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The Best Broken Heart You’ll Ever Have

February 25, 2014

Sam J. Miller is a writer and a community organizer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Electric Velocipede, Shimmer, Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nightmare, The Minnesota Review, The Rumpus, and many more. He is a graduate of the Clarion UCSD class of 2012, and the co-editor of Horror After 9/11, a critical anthology published by the University of Texas Press and included in the “Brilliant/Lowbrow” quadrant of the famed New York Magazine Approval Matrix. Visit him at www.samjmiller.com


When it’s over, you’ll be sad for the rest of your life. #Clarion

Lisa read the tweet to us at the beach, ankle-deep in warm La Jolla surf. “That’s from a Clarion 2010 graduate. I said something about how we were entering the final week.”

“Damn,” someone else said. “Sad for the rest of your life? They oughtta tell you that going in.”

It’s the next-to-last Friday night of Clarion 2012. Beautiful boys paddle out on surfboards, all tan smiles, impervious to the chill that has broke me out in goosebumps. The tweet is right: I can feel it already. Even with seven more days ahead of me, I can see the soul-fracturing pain of separation on the horizon. Soon I will have to leave this paradise of seventy-degree days and great writing, and return to the sweaty New York City heat wave where my day job waits.

But what if they did tell us that going in? What if there was a warning on the label – THIS EXPERIENCE WILL BE SO INCREDIBLE THAT YOUR REAL LIFE WILL NEVER FEEL THE SAME AGAIN?

Well, I’m giving you that warning label now. And I think you should ignore it.

For years, I debated going to Clarion. There are so many excuses, if you’re looking for them. For me they were: the money – the time off from work – the time away from my husband – my father’s poor health. Perhaps the biggest obstacle, and the one I never said out loud because I had the good sense to be ashamed of it, was that I felt like I already knew what I was doing.

If you didn’t study creative writing in some kind of structured program (MFA, writer’s workshop, etc) – or if you did, and didn’t have a positive experience of it, it’s tough to think about what community means, in writing. Writing is such a solitary act, and the submission process involves so little actual dialogue, that we often underestimate just how much we can gain from sitting down with members of your tribe and listening to them tell you how to become better.

And that’s what Clarion gives you: a tribe. People who get you. You won’t love everyone in your cadre (there will always be THAT ONE PERSON who you JUST CAN’T DEAL WITH), but you’ll love most of them. Not everyone will get your work, or offer helpful advice… but most of them will. And the insight and knowledge and perspective you’ll get in those six weeks will forever change you as a writer and a person.

In the year and a half since Clarion, I’ve sold seven short stories to some of the most exciting SFFH markets in the business, including Electric Velocipede, Shimmer, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and more. Two of them have been subsequently anthologized. I’ve sold three of my Clarion stories. I’ve seen my classmates in print, stories we workshopped at Clarion; seen the workshop advice they took (and didn’t take). I’ve met and bonded with tons of terrific writers, at cons and readings. Clarion connected me to the exciting community of speculative fiction writers and readers right here in my own NYC backyard, where I had lived for twelve years without ever realizing how much exciting stuff was happening all around  me.

I’m not saying all this to brag. I’m saying it to show you how much you can gain by ignoring the excuses and embracing the heartache.

The basic perks of Clarion are well-advertised. Six weeks of spec-fic writer bootcamp. Intensive bonding time with some of the best SFFH writers in the business. A trial by fire with 17 other writers who will become your team, your crew, your Hive Mind. Access to some phenomenal facilities, including a gym (I just found a photo of me, shirtless, taken right after Clarion – it’s as close as I’ve ever come in my life to having a halfway decent body) and the gorgeous and very science-fiction Geisel Library, where I sat for hours every day reading and writing. Freedom from all your other responsibilities – and you’ll never see until you step away from it how much free time you have when you no longer have to ever worry about buying groceries, cooking, cleaning, commuting, the kids…

And Clarion doesn’t just teach you to write. It teaches you to read as well. BUT I KNOW HOW TO READ, you say, and as proof, you say I’M READING THIS, AREN’T I? Yes, but. Clarion shows you how to read as a way of life, as a part of your work, as a way to see what’s new and fresh and wonderful, and what the venues that you value are publishing. I was always a voracious reader, yet after Clarion it took on a new urgency – a sense that so many of these writers operated within a universe I was now part of, and that my work existed in dialogue with theirs in a new way.

So. Like I said – the basics are all well-advertised. But here’s the one big secret bonus of Clarion, and the thing that makes heading back to your Real Life so hard: for six marvelous weeks, you’re part of a wonderful exciting community of people who are passionate about writing and reading science fiction & fantasy & horror. Some of the best writers in the business are treating you like an equal, offering you invaluable advice and feedback and input – but also eating with you, getting drunk with you, gossiping with you. For a nobody like me, that was addictive. To be cut off from that, all of a sudden, and to have to go to work and shop for groceries and submit to the slushpile, was really painful. One minute the greatest living science fiction short story writer was offering incredibly helpful critiques of my stories, the next I was once again shouting into the darkness and hoping someone heard me.

