This October, I was fortunate enough to attend Viable Paradise XVIII, an annual workshop meeting in Martha’s Vineyard for the XVIII-th time. We twenty-four happy aspiring authors, fragile and vulnerable manuscripts in hand, landed on the island to have our brains pulled out of our skulls and submerged in a briny solution of pure liquid sci-fi/fantasy, while capricious writer-deities poked us with sticks and giggled. On the other hand, there were pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Or, to get less colorful – we critiqued each other’s manuscripts, and had our work critiqued by spectacularly accomplished authors and flat-out legendary editors; we wrote new work inside and outside of our comfort zones; we sat and took notes as some of the best in the business explained how to not only write speculative fiction, but how to survive writing speculative fiction. And when we weren’t doing that, we sat around talking about the books and stories and author-cheats we loved.
There was also drinking. Like, a lot of drinking.
So that lasted for a week, and then I was dragged kicking and screaming back to Real Life, and since then lots of people have asked me the obvious: how was Viable Paradise? And I haven’t been able to satisfy them with a coherent answer; if I was a good enough writer to really answer that question, I would be telling you this from atop a mountain of cash and precious gems. On my boat. On the moon.
How was VP? I can’t really answer that question; I can only let a series of impressions and anecdotes and half-remembered images permeate everything I talk about. And they will, constantly, for which I apologize; I in fact began writing this in my hotel room as sort of a last will and testament in the event that I am so very obnoxious that my friends and loved ones and coworkers all get together and murder the shit out of me.
I could tell you:
-That before I even started, I thought I wouldn’t be able to afford it, and my friends and family did everything short of reverse-burgling me and leaving money by my broken windows to ensure that I could, for which I thank them tearfully and completely and not as often as I should.
-That I actually died on the first day, which explains a lot about my experience.
-That Viable Paradise possesses a crack team of global superheroes, whose superhuman efforts saved the physical and mental health of our helpless writer-lambs more times that I can count; I refer of course, to the staff of VP 18, to whom my gratitude is endless and bottomless and should in fact extend to buying their damn books, because these miraculous creatures are, when they’re not emergency coffee deliverers, successful authors in their own right.
–That if in New England, in the dark of night, you follow a large bearded man with an oracular voice to the shores of the Atlantic to look for glowing lights, you actually might not be in a Lovecraft story, marked for unspeakable tentacular death.
-That then again, you might be.
-That said oracle, the great Uncle Jim MacDonald, has an inexhaustible store of Cool Facts; that I might be able to tell you some of them but not all of them. Because we’d be here for days, in which event we’d be enlightened, but probably unemployed and houseless.
-That Scott Lynch called me a motherfucker, an experience in no way diminished by the percentage of Earth’s population sharing in it.
-That Elizabeth Bear, in addition to all her other multifarious gifts, knows all the best drinking songs.
-That Dr. Doyle is a psychic of the deep subconscious, and after every conversation with her about one problem with your book, you will suddenly realize that you know how to fix the other problem with your book.
-That Steven Gould’s mild-mannered façade hides a deadly ability and ruthless willingness to skewer one’s story to the heart in bare seconds, and that that is also a façade for the spirit of a just and merciful wizard-king.
-That the government of New Zealand sent a highly trained assassin to kill Fran Wilde for stealing a twitter handle from their government, masquerading as a student; but he double-crossed them and brought his manuscript instead.
-That on the very first day of the workshop, a fellow student discovered a plot hole in my manuscript big enough to drive a bus through, and on the second day, Steven Brust drove that bus through it and fixed it up behind him.
-That I had absolutely no idea how to do a proper critique, and left a revolting paucity of notes and comments, and still feel really bad about it, and fellow students, if you received a crit from me I am so sorry and please email me another one of your stories so I can do it right.
-That there is no feeling like recommending a book to the authors and editors that you admire and seeing the expression of a reader of books who is genuinely interested in this one.
-That if I ask an author, or an editor, or a wizard-king, for help with an issue, they will spend some time talking about that issue, and much more time talking about their disastrous attempts to quit their day job, or Marx and Engels’ letters on the Civil War, or Lithuanian vodka commercials, or how fundamental a debt is owed by fantasy to Glen Cook.
-That the first half of those conversations helped me become a better writer, and the second half of these conversations…also helped me become a better writer.
-That the experience ended Saturday morning and it took me until 6 PM on Sunday for my hangover to subside enough for me to eat a real meal, and VP 18 was considered a studious, well-behaved class.
-That after nearly making it to 30 without any bad ideas permanently affixed to my skin, I am strongly considering a VP tattoo, proving that it is either a great idea or, even better for a writer, a very convincing-sounding bad idea.
-That VP XVII’s class are the most amazing strangers in the world.
-That VP XIX’s class, which is an entity not yet realized, are the worst assholes in the world and I will murder you all, I’m so fucking jealous, my god.
-That we had people with PHDs, and college dropouts (me); we had a gentleman (and I use that word literally) in his fifties, and a 22 year-old freak of nature, and all stops in between; we had not one, but two neuroscientists; we had people from all over the world, people whose families come from all over the world, men and women, all along the sexuality spectrum; and every single one of them was a goddamn good writer and no two wrote the same.
-That I can write a story in a public space, in a strange environment, getting steadily drunker and drunker while Uncle Jim regales me and my fellows with filthy jokes about pinnipeds – which means that I can write a story anywhere.
-That upon rereading that story the next morning, just because I can do this thing doesn’t mean I should do this thing ever again.
-That VP exists at the particular intersection of “can” and “shouldn’t” in which is found enlightenment.
…and so on. I could keep telling you things forever, and if you let yourself get cornered at a party without an exit strategy, I might. But you may note that none of these things have anything to do with actual writing advice; there are two reasons for this. One, of course, is that VP is a writing workshop which takes a spectacular deal of effort on the part of the instructors, and the staff, and yes, the students, to make happen. It would be disrespectful to all involved for poorly translated copies of the wisdom contained therein to start popping up on the internet in deep detail. The other reason is that the joy and terror of Viable Paradise is the process of learning it, the moment where you hear a Dirty Writer Trick and realize so that’s what George RR Martin was doing or are admonished against a bad habit that you didn’t even realize you possessed but the shedding of which will improve your story immeasurably. If I told you the secrets, I would be cheating you of the opportunity to discover them.
And of course, none of these lessons and facts and anecdotes, singular or in their whole, are the point. The point is that if you want to write for a living, and you think you might be serious about it, you should go to Viable Paradise, because you will be serious about it when you come back. And when you come back, then you will have your own list of things that you can tell me. And many of them will be as nonsensical and anecdotal as many of these are to you, but on the deeper, numinous layer, we will both understand one another perfectly.
I have been melted and poured through the crucible and forged anew. I have been folded, spindled, crumpled, and pressed back into place, magically free of crinkles. I have been shredded, re-spiced, reheated, and served as a whole new meal. I have drunk the mead of wisdom and I didn’t even to give up an eye to do so – cheap at twice the price! I have been to Viable Paradise, and nothing about the written word will ever be the same again.