Viable Paradise XVI

On Sunday, I returned to Seattle after one of the most important experiences of my life. Viable Paradise is a workshop for speculative fiction writers, but for me, it was an opportunity to shrug off the apologetics of doubt, to embrace my place in the spectrum of genre vs. mainstream fiction, to learn how to receive and filter criticism, and how to believe in myself.

Although I meticulously planned my journey to Martha’s Vineyard in order to arrive in top form, the universe never cooperates. The news from home a few days before was that my grandfather (functionally my father) had started to fade again, the cancer returning to his brain, affecting his lucidity. They were starting radiation and perhaps putting him in a nursing home. I felt guilty and sad and scared that maybe he and I will have had our last real conversation. But I knew, also, that he would have wanted me to get the most out of a once in a lifetime experience, so I tried to set it aside as best I could.

I began having stomach pain on my layover in Minneapolis. By the time I got to Boston, I didn’t feel so hot. I met Adam, who was already in Boston for work, and we had a nice dinner. The next morning, breakfast was a mistake. I thought I might feel better if I took a short walk. A half a mile from the hotel, I was pouring sweat. My back started to hurt behind my ribcage. I turned around and crawled in bed, finishing a short piece for a deadline. The pain grew steadily worse, so instead of spending a relaxing evening exploring the city, I spent several hours in Emergency Room 4 of the Cambridge Health Alliance.

They gave me big drugs and started down the list of nasty things that might be happening to me. After systematically eliminating the scary things — appendicitis, gall bladder, kidney failure — the CT scans told them that my abdominal lymph nodes were inflamed. I would likely be in pain for awhile, so I was instructed to take large doses of Advil and follow up with a doctor here in Seattle.

So when I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard, I was quite a bit more fragile than I’d hoped to be. I was, at that point, incredibly sleep deprived, still in pain, coming off narcotics, and emotionally elsewhere. This caused my experience to differ in a couple of ways. First, I didn’t have the energy for much of the extraneous, late night, secret, super things that were so integral to the other participants. I wanted to join in, but I was frightened of pushing myself to the point where I wouldn’t be able to finish the workshop. I feel really lucky that the group was full of socially active introverts who didn’t treat me like my absences were an offense.

The second impact of my unsettled state occurred during the critiques. My manuscript had been favorably received by the last few groups I’d presented it to, so I sat down in the hot seat with confidence. I knew, in general, what the problems were and thought that I’d receive even more thoughtful feedback about my characters. In my one-on-one the night before, the instructor told me that I had a sure bet for a middle grade hit.

The critique group had important and thoughtful feedback on the manuscript, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. I had written a colorful and whimsical book targeted towards middle graders, but somehow, I hadn’t gotten that across. We discussed technical and social implausibilities and important missing details. I held it together until it was suggested that the book might need to be trunked and at that point, all I heard was my inner voice telling me that I had failed. I completely lost my composure, which was mortifying. I couldn’t explain to the brand new people in my life that I wasn’t normally such a basketcase.

It’s hard not to feel needy sometimes, particularly as an artist surrounded by other talented artists. I hadn’t been having a problem with imposter syndrome until that point. And all at once, all of the exhaustion and doubt and guilt hit me at once. Later that night at another one-on-one, I was encouraged to work the concept in shorter form. I was assigned a second story for the week, due on Friday. I vacillated between horror and gratification — I was either so bad or so worth helping that I’d been given more work. Eventually, I decided that it didn’t matter why, just that I get it done. Thursday night, when everyone was finished with their work and letting loose, I withdrew again to try and cobble together what I wanted to say.

So while VPXVI wasn’t as much of a intimate social experience for me as it was for everyone else, it was an immense gift of personal growth. I’m embracing my manuscript for what it is, what it can be, and what I meant for it to be. While all the criticism I received is valid, only some of it comes into play for my audience. And while the book might well belong in a trunk, I’m going to write it and finish it, because it’s necessary for my growth as an artist.

