I’d meant to write a series of posts about my experiences at Clarion ten years ago, but it’s turned out to be less pleasant than I expected. I’m so grateful at how different I am now as a person and a writer that it’s painful to look back at one of the necessary steps to get here.

Just because you get superpowers in a car wreck doesn’t mean you want to keep watching the car wreck over and over.

I didn’t get superpowers at Clarion. I barely got competency powers. It was the absolute nadir of my writing career (so far), and a hugely important wake-up call that made me start teaching myself writing instead of relying on books and other people so much.

Here’s what happened, all of it my fault:

  • I let the reputation of Clarion for graduating some of the major writers of genre fiction to intimidate me into taking the critiques I got there way more seriously (and personally) than I should.
  • I worked too hard to impress a genre community in which I didn’t particularly belong, following a lot of dumb rules and writing a bunch of awful stories.
  • I almost decided to stop writing because I was both embarrassed that I’d gotten to my age without knowing how to write better and angry at the generations of teachers who’d told me I was doing fine instead of trying to push me into doing better.

Here’s what saved me:

  • Meeting wonderful friends and even a partner (though we weren’t partners at the workshop). They’ve been supportive in ways I couldn’t imagine I needed.
  • Setting aside about 90% of the knee-jerk advice I was given there (“Show more than tell!”) by certain students and instructors treading rhetorical water until their own work could be discussed.
  • Hearing Kelly Link and Holly Black tell me the last week there that I should just keep writing my weird funny stories, only better.
  • Sitting down in a library after the workshop and thinking carefully about what I’d really have to do to get better. That meant looking closely and honestly at what I did well and not so well, deciding which of those to fix and which of those to work around. I call this the “Fix It or Fuck It” school of deliberate practice. What I eventually fixed was character, description, and voice. What I eventually decided to let go was structured plotting.

As with most harrowing experiences, I wish there was a way to have learned all of this without being an idiot, but sometimes you need a good embarrassing fiasco to focus your attention on what isn’t working. If you’ve got a long tail of be-shitted toilet paper sticking to your heel, you want someone to tell you — preferably nicely, but being told at all is a gift, too.

Clarion did indeed change my life. Or, more accurately, I decided to change my life because Clarion came along at just the right moment for me.