But here’s the thing. Once you’re in? You’re in. You’ll feel cut off, but you’re not. You’ll interact online, extensively. You’ll be leveraging the friends you made, to meet new friends. You’ll be part of the Greater Clarion Collective Hive Mind, encompassing all Clarion UCSD and Clarion West graduates. Say the C word to any writer who’s been through it and you’ll get an automatic hug/fistbump/highive/Twitter followback. You’ll see your instructors and your classmates at cons. You will lose your mind with happy. You’ll only be cut off when you cut yourself off.

For ten years prior to Clarion, I’d been in the business of writing. I’d gotten dozens of stories published, some of them in some pretty highly regarded literary journals. But I never felt like I was part of a community.

SFFH is different. Writers, readers, bloggers, editors, publishers – the majority of folks I’ve met at cons and readings and parties are people who genuinely love the genre, and love to geek out about brilliant books and stories. John Scalzi wasn’t one of our instructors, but he did come to visit us and have pizza one day, and he said that the difference between fans and hipsters is that hipsters love something less when other people like it (“oh, you like that [obscure music group/foreign film/writer]? seems like everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon now.”), whereas fans love something more when they get the chance to talk about it with someone else who likes it. And I’m not saying that the literary fiction community is full of hipsters – or that there are none in SFF – but in ten years of publishing stories in non-genre venues and going to non-genre events I never once had the experience I’ve had several times in the past eighteen months, of meeting a big-house editor or famous writer and immediately going into shared hyper-squee mode with them over Avatar: the Last Airbender or Alif the Unseen.

Louis C.K. has a great bit about how there are no good outcomes, when it comes to dating. Maybe it ends in immediate embarrassment and shame. Maybe you click and the sex is great and everything’s fine for a month or a year or ten before it all ends in bitterness and anger and divorce. And maybe, best case scenario, you find your soul mate and have a blissfully happy life and get old together… and then one of you dies, leaving the other miserable and alone on this planet.

“Nothing good ends well,” he says.

Well, that’s true of most meaningful things in life. And it’s true of Clarion. You’ll save yourself some pain if you don’t apply, but you’ll also rob yourself of an experience so transformative it might just jump-start your writing career, and welcome you into a brave new world of great people who care about great fiction.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2014 2:14 pm

    Reblogged this on thom dunn and commented:
    I’ve been hesitant to try to write up anything describing my experience at Clarion, but Sam does a pretty fantastic job here (case in point: He writes, “You’ll be part of the Greater Clarion Collective Hive Mind, encompassing all Clarion UCSD and Clarion West graduates,” and here I am, referring to someone on a first-name basis whom I only know through twitter/Clarion).

    Even if you have been in workshop settings before, I doubt that they were anything like the Clarion experience. You have less than a week to write a draft of a story, and then sit there while 18-20 other people tear it apart. But even the most painful criticisms are valuable and constructive. Having been in workshops before myself, I spent my first few days at Clarion carefully observing which of the people at this table actually had valid opinions worth a damn, or could actually write a halfway decent story. I quickly realized that EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM lived up to my pretentious standards. And there’s no one there who’s going to go easy on you, or just kiss your ass — everyone challenges each other, because everyone cares, and when its done, you come out the other side as a better reader, writer, and person.

    Sam does a great job here describing the downside of Clarion as well: the sadness at its ending. When you return home, and have to go to work, and do chores around the house, and the difficulty of explaining this immense emotional experience to your loved ones who couldn’t share it with you (as much as that distance may have ached, and as sweet as that reunion may have been).

    Every harsh critique you might receive is easily counteracted by those moments when Robert Crais says, “Ya know, when I saw that someone wrote a detective story, I said, ‘This kid’s got balls,” and I was really looking forward to tearing it apart. But your story here? This is really good,” or when Kim Stanley Robinson shows up at your door with a watergun and a bottle of wine, or Cory Doctorow shakes your hand and looks you straight into the eye and says, “I’ll see you around the writers’ circuit soon.” You leave Clarion with an incredible network of writers and mentors in various stages of your career with whom you’ve shared this incredible experience and whom you can always call on — for recommendations, for feedback, for advice, or just for a beer.

    So what I’m trying to say is what Sam puts so eloquently in this piece, which is that if you want to be a fiction writer in the “genre” fields, you’d be a fool not to apply to Clarion. It doesn’t matter how good you are, or how far along you think you are — just do it. I promise it’ll be worth it.

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