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


I’ve known about this book since it came out in 2005. I’ve thought “I need to get that” more than once. I’m not sure what took me so long. Except that sometimes, when you know something is going to affect you strongly, you hesitate.

I haven’t written much here about my time at Clarion, those six weeks in 1991 that remain six of the most influential weeks of my life. I was nineteen. The two stories I submitted to get into the workshop were two of the only stories I’d ever finished, and one — the better one, although they were both awful — wasn’t even sf. The only reason I knew Clarion existed was that Dad subscribed to Analog, and I saw a full-page ad for it there.

So much chance and luck. Ann Arbor was only an hour away from East Lansing, so my parents were willing to let me go. I was able to take time off from my student library assistant job (yes, I was already working in libraries). We had a great lineup of instructors and editorial guests: Tim Powers, Ellen Kushner, Karen Joy Fowler, John Kessel, Gardner Dozois, Gordon Van Gelder, and, of course, Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight. I was ridiculously lucky that the instructors saw something in my terrible submission stories, and ludicrously lucky, too, in my fellow students.

All of which is to say that I was somewhat, slightly, prepared to be rendered verklempt by reading Storyteller.

But I didn’t expect to hear Kate’s voice so clearly inside my head as I read.

(Sidebar: I don’t know why not. She has a lovely voice. In fact, once at Clarion, a time when I was even more likely to say whatever came into my head than I am now, I went into a sort of verbal reverie about the kind of voices I could just listen to all day: “And Kate, you have a voice like that, too!” To which Kate responded, in her lovely voice, “Sara, I don’t give grades.”)

I have now written more than three hundred words without telling you a single thing about the book. It’s the story of Kate’s experience over decades of being an instructor and organizer of the Clarion Workshop for Writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It’s also a story about how to write stories, and how not to.

Here is a paragraph from a page the corner of which I turned down:

Our students often worked furiously to try to keep up with one another in output, in reading, in playing, and frequently they failed. They were trying to work with the wrong rhythm. We reassured them as best we could. If another writer is comfortable writing a story a week, and you cannot do that, don’t fret. Take ten days, or two weeks, or whatever your personal schedule requires. Some writers can finish a novel in three months; others need three years, or even longer. They all have their own rhythms. You will find yours. You will deplete your well of inspiration, and in its own time, it will refill and be ready for you to draw on again. There is little point in trying to force it to conform to a faster pace.


Want more? Read the excerpt My Silent Partner, about achieving a good working relationship with your unconscious. Then go buy the book.

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  • katherine
    May 13, 2009 at 7:18 am

    I am anxiously anticipating the arrival of this book from Small Beer. Perhaps it will work something loose in my brain :).

    And thanks for sharing your Clarion story; I’d always wondered about it.


  • Sara
    May 13, 2009 at 8:27 am

    Hey Katherine, I hope it shakes something loose for you, too. I also wanted to respond to your earlier comment about feeling like your writing was an endless rehearsal — I definitely, definitely understand your frustration. But try to remember that there’s value in that “rehearsal” process; you have freedom to experiment, to hone your craft, to take all the time you need to develop whatever projects you’re working on. (Arguably, you’ll have that freedom after you’re published, too, but it will probably feel different when there are external expectations, deadlines and pressures in addition to the ones you’re putting on yourself.)

    Oh, and that is only one of so many Clarion stories. I might tell more of them in future. :)

  • Katherine
    June 7, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Just finished Storyteller and it was wonderful. I always thought KJF should write one, too, since she’s such an amazing teacher. Didn’t shake anything loose, but I’m pretty much used to that by now. Sometimes it’s best to close some doors and keep them shut.