Skip to content
Answering Your Questions About Reactor: Right here.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter. Everything in one handy email.
When one looks in the box, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the cat.

The Ghost of Workshops Past: How Communism, Conservatism, and the Cold War Still Mold Our Paths Into SFF Writing


Home / The Ghost of Workshops Past: How Communism, Conservatism, and the Cold War Still Mold Our Paths Into SFF Writing
Books writing

The Ghost of Workshops Past: How Communism, Conservatism, and the Cold War Still Mold Our Paths Into SFF Writing


Published on August 17, 2022

Photo by Sergey Zolkin [via Unsplash]
Photo by Sergey Zolkin [via Unsplash]

Part 1. The Emotionally-Charged World of the SFF Workshops That Make Professional Writers

In 2016, Neil Gaiman tweeted: “If you want to be a writer, you want to go to Clarion, NEED to go to Clarion.”

The tweet got significant pushback, with replies calling it “crushing”, “hurtful”, and “cruel”, including from other professionals. Eight hours later, Gaiman clarified: “Obviously you don’t actually need to go to Clarion/Clarion West to be a writer.”

To those outside the industry, the name “Clarion” might not have much meaning. But to those with aspirations of being a professional SFF author—of joining those like Gaiman—workshops like Clarion can have a venerated status. The Clarion Writers’ Workshop boasts a stunning roster of alumni, including Kim Stanley Robinson, Ted Chiang, Octavia Butler, and Cory Doctorow—many of whom have returned to teach, creating a star-studded faculty that’s been joined by the likes of Harlan Ellison and George R.R. Martin.

SFF has a number of these well-regarded writing workshops, of which Clarion and the similar but separately-run Clarion West are the oldest. Others include Odyssey, Viable Paradise, Taos Toolbox, and Futurescapes.  All are audition-only with competitive application processes; all are a feather in a writer’s cap for queries or cover letters. Though certainly not the only way to succeed as a SFF writer, they are seen as a path toward becoming a professional.

The workshops vary in intensity—Clarion and Clarion West are six-week-long pressure cookers; others are shorter. Most are pricey (Clarion’s tuition is over $5,000 USD), and they require time away from any other obligations. Before COVID-19, all were also residential. This arguably creates a great benefit of these workshops—a cohort of fellow writers, bonded by fire, who can move through the industry together—but this type of setup also begins to show why people worry about workshops being perceived as a requirement.

With our growing awareness about inclusivity, it’s easy to see the obstacles inherent in a six-week residential workshop (or even a shorter one). Jobs, childcare, disability, lack of funds, the high cost of plane tickets (especially internationally), visas, unfavorable exchange rates—historically all have served to make workshops far more inaccessible to some demographics.

Even such workshops’ greatest advocates are usually careful to stress that there are plenty of other paths into publishing. In my experience, this has been especially true in my communities of color.


Part 2. Do Workshops Fail More Often for BIPOC Participants? Or Only to the Extent the Rest of the World Does, Too?

Alumni of SFF workshops commonly rave about their experiences, describing them as “life changing” or as cramming years of transformative craft advancement into mere weeks. However, for some individuals, the workshop experience works less well. One repeated caution is the phenomenon that some participants stop writing entirely afterward—sometimes for a year or two or five, sometimes forever.

Over time, I’ve noticed that bad workshop experiences seemed to come up far more often in my BIPOC communities than elsewhere.

When gathering feedback for this article, this perception has only been reinforced. A few BIPOC respondents recalled their workshops with unmitigated warmth, but I also heard from BIPOC writers about workshop issues small and large: from microaggressions during critique to sometimes grossly inappropriate, racist comments that instructors either hadn’t shut down or were party to. Sessions where people had to push back against other critiquers’ ignorance, or were angry they weren’t allowed to, or were blamed for any divisiveness…Though many described positive ways workshops had benefited them as well, their accounts tended to be much more mixed. Furthermore, a common refrain—including from some people with unsullied workshop memories—was the desire to now seek out all-BIPOC critique groups.

