I’m not much an advocate of workshops being life-changing experiences, but Viable Paradise was. Two reasons: one personal, one pack.
Amadeus is one of my favorite movies, in no small part because Salieri recognizes Mozart’s seemingly effortless brilliance — all the notes are already in his head — and adores Mozart’s music, while despising his own failure to achieve the sublime. “I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint,” he says.
I’ve had this narrative for a long time: I am a good writer, and I am a competent writer, but the wild talent, the force of nature channeling of story, eludes me. I am a mediocrity.
I dreaded the polite, contained, “It’s nice” reception and grimly braced myself to figure out how to write it better.
Therefore, people’s reactions to the first three chapters of my novel sounded like some teenager writing wish fulfillment fanfic of my life. People liked it, and they were not my friends and family. They were peers and professionals. I’ve done a lot of crying for reasons of misery, not so much for reasons of overwhelming relief and joy.
That was amazing inofitself. What is more amazing is knowing that I am capable of writing the way I want to, that I have done it before, and that I can do it again. It is possible. Knowing that a thing is possible makes all the tedious fucking up along the way a great deal more bearable.
The other part of Viable Paradise is the community created by the instructors and staff. Many places on the Internet have a flavor of competition and isolationism. This is difficult to put into words. I see it in the people bragging about how they work so much and so hard they forget to sleep or to eat, and the laughing camaraderie that goes with that, and in the celebration of introversion (a good thing!) blended with the rejection of spending time with people. Real artists find strength and fulfillment mostly in their work. Their passion feeds them, and they flourish. I have a streak of ruthlessness, so for a while, I tried to embody this: the hell that I would show weakness.
Viable Paradise makes different assumptions; it assumes a need for community and for comfort. The staff emphasized, again and again, how we could come to them for decompression and food. They offered hugs and talking. They made us delicious dinners. If someone had a bleary look in their eye, both staff and instructors made sure to check in with that person.
The instructors did not only lecture. They hung out with us, talked to us, and offered their time to answer questions or go over our work. Professionals at the top of the field treated us like colleagues; Elizabeth Bear outright said that we were. The blend of trusting in our competence as writers while treating our upsets and bouts of exhaustion as normal created a close sense of community and security.
I fell into it, and the rest of the students seemed to, too, and our camaraderie felt supportive rather than savage.
I had not known that this understanding, this connection, this kindness existed. I had not known how highly some groups of people valued community and how deliberately they created and sustained it. They do, though, and I am profoundly glad.