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Back to the Future of Workshops Past

By Damien Filer

The Ghost of Workshops Past: How Communism, Conservatism, and the Cold War Still Mold Our Paths Into SFF Writing didn’t exactly sound like light reading after a long day’s work. And it’s long. But I read it because I was intrigued by what Damien Walter posted in response to it. He also made it clear the article largely dealt with the Clarion Writer’s Workshop and I’m a graduate. Class of ‘95.

S.L. Huang, the article’s author, makes a well-researched and well-reasoned argument against the Milford style of fiction workshop Clarion is modeled on.

As an adjunct at a state university myself, I agree wholeheartedly with the article’s conclusion, that we must endeavor to keep evolving and exploring different approaches to teaching in an effort to respect, hear and support as wide a range of different life experiences and perspectives as possible.

My impression from the article is that Huang did not attend Clarion but has clearly researched it and other workshops extensively. The responses I’ll share below represent my lived experience twenty-seven years ago with a unique makeup of staff, instructors and students. And all I can say is that my experience with many people I knew was very different from what the article describes.

I traveled cross country from Florida to the west coast as a younger man, in the early ‘90s and settled for several years in Eugene, Oregon. I was awarded a grant by the California Institute for Contemporary Arts shortly after arriving there that allowed me to quit my minimum wage bookstore job and write full time for a year. I took the opportunity seriously and treated it like a literary, if not literal, bootcamp, writing hundreds of articles, reviews, poems and stories in that time, looking for any opportunity to get into print. And I explored the resources available to me in my new home in Eugene. Little did I know I’d stumbled into one of the most thriving and supportive writing communities in the country.

I found my way to the Eugene Professional Writers Workshop's (later to become Wordos) weekly, Milford-style, workshop in the back room at G Willikers restaurant on Tuesday nights. The room bustled with dozens of unassuming but accomplished writers. And, while they were a friendly enough group, there was definitely a sink or swim air to the proceedings. You had to show you deserved to be there. The style of critique depended on the person but most folks weren’t pulling any punches. I learned the difference between infer and imply by using one when I meant the other in that workshop. It’s not a mistake I’ve made again in the ensuing quarter century, I can tell you that.

At the Eugene workshop, mid-90s, with Stephen Stanley, who would go on to be the first person

to win the Writers of the Future and Illustrators of the Future contests.

I very much subscribe to the values of kindness, courtesy and respect but I do believe we do a disservice to a student by offering false encouragement or praise. Constructive critiques can be done without cruelty.

I learned about Clarion from the Eugene workshop. I applied and it was a big deal (to me, anyway) when I got accepted. Huang’s article talks about what it means to become part of the select group that have attended Clarion. For me, as a young writer of 24, worried that my mother-in-law thought I was sitting around all day doing nothing, it was validating. Something credible I could point to other than the poems I was getting published in coffee house zines.

There are some specific things I want to respond to in Huang’s article, starting with the cost to attend Clarion. I had no resources or savings so I applied for a scholarship through Clarion to help offset the cost of attending. I still have the certificate Clarion’s director, Tess Tavormina, presented me with out in front of a local bookstore in Lansing where one of our instructors was giving a reading. I was one of several students that year to be awarded the 1995 Friends of Clarion Scholarship. I couldn’t have attended without it and to this day I'm grateful to the contributors who made those scholarships possible. Again, I think Huang makes a valid point about cost being a barrier to entry for many writers, and I don’t know what scholarships, if any, were, or are available to other classes. I just know it made the difference between going and not going for me.

The article also implies (not infers) that Clarion grads have some sort of advantage by being able to move through the industry together. I definitely experienced that connection you hear about when you’re in the proverbial foxhole with people. A number of us got pretty close while we were there. But we really didn't stay in touch for long once we all got back to our lives. As someone who mostly stepped away from fiction publishing for a few (25) years, I’ve just recently had some joyful reunions with old Clarion classmates but I don’t remember any sense of us being a cohesive unit of some kind after we graduated from the workshop.

