On Clarion and Privilege and the Internets

Neil Gaiman has been catching a lot of flack for this tweet.

a tweet by Nail Gaiman

People are, understandably, saying that the equation clarion + student = pro writer is not the only way you can reach that particular sum, and they are absolutely correct, although the drama is — as is often the case on the Internet — a bit hyperbolic.

This is the fact of F&SF (and any other genre) writing — there are writers disadvantaged by gender, or race, or sexuality or other physical circumstances. But there’s also a big group — which contains a disproportionate number of those differing physically — affected by economic issues.

Here are two simple facts:

  • If you have the economic means to attend a workshop like Clarion West, Clarion, Kevin J. Anderson’s Superstars, the workshops given by Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, etc, it can give you a career advantage, primarily in terms of forming a support network of peers, although there are a number of other plusses. The degree of advantage depends on both luck and how willing you are to make the most of the time at the workshop.
  • If you have the economics means to attend a convention, it can give you a career advantage, primarily in terms of industry contacts. The degree of advantage depends on both luck and how willing you are to make the most of the time at the convention.

But there is nothing being taught at a workshop that you cannot pick up by yourself, given time, though it is true that workshop teaching can often be inspirational, effective, and sometimes entirely life-changing.

Being able to attend a convention or workshop is not just a matter of being able to pay the substantial fee. It’s being able to travel and most importantly — it’s being able to take time away from both work and family. That’s an incredible privilege.

I came through Clarion West in 2005. My instructors were (in chronological order) Octavia Butler, Andy Duncan, L. Timmel DuChamp, Connie Willis, Gordon Van Gelder, and Michael Swanwick. I am a pretty convivial person, and remain close friends with the majority of my instructors. I also was part of a talented class that included E.C. Myers (winner of the Andre Norton Award for his book Fair Coin), Rachel Swirsky (frequent nominee and winner of things) and goddamn Ann Leckie, whose Ancillary series has set the bar for success so high the rest of us are just going, “Yeah right.”

I was able to do this because I had a partner willing to let me quit my job and try writing for a while. A decade later, I have yet to make half of what my Microsoft salary was through writing; I continue to persevere. If I had a family to support, it would have been incredibly difficult to do it — perhaps simply impossible. It gave me an advantage, and it also kicked me in the ass to be productive, because I was intensely aware of just how lucky I was.

Neil is — obviously — not saying you can’t be a writer without such a workshop. Note that Gaiman himself did not go to such a workshop, as far as I know. He is, though, enthused about the workshop (as befits a former instructor) and aware of what a big advantage it can prove.

But it also depends on what you make of it. In any class there will be those who persevere and those who fall by the wayside. Of the people in my writing workshop from decades ago at Hopkins, only a handful are still writing. Ten years later, a few members of my Clarion West class seem to have dropped off the face of the planet.

You have to want it hard enough to work for it, no matter what. You have to be willing to make time for writing words down and thinking about the order and what happens when you rearrange them. You have to have a hide hard enough to survive the day when there’s three rejections plus a nice fan letter whose writer is confused and thinks you’re someone else with a similar name. You have to be willing to trim away some bullshit activities and substitute stuff that lets you work at your craft, like reading or taking online classes or whatever. That’s the part you need.

A while back, I read someone saying that we all have someone who gives us permission to call ourselves a writer. For me, it was John Barth: sitting in his sunlit Hopkins office, a bookcase framing his smiling, balding head talking about my stories and a fellowship he wanted me to apply for is something I will always remember. But that is less important than giving yourself permission to call yourself a writer. It’s harder — it requires a certain amount of adamant ego and determination — but that permission can — and must — come from inside as well as externally. That’s the most important component, and you can do it with or without the aid of a workshop.

TL;DR version? Ain’t nothing going to substitute for hard work. Why aren’t you writing?

Later addendum: Most of the workshops do offer some scholarships; if there’s one you’re interested in, I do suggest asking about what financial aid is available.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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