Surviving Your Post-Clarion Experience

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 16.884% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So.  You’ve been through six weeks of the most intense, most educational, most stressful writers’ boot camp around.  And in a week, as of this Saturday… it will all be over.
How do you survive that transition?
There are eighteen students leaving this year’s Clarion in a week — and as it turns out, happily, the advice I’d give them upon leaving the pressure cooker is pretty much the same advice I’d give to writers in general.  And that advice is this:
Advice #1: You’re Gonna Have That Gap, And That’s Okay.
The best advice I have to give is not from me: it’s from Ira Glass, talking about the Creative Gap.  Sit down, spend five minutes, and watch it.

If you’re not in a place where you can watch this right now —and you should find the time later — this is the relevant quote:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you…
Everybody goes through that. For you to go through it—if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase, or if you’re just starting off and you’re entering into that phase—you’ve got to know that’s totally normal. The most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work.

And that’s the thing about Clarion: when you come out, you often feel this huge pressure.  You’ve spent six weeks among the best in the business, and now you have to deliver.  And if these next words aren’t golden, you’re a failure, you suck, my God how did anyone think anything of you?
Relax.  Take a deep breath. Let it go.
This feeling of “not-good” is healthy.  It’s the sign that you’re taking the craft seriously.  Yet if you allow that feeling to seize you, holding back because if I can’t produce brilliance, it’s worth nothing, then you’re not helping yourself.
Keep writing.  Elizabeth Bear taught me a wonderful mantra at Viable Paradise, and there are times I chant it repeatedly: It’s a draft, it can suck.  Let that suck seep from your pores, get it all out, because stressing over Your Grand Career is just going to hinder you.
There are so many unknowns.  So many.  All you can do is get better, and you do that by continuing to write.
And speaking of that…
Advice #2: You Are A Writer…
At Clarion, you had a vastly empowering thing: for six weeks, not one person doubted you were a writer.  Your teachers agreed you were a writer, your peers all agreed that you were a writer, and you had all this wondrous time to write.  That made it easy to be a writer.
Then you leave Clarion, and you discover that maybe you’re not.
In the outside world, you run into all these distressing people who don’t know you’re a writer and don’t care.  They will make requests of you that suck away your writing-time.  They will see you not as A Writer, but as A Student or A Parent or A Barista…
…and that erodes your confidence, especially when those rejections start to flow in.  Every rejection feels like a little “Nah, maybe you’re not.”  And outside of that helpful Clarion bubble-culture, it can be hard to retain that necessary feeling of writer-ness.
But there’s two things about writers.  First is, they make space to be writers. When the world crushes in with its deadlines and fun times and work, real writers push back.  They realize that the world is a big sponge that will suck up every last minute of your time, unless you stop that world and say, “This hour is for my writing.”
You need to have the confidence to say “Yes, that’s my time.”  That’s part of being a writer; taking that space by yourself, even when Clarion doesn’t give it to you.
(And if you’re lazy one day and fail to write, don’t use that as an excuse to fail a second day.  It’s okay to fall off the horse; it’s not okay to lay in the mud for a couple of days because hey, I already fell, maybe I should just take a vacation while I’m down here.)
The second thing about writers is that they get rejections.  Do not look at a rejection as a sign that you’re not a writer, but rather that you are.  You know who doesn’t get rejections?  The people who keep all their manuscripts on their hard drive and never send them out.  The only way to not get rejected is to not actually try to get published.
If you’re a writer at all, you’re going to pile up tons of rejections.  So wear them with pride.  Every writer has a box full of “No”s, and your goal is to get as many of them as you can.
It’s okay.  Remember.  You’re a writer, and this is what writers do.  Sometimes that feels a little weird, standing amidst the piles of laundry and proclaiming, “I AM A WRITER” – but writers also do laundry.
Advice #3: …If You Want To Be. 
You know what’s okay?  Not being a writer.
You might want to try it for a while.
Some people find that the post-Clarion pressure is too much, and it destroys them.  But while it helps if you write a lot to flush all those terrible, terrible words from your system, you have to find what works for you.
And sometimes, what works is giving up.
Thing is, if you view it as “I’m going to stop writing for a week, but then I have to get back to this,” that’s just going to make you feel guilty and stressed the whole damn time.  Your creative batteries may not be charged by that diamond-hard pressure of MAKE A STORY NOW, MONKEY-BOY.  And if you keep trying to force it through, then you may crack.
So seriously.  Give up.  A lot of people came out of Clarion and discovered that this writing thing involves a lot of agita and one too many doors slammed in their face, and realized that while they had the native talent, it was just too much of an effort to turn this raw materials into finalized career.  And that was a very useful thing to know.
You don’t have to do this.
And for a lot of those people, once they gave it up for six months or a year or whatever, their subconsciousnesses started churning and soon enough, like green shoots poking through cracked concrete, they found the stories welling up again.
Others found out that they had no need — that they were happier not making the attempt.  And that’s okay.  Spending six weeks to find out that this is not a path that’s going to make you happy?  That’s cheap.  Some people wander in the wrong careers for years.
Life is hard enough without holding a gun to your head.  Be free to choose another path if writing doesn’t make you happy; it’s equally valid.
Advice #4: This Feeling Will Never Fail You.
When Cat Valente told me I needed to go to Clarion, she mentioned how “the Clarion kids” were at conventions.  “It’s like they all know each other,” she said.  “And they have these happy reunions, even if they’ve never met.”
Which is true.  When I see you at a con, you tell me what year you are, and I will clasp your hand and give you the big secret Clarion grin.  Because I know you’ve been there with me.  We’ve done this together.
But your classmates?  You’ll stay in touch — through Twitter, through private mail lists, through chats.  And I know what you’re wondering:
Will this feeling of togetherness last?
And I am here to tell you: Yes.
God yes.
Whenever I see my old classmates, it’s like I’ve found my secret family again.  We pick up right from where we left off, and it’s some of the old tensions, all of the old love — that beautiful realization that we shared this moment, and in some part of our brains we’re always sharing it, and now we’ve synced up again in real-time to do it again.
Space will divide you.  Time will divide you.  Differing paths will divide you.
But you’ll always be one.
(Hey, come on – you think I’m doing all this writing for the Clarion Blog-A-Thon just for kicks?  I do it to honor the Clarion experience.)