I’m sure all of the classes feel this way, but I had the pleasure of writing alongside 23 extraordinarily talented artists and eight (and a half) dedicated instructors. The people who guided us through the week care more about writing and craft and words and the world around them than any group I’ve ever encountered. As for my fellow students, I can’t wait to see how their careers develop and I’m privileged to call them new friends.

Learn more about Viable Paradise here.

5 thoughts on “Viable Paradise XVI

  1. Camille! I had no idea. What an awful way to begin the workshop. 🙁 It’s been interesting seeing the range of emotions and reactions people have had coming back from VP. One of the things that hit home hardest for me was how much personal taste comes into play. Maybe those issues aren’t really issues for MG readers? Before the workshop I had someone tell me my novel was the worst thing they had ever read, so bad they couldn’t bear to finish beta reading it. I believe in you, and I know you can make it work if you want to. I didn’t read your submission, but I meant to tell you that I your Thursday story was one of my favorites. I hope you’re feeling better now. *sending hugs* -Theresa

    • Thank you. I’ll be back to 100% in no time, I’m sure. I know I’m not the only one who had critical feedback and I think it is so important to learn to filter it — just as you mentioned. (And by the way, what kind of beta reader says those kinds of things!) While all the criticism was valid *for some iteration of the book*, all of it isn’t necessarily valid for the book I’m writing. I think it can be stronger by applying all the pieces that can improve the MS and leaving off the parts that make it into a new (or someone else’s) creation. The worst part, for me, was not being able to handle it gracefully. I wanted attention for my writing, not my hysterics. 😉 Also, I can’t wait til you sell your Thursday story — although it’s making me hungry thinking about it…

  2. I had no idea either! If it’s any comfort, all of the issues and emotions you were grappling with were not hanging out there for all to see. And people weren’t gossiping either, I had no idea that your critique session had been so hard for you. Attending VP in the midst of all that was going on was an incredibly brave and difficult thing and it sounds like you came through it intact and able to learn.

    Also, I’m so glad to hear you are writing MG — yay, for the children’s lit. I write YA.

    I hope you are physically recovered. Processing everything we learned and felt during VP is going to take a while, for all of us.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I’ll be attending VP19 and I’ve been slowly reading through past students’ reactions.
    I understand about being sick. A few days before I found out I was accepted into VP19, I was diagnosed with diverticulitis, and barely managed to stay out of the hospital. I’m only now beginning to fully recover. If I have another attack before then, I may be in the same boat as you were when you arrived at MV.
    And then another scary thought struck me today when I was on the highway driving home from work today: what if my mom has a stroke or otherwise has a major health issue while I’m gone? My mom is 90 and frail. She lives in Calif., I live in Alaska. She recently spent three weeks with me, so I’m feeling tender knowing time for her is finite.
    I guess I need to give myself the same advice I’ve given myself before on many occasions: let go of the worry and roll with what comes.
    Thanks again for your honesty.

    • Hi Giselle,
      First, congratulations. It’s a huge step to put yourself and your work into an immersive crucible, one of artistic bravery and maturity. No matter how little of your social self you are able to give while you’re there, your work will still receive the love, care, and feedback you’ll need to take one step forward — and I say that with my VP novel tucked deep in a drawer, others having emerged more important and urgent. The community I came out with — despite my solitude — has been incredible. The woman I turn to for first reads, the broader community of support on social media and events, the faculty who share reading times at bigger conventions. I am so honored to be a part of not just XVI, but the broader list of those who’ve done the work, pondered the stars over the water, and grabbed on to something artistically larger than ourselves.

      I wish you an amazing time. I know a couple people who’ll be in your class and they are both smart and funny and interesting. My advice to you specifically is be tender with yourself, too. Yes, anything can happen on the island, but you’re in a safe place with some of the smartest people on earth. I don’t believe there is any problem Mac Stone and her crew can’t solve. I’m certain your mother is proud of you. For some of us — you and me, it seems — these chances don’t come often or easily. But with a few years of hindsight, I know I did the right thing. I know my grandfather would say the same.

      All my very best.
      Camille

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