Deciding whether to attend
Clarion West, for disabled writers

In Summer 2016 I attended Clarion West, a six-week residential writers workshop. I’m disabled, and before I went I worried about whether I would be able to handle it.

This post is about disability-relevant aspects of Clarion West, and I’m writing it to help other disabled people figure out whether it’s realistic for them to attend.

I’ve tried to be comprehensive, but disabilities and accessibility needs vary enormously, even among people with the same disability. I can also only speak to my experience at one writers workshop in one year (2016). I do know that Clarion West has had several other out autistic students, at least two blind students, at least two students who used hearing aids plus lip-reading (I don’t know whether they identified as deaf, Deaf, or hard-of-hearing), and various students with mental health issues. I would be surprised if there had not been multiple students with invisible disabilities or illnesses.

If this post is missing information that’s important to you, I’m happy to answer questions if I can. You can also contact the Clarion West administrators directly at info@clarionwest.org (pseudonymously, if you prefer). They are friendly and helpful.

tl;dr:

Clarion West will be feasible for some people and not for others. It was both difficult and manageable for me. Some things I worried about the most weren’t a big deal. For example, I was not actually working constantly with no time for rest. I didn’t have to pull any all-nighters, and I didn’t have to socialize constantly.

Other things were hard: I was fatigued most of the time, frequently stressed, and often in physical pain. Even with that, I had a good time, learned an enormous amount about how to improve my writing, and wrote multiple marketable pieces. I learned about the business of writing. I made friends. It was hard, and I got everything I hoped to get out of it.

Why Clarion West (or a similar writers workshop)?

It speeds up your development as a writer. It is not the only way to become a good writer, but it can be extremely helpful. You learn your strengths and how to capitalize on them, and you learn your weaknesses and how to manage them. You gain friendships and develop a network of professional contacts. You get good at critiquing. You write a lot.

You can read more about people’s experiences at Clarion West (and Clarion UCSD, its sister workshop) here. Several people from my year have also written personal accounts: Emma Osborne, S. Qiouyi Lu, Taimur Ahmad, and Gunnar Norskog. (And you can see our class’s website here!)

Some alternatives to writers workshops like Clarion West

If you want to do a residential writers workshop like Clarion West, but can’t for time, money, or disability issues, you might consider:

  • Shorter workshops, like Taos Toolbox (two weeks) or Viable Paradise (one week). Both are expensive but not as expensive.
  • Online workshops, like the ten-week Gotham Writers Workshop courses. There are also various shorter online workshops. Costs vary. They sometimes have scholarships available.
  • Local courses, for example at community colleges.
  • Online or in-person critique groups. Peer-led groups should not cost any money (unless it’s pitching in for snacks and coffee).
  • Critique partners or writing buddies.
  • Books on writing and free internet resources like writers’ blogs can also be helpful.

About Clarion West

Clarion West is a six-week residential workshop focused on speculative fiction short stories (science fiction, fantasy, and related genres). You can read more about Clarion West here (FAQ here). Applications are typically open through the end of February. Applications and scholarships are open to international as well as US-based applicants.

Similar workshops include Clarion UCSD and Odyssey (both six-week workshops), as well as the shorter Viable Paradise (one week) and Taos Toolbox (two weeks). All are competitive and require an application and a writing sample; Taos Toolbox additionally requires letters of reference. There are also various non-speculative-fiction residential workshops.

How Clarion West works

During Clarion West, eighteen students live together in one building in Seattle’s University District for six weeks in June and July and critique each other’s weekly submissions. You critique 3-4 submissions each day, 5 days a week. You receive them by noon (email and optionally a printed copy), and prepare your critiques for 9am the next day. Monday’s submissions are provided on Fridays. Sunday nights involve a short administrative meeting and a brief class by that week’s instructor.

On weekday mornings 9am-12pm, you sit around a large table and each give a two-minute oral critique, with optional written comments provided afterward. You can write out your comments ahead of time and read them aloud if you want. Afterward, the instructor comments, then the submitter has a chance to respond.

Each piece takes about 45 minutes to be critiqued. There is a 5-10 minute break, usually after the first two pieces. On days with only 3 pieces, the instructor sometimes gave a short lecture or assigned a reading. Our first week differed from the other weeks; we submitted multiple short assignments, each given the previous day, which were then read aloud in class by the instructor.