In the past, I chalked up my sense of all this to the systemic racism in the rest of our world. Even the best-intentioned, most well-run workshops are made up of people, and it did not seem strange that my fellow authors of color would have a greater number of poor experiences, even at respected workshops. Not right—but not strange. Then I learned the fascinating, frightening history of creative writing workshops in the United States…a history that still influences how we teach today.


Part 3. Down the Rabbit Hole: How the History of Writing Workshops is Tangled with Fighting Communism  

When I began receiving invitations to teach, it motivated my own research into writing workshops. With substantial teaching experience but no workshop experience—as instructor or student—I polled everyone I knew on what different structures they’d seen.

Milford, I was told.


And again Milford.

I was flummoxed. Was every teacher in every writing classroom in SFF using the exact same method? With variations, I was told, but still Milford: a method of critique in which the author stays silent, each participant has a timed slot for feedback, and then the author has a timed slot to speak themselves.

I thought of the myriad pedagogies in other fields. How could there be only one method?

Fortunately, a number of people I respected directed me to two books: Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses and The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop by Felicia Rose Chavez, which both came out in 2021. Both take their readers through analyses of craft, writing pedagogy…and the systemic racism often baked into the process.

Though neither Salesses nor Chavez come from speculative fiction, both have MFAs and speak of traditional workshops as being those where the author is forced to sit silent during critique. They don’t call it Milford—that’s our name for it in SFF—but the description is the same.

Both authors related how harmful their experiences with this type of critique had been. Both illustrated ways this type of critique can wreck writers who come from a cultural background not shared by others in the workshop.

Both were adamant that the way we teach writing must change.

“This silencing, particularly of writers of color, is especially destructive in institutions that routinely disregard the lived experiences of people who are not white,” Chavez writes. “This matrix of silence is so profound it enlists writers of color to eradicate ourselves.”

“Why do we cling to this outdated model?” asks Salesses. “…if we are to use workshop as a pedagogical approach, we need to actively acknowledge and confront the dangers of workshop both to the writing itself—if ‘writing itself’ even exists—and to our personhoods.”

As part of tracing out why these types of workshops can be so detrimental to minority writers, both authors delved into the history of writing workshops. And both argued that the traditional workshop in which the author is enforced to silence will not only suppress minority voices—but that its domination across education happened not by accident, but by design.

Our way of teaching creative writing in America did not spring up in disparate evolution. Instead, workshops as we know them have a shockingly narrow provenance: The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1930s.

The full history of how we got from then to now is beyond the scope of this essay. I chased it through two dozen books and as many journal articles on the histories of creative writing, workshopping, and science fiction. The short version is this: Creative writing as an educational subject has barely a century of history in the United States. In the early 1900s, it struggled out of infancy against a prevailing attitude that writing was not something that could be taught at all, with even many of its earliest pioneers convinced of this futility.

A number of those pioneers were at the University of Iowa, which awarded the first creative writing MFAs in the United States—and, before that, was one of the first universities to experiment with this new-fangled idea of “teaching writing” or developing a curriculum for it. Though innovative, that development happened against a backdrop of harsh social conservatism and New Criticism, with one of its leading crusaders even opining that it was dead wrong to consider writing a creative field—writing, he felt, should instead be synonymous with the field of criticism. The familiar round-robin workshop was developed at Iowa by one of its poetry faculty and later made a centerpiece of its writing program. In such a political landscape, it is no surprise such a strictly-regimented peer critique method was so appealing: a “learn by doing” class in which the instructor does not need to figure out how to become a teacher of writing, only a critic.

