Please note: These are suggestions and invitations based on my own experience attending Clarion West in 2016. If my advice doesn’t work for you, discard it. The most important thing is to find what works for you.
You don’t have to do anything to prepare for Clarion West, other than considering what you’ll do for self-care to help preserve yourself during the program. You don’t have to read any books, not even the instructors’. You were selected for the program based on your own work and perspectives. You’re already bringing so much to the table just by being there. There’s nothing to cram for.
You don’t have to turn in a piece every week. In fact, you don’t have to write at all at Clarion West. The more important skill is to read your classmates’ work daily with a careful eye and to articulate feedback that helps your classmate accomplish their goals for the piece. If you don’t manage to eke out any words, that’s okay. Clarion West isn’t actually about learning how to write.
That said, if you do have an idea for the structure of your story but can’t get the words out in time, it’s perfectly fine to turn in an incomplete piece. However, it helps your classmates and instructor to provide feedback if you make some notes on the missing parts, such as including bullet points on the main through lines of the plot or the character development missing from the scene.
You will miss out on things. That’s okay. It’s just not possible for a single person to attend every single hangout, gathering, or party while also trying to write, critique, and do basic self-care. You will have a much more enjoyable experience if you do your best to be present during the events that you are participating in. The experiences and memories are what you make of them.
You’ll need to set boundaries. For some people, boundaries mean going to bed at 10pm every night, even if people are hanging out, even if you’re not done with critiques, even if you still have a piece to finish. For others, it means finding some alone time and guarding it. Whether introvert or extrovert, you’ll manage the workload and avoid burnout better if you find what recharges you and protect that time.
Ask for the accommodations you need. The workshop coordinators are very responsive to requests and feedback. If you’re feeling discomfort or struggling in any way, it’s best to voice that to the coordinators as soon as possible, even if it’s just a note to say you’re having trouble but don’t need any action taken at the moment. That way, someone one step removed remains aware of your progress and can step in before any breakdowns happen.
Spend some time every day outside of the house. Whether that’s going out on the lawn to feel the sun or walking down the street for a meal, getting out from under the roof helps to clear your head and give you both breathing room and perspective. It can be easy to get cabin fever when you stay inside 24/7 because all your needs are provided for.
Don’t forget the outside world. When you’re surrounded by Clarion West, you may develop or exacerbate cognitive distortions, become overwhelmed, or feel emotional. People outside of Clarion West can give you support and perspective divorced from your performance in the program, and they want to hear from you too. It’s easy to get tunnel vision and isolate yourself for six weeks.
You don’t have to get along with everyone. You don’t have to like everyone. But you’ll make your interactions more positive and enjoyable for everyone if you assume the best of people and communicate with a compassionate mindset.
Remember that there is no right or wrong way to experience Clarion West. Some people cite it as the best experience of their life, while others have a negative experience. If your experience doesn’t match up to your expectations, that doesn’t mean you missed out. That’s just how you experienced Clarion West.
Take time to digest and process your experience. Most graduates say that what they learned at Clarion West doesn’t really sink in until two years later. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll go according to your own schedule. Rushing results or pressuring yourself to achieve only adds more stress to an already burnout-prone experience.
Celebrate! Nothing you do at Clarion West is “too small” of an achievement. It’s an intimidating program. So celebrate and keep yourself feeling positive and motivated. In the end, only you can validate yourself 24/7.
Congratulations, and enjoy!