During afternoons and evenings, you read and critique pieces for the following day, write your own piece for that week, and (optionally) socialize.

Your piece is submitted the same day each week. Our pieces were mostly 2000-4500 words long. On the day your piece is critiqued you have a 30-minute individualized afternoon meeting with the instructor.

Other events include weekly readings by that week’s instructor, weekly parties in the Seattle speculative fiction community (optional but highly encouraged), and hour-long weekly visits by mystery muses (writers, editors, agents). Our year, one of our students also set up hour-long Skype meetings for us with writers and editors several times per week.

You will likely spend some of the weekend critiquing and writing, but there’s usually time for other things. Some students go on hikes or see local sights.

The above is not completely rigid, but you’re expected to be on time to class and to submit on time. You do not have to submit every week, but it’s strongly encouraged, and we almost all did. It was also rare for someone to not be prepared enough to provide at least some critique.

Missing class is not common, but does happen. Several people missed a day of class due to migraines or other health issues, and almost everyone missed 1-2 days at some point due to a cold that went around, but apart from that almost everyone was in class almost every day.

Money and time considerations

Money

My year, Clarion West cost $3800 plus a $200 refundable deposit; it is $4200 for the 2017 class. This covers tuition, room, and partial board (lunch/dinner Mon-Thurs, light breakfast, and some snacks). You do have to live in the building with the other students even if you are local.

The program recommended students my year budget about $600 for additional expenses (food, books, optional outings, and $3-4/week to contribute to a class gift for that week’s instructor), plus whatever money needed to get to Seattle and back. Most of us also attended the Locus Awards, which cost about $50 and included a meal and all the free books you could take home. (Note that you will also need to bring a computer to write on. Wireless is free.)

The program offers scholarships, which are usually enough to keep tuition/room/board from being the determining factor. A couple people my year also ran crowdfunding campaigns. These work best if you are already published and have a following.

Time

Clarion West lasts six weeks. Trying to work full-time or part-time, even telecommuting with flexible hours, would make it very hard to participate, and I recommend against it strongly.

Some people who can’t take six weeks off quit their jobs to attend, and look for a new job afterward. If you are in the Seattle area or considering moving there, you will have access to a large professional network through the broader Clarion West community, especially for writing-related or tech-related fields.

Some people can’t take six weeks away from their families, which isn’t necessarily a disability issue but is a common issue. You can have a partner visit you for a day or two on the weekends with prior notice, and some local people go home overnight occasionally, but you should not count on going home frequently.

Healthcare: Medication refills and provider access

Medication refills

If you are not from Seattle, but have U.S.-based insurance, it may or may not cover local refills. Some healthcare plans offer three-month mail-order refills for many medications, with some exceptions (mine offers three-month refills for stimulants but I have to pick them up in person, for example). You can receive postal mail at the building (for meds or anything else), and there is a FedEx branch within walking distance for hold/pickup of packages.

Some medications are only legal to fill in the state they were prescribed, must be refilled in person, and can’t be refilled more than monthly, which I understand is the case for opiates. The only option I can think of for that would be a flight home in the middle of the workshop, which may not be within your means.

If you use medical marijuana (or if you don’t), note that pot is legal in Washington State, and does not require a prescription. You buy it at a shop like you would alcohol or cigarettes.

Provider access

If you have a U.S. healthcare plan, your access and cost will depend on your plan. You may be fully, partially, or not at all covered, or covered for some providers but not others. For example, my plan would not have covered regular or ongoing care, only emergency and urgent care, and I would have had to pay up front and file for reimbursement later.

I STRONGLY recommend you find out what your plan (if you have one) covers ahead of time, whether you are disabled or not, since out-of-pocket U.S. healthcare ranges from expensive to financially ruinous.

The program provided a list of suggested local providers and hospitals, including some who offered services on a sliding scale based on your financial means. Keep in mind sliding-scale doesn’t necessarily mean affordable and the services you need may or may not be offered.

Some non-U.S. people may have access to travel insurance that includes healthcare through their home countries or through credit cards. Commercial travel insurance may also be an option for some.

