The Clarion West 2016 Write-a-thon and Me: Part 1

Last summer, I went to a science-fiction-and-fantasy writing workshop in Seattle called Clarion West. I was the first among my friends in India to apply for this workshop, although I had heard of a couple of Indian writers here and there (famous people, mostly already NRIs, no one I knew personally yet) who had attended it before. I don’t come from the sort of family background that allows me the luxury of attending creative writing workshops abroad, and neither do most of my friends, so that just wasn’t the level I would naturally think at, although I had known vaguely about Clarion West for years. You cannot avoid it, especially if you’re a reader of contemporary international SFF, because so many of the writers are Clarion West graduates (or graduates of the other Clarion workshop in San Diego), and they’re almost always proud enough to mention it in their author bios.

Honestly, I only applied in December 2014 because I already had a writing sample going out for MFA applications, so what was one more application (or potential rejection)? But I also applied because of the generous language on scholarships on the Clarion West website – the fact that they tried their best to fund anyone who couldn’t attend the workshop without funding. The fact that you didn’t need recommendations to apply, only your writing sample, so it didn’t matter who you knew. It didn’t say going there was easy, and I’ve met writers – strong, talented, dedicated writers – who only got into Clarion West on their second or third attempts, but it felt like this was a place that was fair, encouraging, and filled with genuine goodwill towards nurturing new writers.

If you’re a certain kind of naïve idealist (i.e. like me), a lot of places feel like that from a couple of continents’ distance, and then you turn up there and realize that the “real world” is equally squalid and oppressive everywhere – just one structure of discrimination displaced by another – and that marketing language on websites can be very far from the ground reality. One year down the line, I have no such complaints about Clarion West.

I also learned, in a way that you can probably only learn if you go there and see the workings of it firsthand, that goodwill is really the currency that runs this large and prestigious workshop, hard as that is to believe. Clarion West isn’t attached to any university or other organization with a larger funding system. All the generous scholarships are donations, as are often the bedding, fans, edible treats, toys that are given to the workshop attendees every year. Many of the (incredibly talented and famous) teachers and guest lecturers are alumni, who are happy to pass on their knowledge to new students at I imagine a very small fee. Alumni and friends of the workshop who live in and around Seattle open their houses for weekend parties (I attended parties at the houses of Greg Bear and Nicola Griffith), and drop by at the workshop house with free books and other goodies, or often just to carry stuff, offer rides, clean the common spaces and so on. Alumni who live elsewhere send in little things through Amazon or regular courier. A lot of people pitch in whatever they can, and the result is this abundant and nourishing experience that repeats itself every year. No one is an employee. No one earns anything by offering their time, money, resources or expertise to Clarion West, except maybe the good you do in the world multiplies itself, and that is a reward on its own.

In honour of that spirit and that community, which had helped me and made me one of their own – an amateur writer from a different country, a queer female person of colour with very little inherited privilege in the world – this year I’m doing the Clarion West Write-a-thon.

This is a process in which alumni (but also friends of the workshop) set themselves a number of writing goals for the duration of the current year’s workshop, and appeal to be sponsored for their efforts. The money goes to Clarion West, so it doesn’t make a difference which writer you sponsor. It’s not a competition for honour – the participants aren’t set in a hierarchy according to how much money they bring in; in fact, those individual stats are never released. So there are the really big-shot alumni – writers of bestselling books, writers who have taught at Clarion West in turn – setting themselves up for the Write-a-thon, alongside my class who are the most recent alumni, alongside alumni who’ve not even published anything yet. Some writers offer gifts in return to a certain amount in donation, but there’s no minimum amount anyone can donate, because the idea of crowdfunding is that every single dollar (or rupee, or any other currency) helps.

The way this helps the participating writers is that it sets us goals and deadlines, and a lot of us work better with goals and deadlines, given that “real life” is so endlessly distracting. Sometimes we write with more joy and focus when there are others writing along with us, and there are Write-a-thon events happening at Seattle, New York and California where participating writers can meet and share notes. I am very far from all that, spending my summer at home in Calcutta (there’s no reason why there can’t be a Calcutta event, I suppose, except that there aren’t that many of us here, and we didn’t call to organize an event), but the sense of doing something together is largely online and pervasive, the way it used to be for writers who participated in NaNoWriMo. Except that this is even more flexible than NaNoWriMo (which I always felt too anxious to participate in, because a novel in a month, with constant word-count races, just seemed beyond the capacity of a slow writer like me), because each writer chooses their own goals.

The Clarion West Writing Workshop this year is taking place in Seattle between June 19 and July 29. In the last ten days, I have written:

  • one essay on a speculative-fiction-related topic,
  • one experimental fantasy short story, slightly longer than a flash,

both of which are in the publication queue at different venues, so I may be able to share them soon. I have also sent the third story from Other People to my editor at Juggernaut Books, which is likely to be available on the app in August. You can look at my other writing goals, on which I am working, at my Write-a-thon page.

So, I would love it if you go take a look – at my page, but also of the other writers who are participating – and give Clarion West any amount of money you wish for having enabled the writing career(s) of any (or more) of us. These are genuine, earnest, mad talented people, and the fact that they continue to organize this workshop every year – generous scholarships and toys and parties and all – restores my faith that the collective goodwill of individuals can move things in the world. I’m glad to be participating in this year’s Write-a-thon, even though until the last day of sign-ups I wasn’t sure if I was ready for it writing-wise. But at Clarion West you don’t feel judged or discouraged, and my ex-classmates have continued to hold up that tradition, and that kinda thing alone (if nothing else) is worth putting oneself up on the stage for. And maybe, after all, I will end up writing some fun things that some people will enjoy reading. One can always hope.

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