Before I begin, I must preface that these are entirely my personal reflections based on my very specific personal circumstances and are not quite meant to be a well-reasoned commentary on larger things, yet–
Here I am, dipping my toes into an ocean full of very large fish with equally large teeth to bite me with.
I want to talk a bit about Neil Gaiman’s tweet.
You know, that one.
https://t.co/KxqDo9CY9y is where you apply to go to Clarion. If you want to be a writer, you want to go to Clarion, NEED to go to Clarion.
— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) January 15, 2016
Neil posted this a couple of days ago, and within hours of the tweet hitting the surface of the Internet the SFF patch of the pond was boiling over. The implication that attending Clarion, or a similar workshop, is a mandatory step on the path to successful writerhood, predictably went down like a lead balloon.
Many people rightfully pointed out that attending the Clarions, with their six-week, four-figure dollar commitment, is not one many can afford. Or are physically able to, due to health and disability access issues. I pointed out that this goes doubly hard for international applicants, who have to work in (often four-figure) plane tickets in addition to terrible exchange rates, deal with international travel, being in a different time zone, culture etc in order to attend.
Neil has since clarified that his tweet was meant, obviously, to be hyperbolic, and obviously you don’t need Clarion to become a writer! And lots of people had come on to Twitter to exhort their credentials (publications, awards, best-ofs), all achieved without the help of the workshops.
I fully agree. Said as someone who applied to Clarion West because Neil Gaiman was teaching that year. (I’d never heard of it before that. You’d be surprised by how few outside the pro/semipro SFF writing community know what it is.) “Attend Clarion/Clarion West/Odyssey etc. workshops!” is not even a feasible piece of advice I’d give anyone asking “how do I become a writer like you” because it’s neither a helpful nor practical tip. I’d rather give them a list of markets to submit stories to and suggest they follow a ton of writers or writing blogs and also, read a fuckton of stuff and learn from it.
Completely honestly? I know I would not be the writer I am today, if not for Clarion West.
This is not exaggeration.
I know what Clarion West did for me. Here: Before I attended, I had barely completed any short stories. I had no idea about submitting to venues outside of Singapore’s tiny writing community. I didn’t have beta readers I could send stories to for critique, or other SFF writers to talk to to bounce ideas off. None of my friends was in the business of regularly writing or submitting short SFF to anyplace. It was just me, alone, no idea what I was doing, no idea that it was even a sort of lifestyle that other people might do on the regular.
But because I attended Clarion West, I found a community of friends to talk to about writing. I joined a neo-pro forum (Codex) which taught me about submitting, about rejectomancy, helped me create new stories (some of my best-received stories started off life as Codex contest stories). Having a support group, a group of excellent beta readers, kept me writing and submitting enough that I began to sell stories. And then started being asked to write them.
Getting to know people in the community meant that I actually had reason to attend conventions, and it also meant I was asked to be on the programming at conventions when it came out that I was attending them.
Getting to know people in the community meant getting to know editors and agents. And that’s important if you want to be a writer.
Without having attended Clarion West, would I have been able to break into this SFF community that I’m part of right now?
I’m really, really not so sure. No question I’d still be writing, but I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be writing as often. Opportunities to have stories published in Singapore are a lot fewer, and they tend to be for very very small print runs. We don’t really have much in the way of online zines.
What would people see when they looked at me? “I’ve never heard of any of these things you’ve been published in. Are they even any good?”
Would they consider me “a writer”? Eh. What do you think?
So. Million-dollar question. Am I saying Neil’s hyperbole was actually right?
I want, desperately, to say no. Of course not! That’s such a terrible idea!
But I feel that saying that would be lying to myself. That for somebody like me– living and working outside of the UK or US– different culture, different continent, different context– breaking into the SFF publishing scene, getting people to actually sit up and notice you, even getting better at your craft, is extremely. fucking. difficult. Selling one story, or two, or even five, is not enough (see my previous whiny post on this topic).
For somebody like me, attending a major workshop like Clarion is an instant way to break down that giant, looming, daunting barrier. And that helps. That helps so much.
But, as I said, I’d never give that advice to anyone who asked me for advice, because IT IS TERRIBLE ADVICE. Even if you could get the funds (and the Singapore government is good with disbursing grants, especially if you can convince them of how prestigious the workshop is), it’s six fucking weeks, and who can take six fucking weeks off work and family and life??
I wouldn’t say that. I would say– Go. Write. Submit. And then pray. Pray that the Nameless Deities of the realms of publishing smile upon you. Then I would send the young hero-to-be on their way, and try not to think of the long, merciless desert roads ahead of them, and hope that they would not come to hate me.
The point of this post– if it were to have a point, and not merely be a rambling collection of thoughts– is not that workshops are necessary to become a serious writer. The point is that for people who don’t have easy access to a support system, it feels like it’s necessary in order to break into the global SFF scene. And it shouldn’t be.
The question is, then, how committed are we to diversity if we rest so much of a person’s legitimacy as a writer on the same old systems that are skewed, if everything that we consider SFF is still largely tied to the Western, Anglophone publishing sphere. Where do writers from backgrounds like mine belong, unless we break into that system?
Do I have good answers to this? Fuck no. I’m just some schlub who has no idea what she’s doing. But I’d like people to think about this, at least. Because we are here. We exist. And I’d like to think we count as real writers too.