Physical stuff: Facilities, events and transit, food, and physical comfort

Facilities

Much of this is building-specific. The 2017 class will be in the same building we were in for 2016, but for future years you may want to email the administrators for specifics.

The building is not wheelchair-accessible. The administrators have been looking for a wheelchair-accessible rental in the Seattle area of the size and type needed, but don’t expect one to be available in the near future. If want a residential spec fic workshop and need wheelchair accessibility, you may want to look into Clarion UCSD or Odyssey, both held on college campuses, or Taos Toolbox or Viable Paradise, both held in commercial lodgings; contact the administrators of those workshops with questions.

At Clarion West, your room, the classroom, and the dining room, kitchen, laundry facilities, and communal areas are all in one building. This means that there is not much walking / travel required on a day-to-day basis. However, you will need to take stairs to go between your room, the classroom, and the dining room.

You will have your own room. Mine had a twin-size bunk bed, two closets, a window, and two dressers with drawers that were very challenging to open and shut. Clarion West let me reserve a folding desk, a fan, and a desk lamp ahead of time. There were padded rolling desk chairs available. Rooms are first-come-first-serve unless you request a room with particular features (I asked for and got a cooler room for health reasons, because there is no air conditioning). Some rooms come with de-bunked beds. Mattress quality varies, but you can arrange to swap out your mattress for a different one.

The communal bathrooms had relatively deep showers in individual stalls, and I think you could fit a stool or shower chair in one. The showerheads are not detachable except by accident, which I strongly recommend avoiding especially if the water is still cold. The toilet stalls were on the small side. There were no grab bars. One floor has a smaller individual bathroom with a shower above a bath. The classroom and dining room areas only have one toilet, so I sometimes had to go to another floor. The communal women’s bathroom was on one floor and the communal men’s bathroom and individual bathroom (which also served as the gender-neutral bathroom) were on another. You can ask to be on a floor with a gender-compatible bathroom.

The communal areas have various tables, chairs, and couches for working or socializing.

The wifi is free, but was very slow, and some people had difficulty accessing it from their bedrooms, particularly on the top floor, and on the floor below that when further away from the router. We don’t know why, and are hoping the building has it fixed by summer.

Events and transit

Friday night parties are held at local community members’ houses and are open to the broader Seattle SFF community. Attendance is optional, but strongly encouraged. Staff arranged rides for us. One week had both a Friday and a Saturday party. We tended to huddle together at parties and I did not feel required to be super-social.

There were weekly readings by instructors, usually held a five-to-fifteen-minute walk away. These were also optional but encouraged. Two took place at the Seattle Public Library which required taking public transportation due to lack of parking near the library.

Some students went on recreational trips. We had multiple local students with cars who often drove other people, though the number of local students varies by year. I think people split an Uber on some occasions. Both Uber and Lyft have good coverage in Seattle.

Parking at Clarion West is available via a neighboring organization that granted us permits to park in their nearby lot except during certain times.

We also had 2-3 hour-long Skype sessions per week with various authors and people in the publishing field, organized by students. I didn’t go to all of these, but I tried to go to the majority of them (and regretted missing the ones I did miss).

Food

A cook provided lunch and dinner Monday-Thursday, including options for vegetarians, vegans, and for one person who needed gluten-free lactose-free food. The program asks about food needs ahead of time for planning.

There were generally leftovers, though not always enough for the entire weekend. I sometimes had to eat out, order in, or get groceries from a nearby store. We often went out for Friday lunch and some weekend meals. Sometimes students cooked for Sunday dinner. There are many restaurants plus a grocery store within a few blocks, some of which had gluten-free options.

The only stove is an industrial stove and takes hours to heat up, so cooking regularly is not practical. There are microwaves, a toaster, and a refrigerator for student use.

The program also supplied cereal, milk and soy milk, bread (including gluten-free bread), cheese, condiments, snack bars, coffee, tea, and some other basic things. Students also bought and shared snacks and drinks.

Physical comfort and sensory issues: Seating and workspaces, acoustics, temperature, and a silly string warning

Seating and workspaces

The classroom had hard chairs, though you could request a padded rolling chair instead. The dining room had hard chairs. The common areas also had padded armchairs and deep couches. There’s somewhere to sit anywhere in the building you’ll need to be, although for some bedrooms that means a bed or the floor, unless you bring a chair in.

