Guest Post: Why You Don’t Want to Apply to Clarion West/Clarion UCSD.

by Helena Bell

Helena BellThe application season for Clarion West and other Clarion (UCSD) has begun.  I’ve already seen posts on twitter from past alums encouraging people to apply and telling the world what wonderful, glorious experiences they had.

I’m not going to do that.  I’m going to tell you not to apply.  To not go.  And here are my reasons:

1. At the Clarions you will meet bright, smart, wonderful people.

Why would you want to do that to yourself?  You’re a writer.  You don’t want friends.  Friends are the enemy.  Friends open your life to new adventures and make you experience joy and laughter.  Writing is the way of darkness and despair and beating yourself against the mountains of deathy blackness.  Who cares if misery keeps you from writing, it makes you a writer. Well, except for the fact that you’re not writing…  DETAILS.

2. Those friends will write wonderful stories.  Which you will then have to read.

Why do you want that? Why would you want to read wonderful stories that you yourself did not write?  Why would you want to dare let yourself be influenced by other points of view? Other styles of writing? Why would you want to see how others try out new techniques and take chances and grow and expand when it could take you 10 to 20 years to finally accidentally stumble upon the same things?

3.  Those friends will continue to talk to you after you all come home.

Support?  Commiseration?  What devilry is this!

4. Their failures, successes, and attempts will become as important to you as your own.

You will watch the Grinder daily to see which magazines are responding and what their average RTs are because you know that these demons, these people who snuck into your life, have stories sitting in submission queues and you are desperately anxious to know whether they’ve been held, rejected, or accepted.  You will celebrate with them, cry with them.  They will distract you from your own rejections and revel with you in your accomplishments.  HOW DARE YOU ATTEMPT TO ASSUAGE YOUR OWN PAIN AND/OREXPAND YOUR CIRCLE OF SQUEE.

5. Instructors? Pah.  What do a bunch of Nebula and Hugo Award nominated/winning, best seller writing, world renowned authors really know about writing and publishing. WHAT COULD AN EDITOR POSSIBLY TELL YOU ABOUT GETTING OUT OF THE SLUSH!

6. Did you know that it rains in Seattle?

Seriously. You could drown.  And Clarion UCSD is at the beach.  You could really drown.

Drowning is bad.

Sand is itchy.

7. You will probably end up buying a bunch of books.  Or being given a bunch of books by the people who like the Clarions and want to donate reading materials to the students.

Fuck that shit.  Books are heavy.

8. Everyone says that Clarion helped them take their writing to next level.  You know who tends to be at the end of levels?  Bowser.

9.  At the Clarion West house there will be a personal chef.  Who will make you delicious, delicious meals.


10. But the biggest, the most important, the KEY reason you don’t want to go to Clarion West or Clarion UCSD:

After six weeks it will be over.

You will go home.

You will be different, and changed, and have a new family.

And nothing will ever be the same.


Helena Bell lives in Raleigh, NC where she is an MFA candidate in Fiction at NC State University. Her work has appeared in ClarkesworldThe Indiana Review, and Electric Velocipede. Learn more about her at her blog, where this post first appeared.

5 Responses

  1. Annie Bellet

    Here are some reasons you might not want to go to Clarion for realsies.

    1) You will spend weeks with the same people, who may or may not end up your friends (cliques happen and not all Clarions are the same, it depends on the people and the instructors each time). Also, if you have social anxiety issues, depression, or stress issues, Clarion can exacerbate them. It is often a stressful environment, even when the stress is good, it can be a lot to handle.

    2) Your instructors will vary on how wonderful and helpful they are. Sometimes they won’t be either. Being a great writer doesn’t always mean being a nice person or being a good teacher.

    3) You will go home and have 20+ critical voices in your head. When you go to write, you might not be able to. You might not be able to write for weeks or even years afterward. This is not a freak occurrence, it happens quite a lot to Clarion grads. Some never recover. You will notice this when your classmates just sort of drop out of contact and you end up a few years later wonder what happened to so and so.

    4) You might be looking for a different kind of career than everyone else and than your instructors have. If you don’t like to write short fiction, for example, Clarion isn’t going to help you in that area. If you don’t want to break into traditional publishing via short fiction or if you don’t want a traditional publishing career at all, Clarion won’t help you. If you are already selling a ton of short fiction or making a living with your writing, Clarion might not be that useful (and you could run up against professional jealousy issues among your peers, which is an ugly thing that no one talks about much).

    These are just things to consider. Clarion can be amazing. You can make awesome friends and jump your craft to a new level. It can also be the career killer, the assassin of writers before they’ve even really left the gate and got their careers going.

    Ask yourself: What do I hope to get out of Clarion? Is this worth 6 weeks and the price of a good used car? Am I the kind of person who can handle a lot of criticism and knows how to take what I want and let the rest slide off? Am I the kind of person who can handle constant social contact with strangers, some of whom will become friends but some of whom I might just hate a little in a few weeks? Can I handle finding out that Famous Author or Author I Love isn’t actually a nice person or is a drunk or thinks I’m the worst writer to ever get off the plane?

