How I Learned at Clarion

Copyright © 2002 Philip Brewer

I had assumed from the start that I'd write a short piece on the experience of going to Clarion. I'm a writer; I'd done something interesting. Obviously I'd write about it.

There's not a lot to say, though, that isn't already said as well as I know how in my on-line journal entries from the days I was at Clarion. It has "what I learned," in the form of my class notes. It also has "what it was like" in the form of a day-by-day account of what I did and what I thought about it.

There's one thing it doesn't have. It doesn't talk about how I learned at Clarion. In a lot of ways Clarion was just what I expected. Having read other people's Clarion journals, I had a pretty good idea of what the activities at Clarion would be. What surprised me was which activities taught me the most.

Everything I did at Clarion taught me something. The main activities were:

  1. Writing. (I wrote five new stories)
  2. Getting critiques. (I got critiques on six stories, including one that had been a submission story.)
  3. Classroom instruction. (Most of the instructors did some amount of formal instruction.)
  4. Reading and critiquing. (I read and critiqued over one hundred stories by others in my class.)
  5. Hearing other student's (and teacher's) critiques on stories I had critiqued. (For each critique I did, I heard about twenty other critiques on the same story.)

If you had asked me before I went what I'd do at Clarion I would probably have come up with the same list. If you had asked me what I expected to be most useful, I would probably have put them in that order. The thing that surprised me most is that I would now put them in just about the opposite order.

The most valuable activity for me at Clarion was:

  1. to read a story,
  2. think about it,
  3. prepare a critique,
  4. and then listen to twenty other critiques of the same story.

I wouldn't have gotten as much out of just doing the critiques, and I certainly wouldn't have gotten as much out of just hearing some critiques of a story that I hadn't prepared a critique of myself. It was the combination--the sequence--that was so valuable. Whenever one of the other critiques identified a flaw (or a good thing) that I'd missed, I learned something.

That's not to say that writing isn't the most important thing a writer does. Doing the writing is pretty much the defining characteristic of being a writer. Wanting to write--enjoying the act of writing--is the only sufficient reason I can think of to chose writing as a profession or a hobby. Practicing writing is the only way to get really good at it. But you can do the writing at home. Going to Clarion doesn't give you any more time to write; the workload from critiquing is pretty heavy, and the opportunities for social activities are endless.

Speaking of which, one thing that I wouldn't have thought to put on the list, but that in retrospect was not only valuable but also the most fun, is socializing and hanging out with other beginning and pro writers. Hanging around with people who took writing seriously, who understood why I would chose to skip some fun activity to write, and who also understood why I would blow off writing that I ought to be doing just to hang out with some pro writer, affected my perspective on writing. Just spending time with my teachers and fellow students taught me things.

What should you do, if you want to be a better writer, but you can't go to Clarion? If you'd asked me before I went, I'd have suggested that you write a lot and read a lot (and that you read bad and mediocre fiction as well as good and great fiction). I might even have known to suggest that you try to think critically about the fiction that you read: That you try to figure out why it works or doesn't work, why the author picked that point of view, that sequence of scenes, that beginning and ending.

I can't think of any better advice today.

Here are a few other articles about writing and attending Clarion:

Philip Brewer
Champaign, Illinois
3 February 2002