Such a method was appealing to others, as well, among these early teachers so convinced their subject was impossible to teach. Even so, creative writing pedagogy might have maintained the greater diversity it started with had it not been for the second director of Iowa’s creative writing program: a poet named Paul Engle. Engle had a staggering talent at administration and fundraising, and his tenure coincided with the Cold War. He managed to package Iowa’s nascent workshop system as synonymous with spreading Midwest values and American ideals—and therefore as part of the front line in the culture war against Communism. Engle garnered money from oil baron philanthropists, the State Department, and even the CIA to carbon-copy Iowa’s teaching methodologies all over the country—and the world.

This included the workshopping method Iowa had developed. Even more attractive, this type of pedagogy was simple, replicable, uncomplicated—as Matthew Salesses says, Iowa made writing “easy to fundraise for, and easy to teach.”

Here was the answer to my confusion: Why is almost everyone using the same workshopping method? Because three-quarters of a century ago, a Cold Warrior named Paul Engle was wildly, ideologically successful in spreading that method to every corner of a brand-new field, all by managing to sell it as a weapon against the Red Scare.


Part 4. From Iowa to Bread Loaf to Milford to Clarion   

I traced this method of workshopping from Iowa to the early years of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and from Bread Loaf to Milford, which was the first writing conference dedicated to SFF. The Milford Writers’ Conference was founded by Damon Knight, Judith Merril, and James Blish in 1956, smack in the middle of Engle’s red-hot zeitgeist. There’s no indication the founders knew any of the politics attached to the expansion of those workshop methods—it’s likely they sourced the format from a colleague and figured this was the way workshopping was done.

Thanks to Engle, it was how workshopping was done. By the 1950s, almost nothing else would have existed to provide another model.

Milford was founded as a conference between peers, not as a program to teach newer writers. A decade later, in 1967, Robin Scott Wilson (who, in what appears to be an unrelated coincidence, used to work for the CIA), came and asked for assistance in starting a more beginner SFF workshop for the college campus on which he taught. He recruited much-needed help from Damon Knight and from Knight’s fellow author and by-then wife Kate Wilhelm.

None of the three had any prior knowledge about how to teach writing, other than by trying to adapt what they had been using at Milford. In Wilhelm’s Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, in which she details the very beginnings of Clarion, she confesses, “Neither Damon nor I had had teaching experience, and we were learning by trial and error what was effective and what was not.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Wilson, the only one of them who was an active professor at the time: “[A] condition of my employment was that I organize a writers’ workshop. I did not know how to do this. I did not know anybody who knew how to do this…”

Like with many of the earliest educators on the mainstream literary scene, my read is of people who cared, who wanted to create something new and important. They were developing, testing, throwing things at the wall. Though some of Wilhelm’s own conclusions on pedagogy mildly horrify me at points—and her husband’s, more than mildly—it’s clear that becoming a good teacher was truly important to her.

However, Wilhelm never seems to question her own experience at Milford, where her writing received such a “drubbing” that she hurled rock after rock angrily into the Delaware River muttering imprecations against Knight and Blish. She never seems to wonder whether that was truly the most effective teaching method for her…let alone for anyone who wasn’t able to successfully recontextualize it.

Clarion hit the scene in 1968 as the first SFF workshop meant to teach emerging writers. In 1970, a young Vonda McIntyre attended and thought the workshop so effective that, with the aid and blessing of the original Clarion, she founded Clarion West in Seattle the following year: a parallel, separately-run workshop using the same teaching methods as Clarion.

Which, of course, meant the same teaching methods as Milford. As Iowa.

Other workshops like Viable Paradise and Taos followed in Clarion’s methodological footsteps, leading to the workshop pantheon we have today—all branching from that same common point. Engle’s legacy left almost no opportunity for cross-pollination from the rest of the literary world, either, as across all genres and classrooms we have so lacked for genetic diversity in our pedagogy.

Oh, but Clarion’s methods work, an objector might point out, citing the rave reviews or the substantial number of people who credit a workshop on their ramp toward publication.