I mostly worked in my room, at a table or on the bed. Some students went to coffee shops or local libraries, or worked at a table or couch in the communal areas. It was not difficult to find a quiet place to work.

Acoustics

I have some difficulty with auditory processing, particularly in noisy or echoey environments, but did not have any issues in the classroom. We sat in a large skinny rectangle in the classroom and everyone could usually see everyone’s face, though sometimes we needed to shift the tables a few inches. The dining room acoustics were not good, and I often could not hear meal conversations well. You can take food to quieter locations inside or outside the building.

Temperature

The building is not air conditioned. Average July daytime temperature for Seattle is 65F/18C, although sometimes there are hotter stretches (one year had several days that hit 100F/38C). There are fans available, and I also asked for a cooler room for medical reasons and they reserved it for me. I also brought a cooling vest, though I didn’t need it until the final couple days.

The classroom was sometimes a little cold and sometimes a little hot. The windows are near one end, and when they’re open the room is colder on one side than the other. Layered clothing is a very good idea.

Silly string warning

Our year they handed out cans of silly string on the last day and there was a sudden chaotic silly string fight. If this happens to you and you don’t want to get sticky silly string all over you, I recommend stating that you don’t want to participate, and placing yourself in a position where you can leave the room quickly.

Time and energy: Workload, breaks and other classroom policies, deadlines and consistency, sleep, exercise, and general self-care

Workload

Some accounts of Clarion West and similar workshops make it sound like you will be constantly working with no chance for rest. That is not accurate, in my experience. I spent 3 hours in class each weekday, 3-6 hours preparing critiques for each weekday’s pieces, and a variable amount of time writing. I had time for social recovery, regular sleep, and pain recovery. I did skip most Tuesday night readings, though, and I didn’t have a lot of time or energy for socialization, though I did have some.

If you are a social person, you will need to make more choices between socializing and doing other things.

Breaks and other classroom policies

There’s usually a short break about halfway through the three-hour morning classes, though instructors have leeway to change how things work. You can get up and go to the bathroom if you need to. I don’t think getting up for stretch breaks, or standing instead of sitting, would be a problem.

It’s okay to eat snacks in the classroom (though I was usually the only person who did) and it’s fine to bring in water, coffee, tea, soda, etc. There is a no-pajamas policy in the classroom.

We were asked to not use computers in the classroom except for taking notes while being critiqued, or if we were actively giving a critique. Instructors can ask students to not use computers in the classroom at all, though all our instructors let us use them. We were asked to keep phones on silent.

There’s a large jar of plastic toys and you can fidget with them in class. People did.

Outside of class and the (optional-but-encouraged) readings and parties, your schedule is your own. Lunch and dinner happen at set times, but there are leftovers.

Deadlines and consistency

You will need to be able to meet deadlines most of the time and regularly arrive at class on time, at nine. People missed classes occasionally due to illness. I don’t think anyone missed more than three days total out of the thirty class days.

There are many deadlines: 3-4 two-minute verbal critiques due every weekday, and a weekly written submission due by 9am the day before it’s critiqued. There are no word count limits, so you can submit flash fiction. You don’t have to turn in a submission every week, or a complete story, although almost everyone does.

You receive pieces to critique by 12pm the weekday before, so you don’t have much lead time. It took me 1-2 hours to critique each piece, but I have to read a piece several times to understand it, and I like to give lengthy critiques when possible. Some people are faster at critiquing and needed less time.

I liked to do optional written critiques in addition to the verbal critiques. I was sometimes late with the written ones, and other people were sometimes late with mine. It was rare and notable when someone didn’t have a verbal critique ready, though I think some of us were finishing preparing our verbal critiques during class. That is risky, though, since you won’t know beforehand whether you’ll be the first person to critique.

Sleep

Some people pulled all-nighters to get their submissions in. I can’t do that, and didn’t have to. On some weeks, I missed 1-2 hours of sleep the two days before my weekly submission date. If you are good at regulating your time, you may not need to lose any sleep at all.

Seattle gets light very early. I brought a facemask, but I recommend also getting curtains or putting up bedsheets over the windows.

