Report from Clarion West: Taimur Ahmad ’16 Attends Seattle’s Legendary Speculative Fiction Workshop

Frequent figments contributor and editor, Taimur Ahmad ’16, may have graduated last spring, but his love of speculative fiction continues beyond Princeton….

Clarion West was without a doubt six of the best weeks of my life. Incredible classmates, home cooked food, Hugo and Nebula award-winning instructors, perfect weather, and plenty of time to socialize, write, and explore.

For those of you who are learning about Clarion West (CW) for the first time, here’s the rundown: it’s a six week intensive summer writing workshop heavily oriented towards speculative fiction, though you can submit non-spec work as well. Critique sessions are three hours a day, five days a week, and you get two to four stories a day to read and respond to in addition to the weekly story you need to write. It takes place in Seattle. You have a different instructor every week, and each one is at the top of the game in their field. You and seventeen other students live together in a sorority house (but everyone gets their own room!). Meals are prepared by Joe, a chef and local who is a ton of fun to chill with when taking breaks from writing. The application is very simple – two stories and a personal statement. CW doesn’t release admission stats, but admittance is competitive. There is a sister workshop in San Diego (just Clarion, instead of Clarion West), which is “the same” except for the fact that of course Clarion West is way way better.

And it is a ton of fun.

Clarion West was like going to adult summer camp for spec fic. I got to have one-on-one conference critiques with writers and editors as amazing as N. K. Jemisin and Sheila Williams. My classmates are some of the most remarkable people I’ve met and really expanded my view of the world after four years in the orange bubble. I was the youngest at 22, while my oldest classmate was just under 50. I had peers from India, Wales, Australia, and even places as exotic as Ohio. Styles ranged from high fantasy to magical realism to absurdist humor to horror. I got incredible critique and grew from it, but most importantly made friends with a range of people I may not have otherwise met but am so, so glad I did – friends who identify as non-binary, friends who were crazy in the best way possible, and most strangely, friends with families and dogs/chickens and kids (wild right?). Living in a sorority house with these folks was just a blast, and the closeness made socializing easy. Late night games of Catan, impromptu dance parties with our week three instructor Elizabeth Bear, nights out for karaoke, or just plain chilling and writing together – it was good times!

I also loved Seattle – it is paradise in the summer. The sky is blue, the weather gentle and warm (barely any rain in the summer!), and you can alternately see mountains or the sea. For an outdoorsy guy like me it was the bomb, and I was out biking, climbing, hiking, and just generally running around most weekends, along with exploring everything the city had to offer (which was a lot!).

Besides an incredible location, great classmates, world-class instructors, and meals prepared for you, you get even more perks. Like getting to go to the Locus awards (hint – don’t wear the Hawaiian shirt). Or having super duper famous amazing writers stop by every week for a chat (Ted Chiang, the guy who wrote the story the new film “Arrival” is based on. Or Cat Rambo. Or a bigshot agent. Or…). Oh, and also the local alums throw a party every Friday. Every single one. Where you meet even more famous bigshot coolbeans writers and editors etc, etc. All while admiring the view of Mt. Rainier and the Space Needle from the top of Queen Anne Hill.

Wait, wait, wait, you are saying now. It can’t possibly be this good. Well, you are wrong! And partially right. It does cost money (alas) – but they have scholarships available (which I certainly made use of – I got a generous amount of my tuition covered). So if money is an issue, do not let that stop you from applying.

There are other negatives as well. Stuffing eighteen people into a house together does lead to inevitable drama, although for my particular class that drama was close to none between classmates. Other classes have had different results (cliques can form, I have heard), so your mileage may vary. Many CW participants also find the workload to be extremely intense, and getting very little (4-6 hours) of sleep a night is considered “normal.” I personally found the workload including class time to be roughly two-thirds that of an average Princeton workweek, a little more or less on occasion, and had ample time to exercise, explore the city, socialize, and sleep eight hours a night, without feeling like I was cutting into my writing time. Once again, your mileage may vary – certainly it did among my classmates, who had a bewildering array of approaches to their writing, from literally not sleeping at all and doing everything last minute (surprisingly effective for creative writing), to super-disciplined work schedules (equally effective). No matter what approach you take you will be pushed in your prose and get tough, constructive critique – as it should be!

The worst part about Clarion is how fast it goes, however. And how sad it is to leave all your new super-nerd pals for life. But that’s a small price to pay for six weeks of awesome-ness, growth as a writer, good food and people, and a bevy of connections to the spec world.

So yeah. Just apply already.

-Taimur

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