I don’t think that’s wrong. Clarion’s methods work…for the people they work for. I don’t want us not to have those methods. I want there to be more. More choice, more diversity, to nurture all types of voices and minds and pens.

My intent is not to criticize Wilson and Knight and Wilhelm for experimenting, but to emphasize the opposite—we should experiment more, in our own generation! Fifty years after Clarion’s founders built something new, it’s on us keep moving forward. Part of that is questioning the defaults of our genre forebears. Admirable as the establishment of Clarion was, those methods did not originate from any comparative pedagogical study. Instead, likely unknowingly, the Clarion founders were working from Iowa’s cookie-cutter mass-market mold. We’ve still been using a method of group critique that came from one classroom—which was adopted by one university—that then intentionally and ideologically pushed it to virality over an entire nation and world.

How incredibly fragile it is, to have built such a large ecosystem off that single experiment.


Part 5. Does Milford Have Particular Pitfalls for Authors of Color?

As we look back at this uneasy history, it helps crystallize why a method like Milford would fail more often for writers of color or other minority students in the workshop. The Iowa method purposely eschewed teaching; instead it used the power of cold interaction with a group of critics to mold writers into a “1930s America” majority opinion of good literature.

Unless an instructor is careful, such a method can still easily function that way. When a student’s contexts and cultural touchstones are different from the vast majority of the class, it’s far easier for such a narrow slice of audience—the instructor and fellow critiquers—to miss what that student is trying to do entirely.

That doesn’t mean the group is incapable of being helpful! But here Milford can do a disservice to them as well, since, if they have no idea what the author was trying to do, they are critiquing the wrong story. With our writing so often informed by our personal backgrounds, that misunderstanding-turned-judgment easily becomes a criticism on differences in the writer’s life instead of on the work. The class can fall into the trap of becoming a referendum on how much the writer differs from the majority.

In Craft in the Real World, Matthew Salesses points out that writing workshops are often culturally homogenous along several axes. Thus, when a mostly-white, mostly-American workshop makes statements on what “the reader” will understand or enjoy, that hypothetical “reader” is far from a generic representation, but instead reflects the backgrounds of the participants. Salesses speaks about the power of the workshop environment: how easy it is to change one’s writing to fit exactly what the workshop wants, and how doing so almost made him lose his own voice as a writer. This effect, he posits, is much exacerbated for those whose backgrounds don’t match the “reader” as envisioned by the homogenous workshop, and the gag rule serves to center that voice of the majority rather than the voice of the author: “[T]he real-world silencing simply reinforces the idea that the marginalized writer should be writing toward the workshop and power.”

His conclusion is shared by a number of other academics, teachers, and advocates who are pushing for workshop reform. In The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, Chavez identifies the silencing rule of workshop as part of a larger institutional structure that silences writers of color in a much larger sense, leading to our omission at all levels of education and publishing. In the widely-shared essay “Unsilencing the Writing Workshop”, Beth Nguyen details how an entire critique session on one of her pieces was taken up by a debate over whether readers would know what dim sum was; she contends: “This is also the kind of unchecked, micro-aggressive yet forceful imbalance of power that is the typical workshop environment. It is undoubtedly experienced in some way by everyone but profoundly so for writers of color, especially since creative writing programs, nationally, are 74 percent white.” In her article “Voice of Authority: Theorizing Creative Writing Pedagogy,” Rosalie Morales Kearns additionally makes the case that the gag rule’s purported benefits tend to favor those who are societally privileged, and that those without such privilege “may well already feel silenced by the larger society in general and by their educational experiences in particular before they even walk into a creative writing workshop. The gag rule silences those who already feel silenced, thus furthering their feelings of alienation and disempowerment.” She recounts how such a structure clashes with her own Puerto Rican upbringing and values, and questions why we accept it.

