I love roller coasters. The view from the ground is enticing. Anticipation builds while standing in line, strapping in, riding up the hill. During that first vertiginous drop, panic kicks in, screaming, This was a bad idea! It’s a delicious thrill, feeling terrified but safe. For six weeks this summer I attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop for speculative fiction in Seattle with eighteen other writers. It was a wild and wondrous ride, better than the best roller coaster.
Clarion West has held its acclaimed residential workshop in Seattle For thirty-seven years. Eighteen students, emerging writers of speculative fiction from around the globe, come together to write stories. We had a new instructor each week. The faculty this year was incredible: Elizabeth Hand, Amal El-Mohtar, Ibi Zoboi, Jonathan Strahan, Jack Dann and Ann Leckie. We learned deep lessons from every one of them. From nine in the morning until noon we unpacked each other’s stories and examined them down to the bones. We used a Milford style format and focused on aspects of craft. Going around the table, every participant gave a critique of up to two minutes. Finally, the instructor gave their thoughts.
To get the greatest benefit from Clarion West, our instructors encouraged us to take big risks. We didn’t bring completed stories with us. Some students brought outlines and research. Some, myself included, abandoned our carefully hoarded ideas after the first day and decided to write all new material, inspired by the currents of creativity and insight washing over us every day.
The night I turned in my first story, a vertigo of roller coaster proportions overtook me. My internal voice screamed that I had committed to an impossible task. I was terrified. But one of the many beautiful things about Clarion West was the intentionality practiced by Neile Graham, the workshop director, and Jae Steinbacher, the administrator, in shaping an atmosphere of mutual respect where it was safe to be vulnerable. We could risk spectacular failure here, and trust that what happened at Clarion would stay at Clarion. We were frank with each other but tender too, and never derisive. I made some big blunders, but I have never felt more encouraged.
Our cohort was widely diverse along many spectra of human experience. I learned as much or more from critiquing my classmates work as from writing my own. My peers astounded me with the beauty and the daring of their writing. They made me laugh, and gasp. They broke my heart, and gave me hope. Over the six weeks of the workshop we built a community of humility and trust, teaching each other even as we were taught by our acclaimed instructors.
The larger community of Clarion West surrounded our little circle around the critique table. They welcomed our class with a warm embrace, and offered encouragement at every turn. Students from previous classes, who were often authors I had admired from afar for years, visited on Fridays. Ted Chiang, and Seanan McGuire both stopped by one memorable afternoon. The community gave generously of their time, answering our questions on writing craft, process, and the paths careers might take. They also threw great parties every week!
With fellow Fiction Unbound contributor Theodore McCombs (Clarion ‘17), I agree that the six weeks spent with brilliant peers and thoughtful mentors is a profound privilege. Our class also lived, for a moment, in a bubble where the monsters were on the page. But the day we left, the monsters that walk among us rushed back in, along with our pre-Clarion West realities. Two mass shootings: one in El Paso, TX, and one in Dayton, OH, piled on to the mass shooting the previous weekend in Gilroy, CA. Deadly weather swept across China killing dozens and displacing millions.
If life’s a roller coaster, then the one we’re on now resembles a Till Nowak’s nightmare. There are no safety straps. I’m in free-fall whenever I consume the news. One voice centers itself in every story. It is drunk on power, convinced of its own victimhood, dismissive of the trauma experienced by those it shoves to the margins. This voice overwhelms the narrative, depriving others of humanity. The onslaught of that voice breeds helplessness, and panic in me. I would like to get off this ride, or hide my eyes and hope it will all go away, but neither of those are real options.
So, in a world on the brink of environmental collapse, filled with poisonous rhetoric, where it is easy for evil men to unleash weapons of war on peaceful people, why do stories matter? And why spend all this time learning to write stories well?
This is why: We are creatures of narrative. Metaphor is the organizing principle of our language and our thoughts. We filter experiences through the stories we believe to be true. We create our memories, our present realities, and our beliefs about the future based on those narratives. We cling to them even when contradictions surround us. The murderers of last week inhabited narratives that overpowered their humanity. Stories of need, fear, and despair shape our political will, and blind us to the destruction we do.
My time at Clarion West provided transformative reminders of three things. First, there is a fundamental difference between hearing from someone and hearing about them. Writing in your own voice has enormous power.
Second, relationships matter. It takes courage for a writer to let others in on the raw beginning of a story, and humility to respond to that trust. If I can achieve half the bravery and the compassion I saw from my Clarion West peers during our workshop, I’ll be doing well. It’s something I’ll strive for the rest of my life.
Third, I can do more than I think I am capable of doing; we all can. This is not a time for throwing up our hands in despair, or succumbing to self doubt. Success comes when we make writing a priority and then persist. Right now stories couldn’t be more important.
Stories have power. We can catch each other with stories when we fall. Stories can comfort and uplift. I believe a well-told story can save the planet. Humanity shaped this world with stories in the past. We will build the future from the story we write in the present. Write a good one.