Some other people found loud neighbors interfered with their sleep. I sleep with earplugs and didn’t hear them. The side of the building you’re on may matter.

If you’re a social person, you will face temptation to stay up late.

Exercise

If you want to walk or run, the local area has sidewalks and is relatively pedestrian-safe. I would not walk outside by myself at midnight, but I felt perfectly safe during the day. There are hills, but there are also flat parts you can stay on if you prefer. There are open spaces in the building you could use for yoga, body weight exercises, etc. You can also purchase a membership at a nearby gym.

Self-care

Having a self-care plan is an EXTREMELY GOOD IDEA. I recommend evaluating it after the first few days to see if you’re following it, and if not, what you need to do to take care of yourself. I had one, but didn’t follow it well and didn’t adapt it, and wound up with unnecessary stress and physical pain.

Social stuff: How important is socializing?, socializing options, eccentricity and diversity, drama, parties and alcohol, remembering names and faces, anti-harassment and confidentiality, photos

How important is socializing?

The most intimidating piece of advice I got about Clarion West was to socialize as much as possible. This actually leads me to my biggest piece of advice: IF YOU CAN’T SOCIALIZE A LOT AT A WRITERS WORKSHOP, IT ISN’T THE END OF THE WORLD. Really. I can’t socialize much for various reasons (physical energy, auditory processing fatigue, stress, other stuff). So I didn’t socialize much. I sometimes spent multiple days mostly in my room.

And it was fine. I didn’t build as many relationships as most of my classmates, and I didn’t build relationships as quickly, but everyone greeted me and seemed genuinely happy to see me when I did show up. I talked with people on Twitter and Facebook during the workshop, and still do. I also stay in touch on the Slack channel we set up (you can keep building relationships even after the class is over!). Some people Skype with each other afterward, and we also have an ongoing humor critique subgroup that meets via Google Hangouts.

Socializing options

If you do like to socialize in person, there are many opportunities, especially informal ones. There weren’t official structured socializing opportunities, but there were boardgames available and people played them, there were some Battlestar Galactica viewings, and an RPG session (which we mostly spent arguing about what to do with cows, but it was fun). There were also unofficial outings, including hikes.

Eccentricity and diversity

Science fiction and fantasy writers tend to be both eccentric and tolerant of eccentricity. I was out as autistic and otherwise disabled, and nobody treated me weirdly. I found everyone very welcoming and accepting, both for that and in general. (Without giving specifics, we had some personal revelations and comings-out that wouldn’t have happened in most environments, and the reactions from class and staff were universally “I’m glad you felt safe enough to trust us with that.” We had one related major issue with a teacher which I can’t share for confidentiality reasons.)

Drama

We did not have the kind of eccentricity that’s code for “someone who makes life miserable for other people;” our group was largely drama-free. Some classes do have drama and conflict; some don’t.

I don’t think there was cliquishness or much gossip, but I wasn’t around people consistently enough to be sure. There was a strong group identity, but it did not feel cultish.

Parties and alcohol

The weekly parties are large Seattle-area SFF community parties, and I tended to cluster with other current Clarion West students due to introversion and tiredness. When I did talk with community members, they were friendly.

Students brought alcohol into the building, and light drinking was common. There was some moderate drinking as well. At least one student did not drink at all.

Remembering names and faces

Everyone has a large-font name tag in front of their seat in the classroom. Introductions are sent to the email list ahead of time and I made an excel sheet with names and links to online photos (where I could find them) to help me remember who was who.

Anti-harassment and confidentiality policies

There is a written anti-harassment policy, and a written confidentiality policy. Things said in class are confidential, as are details of others’ stories. This is taken seriously. We did have one violation (someone posted someone else’s in-class comment on social media) that was taken care of as soon as possible.

Photos

There are weekly photographs with instructors, but you don’t have to be in them if you are averse to being photographed. Students also take pictures, and you can ask that you not be included or not have pictures of you posted publicly.

