On How it Was – Clarion West 2016

I’ve wanted to write about my Clarion West experience for weeks, but I kept putting it off just because I’m struggling with the idea of doing the experience justice. How could I possibly put to words how tremendous, how life-changing, how epic the entire experience was?

I’ll try.

Firstly, yes, it was magnificent. I am not being hyperbolic in the slightest – though there were tired patches and a few incredibly minor squabbles, I valued every single damn minute of Clarion West. Hell, it took me six years to get in, and I knew the entire time that I’d only get it once, and that I had to make every moment count. So I did, and even then, there are classmates that I didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked to with, and there were things that I missed out on doing. I also slept way less than I should have (6 hours a night was about the average, with some nights around the 3-4 hour mark). The lack of sleep wasn’t due to writing (although it certainly was on a Monday night when Team Tuesday – myself, Jess Silbaugh-Cowdin and Cadwell Turnbull – were on a deadline). The lack of sleep was due to fun, because fuck going to sleep when there are games of Coup and Catan to play, and ciders to drink, and jokes to be made, and conversations to be had.

Yeah, I slept so little that I actually hallucinated tiny lightning bolts behind my eyes in Week 5.

So, my class. What can I say about my class? They’re family, and I love them. Honestly, the first two days seemed to stretch on for two weeks, and the first time we all sat down to dinner at the giant tables, it felt like the formation of a new tribe, a forever-family.

They are, in alphabetical order:

Taimur Ahmad – Sparky, joyful and talented. Adores mountains. Wrote something new and challenging every week.

Betsy Aoki – Generous and kind. Someone who cares deeply for each of us. A poet, with wonderful prose and Samurai blood, who should not be fucked with. Ever.

EN Bartmess – Astounding dedication to research. A killer swordswoman with a sharp and wry sense of humour.

T Jane Berry – Shrewd, organised, experimental. TJ can switch gears from humour to horror with envious ease.

Octavia Cade – Stoic, scientific, analytical, blunt. Taught us to science properly.

Paul DesCombaz – Loves his dogs and his records and writes terrifying and/or hilarious horror. I want to be like Paul when I grow up.

Alex Filipowicz – Ridiculously well-read, and probably the most literary of us. Alex really likes long sentences. An honest and brave human.

Lora Gray – A beautiful soul who writes prose that’ll make you weep. Sees everything with the eyes of an artist.

CA Hawksmoor – An unspeakably brave heart. Writes astonishingly lovely words.

Jon Lasser – Hospitable and kind, always looking out for people, always generous with time and critiques.

S Qiouyi Lu – Unstoppable, careful, patient, kind.

Gunnar Norskog – Resilient, kind. I’m proud of Gunnar for pushing himself.

Shiv Ramdas – A bard, who can joke and challenge and critique and support all at once. Shiv fell asleep everywhere.

Mitchell Shanklin – A golden retriever of a human who hugs like a champion and writes heartfelt and often experimental stories. Was the first to call me “Em-dash.”

Jessica Silbaugh-Cowdin – Loyal as all fuck. Writes gorgeous, aching stories that hit your heart with a hammer. One third of Team Tuesday.

Gabriel Teodros – The most peaceful person I’ve ever met. Cares deeply about people. Writes found-families, real worlds.

Cadwell Turnbull – Feminist extraordinaire. Writes multiverses and goddesses and stories that go deep. One third of Team Tuesday.

You can find all of their bios and writing and websites at teamarsenic.com

Why Team Arsenic? There’s a great write-up on the site, but in summary, we were the 33rd Clarion West class, and arsenic is the 33rd element (thanks, Jess, for figuring that out!) We found so much meaning in arsenic as a symbol. It’s a healing poison, a catalyst for change. We all changed, and grew, and wrote stories that explored the deep and difficult parts of ourselves. I’m proud of that, and I’m exceptionally grateful that we were in a class that supported that exploration. Eight of us have tattooed the alchemical symbol for arsenic on our bodies, and others will do so in the future. Tattoos or not, we’ve all been stamped with the experience.


Our instructors were spectacular people. Paul Park came in and put the fear of god into us, thrashing out our bad habits and hammering down lessons we’d use countless times over the next five weeks. Stephen Graham Jones took us beyond our comfort zones, pushed our endings to be stronger, darker, harder, more complicated. Elizabeth Bear refined us, asked us to be as elegant and daring as we could be. Nora Jemisin taught us new ways of seeing worlds, of understanding people. She challenged us to go beyond our experiences and to push past difficulties. Sheila Williams taught us to trust in our stories, to constantly reach out to others in the community, to find our people. Michael Swanwick, who subbed in for Geoff Ryman, taught us to examine our character relationships, and to have faith in who we will be in the future.

There were so many moments that I’ll never forget. I can’t capture them all, but some of them are: Umbrella (with actual umbrellas), lake swim, Alki, watching Cae and Alex kayak (Cae-yak) in Greg Bear’s lake, COUP, going to Seattle Pride with Lora, Mitch and Taimur, the Bear Dance Party, Betsy’s chickens, shouty poetry night, Battlestar Galactica night (especially the speeches), five shots of Kraken, watching the Summer Games with Nora, the Be Steadwell gig with Gabriel, Jess and Cadwell, tattoos, Cadwell and S playing piano, hanging at the EMP playground after the Locus awards, dimples, the 3 minutes of Neko Case that Lora and I managed to listen to before Shiv hijacked the music, losing MarioKart to S and Jess, Washington cherries, Joe’s cooking (Joeeeee), Laphroaig, tiny bunks, flasks named for characters, karaoke, sword fights on the lawn, juggling, car trips, S’s full-body emojis, the local cafes, I am a loyal servant of Arthur, the basement crew, the front step crew, pillow fights, the readings… Oh, everything.  I could list so many more moments. (Class, add them in the comments?)

I need to thank Huw Evans and Neile Graham (and all of the volunteers, drivers, workshop assistants and party hosts – Lauren Dixon especially) for running everything flawlessly and looking after us. Thank you to Joe and Esther, for supporting us as we wrote. Thank you to all of the Seattle writers who welcomed us to the community.  Thank you to our mystery muses and to our Skype muses, for being so generous with your time and wisdom. Thank you to everyone who ever supported me and cheered me on when I felt like giving up.

I am so fucking grateful that I got to attend Clarion West in 2016. It changed my life. It gave me a new family. It pushed me to grow and taught me more than I could ever say.

I’ll never forget it.


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