The summer fiction issue of the New Yorker addresses the subject of writers workshops in an article by Louis Menand. The article covers the famous creative writing programs — Iowa, Brown, others — and asks the question, “Can writing be taught?”
I don’t know if writing can be taught. I do know it can be learned. Writing workshops are a way to focus a writer’s attention on the process, on their voice, and on the stories they want to tell. I’ve never been to Clarion, but I know people who have, and the question is not whether you learn to be a writer at Clarion (since you have to be accepted you are probably already going to be pretty proficient) but what you yourself bring to the process.
Several years ago when I first graduated from student to teacher at Armadillocon’s writers workshop, there was an attendee who wrote a story that was, simply put, a mess. The next year, he came back with the amazingly self-assured and publishable short story. It was hard to believe it was the same author, who basically spent the previous year working on the craft.
What had he learned at Armadillocon the first year that enabled him to write that next story so well? I don’t think you can attribute his success to the workshop. I think he was poised to learn how to write, and would have succeeded without the workshop. I’m glad he came back though, because it was very cool, to see that success. After that, I never discounted anyone. You never know who is going to learn how to write.
So if workshops don’t teach you how to write, what are they good for? Well, they can teach you how to learn. Also by critiquing other people’s stories, you can learn how to critique your own. There’s a sense of camaraderie at workshops that I have always enjoyed, a sort of “we’re all in this together” feeling.
I think it can be summed up like this — a workshop gives you the tools and might even show you how to use them. It’s up to you to practice and become proficient. No one can teach you to write. You have to teach yourself.
Good luck, have fun, and happy writing!