Viable Paradise review: Horrors and Feels

Last week I attended Viable Paradise, a workshop for writers of science fiction and fantasy held each year in Martha’s Vineyard. Part of the research before applying to Viable Paradise included the inevitable googling for alumni and reviews. Viable Paradise’s reputation was generally glowing, but one theme that popped up over and over again and dominated reviews was the sense of community and friendship. How welcome students felt, the friends they left with.

After reading the eighth one I think I audibly scoffed. Friendship? Touchy feely shit? That’s all well and good, guys, but tell me what you really got out of it! I am a serious, hungry writer. Tell me about the hard hitting critiques! The inside information! The famous instructors! The Craft! You can make friends anywhere, right? I didn’t get it.

I get it now.

At the introduction of the week, it was stated clearly: the workshop wouldn’t teach you anything you couldn’t learn elsewhere eventually. It only sought to speed up your process, to get you there faster and writing the stories and in the way only you can do it.

And it’s true. Here’s the thing. Viable Paradise is an intense, high level workshop that puts students through a level of instruction and critical thinking that many unpublished authors haven’t been exposed to yet. The lectures are incredibly useful, the feedback is equal parts eye-opening and encouraging.

The bones of the workshop are excellent. The VP instructors range from chart-topping best selling authors to editors who have shaped the industry. The lectures and collegiums (colloquiums!) taught me things that have changed how I write. I had so many little moments where things clicked during talks on character, on plotting, on exposition, on critique, and, above all, life in the industry and writer self-care. And I will tell you, one of the most heartening experiences in the WORLD is having a professional you admire read and enthuse about your modest work.

But here’s the thing: Viable Paradise, at least for me, was not ultimately about the instructors, or the lectures.

It was about the class of writers.

A gift from last year's class.

A gift from last year's class.

Writing is, ultimately, a chosen profession you must do alone. Aside from a co-writer or editor, no one will write the words for you. The reality of writing is spending a LOT of time alone and that sometimes results in feeling DISTINCTLY alone. Isolation. So the powerful, transformative, shit-did-that-week-just-happen effect isn’t from an author sitting you down and teaching you That One Weird Trick Publishers Don’t Want You To Know(tm). It’s not even about learning better techniques for characterization and plotting.

It’s the induction into a collaborative and supportive community of professional authors. Authors with a jaw-dropping amount of talent, experience, backgrounds, techniques, wisdom and advice that you don’t just have access to for one week in October—it’s in your toolbox for the rest of your career. It’s the crucible of a week that forms twenty-four strangers with talent and potential into a ragtag Leverage-style team. And the crucible is a composition of some surreal moments.

  • It’s when sixteen writers converge on a room with tea and chocolates and write in (mostly) silence until after midnight.
  • It’s struggling to write a horror story when you don’t write horror stories until your roommate gives you the PERFECT background piece of horrific historical data that makes it all click. (Thank you again, Wren.)
  • It’s the Horror that is Thursday that is most definitely a Horror and no sir, I was not told to say that and I am definitely not a Thing(tm).
  • It’s marinating in a week of writer culture where all you do is eat, sleep, breathe and drink (oh so much drink) the challenges of a Damn Good Story until it’s coming out your pores.
  • It’s finishing off the week by escaping with a few other classmates to watch the Hamilton documentary and realize how universal the effing creative pursuit to Do The Thing is.
  • It's talking about Writer Anxiety and Wordcount Insecurities and having writers of all ilks and career successes look at you and nod with a pained, immediate understanding. And then getting damned good advice on it.
  • It’s staying up late and getting up early to read, and critique, and write, and write some more because you just need to capture this magic in a bottle while you can.
  • It’s realizing that your stories may not be for everyone, even not for That One who you foolishly wanted to impress, but then it was for That Other One, holy shit, and learning to filter between all those reactions and critiques is an on-going process.
  • It’s also folk songs and guitars, and martinis and Berger cookies, and broadway lip sync battles and night beach expeditions to see moon jellies.
  • It’s being a little proud of all the moments your introvert self caught, even as you missed a bunch more because you had to sleep sometime.
  • (It frankly, all starts when you get your acceptance letter and suddenly have dozens of alumni from previous years reaching out to cheer you on and welcome you into the fold on Twitter. That’s when I knew this was Something Different(tm).)
  • It’s riding the roller coaster of “I suck — no, wait, this sucks — forget it, I’m not like you — No, I’m JUST like you — wait, maybe I can do this” and ultimately deciding yes, your stories are worth it, worth not getting impatient and half-assing, and worth taking the time and resources to do damn well.
  • It’s finding people who are just as creative and with the same box of anxieties and dreams and WEIRD as you and somehow surviving the damn thing so you can go on and take on the Thing together.

So, yeah. I joked before going to Viable Paradise that it was like Writer Hogwarts, a Writer Summer Camp, and I wasn’t that wrong. You’re taught some of the magic while you’re there, make-up a LOT of it with your classmates while fighting Voldemort, sure.

But the rest? That other 80% of the magic? It happens after the goodbyes are said, this story happens after the book ends.

And dammit, now I got the crew to make it a good one.