Anatomy of a Semi-Mystical Workshop Experience

24resizedJust saw my friend Alex Kane’s blog post about the aftermath of going to Clarion West (which is a six-week summer workshop for SF writing that was taught, this year, by Neil Gaiman and a lot of other good writers who are about a tenth as famous as Neil Gaiman). He had a really good time and posted a very solid and moving description of a Semi-Mystical Workshop Experience.

I myself went to Clarion when I was just a lad. Only 20 years old. Couldn’t even go to the bars. It was very hot in East Lansing. And I definitely had a good time. But, well, here’s the last mention of my Clarion experience in my journal (from 17 hours before I left).*

“Perhaps the happiest moment of my Clarion experience was when I discovered that two months ago I booked my departure ticket for Friday evening rather than Saturday, as I had thought. Mentally, I never want to leave Clarion. But physically, I need to get the fuck out of here. My body is completely breaking down on me. I can’t sleep more than three hours a night due to horrendous coughing fits. I’m suffering from a low-grade fever and I think I’m getting an ear infection. Since [I’m] going to Europe on the 8th of August, it’s really great to know that I’m going to be able to get an additional night of sleep.”

This bears a strong resemblance to my feelings at the end of Sewanee and at the end of pretty much every writing workshop I’ve ever been in. I start off feeling all comradely and wonderful. But by the end, it’s become a grim, nightmareish affair. And when it’s all over, I feel only a tiny bit better than when I started. I think this might just be a personality quirk, since other people seem to have Semi-Mystical Workshop Experiences all the time.

You know what I’m talking about. It’s like, when you go to a workshop and you come back feeling inspired and transformed and utterly different as a writer.

For me, the things I’ve experienced that’ve been closest to SMWE’s have been the two learning experiences that’ve been the least like a traditional workshop.

The first was Nick Mamatas’ 9-week class. There were only 4 people in the class, so everyone could be workshopped every week, if they wanted. And I did want! There was no week in which I didn’t turn in something (although one week, what I turned in didn’t get workshopped by the whole group). And (in my recollection), for the last 5 weeks, what I turned in were stories that I’d written during the class.

Three of the stories that I workshopped in that class (“The Snake King Sells Out”, “Inside The Mind of the Bear”, and “A House, Drifting Sideways”) sold, as did several of the stories I wrote, but did not turn in, while the class was going on (“What Everyone Remembers”, “The Ships That Stir Upon The Shore”, and “No Victims”) . As did four of the six stories I wrote right after finishing the class (“Man-Eater”, “Another Prison”, “Tomorrow’s Dictator”, and “An Early Adoption”). All of these, except “A House…” and “No Victims”, were at more than five cents a word.

What made the class good is that the workshop experience wasn’t a traditional one. Because the class was so small, the workshop was fairly short (maybe 20 minutes) and instructor comments tended to predominate. In most cases, while the comments were good, they didn’t lead me to make massive revisions to the stories in question.

The other great class I took was last semester, when I took a distance-learning class with David Marusek, through a writing center in Alaska (where he lives). David is one of my favorite SF writers, so when I saw on his blog that he was offering one-on-one tutorials, I knew I had to take one.

For that class, I started by turning in a story. Then he gave comments. Then I revised the story and turned it in again. Then he gave more comments. And I revised it yet another time. And then he gave me final comments and the class was over.

For this one, the key was the second revision. For both revisions, what I ended up doing was a total rewrite (I could submit all three versions to a magazine, and no editor would know that they were related). But the second rewrite really forced me to abandon some of the lazy, poorly thought-out stuff I’d allowed to bog me down between the first and second rewrites. And the result was a much more rigorously thought-out story than I’d previously been used to producing.

The habits of mind I got in that class have helped me in all my fiction since then (even realist fictions). It’s just the habit of knowing what I know and knowing what I don’t know and knowing what I need to know. Now, whenever I am bogged down with a story, I try to think about what questions remain unanswered.

Anyway, I think that, for me, a good class is one that doesn’t let me get away with stuff and one that inspires me to write better stuff. And most workshops at least attempt to do that. But they also come with all kinds of other stuff that bogs you down. For instance, summer writing seminars require you to leave your home and go to a strange place. That seems very counterproductive to me. They’re also a huge social scene. Which is great, but also complicates the writing. And, finally, the workshops themselves are often punishing experiences that operate, on some level, by battering you down. When you have 22 people giving comments on your story (as was the case in my Clarion), it’s just a lot going on, a lot of opinions, a lot to take in.

My MFA workshop definitely falls somewhere in the midpoint. It inspires me to produce better work and it doesn’t let me get away with stuff. Nor is it too complicated by personalities. However, the fact that you spend years in the same program as the people you’re workshopping with does tend to take the edge off it, in some ways. Like, in most workshops, at the end of the class, you might be friends with the people, but you’re definitely not in workshop with them anymore. In an MFA program, you’re gonna be doing this together for week after week after week.

Also, the pace of an MFA workshop isn’t quite fast enough to create that euphoric cascade of realizations that is necessary for a Semi-Mystical Workshop Experience. If you’re turning in a story every month, then your blood doesn’t get up and your adrenaline doesn’t pump in the same way that it does when you’re turning in a story every week or when you need to do a complete rewrite over a weekend.


*My Clarion posts are the oldest thing on this journal that a person can access. I cringe when I read them. The person who wrote them seems so callow. I wonder if I’ll someday cringe when I read posts like this one?

Comments (



  1. debs

    Hoorah. You’ve used one of my favourite all time images. Although colourised. I’m not sure what I think about that.

    I have thoughts about workshops.

    Mainly jealous thoughts, because I envy those who go to Clarion and have transformative experiences. I went to Milford and the only thing I learnt was that I didn’t like the whole critting process. And decided not to do it again. But the peeps there were lovely.

    There are no shops near Milford. That is worth mentioning.

    I am jealous though. I think, that if I went and listened to these accomplished writers, surely I could pick up a thing or two. Not sure about the crit thing though. Also I’m not very good about writing a story to order in a short time.

    I do like drinking.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Milford is pretty much the same as Clarion, I think, so you probably would not have enjoyed the latter. I have to say, Clarion was great, but not at all necessary. Some people really swear by workshops / classes and say that they’re absolutely necessary to be a success (this viewpoint is more common in lit than in SF), but I have to say that I am dubious. I feel like I’ve learned 90% of my skills from just doing it.

  2. debs

    Also it might be that I’m a bit too full of it to be transformed. You know I’ve never been insecure. I just do the best I can.

    You got to love me.

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