My Clarion West Experience: No Conflict, No Story.


No conflict, no story.

We learned this lesson within the first day or two of the workshop. We were also taught that the best authors are sadists who delight in tormenting their protagonists, making them suffer, placing them in horrific situations where they have to make heart-wrenching decisions.

And this is the problem as I consider crafting my own Clarion West story. I was the protagonist, but there was no conflict. I didn’t struggle, I didn’t suffer. My friends might think otherwise, but I didn’t feel like I sacrificed to be there. I know it sounds cold and heartless, and I love my family and friends dearly, but that’s how I felt in the Clarion West bubble.

This is not representative of others’ experiences–some folks, including at least one dear friend and several of my classmates, sacrificed jobs and endured serious financial hardship to make it to the Clarion and Clarion West workshops this summer. Others struggled through the relentless pressure cooker of peer and professional critiques and unending deadlines, separation from loved ones and from the comforts and habits of home, distraction by work and family problems, personality clashes with fellow workshoppers, and health crises.

But I didn’t struggle. I didn’t suffer. I didn’t have to fight to stay there, or to stay in the game. Sure, I was separated from family and friends, and I averaged 4 to 6 hours of sleep per night, and I had to read and critique ten to twenty thousand words per weekday while staying on top of my own story deadlines and attending readings and networking events, but I didn’t feel like I was sacrificing anything. If anything, I facilitated the isolation.

I was in heaven, and I didn’t want the world to intrude.

I was immersed 100% in the writing life. I was constantly creating, or reveling in others’ recent work. I couldn’t step out of my room without getting sucked into a fascinating conversation in the hallway with a brilliant peer or three. I lived and ate and worked and played with creatives who shared my passions and quirks and who rapidly became very dear to me. I got to talk and hang out with my author idols–I mingled with the gods and goddesses of my SF writing universe.

Some of you know that in the past I’ve struggled with dysthymia, a persistent, medium-grade depression. While at Clarion West, I was happy. Undeniably, unequivocally, deep to the core happy.

So, as I consider my narrative–my Clarion West story–when does my conflict and suffering begin?

It began the day I left Seattle. It began when I looked out my window as I was flying over Mount Ranier and I shook and cried silent tears. It began the moment I sat back in my chair at work and looked over my IT project board and felt some of my stories wither within me.

But I’m a different John than the one who left here in mid-June. A part of my Seattle experience lives and breathes inside me now, and I’m not going to let it die. My time at the workshop was exposition, set up for my life story. I’m doing all I can to recreate or prolong the Clarion West experience in my life, trying to recapture the pure joy that came with unrestricted focus on writing and on the creative process.

My story has begun. I’m ready for conflict. At Clarion West, I learned that I love the writing life, and that I’m ready to fight and struggle and sacrifice to preserve what is most dear to me.

Bring it on.


  1. Sandra M. Odell

    Yet you did suffer, much the same way a mother suffers during childbirth. The highs outnumbered the lows, and I distinctly recall one or two lows where you gracefully bowed out of gatherings for the sake of your family and your sanity.

    You also struggled with your own personal demons, in particular those brought to the fore by certain of my stories. Again, that was hard on you, and even harder was admitting to such and facing those demons down so you could speak your mind in a coherent and cognizant fashion instead of taking up ultra-PC arms.

    You’re right. You are not the same John that left for Clarion West. None of us are the same, but I would like to think that we left the program, if not better people, then certainly more aware of the values and needs of others than we arrived.

    It sounds trite, but don’t sell your suffering short. Embrace it, find the good in it as you have continued to do, and continue to learn.

  2. John

    Sandra, thanks for the sentiment. I don’t deny that there were difficult moments.

    That said, here’s the rub: the context is that I’m constructing a narrative. The protagonist is supposed to suffer in proportion to the story’s payoff. In that sense the suffering/struggling you listed was pretty minimal, which is my point. My struggle really does begin post-workshop.

  3. John

    Sean, DO IT DO IT DO IT!

    They should open up for applications in December! I know Margo Lanagan’s a crazy creative storyteller, and Paul Park and Nancy Kress are AMAZING teachers. The one hour we spent with Nancy was one of the most helpful out of the six weeks, and she was just stopping by. I can’t imagine what a full week with her would be like.

  4. At one of the many networking gatherings provided by the Clarion West experience, some kind person asked me how the workshop was going. I replied, “It’s somewhere between paradise and a meatgrinder.” There were times, certainly, when the stress was on, but for me, if that was struggle, it was an exquisite struggle. The pressure to meet deadlines forced me to indulge in my life’s passion. I had to write and think about writing all the time. Sweet bliss! I had to make choices every moment, to pursue what was valuable to me. I learned a great deal from that, and it changed me and the course of my life.

    Like John, I feel the real struggle begins now. It was unbelievably difficult and emotional to walk away from Clarion West and the bubble of support and creative sustenance it provided. To keep the magic alive, I’ve dedicated myself to its preservation and restructuring in ways that make sense. That’s not an easy or simple task out here in the “real world.” But I want this life more than anything I’ve ever wanted, and that struggle motivates my new narrative.

    I recognize that the workshop experience has different meanings for different people. That’s only natural. This post articulates what I’ve been processing myself over the past two weeks. It’s been a lot like grieving.

    Thanks for articulating the post-CW insight so well, John.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *