Clarion West: Changing Your Schema

CW Class of 2011 with instructor Paul Park

If you’ve read personal accounts of Clarion West or other residential writing workshops, you’ve probably heard one phrase mentioned over and over:

“It changed my life.”
But what does this mean? 
Some writers may leave a workshop with stories they publish soon after in pro markets. But the people who say a workshop changed their lives far outnumber the amount of writers who leave a workshop with a publishable story. 
You’ve probably also heard writers say that they expected for a workshop to be life-changing, but in the end the experience wasn’t quite that. It may have still been a wonderful, fun, inspiring experience – just not life-changing. 
What I think happens in a workshop, and what determines whether you describe it afterwards as life-changing or just excellent, is whether or not you experienced a change of schema. 
Your schema is your worldview. It’s how you see yourself, the world, and yourself in the world. 
People experience schema shifts when they decide to embrace or reject major modes of thought in their lives. These are usually concepts that impact daily living: 
Adopting a religion. Or rejecting one. Or all of them. 
Becoming vegetarian/ vegan/ raw. Or moving away from these after embracing them. 
Having a child. Adopting a child. Or deciding not to have children. 
In the case of the writing workshop, your schema has to do with how you view yourself and your writing. And very importantly, what place writing has in your daily life. 
If you go to a residential workshop like Clarion West and you already have an agent, a published book, and/or a coterie of established authors you hang out with at conventions, then the workshop experience might not be a life-changing one for you. Writing is already part of your schema.
But if you’re like me, an unpublished beginner with a handful of writing friends who writes in short bursts of inspiration once a month, then a workshop like Clarion West could very well change your life. 
I know it changed mine. 
After Clarion West, writing was part of my life. I considered myself a writer. Not a gifted writer, or a crappy writer, but someone whose daily work is writing. Maybe not for money, but for myself. 
And because I considered myself a writer, I wrote more. 
I couldn’t allow myself the excuses I’d made before the workshop. They didn’t fit my schema anymore. 
When I came home to Alabama, I missed being around other writers. At Clarion West there were always people willing to talk about Star Trek, your story in progress, or watch an episode of MST3K at midnight. There’s a community for you, both inside the house and at the Friday night parties. 
After Clarion West I sought out my local community. This was something I hadn’t had the courage to do before Clarion West, and to be honest, I thought it didn’t matter. But I realized that community is so important. It is probably the second most important part of writing life, after the actual sitting down and writing part. 

There are tons of other, smaller changes. Reading more short story magazines, joining my local writers group, signing up for a novel workshop – I could catalogue the changes down to finally getting a new pair of glasses. My schema changed, and I changed, at a fundamental level.

More than anything, this schema change post-workshop made me feel whole. It gave me a sense of calm and drive as a writer. I felt less of a rush to publish, win accolades, find a fan base. The daily act of writing, of being with the story, was no longer drudge work. It fulfilled and sustained me.

They say that every year at Clarion West two writers fall in love. Two years ago, in the middle of my MFA program, I hated my writing. I wanted to torch my stories. At Clarion West, I fell in love with writing again.

The deadline to apply to Clarion West is fast approaching. Submit your stories by March 1st. Check here for more information. 
If you’re still not sure whether you want to apply, here are some posts from my classmates:
Sarah Hirsch – The only one of us to blog a little while at the workshop. Her posts give a good sense of being there. 
Mark Pantoja – Mark had an amazingly successful fundraising project on Kickstarter. 
Jei D. Marcade – wrote some lovely parting thoughts on her way home from Clarion West. 
Whether or not Clarion West changes your life, it is a wonderful, unforgettable experience. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in writing. 

One thought on “Clarion West: Changing Your Schema

  1. Hey, Jenni.
    I'm with you on the community aspect being the big life-changer for me. I've always been a disciplined (if not successful) writer, and I've been through workshops and all that before. But the Clarion West *experience* – where writing was taken seriously, where everyone you met almost took it as understood that you were pursuing writing and that writing was a worthwhile pursuit, where writers whose books I've read and admired talked to me seriously about how they did what they did and how I might do what I wanted to do…that was the thing that took six weeks to sink in, and that was the thing that I have carried home with me, and keep turning over, and trying to make my 'real' life fit with. That new conceptualizaton is a work in progress, but it *feels* different now. Something has changed.

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