I haven’t fully processed my experience at the 2016 Viable Paradise Writing Workshop, a.k.a “VP20” or “VPXX” (Like a Chicago album!) as it was the workshop’s twentieth year. I traveled to Martha’s Vineyard from my patch of “10 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality”, survived the workshop including The Horror That Is Thursday, traveled back to NY and sat with a thousand-yard-stare on my face for about two days before heading to Columbus, OH (a place of bittersweet memories in my home state) for the World Fantasy Convention.
But I’ve pieced together some thoughts about my VP experience and here they are, in order of life-changing impact:
CONNECTION. The first face I saw when I disembarked from the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard was that of a VP staffer/alum who I’d met a few years prior at a Readercon and who remembered me. Seeing a familiar face, I thought, was an ideal way to head into the workshop. I’d figured that everyone I was going to meet that week was there for a single purpose so I’d have an instant in, socially. These were all thoughts borne out of anxiety. It was an unnecessary worry. I don’t think there’s another environment where I could’ve played “Thing” with total strangers by incorporating elements of my favorite episode of The Twilight Zone. These people got me, or got me enough that opening up was strangely easy. I can only hope I was the same way for some of them.
CRAFT. By a certain instructor’s own admission, you don’t get anything at Viable Paradise that you couldn’t get elsewhere. Anyone who’s even half-serious about the writing game can find small-scale professional workshops and critique groups just about anywhere, face-to-face and online. But what you get at Viable Paradise is all of that stuff, a lot faster. You know how once in a great while, as you plod along looking for writing wisdom on your own, you randomly come across a piece of advice that surges your writing forward, sort of like finding a needle of gold in a haystack full of bullshit? At VP, (a) there is no bullshit and (b) I personally found no less than three of those needles. I think everyone in my class got something. Some got what they wanted; some got what they needed.
PERSONAL CHALLENGE. There are classes, colloquia, group and one-on-one critiques, and Mandatory Fun. While those things alone are enough to wear anyone out, you can do these bare essentials and not lose a lot of sleep or (more importantly to me) introvert points. I decided, Fuck all that.
It may have been unwise of me to get four hours of sleep the night I got there just to go on the first of Uncle Jim’s 6 am walks to watch the sunrise. I went to one of the many off-book lunchtime sessions with a bowl of spaghetti in my hands. I made myself walk to see a harvest moon, luminescent jellyfish, and Methodist Munchkin Land when my mind and body begged me to just take some time and curl up under a blanket. I stayed up too late, and maybe drank more than I do in an average month. In fact, I don’t think I got more than 4.5 hours of sleep per night except the night before I left the island. No regrets.
Now, I am not telling anyone to disregard what they need for their mental, emotional, and physical health — there was even an off-book lecture on writer self-care (which I didn’t make). I am saying, with the usual YMMV caveats, that Viable Paradise is an opportunity to stretch yourself a little bit beyond your comfort levels in relative safety, and not just with writing. Taking advantage of as much as I could outside the workshop proper was a life lesson in deciding, in a calculated manner, to push myself just a little bit further. Something at which I’ve become a little rusty.
THE HORROR THAT IS THURSDAY. If you’re looking into Viable Paradise, you’ve no doubt come across this phrase by now. The legends are true. It’s a crucible. And when you come out the other side, you’ll sincerely believe you’ve created an abomination against literature. You’ll want to hide it. You might even consider killing it to spare it the pain of living what’s surely to be a short, bleak existence in a cruel, uncaring world.
But those options will be taken out of your hands. And when you and your classmates are forced to reckon with what you (and they) have produced, you’ll feel an odd sense of pride. It won’t make any sense. You won’t care that it doesn’t.
A PERSONAL TRUTH. My classmates will have their own individual takeaways. I speculate that some of those takeaways will be very personal. Mine definitely are. It’s been two weeks now and I’m still unraveling them.
But one thing became abundantly clear to me: My entire Viable Paradise experience — my one-on-one critiques, my group critique, the Horror That Is Thursday, every lost hour of sleep, every lost introvert point — and everything I got out of it is perfectly and unironically summed up by the ending of the film CIRCLE OF IRON:
And once I recovered from this realization, I was left with one thing…
A CAREER REBOOTED. I won’t give my litany of excuses for my stalled writing career. And I’m not saying that in a “Boo-hoo, poor me” kind of way. But it’s accurate to say, I lost some things along my path before losing the path altogether.
But after the general lessons I’ve learned about writing, some personal lessons about my writing in particular, and all the people I met (every classmate, every instructor, every staff member, no matter how many or how few words I spoke with each of them), I feel my writing career is back on track. I’ve looked my core problems in the face as well as some core solutions. From this point forward it’s “Put up or shut up,” with literally nothing standing in my way.