There's a word for the feeling any science fiction or fantasy writer worth his/her/its irreducible elements strives to convey: sensawunda. Roughly translated, it's the feeling of flying, of comprehending whole solar systems and unraveling supernova, of creeping under the epidermis of beautiful strangers and finding yourself inside a disturbingly familiar dream.
The best writers in the genre evoke this sensation with stunning frequency and grace. Ursula K. LeGuin and Ray Bradbury do it well enough that they're recognized by "mundanes," non-genre readers who aren't even looking for that sensawunda buzz. I want to do what they do. I want to provide the world with mass quantities of sensawunda--and so do a lot of other emerging writers. Every year several of us hopefuls sign up for Seattle's Clarion West Writers' Workshop.
Clarion West is a non-profit organization that sponsors six-week intensive workshops in science fiction and fantasy writing. Five different professional writers, and one pro editor, serve week-long stints as instructors. Seventeen to twenty-one peers critique, counsel, eat, drink, and yes, even sleep together. Though actual, REM-type sleep is a rare and precious commodity for participants.
The first people to commit to this grueling format did so 28 years ago, at Clarion State University in Western Pennsylvania. Harlan Ellison was one of them. Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight, fairy godmother and godfather of the version of the workshop based in East Lansing, Michigan, also attended. So did Nebula Award-winner Vonda McIntyre, who brought the workshop to Seattle in 1971. Like rival football teams, the two Clarions indulge in a bit of controversy as to which is the "real deal." The Eastern version (sometimes known as "Clarion Classic") has run continuously since 1972, but despite a 12-year hiatus, Clarion West does predate it by a year. Other myths and comparisons: CW has more interesting, fringey instructors; CC students work harder; CW critiques are "nicer."
An indisputable difference is that Seattle provides Clarion West with a much larger supporting community. And I'm not talking about the obvious Chamber of Commerce-type population figures, though they relate indirectly. I'm talking about sci-fi fandom.
The worldwide science fiction community has hierarchical compression that would be the envy of Chairman Mao. Editors, publishers, big-name writers, and up-and-comers all bend an elbow with starry-eyed neos and toughened fen (plural of fan). Approachability is the name of the game when your audience is so niche-oriented. Those people everyone used to dog in school--the really weird-looking guys with sideburns and pressed high-water jeans and too-tight T-shirts, and the tall, gawky girls wearing aviator frames from JC Penney? They're riffing on porcelain glazes and nanotechnology and the etymology of the word "scone" with number 10 on the New York Times best-seller list. In fandom, they are equals.
Weekly parties serve to introduce Clarion West students to this convivial atmosphere. All this warm, fuzzy, virtual-group-hug stuff is enormously important in a world where alienation is as big a risk as aliens. Most students are hundreds, even thousands of miles from their normal support group. In addition, students have to deal with the emotional pain of honest, though usually constructive, critiques. Writing for critique day after day, week after week, can be like constructing very elaborate, pyramid-precise, Sirius-aligned ditches, only to have your classmates piss into them.
Most of us learn to swallow our critiques as well as dish them out. Drama does ensue, though, and it can range from sudden, sobbing classroom exits to a midnight trip to the emergency room. A potential source of trouble lies in an area most grads list as a benefit of Clarion West: finding one's peer group. Writers are rivals, but they're also readers, and often quite appreciative ones. And groups of like-minded writers, such as the cyberpunks, have changed the face of science fiction.
So what if the other students decide they aren't your peers? What if the group decides it needs a scapegoat, and elects you to fill the post? According to one man, one year found him "...in an atmosphere of calculated cruelty, surrounded by people who hated me." By the fourth week, he'd given up writing. Five years later, he says, "It's possible that I'll write again. But the workshop was suicidal for my career."
For the majority of Clarion grads, though, the effect is more like the high-speed acceleration of a rocket launch: some discomfort, and enormous advances. Out of 15 bylines in a recent volume of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, I counted seven with Clarion West connections. That's nearly half the stories, poems, and articles in the leading genre magazine: four from students and four from teachers, counting Asimov's award-magnet of an editor, Gardner Dozois. Dozois' taught at Clarion West four times.
Many other editors in the field are involved in the Clarion workshops. Some are grads, most notably Gordon Van Gelder, of St. Martin's Press for over a decade, and at Asimov's main competitor, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, since 1996. Van Gelder's Clarion West year was '87. He made an appearance in East Lansing in '91, and returns to Seattle to teach in '99. When I asked him why anyone who'd been through this once would want a repeat, he wasn't quite sure. Instructors receive a fee, roughly $1,000, which is not much compensation for wading through five weeks of early drafts, individually advising each student, critiquing their work, and giving classroom presentations which range from Italo Calvino readings to stuffing half the stock of Archie McPhee's warehouse up your nose.
One final word about Clarion West: Graduates tend to move here. I'm not sure this is the sort of thing that bothers groups like Lesser Seattle, but over 15 years a definite accretion has occurred. The average influx is one or two per year. My class blew the curve by creating six new Seattleites. The Clarion West community nurtures the workshop, and the workshop nurtures the Clarion West community. It's all around you. And it's growing.
Ursula K LeGuin reads from her current work as a benefit for Clarion West, Sat Feb 27, Kane Hall 220, UW Campus, 7 pm, $4. Call 545-4365 for more info.