All this profoundly matches the experiences I heard from our own workshop attendees in SFF. Stories varied with everyone I spoke to, but I heard in variety the ordeal of needing to sit in silence while the author’s identity was policed, their authenticity questioned, their natural dialect criticized, or their cultural practices minimized as unrelatable or unimportant. People also shared with me the lasting anger of being forced to sit silent in the face of racism or microaggressions against other people’s work—as it is not only the author who is disallowed from speaking, but everyone whose turn has already passed.

Workshops are not divorced from the rest of our lives—lives in which many of us face discrimination on a regular basis. To face it in a place where we have been told it is against the rules to say a word, that if we speak up to differ then we are unprofessional, we are bad writers

It stings on a far different level from being called out for too many adverbs.

And it’s understandable if such an experience is enough to drive someone away from workshopping—or, especially when coupled with other types of prejudice, to drive them away from writing SFF altogether.

No method will work for everyone, but it’s worth considering how methodologies fail, how often, and whom they fail for. We can aim for methods that, when they fail for a student, fail less badly—perhaps a mediocre experience rather than a crushing one. We can try to avoid setting up our failure points to fall disproportionately on minority demographics of students.

Otherwise—whose voices will we lose?


Part 6. What is the Purpose of a Writing Workshop?

Potential inequity is one crucial facet of where our history has left us, but it’s also part of a larger conversation about how we workshop—one that can be personal to authors of any background. Traditionally, discourse about workshops’ current format has borne troubling assumptions that anyone who would struggle with it is somehow not a “real writer”, not “dedicated” enough, or that nothing should exist for them.

In her book Steering the Craft, Ursula K. LeGuin wrote of critique groups that “The rule of silence…is an essential element of the process,” continuing:

“If you truly can’t endure the rule of silence, probably you don’t really want to know how other people respond to your work. […] This is absolutely OK. It’s a matter of temperament. Some artists can work only in solitude.”

Far be it for me to disagree with a master like LeGuin, but why? Why are the choices that a writer must jibe with this one single pedagogical method—a method that stems entirely from one institution in the 1930s!—or they are forever condemned to going it alone?

Put like that, it sounds absurd.

I am even more suspicious of Wilhelm’s comment that Clarion made some students realize they “didn’t want to become writers”, something she frames as a “valuable lesson”. Was it writing that wasn’t for them, I wonder, or the workshop methods? How damaging it can be, if a new writer mistakes one for the other and gives up their voice forever. I will never judge a writer for walking away from an industry as difficult as ours, but the reason should never be that they perceive their failure at workshopping as a failure at writing.

Wilhelm, by all accounts a generally kind person, takes a grim pride in her and her husband’s resolution to “absolute honesty”—to the point of saying if a story “was a dismal failure with no redeeming value.” She puts this type of “honesty” in a dichotomy with the concept of “encouragement”, which she pejoratively refers to as “pats and praise.” That, she claims, is not what serious students need—or want.

She’s not wrong, in the sense that this is the same kneejerk fear I’ve seen from some writers when talking about writing pedagogy reform before. Don’t coddle us! I don’t want gentleness if that means I won’t get the keys to the castle!

But “honesty” is not the opposite of “encouragement.” Why do we think it is?

For one more illustration, I return to the early Clarion era. In an echo of the 1930s pedagogues, Damon Knight seems to have approached his teaching as the critic he also famously was. Essays written to eulogize him contain anecdotes about him throwing a manuscript out the window or telling a student her writing made him want to vomit. “In his critiques, he usually gave me the impression that there was really nothing worth reading in what I had written,” recounted one author, though she did not see him as “cruel”, only as “honest.” Nebula-winning writer Leslie What described how he took the magazine containing her first published story and marked it up with corrections in pen.

What identifies herself as a mentee of Knight, expressing heartfelt gratitude for how he shaped her writing career. But before that, a critique of his literally made her decide to quit writing for good. Only in a chance meet-up with Knight at a department store did he convince her to come back.

