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.