    Clarion is a big commitment. Think it through. If you get in and decide to go, hang on for dear life and do not stop writing. Your life will change and a lot of it is up to if that change is for the better or for the worse.

    1. Kermit O

      Thanks for the insights, Annie. I’m wondering, though, if your experience was with Clarion West, or Clarion UCSD. I ask because you mention that short fiction. I see that UCSD only accepts short fiction, as that is their focus, but West accepts long form excerpts as well. I don’t write short stories (at least I haven’t). So I’m wondering if your advice applies to UCSD or West.

      1. Annie Bellet

        Well, at both you write short stories while you are there (I guess you could try to turn in novel parts, but you won’t really get the same kind of learning with novel parts because it is very difficult to evaluate only pieces of a novel). So for either, I think you’d better love short fiction, because you will be reading and writing it.

        I went to Clarion UCSD.

        Frankly, if you are already writing novels, there are other workshops that would benefit you more. Odyssey, for example, I think. Or Toas Toolbox. Or Kij Johnson runs a novel workshop that is reputed to be awesome and I can personally vouch that she is an excellent teacher.

  2. Steve Miller


    I attended Clarion West. My experience is not yours — mine happened in 1973. I’m a career writer and have sold millions of words of fiction and maybe as many in nonfiction. With my co-author I’m in the midst of 5 book contract. I mention this — call it an appeal to experience, or an appeal to authority — because I do support Clarion West, have taken part in the writing challenge, and do tell people they may want to attend. On the other hand …

    1) I’m afraid you oversell the joys of collegiality. If your intent is to scare people away, I think it will work and ought to work — not everyone is up to perky snark. Not everyone can deal with a lot of new “friends” and keep their balance. Not everyone is an extrovert.

    2) The point about everything changing when you finish Clarion West is true. No one can assume that the change is all for the best.

    The Clarion West I attended in 1973 was a mixed joy at best, with some attendees so competitive that they worked harder at winning the workshop than at their own writing. This harmed them and the other students, I’m sure.

    Some of the attendees from that year never really recovered, falling into a writer’s block so severe that they gave up entirely. In the last year I’ve corresponded with two classmates — now retirees — who think that maybe they’ll try writing again, forty years later, now that selling (or even publishing) something would be a bonus.

    I’ll mention, too, that of the few folks I managed to keep up with in the pre-social media days, several had major changes to their social lives as a result of, or accelerated by the experience of Clarion West. Re-orienting your life toward a goal as a writer can put you in the limelight, or out in the street. It can challenge your bonds with your significant other, with your family, with your usual social group.

    3) Change happens. Not all change is comfortable, and not all change is for the best. I mean, what’s a Grinder? What’s a Bowser? Why should someone be watching a Grinder when they ought to be writing?

    Steve Miller

  3. K A Townsend

    I went to CW back in ’87 (Kij Johnson was a classmate). I’d barely shared any of my fiction with even one of my best friends when that same friend shoved me into applying. I was, and am, shy and introverted, and I suffered from chronic depression. And I didn’t write short fiction — the only respectable piece of short fiction I’ve yet written was actually written at CW as a class assignment.

    It was definitely a baptism by fire, to suddenly expose myself, and my writing, to 22 other students and the instructors. I think I was in shock after my submission piece was critiqued. I took notes, and I don’t think I’ve ever gone back and looked at the piece again. Thankfully, the weather blessed me with one of Seattle’s worst droughts, so I didn’t have to deal with SADD, and the intensity of the workshop environment itself kept the bulk of my depression at bay while I was there.

    I did make a few friends, but mostly I made acquaintances. I’ve never made friends easily, so that was normal. I’ve sadly not kept in touch (a bit of guilt about not pursuing my writing as much as my other passion in life, and I was lousy at writing letters when not everyone had email). Many of my classmates weren’t short fiction writers, either, so I didn’t really see a bias that way.

    Not all my instructors were hugely helpful; my writing style didn’t connect with them, or they perhaps weren’t skilled instructors themselves back then. Even so, they were encouraging. After writing most my life in private, encouragement was a powerfully inspiring thing all in itself.

    The best things for me, though, were the chance to live and breathe writing for six weeks, surrounded by others doing the same thing, and learning how to edit my own work. Instead of needing weeks or months away from a piece, after CW I could go back after just a few hours and see where I needed to improve things. Those two things really made all the rest of the stress worthwhile.

    It did take me a few months afterwards to go back to writing, but once I did, there were no problems. While I haven’t published anything, I’ve also never quit writing, and I have absolute confidence in my personal skill as a writer, thanks to what I learned, and the encouragement I received, at CW.

    And I may yet publish something someday. The door’s not closed on that, and it’d still be pretty darn cool. 🙂