Viable Paradise: One Year Later

As most of you know, almost exactly a year ago I attended the 20th Viable Paradise Workshop (VPXX), and despite my best efforts, I never quite got around to putting my feelings about that week into a coherent blog post. With the new class about to board the ferry and start their week of adventure, I figure now is as good a time as any to put my thoughts on page about that week and the year that has followed.

[Author’s note: my memory is not great, so this is told to the best of my recollection. The details may be a little off, but the big things are true.]

Going back to last June, when I got my acceptance letter. It had been a rough week for me. Two short story rejections had come in. My latest story had gotten ripped apart in my critique group. Not even a normal ripping apart, with a point to rebuild from. No, the advice of the four other people was to trunk it and try something else. For the first time since I applied, I re-read my application piece. In the mood I was in, it was suddenly the worst thing I had ever read. Painfully embarrassing to know other people had seen it. I actually wrote out an email asking them to withdraw me from consideration to spare them the effort of rejecting me. This was a Friday afternoon. I’m an old pro at self loathing though, so I made myself think on it for a night, and see if I felt the same after sleep and a few good meals, and instead went to see a symphony instead.

In the car, on the way there, my phone buzzed. An email. From Viable Paradise. A rejection. It had to be a rejection. i read through the email. The words didn’t make sense. “Congratulations”? “Please reply saying you’ll be able to attend”? That was the strangest damn rejection I’d ever gotten. I made my (then) wife read over it. She confirmed, I was not in fact hallucinating. I had gotten in. Someone must have made a mistake, but I sure wasn’t going to correct them. I had gotten in.

As soon as the embargo was lifted and we were allowed to announce our acceptances, I joined most of the rest of my class in flocking to Twitter to celebrate. In addition to each other, we found a chorus of congratulations and well wishes and general good feelings from other writers with ‘VP” somewhere in their bio. This was the first inkling I got of the most tangible benefit (for me at least) of the workshop, but I’ll get to that later.

Fast forward a few months. Slack channels had been created. Tweet storms had been tweeted. Some small amount of cyber stalking (or at least, investigation of these (then) strangers). Plans made and logistics worked out. It was time to go to the island. My anxiety had kicked in. This had to be a trap somehow. Too good to be true. Waiting for a shoe to drop. (Have I mentioned I have mental health issues?). Barely sleep the night before. A taxi, two planes, a bus, and a ferry later, we stepped off the dock to see a smiling man holding a sign. “Viable Paradise”.

This was Chris. Chris took us through town so we could pick up supplies and essentials before heading to the Island Inn. Maybe he could sense my borderline panic. Maybe everyone that steps off the ferry is a ball of nerves. Honestly, I think it was just Chris being Chris. But he was a calming presence the entire time, bringing me back to a borderline normal human by the time I stepped through the doors.

That night, we all played getting to know you games. Maybe it’s just because I’m looking back on it now through the lens of experience, but it seemed less like getting to know you and more like reconnecting with old friends that we hadn’t met yet. We had a great time. We stayed up late playing and talking and listening to music and singing along when we knew the words. It was great.

The next morning the workshop itself started. I’m not going to go into too many details, because I’d probably get them wrong, and those were our experiences. If you’ve gone, you have your own. If you go sometime in the future, you’ll make your own and they’ll be completely different, in the details, at least. But I feel like I can share a couple of high level points.

  1. Lectures:

Every day, several times a day, one of the instructors gave a prepared lecture on craft. Some of them clicked instantly, some of them are still unpacking in my brain, and some are hiding in my memory, waiting to jump out when they’re needed. I’ve been told this is not unusual. Five years, even ten years later, don’t be surprised if the words of one of the instructors comes to mind and suddenly you say “Oooooooh, that’s what that meant.”

  1. Critiques:

Two professionals, three other students. All there to make your story better. Your ratios may vary, but the experience will be about the same. It will probably hurt. You might agree wholeheartedly. You might disagree wholeheartedly, vehemently. But it’s all in the service of making your story better. Let it flow over you, and take the parts that work best, and be aware how your story reads to a wide variety of people.

  1. 1×1:

We got two individual sessions with a professional / instructor scheduled, and the other instructors were more than willing to talk shop or your specific story if you asked and the time was there. Critique, craft, the industry, hell, even the life of a writer. It was a great experience.

  1. Adventure:

Moonlight walks to rivers of bioluminescent creatures. Sand in your toes. Sea breeze. AM walks to see the sunrise. Sword fights and yoga and running and songs and laughter and tears and existential dread. But mostly joy. Your experience may vary, but this is an intense week. Don’t be surprised if you fray at the ends. Don’t be surprised how much you bond with the people going through it with you.

  1. The Horror That is Thursday:

Seem my point above. If you’ve lived through it, you know it. If you’re going to live through it. You’ll get to know it. And if you don’t live through it… well, we don’t talk about that.

  1. Staff:

Each class I’ve talked to has had the same thing: We wouldn’t have made it through the week without the staff. They cook the evening meals. They cook grilled cheese at midnight. They make sure you get enough sleep. They’re the counselors and the voices of reason and the people that GET THINGS DONE. If you need anything, the staff gets it for you. If you need someone to talk to, the staff is there for you. In case it isn’t clear: THE STAFF IS AMAZING. Mac and Chris and Sarah and Pippin and David and other people that my memory isn’t giving me names for but that I love dearly and owe a great deal to.

That’s the week. Except for the tearful goodbyes. [Insert gif of 10th Doctor saying “I don’t want to go”.] Stay as long as you can. Stay as late as you can. The island is magic and I did not want to leave.

I took the week after off as well. Full of energy, I started a new draft of my novel. Two weeks of being a professional writer, probably the high point of my year.

The last year has been rough for me in a lot of ways. Personally a lot of shit went sideways. Professionally I had to reconcile my day job with my writing life, in addition to dealing with all the personal shit, including temporarily blinding myself with laser eye surgery and being unable to work or write for almost two weeks. Rejections still pile up, but I know they have purpose. The novel is on what is hopefully it’s final draft.

But this year has also been wonderful for me. I’ve been to more conventions in the last year than the past 6 years combined. New stories. More writing. Better writing. More submissions. More rejections, but better rejections. And most importantly, a crew of people to commiserate the losses and celebrate the victories. Friendships forged in fire. And a community. Not just your class, but everyone that has gone through the workshop. The twitter following I talked about earlier? That was just the tip of the iceberg. Every con, every workshop, every trip to a home city. A whole community that I never knew existed but am now deeply embedded in. A family across the world. I’ve heard other workshops encourage competition within their ranks. Viable Paradise is about being better together.

I’m proof positive that the workshop doesn’t guarantee instant success. But this workshop is designed for people on the cusp. Even if it’s not you, your class will start to succeed. And you’ll be there with them, cheering for them. And if you are one of the first to break out of your chrysalis, you make sure to lend a hand to those that need it. That’s the kind of community VP is.

In just about a week, the next class will take their first steps off the ferry. You’re about to have a once in a lifetime experience. You won’t be able to do everything, and you should take care of yourself, but don’t be afraid to make the most of it. When you step out the other side, you’ll be different. And we’ll be waiting for you. And next year, don’t be surprised if you line up with us when acceptances are announced, ready to welcome new members of the family. And don’t be surprised if a small (or large) part of you wants to go back, even though you know that particular portal only works once.


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