This summer, I had the most fantabulous time at the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, doing what I love to do best—writing science fiction and fantasy. 6 weeks. 6 award-winning instructors. Critiquing 4 stories every night and writing a story every week. What did I learn from these 6 most intense weeks ever? I’m going to sneak some of these writing secrets straight to you.
Lesson #1: You will fail. Big time
Sorry to start off with this one. This isn’t about doom-and-gloom. I’m not saying it to discourage you from writing, or tell you you’ll never be something. I’m saying failure is inevitable. Embrace it.
During my second week of Clarion, I wrote a short story. The scope of it was ambitious: Tell two different characters’ stories and a third story shared only between them, though they never meet. I turned it in before I could finish my vision for it. I knew during workshop I’d get some comments about it being incomplete. I didn’t anticipate that the majority of my cohort would hate the story with the core of their being. Boy, did I look red in the face. I’m embarrassed just knowing I actually showed that story to other people. And I’m embarrassed I’m telling you about it now.
Writing is riddled with failure, from bad feedback to heaps of form rejections to “You’re still doing that writing thing?” and “You’ll get ‘em next time ole sport” (that last one is probably an actual quote from Gatsby). I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about.
So failure sucks. Why should you embrace it?
Once I had some time to distance myself, here are two things I learned from my epic story fail:
- I learned what not to do. There was something fundamentally broken about the way my story was written—by the time I finished it, none of what I had planned was actually in there. Readers could tell. I won’t make that mistake again, nope nope nope.
- It’s okay to abandon stories that aren’t working. The week following the debacle, I wrote a story that was well-received. Was it perfect? Nope—there was still a ton of good critique I could use on the rewrite. But I let myself say goodbye to the story-fail and (one whole week wiser) and put my energy onto a new project.
That fail was a blessing in disguise.
Which brings me to…
Lesson #2: Not everyone will like your work. And that’s okay
Week on week, out of 18 people, I had just a handful who consistently liked the work I was putting out (and sometimes not even that consistently). Even putting aside the fact that I was turning in very rough drafts, the numbers were pretty dismal.
But then I looked around and realized everyone else was experiencing the same thing. Rare were the days were everyone agreed “OMG THAT STORY WAS AMAZING.” Instead, most people fell somewhere in-between—the “it-has-potential-but-boy-does-it-need-work” camp.
Think about it. Do you like every book that you pick up? Everyone has different tastes. Not everybody will be a fan of your work. You shouldn’t even aim for majority consensus—the idea that your writing is based on popularity is a sham. David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest, says: “The crux for me, is how to love the reader without believing that my art or worth depends on his (her) loving me. It’s just about that simple in the abstract. In practice it’s a daily fucking war.”
Write because you love what you write. And if you get fans? That’s just icing on the cake. Besides, that story you wake up early and stay up late to work on? It matters.
Lesson #3: You have something to say, and it deserves to be heard
Throughout the Clarion workshop, I couldn’t help but look around and feel completely overwhelmed by the talent. The ideas, the genius, the incredible storytelling going on around me made me have two reactions at once: a) Complete awe and appreciation for my classmates’ skill, and b) There’s no way I deserve to be here. I’m going to go throw all my writing off a cliff now.
I’m not a jealous person, but that’s the only way I could describe my reaction to the stories I was reading. They were just. So. %&*@^!$. Good. By comparison, my stories seemed not worth the telling. But actually, along with all the critique and obvious things I needed to work on as an author, there were, here and there, glimmers: Someone noticed what I was trying to say, and it resonated in them enough to remember to tell me.
During the fourth week we had the honor of being taught by New York Times Bestselling Author (The Jane Austen Book Club) Karen Joy Fowler. Before she completed her week of teaching (all of us leaking tears in the process), she told us, her voice low and serious: “Write the stories only you can write.”
What do you write about? Is it an emotional journey that you made? High-concept questions of what it means to be human? Social justice issues? Beautiful prose? Hilarious quips? People all around you might be writing similar things, but only you can say it your way. Only you can write what you write, and the world deserves to hear it.
Lesson #4: It’s all about community
Don’t worry too much about your writing struggles, because your writing community will be there to pick you up, dust you off, and thrust you into a new story.
For the 6 weeks of Clarion, I had the incredible honor of being among 18 of the most superlatively talented, smart, kind and supportive writers I’ve ever met. They picked me up from my failures. They cheered my successes. They were there for late-night, last-minute, coffee-jittering writing sessions as we tried to get our stories in under deadline. We talked about the shape of science fiction, about diverse voices and representation in fiction. We talked about how hard it is to live and work among non-writers. We talked about how to get this character arc just so, how to revise that story to illuminate its best qualities. We got each other.
I’m not just talking about Clarion. Outside of this one summer I’ve built so many writing relationships that have helped me not only get better at this crazy craft I love, but have formed an emotional safety net. I could not have continued on this writing path without my multiple writing communities. My roommate and classmate during Clarion, Dayna K. Smith, said it best:
“The friendships you form and the brainwaves you will share and the artistry they will exhibit is the entire point. I think I walked in with the kind of classroom mentality that the focal points for the entire experience would be the instructors and the content I produced like “assignments,” but that was not the foremost value. It’s not just friendships, it’s braintrust.”
Foster friendships among writers, for they are your closest allies. Only they know exactly what you are going through now at this tough point in your writing. If you offer support to them, they will support you.
Lesson #5: You got this
My thought process when I heard about what we would be doing: A story every week? No way. That’s crazy fast. Will any of it be any good? No. I can’t do that. On top of four critiques every night? No. I don’t do that much work in a whole semester! There’s no way!
But you already know how this story ends. Somehow, at the end of those six weeks, I did just that. Many of my classmates did the same, even while juggling personal crises and self-doubt and work and family and all the other things that encroach on your work on the daily. I am in constant awe of them.
Writing is hard. Nobody knows that better than me. I was lucky. I got to block out 6 weeks where I (mostly) didn’t have to worry about anything or anyone else. But you know what? Whatever project you’re struggling with right now, no matter how you think you’ll never block out time to write—you can do this.
Don’t believe me? One of my Clarionites Rose Hartley abandoned a story she’d worked hard on all week—she abandoned it the night before it was due. And she wrote a completely new one in that single night, which was brilliant. Of course, her advice was “Never throw out a story the night before it was due,” but she did just that.
One of our award-winning instructors, James Patrick Kelly, told us that grit was the key to success. Grit is persevering even when the going gets rough. Grit is going forward even when you’re not sure you’re doing it right.
Our motto, and my advice to you: Grit it. Sometimes you’ll fail. But sometimes—more often than you would expect—you are capable of so much more than you would ever believe. My fellow writer, I’m here to tell you that no matter who you are, what you’re going through, or what project you’re working on—you got this.
Rebecca Ann Jordan is a speculative fiction author and artist. She has published poetry and fiction in Infinite Science Fiction One, Fiction Vortex, FLAPPERHOUSE, Strangelet, Swamp Biscuits & Tea, Yemassee Journal and more.Becca is a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop Class of 2015 and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from California Institute of the Arts. Quibble with her @beccaquibbles.