11 August, 2013
Why Write-a-thons are Awesome
Note: they're also bull.
Amazingly, this grand paradox actually expresses in itself why they're awesome. Read on.
If you're a speculative fiction writer, you know about Clarion. If not, I've turned the name into a handy link, as well as that link button, and this one.
Another note: This post is posthumous (if my unconscious mind just created that pun, rest assured my conscious mind has told him off). I must apologise. My regular fans will have noticed that I haven't been blogging much for the past month. A lot of bad personal stuff that I won't tell you about has happened, but I've also just been writing really hard core. I'm always pretty hard core, but I desperately want to get a finished product to my agent by the end of this month, and it's going to be a rough ride. I wrote this post two months ago and forgot to hit the "post" button. Sorry. I'm on the ball again, I promise.
Anyway, in my time, I've been skeptical of Clarion for two reasons.
1) A group of established writers selecting proteges based in part on the perceived quality of their ideas will create an inevitable bias towards established tropes. It seems reasonable that the ideas highly regarded by the establishment (thus the established writers) are, at any given point in history, inevitably already established.
I've come to think something else. So long as established writers are actively seeking originality, this won't necessarily be the case. Thus it will only sometimes be the case, which leaves it, in my opinion, in the category of valid concerns.
I have serious trouble trusting authority. The more I've learned about art, life, academia and society the more I've become proud of that fact. It isn't that I'll never trust an authority figure. It's that my first instinct is, "Watch this person closely. I must choose whether or not to trust them on the basis of their own virtues, not on their being an authority."
2) You can't become a better writer in a couple of months (or however long it is). Now, in a sense, you become a better writer every day. And there will be the occasional leap in understanding, and it will take place in a small time frame, but they will be far apart. It takes years to learn the craft and years to find your own style and purpose within the art. It's ridiculous to think that after eight weeks (or however long it is) of study a person will go from un-publishable to professional.
What a good teacher can give you is a plethora of tools to carry forward into your own learning process. If any of you decide to study an MFA in Creative Writing (or MA or MSt--whatever) if your teacher says that by the end of the year you'll have a publishable novel, they're probably a bad teacher. It take a long, long time to become a writer.
Here's the good news. Some of you might be worrying that you'll spend years of your life slaving over this amazing craft that you love. You'll write a million words and five books that never sell and you'll read voraciously and just after your husband/wife leaves you and your bank balance runs dry and your roof caves in on your computer and you can't afford a new one of either, you'll still fail. Do you know how many people that happens to, or has ever happened to?
No one will ever slave over the craft to fail at it! Never in your life will you meet a person who has honestly given something the best they've got and failed to achieve at least some measure of success at it. A person who wants to be UFC Champion might never make it, might never even fight in the octagon, but they'll sure as hell be a damn fine martial artist, able to teach it professionally, if they put in over four hours per day of solid training between the ages of 16 and 26. Same with everything. A person might never compete in the Olympics but they'll wind up a damn good swimmer, or whatever.
Every writing tutor worth their meat knows that the VAST majority of people they teach won't ever succeed in writing! Why? They're not going to keep at it! Yet a shocking number of Clarion students do succeed. Why the smeg is that?
1) They learn the atmosphere of creativity. This is something you can get on an MFA, but you have to do it yourself. On my MFA, a group of four people became fast friends, meeting twice per week to talk about creative writing and once per week to critique each other's work. This was purely extracurricular, but it meant writing became our whole lives. Two of those people have gone on retaining equal focus. One of those is me, the other is my fiance. We still edit each other's work. One of those people now works as an editor at the Lagoon Group and one of them now works in advertising. That's three out of four in the literary industry.
Nikole, Ruth and I are the only three people on the MFA to carry our writing aspirations into the future. That's three out of twelve, and all three came from a group of people who made writing the chief characteristic of their SOCIAL lives. That's what Clarion does. Students work together. They constantly think and talk about creative writing, and they make close friends (or nemeses, who can be equally helpful) to encourage them to keep trying their best well after the event.
2) You also get this on an MFA, but only if your supervisor(s) like you. I was fortunate enough for this to be the case with Scott and Paul. Through being around real writers, we get a sense of how they work, who they are and how they approach not just the tasks of craft, but of life. Through a human relationship we come to understand on an emotional level that authors are human beings.
3) Clarion students will be inundated with the knowledge that will carry them forwards into their writing education, which will in vast part happen alone. You might think this should be number one, but we're talking about Clarion here as distinct from other writing courses. Clarion is a fast paced, pound you in the head kind of experience. It's possible on an MFA to do the bare minimum intellectually and emotionally. Even someone who gets a good grade can detach themselves most of the time, letting life into the foreground while you're trying to learn. In acquiring these tools, you are trying to completely alter your creative perspective. Again, unless you are a rare exception, you will not be able to use them right away. But if you do your MFA right, you will never be the same after it. That, too, is what Clarion does. It shoves people into an atmosphere in which they can't avoid making the craft their entire life, having craft technique, creative and personal-life perspective crammed into their brains. Even in a short space of time, after Clarion a writer will never be the same.
4) This last inevitability must be mentioned. People will bitch about this, and probably some readers will, in the first half of this paragraph, think that I'm bitching too. This happens when you do an MA (or MFA or MSt) as well, but to a lesser degree. You will have met a great deal of professional, successful, well connected authors. What you further get at Clarion is a large clique of distinguished alumni, and a serious accolade. These aren't bad things. I don't care if you think they're unfair. It's irrelevant. If you bumped into Stephen King and he told you he liked "the cut of your gib" (or however he expresses himself) and wanted to help you into the industry, would you tell him "That's not fair! Go to hell!" If the answer is yes, you don't take your aspirations very seriously. The fact is, people have to work their asses off to get into Clarion, and if they get a head start in their career as a result, which they most certainly do, good for them. They've earned it.
So why are Write-a-thon-s great? They get people encouraged by the existence of Clarion! I've already established above that the SOCIAL atmosphere of education is by far the most important thing. That's what's happening here. If we all get excited about Clarion, share ideas and take interest in each other's work, we're actually doing the most important thing about going to Clarion without even being there. So let's get excited.
Why are they bullshit? Don't let anyone tell you how much, when or what you should write. Find a system that works for you, that you can get excited about, and make the most of it. Anyone who offers established rules about how to go about Write-a-thon-ing doesn't know a smegging thing about the creative process. The important thing is just to get cracking and have fun.
Initially, when I'd written this post, I'd said this: "If I were doing this right I'd offer excerpts of my work every couple of days. Well, that's not how my creative process works right now. Plotting a novel requires smeg-loads of thinking, and most of my work is done by pen on a sheet of paper and has arrows drawn all over it. Scanning and posting my rambling diagrams will not engage the interest of most people."
Now, back in the present, I can't post excerpts anyway, but my point still stands. Perhaps next year I'll set aside the time to write short fiction and post as I go.
Regardless, whatever helps you, do it! My purpose in any given a-thon is to encourage my readers to have fun and forge a productive social network.