On Rereading Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More From 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop by Kate Wilhelm

My rereading this book is a result of my reaching out to the Clarion West community here in Seattle after moving back into the area.  Personnel have changed, of course, since I attended Clarion West over forty years ago in 1973, but the Clarion experience continues for new writers every summer.  For those who are unfamiliar with it, Clarion is a critiquing workshop, meant to fine-tune the work of new writers and encourage budding writing careers.  Every week for six weeks a different professional writer is the guest teacher, and students submit short stories that are evaluated by the pro writer and by each other.

Kate Wilhelm, along with her husband Damon Knight, were among Clarion’s first professional teachers, and in this book, Wilhelm reminisces about the beginnings of the workshop and shares anecdotes from the many years she taught.  She also uses her descriptions of the many mistakes the novice student writers would make to go into several chapters on the craft of short story writing.  There’s good advice therein for seasoned pros as well as those just starting out.

Having been isolated while overseas in Europe and Asia for thirty-five years, I was eager to get back in touch with other writers when I returned to the States.  In San Diego I occasionally met up with a novel critiquing group.  We would meet in a park, having pre-read submitted manuscripts, and discuss them.  The members of the group were of widely disparate ages and backgrounds, and some were much more serious about writing than others.  I explained to them that I was mostly there for the fellowship, and I suggested that whoever was interested could meet some evenings in a less structured setting, share a glass of wine, and talk about writing in general.  We held several of those meetings once a month or so in a group member’s apartment.  As the most experienced and published member of the meet-up, I was able to help some of the more committed members with pressing questions on the business of writing, the current state of publishing, and how to produce consistently without waiting for so-called inspiration to strike.

When my sons and I had to leave San Diego, I had wanted to move to Seattle, but we couldn’t afford the rents, so we settled over the mountains in Yakima.  Try as I might, I could find no writers’ groups there.  It was an isolated, lonely situation for me.  I bided my time until we were able to make the move to Seattle in the summer of 2014.  Unfortunately, I arrived in Seattle right at the end of the summer Clarion West workshop and missed most of the readings and get-togethers that accompany the visits of the guest teachers.

At least I was in Seattle, back in the mainstream, so to speak.  I cast about for some science fiction conventions to attend, and the first one that came up was Potlatch, which as it turned out was closely aligned with the Clarion West community.  That’s how I got back in touch with recent Clarion West graduates and a Clarion West writers’ group.

Although I have attended a few recent critiquing sessions, I realized and confessed I was there more to meet and mingle with other writers than for the critiquing itself.  The critiquing, as Wilhelm describes in the book, consists of reading a story, and going around in a group and offering suggestions of how the story might be improved.  As you can imagine, the methods of presenting the criticism are as varied as the personalities of the attendees, although most attempt to present even major difficulties with the writing in a magnanimous way.  I had done the same thing with my class of attendees over forty years previously and, when the workshop was over, we continued meeting once a month or so on a houseboat on Lake Union until I took off on the first of my globetrotting hitchhiking adventures.

Personally, I was too young when I attended Clarion West back then to benefit much from the specific writing advice.  I had just turned twenty when the workshop began.  I produced no writing of significance while I was there.  What helped me most was to be surrounded by other writers, most of whom were as serious about the wonderful, maddening, all-absorbing, frustrating, fulfilling practice of writing as I was.  Notice I used the word “practice” there.  I couldn’t think of another word that fit better.  Not “profession” or “career” because that implies you’re in it only for the money.  The money is important, sure, mostly because you want to be free to write and not have to worry about food, shelter, and so on, but that’s not the main reason you do it.  There is an inevitability about it all, if you are truly committed.  You can’t imagine not writing.  So I chose the word “practice” in the same sense as it was used in a yoga book I once read.  The writer explained that yoga is always a practice because no one ever attains perfection.  The goal is to continually improve.  That’s how it is with writing too.  You write because you can’t imagine not writing, the thought of not writing is intolerable, and at the same time with everything you produce you try to improve.

The Clarion and Clarion West writing workshops help students fine-tune their work.  They are a shortcut to professional sales for some writers.  At the least, as with me, they provide a community of like-minded people to let writers know that they are not alone in their struggle against seemingly overwhelming odds.

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5 Responses to On Rereading Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More From 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop by Kate Wilhelm

  1. John Walters says:

    I would be the first to admit that having an alternate source of income is less stressful when it comes to launching a writing career. Having said that, the most important thing is to sit down and write consistently, regularly, with either a time or word quota, whether you feel like it or not. Often you don’t feel like it at first, but you get into it as you do it, and you look back afterwards and appreciate what you have accomplished.

  2. caly reich says:

    I’m actually not a writer or fan of any particular modern day author. I did read your commentary however, and was quite intrigued by the fact that you write without much interest in making money. If I were to write, the purpose would be twofold. One because I had something worthwhile putting on paper, and the other obvious reason would be to make a living from it, especially since you have children to support. Gone are the idealistic and free spirited 60s. Today realism and practicality take over for some of us. Isn’t money a reality in your life? I know it is in mine.

    • John Walters says:

      Good point, Caly. In fact, money is important to me, and that’s why I spend most of my time writing nonfiction articles to pay the bills instead of the fiction and memoirs that I love. But still I carve out fiction writing time when I can, because I can’t not.

      • caly reich says:

        Thank you for your prompt reply John. To be quite honest, I’ve often thought about writing for a living. I’ve been an educator for the past twenty five years and I think it’s time to wrap things up and search for new horizons. Writing might be just the thing. I have also traveled my whole life, changed continents several times with my family and raised two wonderfully intelligent and creative daughters. I’ve often been told to put my stories in writing. I may just do that. I would love to read one of your memoirs.

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