I’m truly glad What returned to an art she loved and found such a mentor in Knight. But I think of all the people who might have walked away…and not had a chance meeting with Damon Knight in a checkout line a few years later.

Most of our SFF workshop leaders today would never teach as Knight did. Yet I draw an analogy to how some people feel they learned deeply from him. Similarly, some people learn extremely well from our current critique methods—I hope we can equally agree that some people won’t.

What is the purpose of a writing workshop?

In contrast to Wilhelm, Felicia Rose Chavez emphasizes encouragement and psychological care as vital parts of the workshop, since supporting oneself emotionally and mentally is “essential to participants’ long-term success.” As someone who’s been a full-time writer for eight years and spent about a quarter of that time wondering if I should quit—as someone who’s seen friends write up to nine books before finding any success—I feel this statement deeply. Throughout her book, Chavez stresses the importance of a workshop leaving its participants excited to keep writing, rather than drowned in the paralysis of “anxiety, self-loathing, or defensiveness.”

Writers don’t want a new method! It won’t do what we need! insist the general objections against workshop reform, from people who like Milford—from people for whom Milford worked.

Yet when Chavez began her “anti-racist writing workshop”, the gratitude and enthusiasm she saw from students was overwhelming.


Part 7. Where Are We Now? Today and the Rumble of Change

Some teachers certainly manage to avoid Milford’s pitfalls; in fact, I’ve heard some of the same instructors’ names time and again with glowing reviews. But the issues with the method’s sheer ubiquity remain—as well as the hidden failure points that a new workshop leader must learn to navigate around. Something like Milford may be tantalizingly easy to learn to teach…but perhaps harder to teach well, if instructors must fight its tendency toward failing the vulnerable.

But how do we break out of a cultural dominance that has become so diffuse across our field? How might an instructor or workshop even figure out what they wish to do, if they have never been exposed to other shapes of critique?

“If we must be willing to risk ourselves in our writing, we must be willing to risk ourselves in how we teach writing,” writes Matthew Salesses. “It is time for workshop to change.”

Thrillingly, a number of our most passionate educators in SFF are already leading the way.

Acclaimed SFF novelist Suyi Davies Okungbowa is also a professor of creative writing at the University of Ottawa. “I became uncomfortable with how much room traditional workshop practices like the gag rule allowed for silencing historically minority voices, or pretty much just not serving the writer’s most pressing needs,” he told me. “So I stopped using it in the classes I taught.” Instead, he creates a workshop tailored to students’ individualized choices of what will work best for them, offering an array of different formats and options. “Most of these approaches tend to have me & the writer as co-drivers. I feel writers should come away knowing that there are many different ways to critique and be critiqued. We’re not beholden to one approach.”

Hugo-nominated SFF author Vida Cruz advocates for a similar mindset outside the academy, and she gives a presentation called “Decolonizing the Writing Workshop” that urges us to rethink how we conceptualize workshopping. One of the issues with systems like Milford and Iowa, she says, is that their structure drives critiquers to “try to sound intelligent” in a way that easily slips into being mean. “That’s not helpful to the growth of any writer,” she told me. “Especially if you run into something like that when you’re new…if your skin isn’t already thick, you’re bound to want to stop writing.” Cruz favors critique methods that are more author-centered, like the Lerman Critical Response Process

Gradually, more teachers in SFF are bringing new ideas into their classes, building more author-centric and supportive approaches. But what of our workshops and their leaders? Where are they in this rumble of change?

Why, several of them are right out at the front of the charge.

None more than Odyssey, run by Jeanne Cavelos. Until 2020, Odyssey was, like the two Clarions, a six-week residential workshop that used Milford for its critique sessions—although Cavelos had already made changes based on how useful she found authors’ thoughts to the process. “I realized that my critiques weren’t as helpful as they might be, because I didn’t always know what the author of the piece was attempting to accomplish,” she said, explaining how she developed a “Submission Attachment” for writers to provide her with significantly more information.

