Besides being nestled inconspicuously within the walls of Olds Engineering Hall, Clarion: The Science Fiction Writer\’s Workshop, has nothing to do with scientific precision or, for that matter, any sense of a tangible reality.
Instead, the workshop provides a creative opportunity for aspiring science fiction and fantasy writers to improve their talents, hone further skills and learn from the pros.[clarion] The regimented, albeit creative, spawning of the workshop boasts a global impact that has drawn in hopeful writers from as far as Norway. Clarion\’s expansive workshop now is home to three locations worldwide: one in East Lansing known as Clarion East, another in Seattle – Clarion West – and the newest location in Australia, known as Clarion South. The widespread growth of Clarion has become a rich, exemplary model of what a creative writing workshop should be.
Robin Scott Wilson founded the workshop in 1968 at Clarion State College in Pennsylvania, now called Clarion University. It moved to MSU in 1972 and still holds a strong reputation among science fiction literary critics and popular magazines.
“We were mentioned in Asimov\’s Science Fiction,\” said Sarah Gibbons, assistant to director of Clarion East. The renowned science fiction magazine is just one outlet Clarion has received attention from. A plethora of well-respected science fiction and fantasy authors have taught, guided and inspired enthusiastic writers at the workshop, held every summer for six weeks. The selective process of choosing qualified and ardent apprentice writers is a task that Gibbons, an English graduate student at MSU, and the rest of the Clarion staff, put much thought into. The other challenge is finding established, professional writers in the genre.
\”We look to find professional writers who have credentials and who we feel will be able to help the apprentice writers,\” said Gibbons.
Participants are \”selected from applicants who have the potential for highly successful writing careers and who submit writing samples with an application,\” according to a recent press release from the Clarion Foundation. And although the selection process is highly competitive, novice writers receive helpful critiques and insight from professional writers in a concentrated and attentive atmosphere.
But how effective are writing workshops? With an array of different teaching techniques, it seems each serves its own function.
\”I always felt that the best writing courses I took taught me about forms – poetic forms, sentence forms, narrative structures and devices,\” said Dr. Stephen Rachman, an English professor at MSU. \”They did not dictate content so much as give students formal tasks.\”
\”Writing is deeply bound up with self-worth and people can be touchy about it,\” said Rachman. \”Workshops can be effective if the instructors find substantive but humane ways to criticize the work of their students.\”
Knowing when to push and how much to force an opinion on someone else\’s work can be a delicate situation and will affect the finished product. \”If it is all praise, then students will end up with the literary equivalent of The Emperor\’s New Clothes,\” said Rachman. \”If it is too harsh or personal, than no one can learn. Finding that critical space of humane neutrality and cheerful hard work is crucial.\” But rigorous critiques can also motivate writers and help guide their writing to be better suited for an audience.
The critiquing circle and workshop open at a friendly time of the morning. \”The workshop starts at 9 a.m. and is based on the Milford Format of critique,\” said Gibbons. \”The professional author reads three to five stories the night before and then critiques the piece for four hours.\”
The Milford Format is based on the principle of critiquing a literary piece by going around the circle of participants, adding input, lending advice, declaring opinion and hopefully helping the author of the stories to gain his own personal insight into his writing. One of the most critical aspects during the workshop is that each writer keeps writing. It \”really focuses on\” experimentation and development of new thoughts and ideas, said Gibbons. Rachman believes \”improvement in writing is hard to measure, especially over a short period of time.\”
Although writing is a timely process, Rachman still believes, \”for the right person, the feedback one receives from other writers can be very useful in specific ways.\” One way in which Rachman believes the workshop is beneficial is \”editorial advice – about specific stories, in general ways – finding out what one\’s strengths are, and occasionally in life-changing ways [like] finding one\’s voice.\”
But when the Clarion writers aren\’t plugging away on elusive concepts, they\’re being intellectually challenged by the professionals. Liz Zernechel-Bell, a 2005 participant and director of the Clarion 2006 Summer Writing Workshop and assistant theatre professor, said she was initially attracted to Clarion because it was \”an intensive six weeks of writing\” that seemed to be more aimed at adults, “even though we don\’t really look at age, more at the merits of writing.\”
Mornings are devoted to reading manuscripts and critiquing in a seminar-type setting. Afternoons, evenings and weekends are \”committed to individual writing, personal conferences with the writer-in-residence, social activities and completing class assignments,\” according to the official Clarion Web site. And as Zernechel-Bell said, age is of no importance; it seems to be a prominent concept that good writing and attentive dedication are par for the literary course at Clarion. Past participants have ranged from teens to professionally published adults, all with one thing in common: the courage to write fiction during their six-week boot camp-like training, and the valor to actually intend to write for a living.
