about writing somewhere that you can take and use. Maybe they even have a blog?

  3. Hang on a moment!

    > I watched the same group of writers work their way through and all publish their first novels at about the same time.

    They ALL got published? OMG.

  4. I did an MA in creative writing (so a mixed focus on writing and literature) and I’ve taught briefly in an MFA program. I think the best thing that I learned in the MA and what I think the students in the MFA needed to learn, was the ability to a) hear criticism, b) decide if it was valid or worthwhile, and c) learn to look at their own stuff with a critical eye. I think you can learn it faster in a formal setting, but there are a lot of options out there for learning it otherwise. From workshops at cons and locally, to writing groups, to beta readers, and so on. I always wanted to go to Clarion. Even applied. Couldn’t get in. Then I reached the point where I had more financial and family obligations than I could leave, and I was also no longer willing to go into debt. So that was that.

    I know a number of people who went through Clarion and have come out with a lot of amazing skills. I know a lot of people who haven’t gone through Clarion and have developed just as many amazing skills. So basically, if you can and want to go, Booyah! Do it! And if you can’t or don’t want to go? Booyah! Write!

  5. I’ve heard good things about Clarion over the years, from some of its teachers (who felt they saw improvement in students’ work during the course of the workshop) and from students who felt they learned a lot there, made valuable connections with writers and editors, and improved their craft.

    That said, I never attended Clarion or any other writing workshops. One huge reason being, yep, it would be WEEKS out of my life and an LOT of money out of my budget, and I certainly didn’t have that kind of spare time or spare cash when I was an aspiring writer. I learned to write by going home after work and writing manuscript after manuscript while also reading books about the craft and the business of writing. That was the path that was available to me. I’ve since those days sold about 30 books and 70 short stories.

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  7. Who the heck has six weeks of paid time off, if they’re lucky enough to be in a job that provides paid time off at all? I would have to take an unpaid leave of absence, after using all my PTO for the year (which, at some companies, also comprises one’s sick time, so good luck if you get the flu in December!), PLUS pay the tuition. I resigned myself long ago to the fact that I’ll never to get to Clarion, because there’s no way I could possibly take the time off.

  8. I’ve heard both good and bad things about the Clarion experience. As a (at best) D-list author myself I’ve been very tempted to attend, but the expense and some of the negatives have kept me from committing.
    One thing Clarion DOES deliver in spades is networking opportunities with other alumni, something which cannot be overemphasized when you consider how many authors become editors. It also — in my experience — results in a greater likelihood that editors and publishers will listen to your pitch.

  9. I think everyone knows that Neil did not mean that all real writers need to go to Clarion. He didn’t go to Clarion. He didn’t even go to University! He just believes in the program. You’re scapegoating him for all the elites you feel resentment against and that’s bullshit. Now every single person who didn’t get into Clarion or owes money to Clarion can blame Neil Gaiman. Get a life. Neil Gaiman is perhaps one of the kindest, sweetest persons in the world and he was just trying to offer some advice to people that might not know about it. Hurting him back isn’t going to make anything better or worse for you. If you’re real writers, then start writing instead of trolling the internet.

    1. Well said. If you’ve read other comments by Neil Gaiman you should know he didn’t mean you NEED to go to Clarion to be a writer, good or otherwise. Lighten up people.

    2. Neil Gaiman is a highly-regarded and talented writer. He understands the power of words and the importance of saying the right thing (c.f. the Mark Twain quote about lightning). Are many people being overly harsh? Certainly. But claiming ‘he didn’t MEAN what he plainly said in a public statement on the internet! He clearly means something totes different!’ is not much of a defense of someone whose precise and careful use of language is his livelihood.

      Everyone makes mistakes and is clueless from time to time. Outrage and screaming at people to shut up and not dare to criticize your favorite writer is not much of a response.

  10. Well I assume it’s the selection process as well – you have to be really really good to get a place at the top workshops, but once there you make lots of contacts, and do some really great networking, so am sure Clarion and the like are a leg up if you can afford both the cost and the time.

    That’s not the same as saying you have to do it…

  11. I’m calling bullshit on the Clarion plug. Do the math. How many successful writers are there and how many of them went to Clarion? But I’m open to it. If Gaiman wants to pay my expenses I’d be happy to attend to be proven wrong.

  12. It is a truly sad day when so many writers as a group misunderstand metaphor and construe hyperbole as condemnation.

    As someone mentioned above, Neil never went to Clarion. So either he was saying that HE is “#not a real writer” – which seems unlikely – or he was speaking metaphorically.

    I think this issue was blown far out of proportion.

    But I think there is value in studying the reaction, too. There’s clearly a group of people who feel very strongly disenfranchised… People who read a very benign comment in the most negative light possible… People who felt disparaged and discouraged with just a few words from one man – who clearly and (if anyone had stopped to think for ten seconds) didn’t mean it that way in the first place.

    What that says about writers as a profession today is probably much more fascinating than the comment itself.

    1. @Kevin I think there’s a lot of struggling writers who wonder whether it would be easier if they’d managed to get to a good workshop such as Odyssey or Clarion. They may be confident in their writing abilities but wonder if the contacts made therein and the CV boost that getting accepted can add might lift them out of the slush pile and into the editor’s pile.

      But yes, Neil didn’t do any of that, and meant nothing more than an aspirational tweet that Clarion only accepts the “best” (however that might be defined).

      1. My feeling would be that writers worried about their CV need to spend more time writing and less time worrying about it. 😉

        We live in an era of unprecedented opportunity for writers. There’s never been a time in all human history where so many people have made a living telling stories. It’s a remarkable renaissance.

        My feeling is the best reaction to these exploding opportunities is to sit down and get to work. I would counsel worrying less about meeting the right people and more about practicing our craft. 😉

  13. Nobody can teach you how to write, teachers offer encouragement to talented students and those without talent cannot be taught, so besides networking what is the point. In most fields the best rise to the top from through sheer willpower and self-belief, with writing it’s no different.

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  15. I wonder if Clarion teaches courses on conveying enthusiasm, or being offended because someone is enthused about something you aren’t. Good Christ, the addiction some have for being offended that someone has a different point of view and doesn’t express it precisely in bloodless, clinical language is a fast-spreading virus. Oh dear, I’ve now offended anyone who has a cold.

    Back to writing.

  16. I teach writing (have taught at University and now at private writers’ centre). I HATE those courses (unfortunately, all too common) which say: this is the way you write, and there is only one way. My husband was once told he wasn’t ‘allowed’ to know the plot of his novel before writing it because ‘real’ writers know that having a plot ‘makes the novel dead’ (thus neatly disparaging all genre stories which need plotting to work). A workshop leader/teacher’s job is to help the student discover their own process and refine it, with help through critiquing and explanation of technical issues. You should end up with a group of wildly different novels, not a group of similar ones.

  17. For what it’s worth, I have a friend who went to Clarion and had a terrible experience. She’s a great (but unconventional) writer, and apparently they ripped her to shreds. She barely wrote again for years. This year she won a bunch of awards that are finally giving her confidence in her own work again, but it makes me wonder about whether or not places like that only work for people who want to (or learn to) write in that one particular fashion.

    Mind you, I’ve never been (although I always thought of it rather wistfully). I mostly just learned to write by writing, sucking, and writing some more. Plus, you know, reading writers who didn’t suck.

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