Then, in 2020, the outpouring of excitement at the accessibility of a virtual workshop blew Cavelos away. “The overall number of applicants increased significantly, but the percentage of BIPOC and disabled applicants increased much more,” she told me, describing the many poignant statements she received from authors who were able to come to a major workshop for the first time.

She realized just how badly some writers were being under-served by the six-week residential model. Based on this feedback and on reading the writings of Salesses, Chavez, and Nguyen that came out over the past few years, Cavelos sat down in late 2021 and redesigned Odyssey completely.

She’s now transformed it into an individualized, permanently virtual experience, one she can tailor to each participant—and that participants can choose to spread over six weeks, three months, or six months according to their life circumstances. “One of my goals is for this to be a more inclusive experience that makes students collaborators in their education, that values their unique strengths and what they have to say as writers, that helps them find their unique paths,” Cavelos said.

This year, 2022, will be the first of this new model. The difference has already been tremendous—Cavelos says the number of applications more than doubled compared to 2021, with another dramatic increase in BIPOC and disabled applicants. BIPOC participants now make up 75 percent of the 2022 class.

Cavelos is the primary instructor for Odyssey, enabling her to make fast, responsive improvements. The old Odyssey Workshop is not coming back, and Cavelos says she’ll continue to work to expand Odyssey’s inclusivity even more.

Instituting change has been more complicated for Clarion West, as their model brings in a different instructor every week—but they’re no less motivated. In 2020, in response to the article by Beth Nguyen and growing conversations in the field—including consultations with other innovative author-educators like Nalo Hopkinson and Andy Duncan—they began rethinking their entire workshop format. This effort has included forming a committee for extensive workshop experimentation as well as hiring people for the new positions of IDEA consultant and workshop facilitator (Rachelle Cruz and María Alejandra Barrios).

Through this work, Clarion West first developed a Modified Milford method to use in 2021, and in 2022 they’ve run tryouts of four new models and trained instructors so that students can choose among different critique structures. They anticipate there will be some adjustment, and they have support staff prepared and standing by. “We see this as an iterative process,” Jae Steinbacher told me. “We’ll probably have new models to introduce every year, and it’s likely we’ll retire some too! We’re also very open to our instructors bringing models with them, so long as they continue to operate from a student-centered approach.”

Clarion West is continuing as a six-week residential workshop, though they’re looking to offer other formats and options to those for whom that’s an impossibility. They spoke positively about their experience going virtual, but explained they are thinking about accessibility from both sides—those for whom a virtual workshop was more tenable, and those for whom it didn’t function well at all—underscoring again how differently people can learn and how a diversity of opportunity is ideal.

Those who do want virtual will have another option in Futurescapes. Similar to Jeanne Cavelos at Odyssey, Luke Peterson at Futurescapes said he was staggered by the feedback after COVID forced the switch to virtual, especially from international and disabled participants. He decided that Futurescapes would not only continue having a virtual track, but that virtual would become its focus—Futurescapes’ residential workshop will return, but only as an option. Peterson wants to experiment with more flexible, smaller sessions that he can tailor to participants’ needs, and he has also been striving to provide timezone-shifted tracks for global accessibility.

In terms of teaching methodology, Peterson admitted to being something of a “pedagogy nerd.” He said he was very excited when I came to Futurescapes as an instructor and asked if I could use a non-Milford critique method. He would love for others to bring in new methodologies as well, but Futurescapes recruits an even greater array of instructors than Clarion West—and many SFF instructors come in with Milford as what they already know. But he’d like to figure out ways of bringing in more pedagogical diversity, and he’s very enthusiastic about continuing to innovate based on student feedback: “After each [Futurescapes] I think, how can we improve?”