1 Comment

  1. Mishell Baker
    Aug 2, 2011

    I think that for the most part this is a brilliant summation. But I need to add a few things to make it complete.
    Re: the gap between your taste and your own work: it will close very slowly, if at all, if you stop reading. Just doing “a lot of work” isn’t enough. You also have to continue immersing yourself in storytelling that you DO think is great. Not only that, but once you’re done enjoying it you need to think about what made it so good, and what about it is missing from your own work. Without doing this kind of conscious effort at improvement, it could take a really long time for you to write anything you’re proud of.
    Also? Some of you may never be proud of your work, no matter how good you become. But once it starts selling, you have to learn to be content with the fact that it brings other people enjoyment, even if it never brings you any. There are many successful writers who can’t stand to read their own work, just as there are actors who can’t watch themselves on film.
    Regarding the eternal feeling of fellowship with all your classmates: I’m not sure how to put this delicately. How about, “It depends largely upon you, and to a lesser extent, upon your classmates.” Every year Clarion is a random roll of the dice, and the application process doesn’t weed out jerks or crazy people. There is no interview.
    I have Borderline Personality Disorder and am damned difficult to love. My classmates respected my writing but never really bonded with me personally, though a couple of them do continue to try. It’s okay. They all still have my back, in the professional sense, and that’s the point of Clarion. But don’t feel like you wasted your money if you don’t find the sort of lifelong soul-bonded friendships that so many other people seem to get out of Clarion. Everyone is different, and some people just don’t make very good friends. If you feel alienated before Clarion, you will probably continue to feel alienated afterward. So write about alienation. You are what you are for a reason.
    This may sound negative. But I believe in Clarion, or I wouldn’t be running their blog and dropping by to visit the new Clarionites. I just want to be sure that even those with a tendency toward depression or negativity don’t give up just because they think everything should FEEL different if they were doing things right.
    Don’t sit around waiting for some feeling that you have “arrived” and “found your people” and all that kind of thing. Learn to appreciate how far your writing has evolved, and how much progress you’ve made, and understand that you may never be fully satisfied. You can be content, though, even if you never find the glow of happiness you so envy in other people. By the way: stop comparing yourself to other people. In your writing as well as your emotional makeup. Just quit it. Be the best you there is.
    And remember, those of us with self-esteem issues have an advantage: the moment you’re satisfied is the moment you stop improving. So for those of us who always feel inadequate, the longer we stay alive, the better we get 😉

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