One of the central points of the article, dealing with the problematic aspects of the Milford approach for BIPOC and other marginalized communities, is one I can only address from my own perspective as a straight white male. It was disheartening for me to read some of the condemnations of the Milford approach in the article. They have made me rethink my own experience and wonder if I was oblivious of issues my classmates may have experienced. At times, this article felt like the missing writer’s workshop chapter in Dr. Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, which I would recommend.

I also had the good fortune to be invited in by Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm after Clarion. I spent time at their home, ate at a Chinese buffet with them once a month and had quite a few of my stories workshopped and critiqued by them. All I can say is that I only ever found both of them to be supportive and kind to me as a young whippersnapper and I’ll be forever grateful to them for that.

With Kate Wilhelm at the Oregon Book Awards (if memory serves)…check out my plaid shirt!

Huang also addresses the question of what, if any, advantage the Clarion pedigree gives to up and coming authors. I certainly included it in my cover letters. I think the workshop has a strong reputation in the industry but I don’t feel I can point to any real evidence that it made a difference when it came to selling stories. Maybe editors would pick a Clarion grad’s story out of the slush pile to read (I don’t know) but they weren’t going to buy a story they didn't like from a Clarion graduate, at least not this one.

That being said, for me, it was a great experience for a variety of reasons, starting with that sense of validation it gave me just getting accepted. I learned a lot there. I wrote a lot there. I made meaningful connections with smart, well-meaning people with similar interests. And I came home with a Michigan State t-shirt and some great stories to tell.

While the Milford style of workshopping at Clarion does operate more like a courtroom than a cable news show, the notion suggested in the article that if you speak up, you’re a “bad writer” didn’t jibe with my experience either. While we adhered to a certain protocol during critiques, there was a constant exchange of ideas happening all our waking hours, from meals together to card games in the dorm’s common room to late night conversations, readings and other gatherings. And the idea of molding one’s writing to conform to a workshop norm or standard was also alien to me. With instructors from Samuel R. Delany to Joe Haldeman to Karen Joy Fowler and students from Kelly Link to Nalo Hopkinson to Lucy Snyder, there was a wealth of diverse viewpoints, lived experiences and approaches to the craft of writing.

I would just say that my lived experience, with Clarion and its founders, contrasts with the negative light I felt they were cast in in this telling. And I didn’t really understand who the bogeyman was in this story, who is so resistant to change. It seemed to me that, when approached by the article’s author, the people from Clarion and other writing workshops all said they were making changes to address the concerns with the lack of alternatives to the Milford approach.

Any piece of writing that grabs me by the collar and makes me read it, then has me thinking about it and talking about it, even writing about it, that's good writing. S.L. Huang, thank you for doing that with this piece. I look forward to checking out more of your work. I thank you, as well, for the education and back story I didn't know about something that played a significant role in my writing life.

As I mentioned, while I’ve continued to write in a variety of settings, I did largely step away from fiction writing for the most part for more than twenty-five years. I did so because I had a family and I needed to make more money than I was making writing. But, in the interest of being as openminded as possible, and being as intellectually honest as I can, I will note this: I wrote a new science fiction novel last summer and got in touch with some old writer friends to get caught up on the state of the industry as I considered how to go about getting the book published. I had to have a writer from the old Eugene workshop assure me that I didn’t need to get my book workshopped or critiqued, that I knew what I was doing and the story I wanted to tell and I told it. He was kind enough to proof it for me and caught a few typos. That was it. I realized I had been, for better or worse, trained to think I couldn't put something out there in the world until I’d put it through the workshop gauntlet. The idea that I didn't have to do that was an epiphany to me. This, despite having come from a very DIY ethos as a musician in the punk movement in the eighties where doing everything ourselves was a matter of principle. It would never occur to me to need anyone’s blessing or critique of a song I wrote.

I say all of that to point out that Huang is right; it behooves us to continually reimagine, experiment and reinvent how we learn and how we teach and support artists. But also that we, as writers, once we’ve learned the fundamentals, have to take some responsibility to get over it if people don’t like our stuff and figure out how to put our books in front of those who will.

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