Viable Paradise is currently continuing to use Milford—but with increased caution and awareness. “Viable Paradise does use the Milford method, but that method is firmly embedded in particular cultural assumptions and ways of working, and has led to problems, particularly for writers of color,” they told me. “We are very appreciative of the students who have been willing to share their negative experiences, and are working towards a more inclusive way of managing critiques.” One change they’re instituting is the “ouch/oops/whoa model” for shared accountability. Another is giving instructors and staff unconscious bias training, including readings from Matthew Salesses.

Clarion is also sticking with Milford for now—but, like Viable Paradise, with a great deal of thought behind those decisions. Kelly Link, a board member for the Clarion Foundation, explained to me a large number of factors they’ve considered, from providing continuity across the disruption of weekly instructor changes to consideration for the instructors themselves to the concern that a less structured method might allow more privileged or experienced participants to take a disproportionate amount of speaking time.

However, Link emphasized that she, too, does not want Clarion’s methods to be seen as the best or only way:

“Last year I read (as did many others) Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World — there are a number of styles of workshop he gives examples of that I’m itching to try. I don’t know whether or not the structure of Clarion is ideal for experimenting with these, but I very much hope to discuss it with the next Clarion class I teach. And, of course, everyone involved with Clarion very much hopes Clarion will be only one of many styles of workshop attendees will be able to build for themselves. I know that when I teach in the future I will be recommending Craft in the Real World, and encouraging workshoppers to think of Milford as only one style among many that will be at their disposal.”

With all this burgeoning change, the environment Link wishes for—with Milford seen as only one choice among many—may eventually become reality for our next generation of writers.

Even with such a rousing beginning, however, we still have a long way to go before we can escape those puppet strings of the 1930s. To get there, we’ll need to grow this awareness into a community-wide conversation. Teachers and workshops can tug our next generations of writers in the direction of methodological diversity, as more students entering SFF experience Odyssey’s new individualized teaching methods or the expanded choices at Clarion West. But right now, yet one more difficulty is demonstrated by some of the constraints the Clarions or Futurescapes feel when they recruit a breadth of outside instructors: when a method is as widespread as Milford, it becomes self-perpetuating, a machine that generates ever more copies of itself.

The more our whole community joins in conversation about the choices we’re making, the more we question our ways of thinking and point out to newcomers how multitudinous our ways of critique or learning can be, the more joyously and rapidly we can shepherd in that future of infinite variety.

It will take effort. Time, energy, education. But I hope we can together see it as exciting. We are embarking on a new chapter of SFF history, one in which we will usher in a new generation of writers—one ever more diverse, in culture and background and ways of thinking and learning, and with ever broader ideas that will push the boundaries of SFF. As that next generation enters our field and rises to become its leaders, we can continue building on this conversation, iterating and improving and experimenting.

How we bring new writers into the field, how we teach—it’s a realm of immense responsibility and power, and also of intense and serious value. Let’s cherish it as much as this field we all cherish. Let’s continue striving to make it better and more successful—for everybody.

SL Huang is a Hugo-winning and Amazon-bestselling author who justifies an MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. Huang is the author of the Cas Russell novels from Tor Books, including Zero Sum Game, Null Set, and Critical Point, as well as the new fantasy Burning Roses. In short fiction, Huang’s stories have appeared in Analog, F&SF, Nature, and more, including numerous best-of anthologies. Huang is also a Hollywood stunt performer and firearms expert, with credits including “Battlestar Galactica” and “Top Shot.” Find SL Huang online at or on Twitter as @sl_huang.

About the Author

About Author Mobile

S.L. Huang


S.L. Huang is a Hugo-winning and Amazon-bestselling author who justifies an MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. The author of the Cas Russell novels from Tor Books as well as the new fantasies Burning Roses and The Water Outlaws, Huang is also a short fiction writer, with stories in Analog, F&SF, Clarkesworld, Nature, and numerous best-of anthologies. When not writing, Huang is a Hollywood stunt performer and firearms expert. Follow S.L. Huang online at   Photo by Chris Massa.
Learn More About S.L.