by Tam MacNeil
Tam MacNeil attended VP16 and afterward ran away to become a full-time writer. She’s the author of Salt and Iron (as Tam MacNeil), A Fine Romance (as T Neilson) and many other books and short stories. Catch up with goings on by subscribing to her newsletter.
It’s a funny thing, sitting down to write a blog post about what to expect when you go to Viable Paradise. As it happens, I never expected to go.
When I was growing up and going through early adulthood I believed that writing retreats were for Other People. Those folks with more money or more time, or both, who were more serious about their careers, or more advanced than I was. I applied anyway (there’s a story in it) and I was accepted anyway, and, even though Viable Paradise was for Other People, I went.
I have always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about my working class background, and how hard it is to work in the arts if you’re living paycheque to paycheque. And I have always, at every writer’s meeting and critique group, felt as though I didn’t fit in. In spite of both those things, I fell in love with the idea of Viable Paradise, it being short (one week, unlike others which run for weeks on end) and relatively cheap, as these things go. It seemed to be trying the fill the niche of the working-class writer’s workshop. So I applied. I promised in my application that I would spit under and never over the dinner table, and that I was known to, on occasion, shower. It was an aggressively cavalier letter. I thought it would go right into the round file. After all, an arts workshop, however it positioned itself, was probably for Other People and not for me.
They called my bluff. They invited me. And I went.
They collected me and my fellow attendees at the ferry terminal. They drove us to a grocery store (and liquor store!) to get supplies for the week. When I couldn’t get into my room because the office was closed over dinner, someone stored my perishables in their fridge and my backpack in their hall. Since I couldn’t hide in my room, I went down to the venue. There I found twenty or so people all looking exactly as nervous and uncomfortable as I, and a quantity of award winning and New York Times bestselling authors working extremely hard to get us all to loosen up./p>
I got chivvied into a game. I got to know people’s names. People started joking around. People started getting sarcastic. People started getting competitive. Steve Brust got this look on his face and Bear warned us all what that meant. People started lying outrageously. I had fun, damn it.
Looking back, it was all managed so beautifully. There were no awkward introductions. I didn’t notice the time pass. I didn’t think about if I belonged, I simply slotted in. When somebody said, over chow, “Can you believe it’s still only Monday?” I was stunned. Normally, when I’m in a crowd I feel like time is moving at a geological pace, but Viable Paradise went by so fast it was everything I could do just to grab scraps of it as it went rushing by.
And now you’re going. Maybe, like me, you applied in a fit of aggressive pique and they’ve called your bluff. Maybe you’re worried about what you’ve gotten yourself into. Maybe, for you, workshops have always been for Other People. I understand. Here is what you need to know:
First: You belong.
You will be in a group of your peers. The workshop is short enough that the social stratigraphy that manifests in long-running classes doesn’t have time to harden into shape at VP. Most people will talk to most people, and hanging out with bestselling writers, great editors, and fellow neophyte writers is a profoundly democratic excercise from the start of the class to the end. The attendees are all going to be at approximately your level. This workshop is not for Other People. It is for you.
There will be times when VP is hard. If you haven’t learned to take criticism, you will. If you haven’t written to specs and a deadline, you will. If you’ve never read out loud, you will. All these exercises are designed to make you a better writer. You might hate them. You might fail at them. Here’s a secret: There’s no better, safer, place to fail than Viable Paradise. The criticisms will actually make you a better writer. The deadlines and specs you’ll be writing to are supposed to stress you out. And very few people in the world are comfortable reading out loud, but professional writers often read excerpts from their books at events, so it’s a skill worth learning.
The point is not to succeed at everything;the point is to try everything. As it happens, it’s a wonderful thing to fail in a safe environment. You’ll learn that failure isn’t fatal (at least, not when you’re a writer. Surgeons may have a different outlook.) and you learn how to improve.
Third: VP doesn’t stop at the end of VP.
It’s strange the way it sticks. There’s so much information delivered in that one week that it’s simply impossible to take it all in. I noticed when I was there that before I dropped off to sleep, my eyes were already moving behind my eyelids, as if I was hitting REM the minute my head touched the pillow. There was just so much to process. So you’ll take notes (there’ll be a wonderful kit provided for you – a notepad, pens, a water bottle, a rubber snake… the essentials, basically.) and when you come home you’ll spend a bit of time poring over them. You’ll also probably notice an absence when you leave. This absence was, for me, one of the most important things about Viable Paradise.
At VP, the default setting of the staff, the instructors, and the attendees is that everyone present is a writer, and they take their work seriously. This manifests in excellent ways while you’re at VP:
Holed up in your room during free time? Probably writing./p>
Gazing absently while standing in the chow line? Probably writing.
Asking a question about how to incinerate a human body? Probably writing.
It’s a marvellous thing, when you begin to take your writing seriously. Since I had grown up believing that working-class women don’t have careers in the arts, it had never occurred to me that things could ever be otherwise. But at VP things were otherwise. And it was wonderful.
They say it takes five days of consecutive effort to change an ingrained habit. They say if you go to the gym five days in a row, the next five days will be easier. They say if you practice your Spanish vocabulary for five days in a row, you’ll keep practicing. For a week, people had been treating me as a real writer. People whose opinion mattered to me, who were in a position to make that kind of judgement: Bestselling authors, world-renowned editors. When I came home, I realized I had a decision to make. I could treat myself the way my peers and mentors had treated me, or I could go back to my old habits
Here’s what I did.
I quit my master’s program to save some money. I changed my job to get a raise, and then, a year later when I had met my saving goal, I left that job. I left because I started writing full time as a freelancer. I’ve never had to go back.
As it happens, a career in the arts isn’t necessarily for Other People, sort of the same way Viable Paradise wasn’t for Other People. It was for me. Maybe you’ll find it’s for you, too.