Creating an atmosphere for imaginative writing may be just as important as the medium you use to work with. [andy]The process of even beginning a piece of creative writing takes a certain boldness and audacity. \”I think one starts with a desire or a compulsion to write, to sit down all the time and work from inspiration through the inevitable drudgery of draft and revision,\” said Rachman. \”Then one needs to find out what one is good at and cultivate those strengths. Then there is the long, arduous journey from competency to glib understanding to profound knowledge.\”
And even though creative writing is a passage into the unknown and imaginative, it also serves a purpose for the writer. \”Since writing is a tool of understanding it becomes the medium through which we articulate ourselves to ourselves,\” said Rachman. And since the road to producing a quality piece of creative writing is so teeth-grindingly strenuous at times, Rachman believes people should know what they\’re getting themselves into.
\”Having gone through such a process, then one needs to decide if one wants to make a profession of writing,\” said Rachman. \”Sometimes people confuse these two processes.\”
But for Zernechel-Bell, her passion for writing discourages all the painstaking downfalls. She chose to type on her laptop in her room, located on the third floor of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house. \”I would mostly write in the morning because I\’m more of a morning person, but other people would write after the circle and into the night,\” she said. One of the participants, a doctor, \”left at 11 p.m. every night and went to a bar to write.\”
Whether it\’s secluding yourself from the outside world and enveloping your ideas in a tight space or interacting non-verbally with society, writing creatively, especially science fiction and fantasy writing, can be explored in many different ways. Another participant, nicknamed Zen Boy, \”disappeared everyday after [the critiquing] circle,\” said Zernechel-Bell.
If Zernechel-Bell wasn\’t hiding out in her room completing her stories for the circle, she was cooling off from the obnoxious Michigan heat in the basement of her sorority house or sometimes at the local bookstore, Barnes & Noble on Grand River Avenue.
She was also \”transported into a world of writing though music,\” and enjoyed listening to Sarah McLachlan, Lifehouse, Evanescence and for more \”high fantasy,\” Enya. When asked what entailed \”high fantasy,\” Zernechel-Bell offered J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy as an example. \”You know, hobbits, elves – a completely made-up world.\”
Regardless of whether participants are looking for a means of improving their writing or broadening their capabilities, the workshop acts as a canvas for an array of fantastical thinkers and technocrats alike. Even if ephemera, mystery, abstract theory or history are your fortes, the fantasy and science fiction genre won\’t discriminate. According to Gibbons, science fiction and fantasy writing \”deal with everything that could possibly be,\” which makes the genre open to interpretation, welcoming and free from isolation.\”
Science fiction and fantasy \”doesn\’t become dated because it\’s part of the imagination,\” said Gibbons. And for Clarion: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer\’s Workshop, the imagination is a thriving universe of abounding ideas, ready to be released and given wings.
Given the opportunity to engage in a writing workshop like Clarion can be very helpful, according to Rachman: \”Where else, outside of writing programs, can a writer do this? A workshop can be like having a temporary braintrust.\”
The Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers\’ Workshop will be held at MSU from June 26 through August 4, 2006. Application and materials must be received by April 1, 2006. For more information on how to apply, costs and general information, visit the official Clarion Web site at http://www.msu.edu/~clarion/