Learning What You Don’t Want Is Equally Valuable: Thoughts On Clarion, And Also, Unrelatedly, Polyamory, As Well As Other Things

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Once a year, in normal years, eighteen lucky students are chosen to go to the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. There, they spend six weeks on a hellishly intensive writers’ retreat, being subjected to the stresses and triumphs that come with being held to standards of a professional writer.

Many of today’s most popular writers have come out of Clarion.+ I did. If you’ve liked the books I’ve written (or feel like preordering my upcoming book to see what I write like), well, you can thank Clarion for that.

Yet Clarion is a big ask for some. It costs thousands of dollars, and requires six weeks of free time to go, let alone travel costs. And the ugly secret to Clarion is that some people go to Clarion, spend their six weeks there, and emerge to realize that they do not want to be a professional writer.

This is often treated as a failure state.++ “They spent all that money, and didn’t emerge as a best-selling author? What a waste of cash and time!”

Whereas I look at that is, “You spent six weeks learning that one of your life-long dreams would actually make you miserable.

“That’s so much better than vaguely longing after something for years and feeling guilty that you never made it happen.”

Because some people go to Clarion and realize that being a professional writer is actually kinda sucky sometimes. Struggling with a story is hard work; revising that story can be even tougher. And continually weathering harsh feedback – from beta readers, from agents, from editors, and (if you’re lucky) from readers can be soul-destroying. Then you have to worry about your career, and whether you’re on the upswing or the downswing…

A lot of people wanna just write and not go pro! And that’s entirely legitimate. There’s this running undercurrent in American culture that implies that if you can make a career out of it you should wreck yourself to monetize every last hobby, but… hey. There’s nothing wrong with writing happy stories in your basement for a couple of friends and online forums.

In that sense, it’s pricey, sure, but spending the cash to strip yourself of this nagging urge that “I should be a pro writer” is really pretty damn effective. Because learning what you don’t want is often more valuable than learning what you do want.

Learning what you don’t want can free you from all kinds of guilts.

And I’m writing this essay because an online friend of mine said something very wise: he said he’d learned from reading my essays on polyamory that poly was not for him.

Which is awesome! I read a lot of online writings that seem defensive about not being polyamorous, as though there was something wrong with not being poly.+++ But polyamory is often a right pain in the ass; it’s juggling a lot of emotional concerns, it’s stretching yourself across a line of lovers that you may not have the time or energy for –

Discovering that you’re not cut out for poly is valuable information. It frees you. You can say, “Nope, sorry, not for me” to any potential poly relationships with a confidence and a surety that will serve you well.

And that’s why I don’t think all breakups are necessarily bad, either; sometimes, even though it’s painful, you have discovered a way of interacting with your lover that utterly will not work for you.

There’s all sorts of discussions about learning what you love, and those are also good. But when it comes to discussing past failures, often there’s this residual sadness fogging up the lens when it really shouldn’t – this idea that “I wasn’t good enough.” Whereas the truth is that it wasn’t that you weren’t worthy of your initial goal, it’s that you got there and discovered that it made you sad.

Learning what makes you sad is equally as valuable as learning what makes you happy. There is great strength in that.

Treasure that on the days you find out.

  • – This is the obligatory disclaimer that you do not need to attend a writers’ workshop of any kind to be a professional writer, and many of the people who teach Clarion as bestselling authors never went to Clarion. ++ – Coming out of Clarion as not-a-writer can, however, be a failure state, especially if you came out of it because overly harsh critiques sapped your love of it. Every Clarion has a different mix of writers and people, and while the success rate is high, there are always group and individual failures in the mix where perhaps a different approach could have ignited, instead of doused, their career. +++ – And yes, there are people who believe that polyamory is the “enlightened” path, selling that old snake oil that monogamy is inferior. They are bullshit artists, and you can safely ignore them.


  1. dellstories
    Apr 23, 2020

    I wouldn’t say you proselytize for polyamory

    Seems to me that most of your poly essays fall into one of two categories

    1. Here is what I do that works for me. Maybe you can learn from this

    2. Here is what i did horrifically wrong. Learn from this so you don’t do what I did

    In other words, you’re not trying to sell poly. You’re offering advice for those who’ve already decided (or are at least considering it)

  2. Bunny42
    May 4, 2020

    Hi. I don’t know about Ohio, but here in FL I have seen ZERO mention that this is the 50th anniversary of Kent State. Nuthin’. Star Wars is all over the place, but Kent State has disappeared down the history rabbit hole. What have you heard?

All Comments Will Be Moderated. Comments From Fake Or Throwaway Accounts Will Never Be approved.