I want to get some thoughts down about my experiences during the past week before they begin to fade too much. I posted for friends and family on Facebook, so I’ll pull some of my words from those daily missives.
I arrived on Saturday evening after swinging through New Jersey to pick up Elsa, another attendee. Ten hours of driving left me tired, and when the staff suggested we all stop by, I probably should have put that off. I needed some time and space to unpack and unwind. Still, I went upstairs and immersed myself in a room of strangers, many of whom already knew each other. Worst possible situation for an exhausted introvert, I felt unsure and off balance the whole time. I wallflowered my first meetings with the instructors, and it terribly colored my first twelve hours on the island.
Jules, another student, and Elsa were both staying in my room that first night because their roommates wouldn’t be there until Sunday. The next morning, we walked to town and had coffee and refreshment at a local place, meeting up with some other students. Those were my introductions to Sydney, Julia, and Lulu. Great folks, we couldn’t have had a better group to spend the week with. More students trickled in all day, and at 6:00 we gathered for our first official meeting, receiving our packets in the process. When we broke off, I went to read two stories for the first critiques on Monday and crashed early (I’m a social butterfly).
I regret not mingling with the other students as much as I might have. It’s left over brain programming from my youth, part of my introversion. It wasn’t until late in the week I started hanging around after dinners and chatting with everyone else. There’s no one person there I didn’t like, not one person I didn’t feel connected with. That may be the greatest power of these events, the ability to bring a group of folks with vastly different age ranges and backgrounds and let us connect as human beings, and as writers. For that alone, we have received a huge gift.
But I did do the jellyfish walk. I did see glowing sparkles beneath the waves as the stars shone above us, a few meteors punching across the starry sky like exclamation points. I listened to David, one of our fellow students and a professor of astronomy, point out the stars and constellations to us. He was thorough, too, giving us the history of various constellation names, serving up a platter of detail with a dash of humor and a huge quantity of hushed awe. It reminded me of the way Carl Sagan approached his work and shared it with us through Cosmos and his books. A truly wonderful evening that won’t be forgotten.
Other points of the week include –
Craft Discussion: I loved these. I’ve been to events before and taken creative writing classes, but I don’t recall receiving so much specific and actionable information. We received lectures on scenes, tension, nurturing your muse, world building, etc. I took copious notes that I can refer back to, part of my overall plan to suck the marrow from the bones of this event and get everything I could from it. I’m absolutely floored by this information and know how much it’s going to improve my writing.
Short Story: we each had to write a story based on a prompt and a random item we chose from a bag. Great idea, a way of showing folks that they A) can write to a deadline and under pressure; and B) can use anything for inspiration. Some wildly varied and fun stories came out of this effort, too, and I can’t wait to read the ones I haven’t yet.
The Horror that is Thursday: I’m not going to say too much about this because I don’t want to give anything away. But if/when you attend, you, too, shall suffer the Horror that is Thursday. May the gods be with you, friend….
One on Ones: we each had one on ones with two instructors. I got Erin Black, editor at Scholastic, and Laura Mixon, science fiction author. These were wonderful periods (about 45 minutes) to talk about the works we had submitted for the workshop, our other works, and ask questions in general. I can’t tell you how much I valued their input, particularly on Ricky Flies. But it was great to chat with them about other things as well, including their careers, the overall market, etc. I’m glad they make this a priority in the event, because for folks like me who are introverted and find it difficult to randomly approach instructors to chat, its truly useful and necessary.
Critiques: for me, this was the heart of the event outside of building a community of writers. Mine was last on the agenda for my groups, Wednesday morning after the first person had theirs done. Daryl Gregory, Steven Gould, and seven other students spoke about my two stories and I received very detailed and actionable feedback from everyone. In particular, Daryl had detailed line edits and notes that I may frame. This was exactly the sort of detail I’d been missing when I asked myself why do I keep getting rejected? I walked away from this event badly bruised, but when I say that, I mean the types of bruises you receive when you undertake a difficult work out. You’re pushing yourself for the purposes of improving, and it’s going to hurt at times.
Since Wednesday was our half day, I had all afternoon (after a craft presentation) to think about my critique. I went through the I’m a loser, I suck, I’m an imposter feelings that so many writers do at one time or another. I swore I wouldn’t touch the stories or the critiques for a few weeks until I could handle the emotional impact. I reached out to my wife for love and encouragement as I sat alone in my room, hiding out. Finally, though, I couldn’t NOT take a look at things, it ate at my mind so much. I began editing one of my stories that evening, and have worked on it every day since, applying the knowledge I received to tighten the prose, trust the reader, and bring out the conflict (as well as some other details that needed correcting).
This morning I submitted it fresh to another online magazine. Fingers crossed…
There were other moments I could share. But those were for us, and for previous/future classes to remember. I’ll save them as stories I tell in person. It’s not like they are secrets, but for those who might go, I want them to experience the surprise and joy I felt when they occur. And they’ll create their own little moments of connection with their classes, the things that belong only to VP22, and VP23, and so on.
So we said our goodbyes, mostly on Friday night, but a few more on Saturday morning. I had a chance to briefly thank Daryl for his critiques and have a conversation with him (huge joy because of how much I loved Spoonbenders). There were plenty of tears, including my own. Elsa caught a ride back with another student who lived much closer to her than I do. I took the 8:15 ferry from the island and drove onto the mainland at 9:00. Nine hours later I arrived at home, and hugged and kissed my wife many, many times. We talked for a couple of hours until sleep overtook us.
Now I’m home. Now I know that writing is a path I need to follow, will follow, can follow. I’ve got twenty-three other folks to help me on that path, plus other previous classes who viewed this year’s Freshman with something akin to benevolent ownership and a parental love. I’m all in on this, and will be cheering on the other folks in my class as they pursue their dreams. Deeply, deeply thrilled by the changes Viable Paradise have wrought in my life over the past week.
Oh, and one last thing (to all those in our lives who try and tear down our dreams, no matter what those dreams are): Fuck you, Lori!