So spoke English professor/SF writer Bruce Glassco as he perused a particularly puzzling piece of prose. And that, in a nutshell, was our reaction to the 1995 Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Workshop.
What "we" am I referring to? Nineteen odd (some very odd), talented, imaginative, intelligent folks who ranged from a 20-year-old Armenian American political science student to a 34-year-old Deadhead mother of three to a 38-year-old forensic scientist. This year's Clarionites trekked from 12 of the 50 States, Canada and England to East Lansing, where we lived for six weeks in a mosquito-ridden, unairconditioned dormitory and learned the art and craft of speculative fiction.
"Clarion is like Valhalla: we tear each other up in the morning, eat bad food, go to bed, and do it all over again the next day," said graphic designer Sten Westgard.
The pressure was definitely on us to write well, both quantitatively and qualitiatively.
Each morning, we would gather in a spacious lounge, sit in a circle, and critique stories written by fellow Clarionites. For the first two weeks, these stories were usually pre-written pieces that had been part of our applications to Clarion. After those first weeks, our instructors stipulated that we turn in for critiquing only manuscripts that we had written at the workshop.
The workshopping itself was, naturally, most stressful for those whose works were on the carving board. We started the critiques on one side of the author and went around the circle, with each person having 2-3 minutes to make their comments. The criticism could range from the enthusiastic ("It's beautifully written and I was hooked from very early on," a Clarionite commented on one story) to the savage ("Your ending bites dogs, and I'm going to tell you why ..." -- another comment on the same tale). After the critiques, our instructor for the week would hold a structured discussion or lecture on some element of story writing. Afterward, we would collect the 3-6 stories we needed to read and critique for the next day and then head off to lunch.
In the literature the Clarion coordinators mail to applicants, one is led to believe that the students lock themselves in their dorm rooms and do nothing but write. While we did write quite a lot -- most people turned in at least one story each week, with some turning in two or even three -- our behavior was far from monkish. With very little provocation, we'd boil out of our rooms and sit in the hallway, chatting and drinking beer and box chablis and sucking on sour gumdrops, or we'd head out to the balcony to sip and gab and blow soap bubbles. If we were particularly stressed-out, we'd hit the gym or go swimming, or grab a pair of foam swords and duel it out in the lounge.
The socialization carried on into the evening, with a nightly gathering on the balcony to blow more bubbles and chat with the instructors. After the instructors left, about half the group would grab boxes of crackers and Cheerios and week-old bread and walk down to the river to give the ducks a midnight snack.
We had different instructors each week, each with a different style and writing theory, but they all expected the same high level of quality from the fiction we wrote, but I'll leave all the details on them to Canadian writer Nalo Hopkinson:
First Week: In retrospect, Joe and Gay Haldeman were fairly kind. They were both experienced instructors who managed to work information about writing into their critiques (all our instructors did). They also talked a lot about the business of writing: contracts, works habits, etc., and at our request, Joe did a lecture on planning and writing a novel.
Second Week: Nancy Kress's critiques were insightful, and she often made very good suggestions on how to fix an ailing story. I don't know how the other Clarionites felt, but on my stories, her suggestions often clicked with me. She did a lot of in-depth line editing, as preamble to her lectures on the mechanics of good writing.
Third Week: Pat Murphy threw a lot of curves at us, told us that if our writing was suffering, we could choose to let up a little on the critiquing. She challenged us on a lot of things, upped the ante a little more, and also had the courage to read us one of her own stories from her own stint at Clarion.
Fourth Week: Chip Delany started off by telling us we were all aiming too low, churning out competent, workmanlike, boring stories. He had us do a lot of exercises in imagination and writing detail.
Final Weeks: Karen Joy Fowler and Tim Powers had the last two weeks, and by then, no one was pulling punches. They really had us push ourselves to write in ways we never had before, and fail spectacularly if need be. They would lecture fairly spontaneously on anything we wanted to know (or if not, they'd take a day to think it over and come back). Unlike Pat, Karen felt that the critiques were one of the most valuable things, that in the process of critiquing someone else's work dispassionately, we could learn to evaluate our own writing and see what was missing, and how to fix it. That changed my approach to critiques. They also spent a good bit of time discussing novel writing.
All of our instructors were experienced at teaching, and I think that all of them had taught at Clarion before. They remained in close communication with each other, so they knew the issues that were coming up and came prepared to deal with them, and if we needed more information on a particular aspect of writing, they provided it, despite working just as hard as we were. I'm not sure what effect a mainstream writer would have brought into this mix. Good writing is good writing, but there are problems that are particular to speculative fiction writing and are probably best explained from the vantage point of someone who's actually writing the stuff.
I got more than my money's worth from Clarion, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who feels they're ready.