Clarion Helped Me Be A Better Writer. Let Neil Gaiman Tell You How.
Knowing Neil Gaiman is sort of like being friends with a hurricane; he causes a large stir wherever he goes, always making headlines, and as such people email you if they think he might be coming near.
So when I woke up last Sunday, I had several emails telling me that my old Clarion teacher had mentioned me in a talk he’d given at Cambridge, just as he was preparing to teach at this year’s Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop. The best email was from my friend Tiffani Angus, who said this to me:
Last night I went and saw Neil Gaiman (likely just ‘Neil’ to you) give a talk and do a book signing at the Cambridge Union Society in the room where Cambridge uni has held debates for, oh, like 150 years or so (which, by Cambridge count, is a freaking drop in the bucket since this place has been here for 600 years). During the Q&A, I raised my hand and asked him his opinion on the argument that some have that creative writing can’t be taught–that it’s innate talent and not a skill set. I prefaced it with the explanation that I knew he’d taught at Clarion in 2008.
He said that he thought having creative writing as a course was good because it feeds creative writers (the teachers). But, he said, the most important thing to do to become a (good) writer is to just write, as much as possible, and that he hopes that’s something that is passed on to the students.
And he told the story about being at Clarion and how one of the students came up to him one day and asked, “So, who here do you think will make it?” The student pointed at a couple of the more ‘advanced’ writers, and said “Them?” And Neil said “I don’t know who’s going to make it. But I know that to make it you have to write. Just write, as much as possible.”
And then this past year he went to the Nebula awards, where he had been nominated, and the student who had asked him the question at Clarion was the first of his students to be nominated for a Nebula. I mouthed ‘Ferrett’ at him, and he said “Yes, Ferrett. And I was so proud of him.” Because you’ve put in the work these past years, and you’ve shown that writing as much as possible is the only way to improve.
Later, when he signed my book, we talked very quickly about it, and he said, “So, you know Ferrett.” I explained that I’d never met you in person, but had known you online for a few years. (I didn’t explain that I’d done Clarion.)
And he signed a poster for me. “Make good writing, Tiffani” he wrote. I pinned it above my desk. To remind me that I’m here inn the UK for a reason, and that even though my life has been so busy and everything exploded 6 months ago, the only way out is through, and the only way through is by writing as much as possible.
So, that’s the story of how you were part of the discussion in a city in a country far across the ocean from where you are now. And how, although you and I have been found inspiration in Neil, I have found inspiration in you.
There’s no word that I know of that summarizes “tears of pride and joy,” but if I were slightly more talented I would have invented it. Neil being as popular as he is, I know he’s told that anecdote before to other audiences. And so it is that I have become legend: The Boy Who Worked Hard. I’m now a go-to tale in Neil’s pocket when he wishes to talk about the need to keep writing through laziness, uninspiration, medical trauma, and distractions.
The truth is, I could have just kept writing for twenty years, and still not gotten there if it hadn’t been for Clarion. I know this because I had written for twenty years, and wasn’t much good. Clarion showed me what professional writing really is – not just the sheer bull-headedness it takes to get you there, but the standard by which you must write. For years, I was way better than all of my friends at writing, and I thought that was good enough. I took shortcuts. I wrote not-quite-ambitious stories. I didn’t submit enough.
Yet when I went to Clarion and had seventeen brilliant writers breaking down my stories, I realized: there were no shortcuts. Every time I said, “Aww, I’m sure that doesn’t matter,” someone caught it – and it did matter, really. I was exposed to other viewpoints, other ways of approaching stories, and eventually came to the honest truth that for the past twenty years, I was writing perfectly good stories. Which was fine, but if I wanted to get published? To get into Asimov’s, I had to not only be as good as Connie Willis or Robert Silverberg or Joe Haldeman, I had to be better. Because as a nobody, my name on the cover got them no additional sales.
Read that: to be published in a professional magazine, I would have to be better than Neil fucking Gaiman on that day.
So I tightened up my prose, and adhered to Jay Lake’s Bathtub Theory, where as a writer, you have good days and bad days, but the crest of your work is directly dependent on all the effort you’ve put in before. So I wrote. Every day. I went to workshops, analyzed stories for friends, read more, immersed myself in it. I tried to figure out things I did poorly as a writer, then hammered home on them with surgical precision in experiments designed to make them better. I made my goal to be better than my teachers.
And I’m still not that great. Many people would kill to have my success, I know – twenty-five published short stories since graduating Clarion, eight of them in pro magazines, a Nebula nomination – but that’s all a result of me pouring in All the Words. For every one of those published tales, there are at least three where my bathtub didn’t slosh enough to get me over the edge. All I can do is write. A lot.
Clarion taught me the standard I was expected. It stripped away my bullshit, my bad habits, my sense of entitlement. And when I walked out, I was a professional writer. Even though I hadn’t published a damn thing yet, I was acting like a pro. As I hope Tiffani does. I’m so proud to be a goad to anyone – because I really do think this is all about persistence and honesty.
And that is why, every year, I participate in the Clarion Write-A-Thon, where I ask you to donate and sponsor me as I raise funds for my alma mater. They’re a good group, churning out amazing writers, and if you donate you’ll not only be helping the next generation of fantasy writers, but you’ll get stuff from me.
- A $5 donation will get you membership to the super-secret Clarion Echo workshop on LiveJournal, where I’ll be live-writing three stories this year – the first being about a Cthulhuloid internet worm that infects Google, for a Lovecraft tribute I’ve been commissioned for. I don’t just write in the Clarion Echo – I discuss what worked and what failed about today’s words, pulling it apart so you see the fiction as I see it, really trying to break it down as a professional writer looks soberly at his flaws. In this way, I try to do a mini-Clarion for anyone who wants a taste of it.
- A $25 donation will get you a full short story/chapter critique from me in the Clarion Echo workshop. I’ll analyze your fiction the way I’ve done for countless professional writers’ groups, weighing in on its weaknesses and strengths, hoping to show you where maybe you’re taking shortcuts and hoping no one notices.
I’ll be doing this every day for the next six weeks, even on the vacation I’m taking in Hawaii – because as a writer, I go by Stephen King’s maxim, which is that you tell people you write every day except on Christmas and your birthday… and secretly write on Christmas and your birthday.
Clarion means a lot to me. It’s a small donation, and if you do donate, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your LJ name so I can add you to the super-secret and awesome club. And I thank you.