The mental and emotional: Stress and breakdowns, insecurities, and critiquing and being critiqued

Stress and breakdowns

Clarion West is intense, and writing can be emotionally demanding. I had several breakdowns, and some other people went through intense emotional stuff too. When I got visibly distressed twice, multiple people checked on me afterward, mostly by text, to see if I was okay or needed help. They offered to talk to me if I wanted to talk, and I did on a couple occasions, and it was helpful. When I wanted to be left alone, they left me alone. I had an awful and extremely embarrassing public meltdown at one point and avoided everyone as much as possible for several days, but when I started interacting again no one seemed to hold it against me.

Insecurities

We talked openly about imposter syndrome (the fear that you’re not actually any good) and about other insecurities that are common for writers. It felt like a safe place to be open about worries about your writing and career.

Critiquing and being critiqued

When critiquing, students are required to talk about what’s positive about the piece first. Instructors don’t have to do that, though most did. The program’s explicit policy of “critique the piece, not the author” was followed on almost every occasion. I think most people, most of the time, had positive experiences being critiqued. I personally found the critiques extremely helpful.

When you are reading others’ writing, there may be things that upset you. You may (like me) discover a trigger you didn’t know you had. People voluntarily added content notes on several occasions. To my knowledge, no one requested content notes or trigger warnings but if they had I would have expected them to be followed. (If you do, it would be a good idea to double-check that each week’s teacher knows about them, since they’re often juggling a lot of details.)

Talking about disability

One of the handouts we got at the start of class was a piece by Nalo Hopkinson, which talked about diversity in Clarion classes, including disability. It helped reassure me that I was welcome.

Two instructors (Elizabeth Bear and N.K. Jemisin) mentioned disability in the context of diversity in writing or fiction. I also had a private conversation with one instructor about writing with chronic illness. A couple guest speakers (Nisi Shawl and L. Timmel Duchamp) talked about the value of belonging to multiple communities and mentioned disability specifically. Another mentioned her own disabilities (Nalo Hopkinson, who talks openly about it on Twitter), and gave excellent advice on writing with disability and chronic illness: Take care of the mind and body you have, not the one someone else has.

Just under ten percent of pieces included disabled or chronically ill characters. I usually commented fairly extensively on disability representation, and some other people commented more briefly. Everyone seemed open to constructive criticism. Several people thanked me specifically.

Other diversity

Since intersectionality is an issue for many disabled people, I want to mention other kinds of diversity. Our class was about a third non-white. We had four international students. Almost a third of us were nonbinary/non-cis, usually openly, and we started an optional challenge of submitting a story with a nonbinary character (which multiple cis people took on as well). We were asked to send our pronouns to the email list ahead of time, and they were given to instructors as well.

I didn’t survey people on sexual orientation, but there were openly non-straight people and lots of non-straight characters.

I didn’t ask about religious affiliation, and only know it for a few people (at least one Muslim and at least two Jews). Religion was not a common topic of discussion. I don’t think anyone attended religious services. Saturday and Sunday mornings and afternoons were free, but Friday night religious services would have conflicted with the Friday night community parties. Someone diligent and careful with their time could probably avoid working one day a week.

I also didn’t ask about political affiliation, but to my knowledge everyone was on the political left.

Age-wise, we ranged from 21 (the minimum age for insurance reasons) through late 40s.

Conclusion

Much of disability hinges on myriad “small things” actually being big things for us. I would like to be able to summarize this information into deal breakers and minor issues, but a minor issue for some disabled people might be a complete deal breaker for others.

I hope the information in this post helps you determine whether Clarion West would be feasible for you. If it isn’t feasible for you, or if you apply but don’t get in, there may be alternatives that work for you (see section on alternatives near the top of this post).

If you have questions, I’m happy to answer them if I can; comment here, @ me on twitter @theoriesofminds, or email me at elizabeth.bartmess@gmail.com. You can also email the administrators, Huw and Neile (and they’re fine with being contacted pseudonymously, if you’re nervous about being out about disability-related things). They say:

“We encourage potential applicants to ask about accessibility issues, including as many of those “little details” that you mention (the ones that are hugely important to individuals) as possible. While we’re limited in some ways, we’re always eager to make the workshop more accessible and more welcoming… and we recognize that there are still barriers that we haven’t even thought of, so the more input we receive from applicants and students, the better. And of course, the more we know about an individual’s limits and needs, the more we can work with them to achieve adequate solutions/accommodations.”