Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Clarion East in San Diego

In case you hadn't heard the news, the original Clarion SF Writers' Workshop will be leaving its long-time home in Michigan and moving to -- San Diego? You can read the official announcement here: As you might predict, previous graduates of Clarion are bemoaning the move, saying that while it will still be Clarion, it won't be the same Clarion they all attended. They say they won't feel the automatic bond they do with current Clarionites, much as they don't (according to some posters) feel a bond with the Clarion West graduates. Basically, I get the impression that they see this as the death of the "original Clarion" and the birth of "Clarion California".

And they may be right. But I don't think so -- or more specifically, I don't really think it matters one way or the other. The value of Clarion (East, West, or South) is in the experience, the teachers, and the contacts you make. I get the impression that Clarion West graduates felt somewhat like second-class citizens with the Clarion East grads (who, I believe, never refer to themselves as anything other than just "Clarion graduates"). I think in the past decade or so, though, Clarion West has come into its own and proven that it is just as good as -- CW grads predictably argue its better than -- Clarion East. I think the wider recognition of the very term "Clarion East" illustrates that. One could even argue that Clarion West is somewhat better organized (Clarion East has had no end of uncertainty in its financing), but I really think that's more because of the support, or lack thereof, given by the hosting institutions. I would claim that both sets of administrators are top-notch. Given that, then, moving someplace where they can get better institutional support is, in my opinion, exactly what Clarion East needs.

So where would I go? Well, up until this announcement, there was no question I would go to Clarion West. First and foremost, all of the instructors and students that I have met attended CW. That doesn't mean it's better, but it's true that graduates of the two workshops don't really intermingle much. Given that the education is the same, why not go to the one my friends have attended? It's not a comment on the quality of either workshop at all. Furthermore, it's a shorter and slightly cheaper plane ride to Seattle than to Michigan, so that would make it easier to visit family and have them visit me during the six weeks.

But San Diego? My, my, that is tempting. I've never actually been to SD, but my wife has family and friends there. It has a number of things going for it: 1) It's only a six-hour drive, so I could actually drive myself there, 2) Plane tickets are about half the cost of plane tickets to Seattle, 3) IT'S WARM AND SUNNY (this is no small thing for someone with seasonal affective disorder -- Seattle is very close to Hell for someone with SAD), 4) There's a great beach, 5) Did I mention it was warm and sunny? The instructors for next summer are, in my mind, about equivalent. Both are heavy on the fantasy side, with only one real SF writer (Nancy Kress at West, Cory Doctorow at East). I love Nancy to death and would dearly like to study under her, but since I really want to go to Clarion to stretch my horizons as a writer, having all the fantasy and horror writers as instructors is actually a good thing for me -- maybe better than having SF authors in the long run.

So where to apply? In the end, I think San Diego will probably win out. The reason is that no matter when I attend Clarion, it's going to be a huge sacrifice emotionally for my family. I'll have two small children at home who are going to seriously miss their Daddy (my college-age son is less likely to care...). I have a faithful and loving wife who is going to be forced to be the sole caregiver for a month and half, all while teaching astronomy every night. That's not going to be easy. Going to Clarion: SD would allow me to come home one weekend and fly them all out to SD another. Also, my ten year anniversary is coming up and we had plans to go to Disneyland. L.A. is still a pretty good ways from SD, but it's not impossible for me to meet them there (as much as I would rather introduce them to my classmates).

And there's one other factor: I actually like being a trailblazer. Next year will be the first class at the new site. It's a chance to start some new traditions and hold a place of honor in Clarion history. That's not to be taken lightly.

You may have noticed a fairly significant change in this post from my previous posts of just a few weeks ago. My wife and I have talked about it, and she feels (and I agree) that next summer is simply the one-and-only perfect time (professionally) for me to go to Clarion, particularly in light of my goals. So, we're going to go for it. I'm actually going to apply to Clarion in the spring. I'll definitely apply to both workshops, but if accepted to SD, I'll (with some regret because of my friends) definitely go there. I think my writing is up to Clarion level, so I feel like I have a decent shot of getting accepted (though it's not easy -- Clarion East got 76 applications for a bit over 20 slots last year). I've signed up for the Virtual Clarion Workshop and I think that will be valuable training. I'm also going to see if Marta Randall (past president of SFWA and a simply outstanding teacher) is still teaching SF at Gotham Writers' Workshop. If so, I'm going to take her advanced class in October. Hopefully the prep time will give me a good shot. Even if I don't get in, it will certainly help me make giant strides towards my goals. There's no substitute for good training. That's why I'm going to Clarion in the first place, in spite of the sacrifice.

But they really have to figure out what they're going to call the workshop now...

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Effortful Study

It's been a productive day today. I wrote a new draft of my flash fiction story on my Neo while waiting for DMV to tell me that I don't have the paperwork they want (grrr...), did a bit of research for my Ph.D., and wrote a new scene for one of the short stories I'm working on. Not bad at all. The title of this entry comes from the Ph.D. research, actually. I was reading an article in Scientific American* about expertise and how experts remember things. It quotes some research that I already had in my thesis proposal, but one passage I found particularly relevant in light of the previous entry.

Anders Ericsson argues that experience per se is not what matters for achieving expert status, but "effortful study." Erricsson defines effortful study as continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's ability. This explains why many people (myself included) show an early large improvement in ability, but this improvement rate rapidly tapers off as soon as the learner achieves an average level of proficiency. This applies to music, driving, golf, almost anything. In fact, Ericsson makes the example that someone can play ten thousand hours of golf and never achieve expert status because they aren't playing against anyone other than amateurs like themselves. Experts-in-training, Ericsson contends, are continually looking at their efforts and trying to figure out how they can improve.

I've read many bios of science fiction grandmasters who say they taught themselves how to write by critically examining the works of others. The "Clarion Method" of workshopping fits well within Ericsson's theory as well -- in fact, it's an almost classic example, and certainly explains why students can progress so rapidly in just six weeks at Clarion. it also provides a bit of theoretical justification for my strive to get a Hugo in two years. A concerted effort to work towards that challenge -- well beyond my abilities right now -- is exactly what's needed to improve.

It's also seriously making me wish I could go to Clarion next summer as planned. I had everything arranged so that next summer would be the perfect time, both logisitically and professionally. I think by next summer I will be exactly at the place in my professional development where Clarion will do me the most good. My daughter would also be old enough that she can live without Daddy for six weeks without too much hardship. With the new baby due in two months, though, that's going to be just the wrong time to be away. I would never forgive myself if I missed her first steps. Ah well. Life is what happens while we're making other plans, eh?

*A side note, all science fiction authors should read Scientific American -- there's a wealth of story ideas there, accessible even to the non-scientist.