I Won’t Be a Miserable Writer: A Gift from Viable Paradise

As advertised, Viable Paradise rewired my brain and changed me into a different kind of writer. Jim McDonald says that Viable Paradise teaches us what might otherwise take three or four years to learn. What I wasn’t expecting was that it in one week it also took my soul on a journey, from start to finish.

Prior to VP I didn’t have friends who were writers. Not friends with whom I read, critiqued and hung out talking about writing. I honestly didn’t struggle much with imposter syndrome or its kin. I just enjoyed writing and was starting to learn the benefit of constructive critiques.

Prior to VP I’d never heard someone’s work praised and wondered why mine didn’t garner praise for the same things. I’d never had an excellent professional writer sit down with me and say “I liked your story” and then spend 45 minutes pointing out its valid flaws. I’d never compared a critique of my work with the others’ critiques and tried to tell who was “better.” I’d never read a friend’s story that was so freaking good I felt I would never be as good a writer as they. I’d never been in a room of mostly younger-than-me writers thinking “but they have twenty more years to write than I do!” And I’d abso-ma-fucking-lutely never heard the publishing equivalent of “Let’s do lunch” from someone in the business to a new writer.

Despair, insecurity, jealousy, and general anxiety all dropped in on me during the week. On top of that was piled all my normal “I’m in a group and I will not be OK unless everyone likes me!” angst. Thank God, I already knew, from the painful process called “growing up,” to let my values, not my feelings, dictate my actions. I didn’t let my newfound competitive streak turn me into a jerk and I forced myself not to simply run and hide. But I did spend a lot of the week with difficult emotions simmering, even as I was having one of the absolute best weeks of my life.

Saturday morning around 7 am, I received the gift. The night before someone had been given potentially life-changing praise. I was still dealing with the opposition of happiness for my friend and despair for myself. Then I thought, “Do I want to be happy for my colleague?”

“Yes, absolutely!” said my true self.

“Then if being a writer makes me jealous and miserable I’m not going to write. And I want to write. So stop it!”

The pain in my heart lifted, and I was purely happy. Happy for my friends and all their future success. Happy that I can write and write well and learn to write better. It was a blessing on my tired heart.

Years ago I used to collect a thing. The collecting community for that thing could be rather competitive as there were only so many things and they were sometimes hard to find. I found myself caught up in the swirl and making myself unhappy by worrying about getting the new thing.

I realized quickly that it was insane to have a hobby that makes me miserable. I set myself a rule: “If it’s not fun, I’ll stop collecting.” I happily collected the thing for many more years. Sometimes I missed out on the hot new thing, but sometimes I found one. Either way, I had fun. If the competitive anxiety started, I’d squash it with the stern reminder, “If it’s not fun, I’ll stop.”

Writing is more than a hobby for me. It is something I’ve wanted to do since I was 18, something I was only brave enough to do for the last four years, and something that I give up other fun for. If it’s not fun, I’ll stop. I won’t be a miserable writer. Other people will, inevitably, get something I won’t: a deal, a review, an award, a sales figure. I may not be happy for all of them, but I sure as as hell can’t let it make me miserable. I don’t want to be a writer if I can’t be happy for other writers.

There will be times the misery monster creeps into my heart and taunts me but I will shoo her out. I’ve done it for much less important things and I will do it for this. Feel free to hold me to it.

That perfect clarity, the trip through the valley and back, may end up being the greatest gift I received from Viable Paradise. Without it, I might have had years of pain and foolishness as I moved into the writing community. Instead, I went on a voyage, I crossed the sea, and in one week I was changed.

Viable Paradise Care Package

IMG_2451A wonderful friend, a tried and true member of my posse, left me a care package today in preparation for my trip to Viable Paradise tomorrow. I’ll try to live up to the grand writing traditions she expects me to follow. I’d hate to disappoint her.

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Audio story – The story of my kidnapping and escape

In all the news coverage of the Cleveland kidnappings, I was most struck by Amanda Berry’s immense courage in initiating an escape. I imagined the feeling she had in choosing that action was a much scarier version of a feeling I had 41 years ago. I am always fascinated by the discrete moments when things change — for example, that split second when a decision becomes irrevocable.

Listening to the news coverage of the story on NPR I realized that after all these years I had edited the telling my own kidnapping down to a few facts, a shorthand. I no longer told the full story of what had happened to me. Suddenly, it was important to do my own story justice. Plus, I’ve had a hankering to learn more about storytelling since I heard a fabulous storyteller reenacting the Battle of Britain at the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth. I decided then and there, in the ramp metering queue for I-5, to find and take a storytelling class.

The very next day I got an email from ComedySportz about a new storytelling class that was starting, and I was available for all the class dates and for the final performance. Only a little stunned by the swiftness with which God and the universe had responded to my decision, I signed up. With the help of my classmates and teacher, the wonderful Kelley Tyner McAllister, I told my story properly.

Now, you can listen to it as well: Story of my kidnapping and escape

Viable Paradise 17 Acceptance

I know when I was obsessively googling researching others who’d applied to Viable Paradise, I always wanted to know who got in. So, future googler, I got in!

There was a happy dance, but Jim, mercifully, has not shared the video with anyone. After the week long glow wore off, I started to dig into making sure I’d read something by each of the teachers. It also makes me feel as if it’s more essential to make time to write, as if out of respect for the upcoming investment of so many people’s time, and my own, in my writing.

Bonus is that it gave me an excuse to reread Freedom and Necessity by Stephen Brust and Emma Bull and I love it even more this time, than when I read it 15 years ago.

Viable Paradise Submission is Done

This process reminded me of applying to colleges. Since I wanted to turn an existing short story into novel, I had to write a synopsis for the first time, and that hurt. AND I had to write a cover letter about my background and why I want to go to VP. I wanted to just say “because I want to write good some day” but refrained.

Submissions close June 15 and from reading other blogs it seems they send out notices pretty quickly after that. So now back to Garbage Day! It should be nice to get back to a story after a month of synopsis and cover letter obsessing.

It’s Work, not Magic

I think I have finally disabused myself of the romantic notion that letting stories “gel” in my “subconscious” will “work out issues” and “develop depth.” Nope – turns out the plot problems are still there, the motivations still fuzzy and the protagonist’s favorite color unknown. Then I sit down to write and discover her name is Genny, she’s afraid of horses and maybe burning down the town is the right idea, after all.

The Long Watch

I sent an email about this to my father, but wanted to capture it here too. Because if nothing else, this web site is a place for me to go on and on about Robert Heinlein and his effect on my life.

Reading all the news stories about the 50 people trying to keep the
nuclear factor under control in Japan, I keep thinking of the Heinlein
story The Long Watch. If you’re not as familiar with the story as my father and I am, the hero sacrifices himself to disarm some nuclear warheads and dies, isolated, of radiation poisoning.

I frankly don’t remember a lot about the story, other than hero is self-sacrificing, brave and ironic. But a final scene has always stayed with me: After he’s received a fatal radiation dose, he lights a cigarette, and blows a puff of smoke at the Geiger counter, which chatters wildly. He grins in reply.

We all pray it doesn’t come to this. God bless the power plant workers, and keep them safe.

Update and Encouragement

People have not been knocking down my door, missing my blog updates. But it has been nagging at me that I’ve been absent too long – both from the blog and from fiction.

I went back to work full-time in September. It’s a fun job, with lots to learn. I love learning new organizations, systems and processes – it’s like mental candy. I feel like a Pac-Man gobbling up dots. And no ghosts so far!

My goal has been to keep writing, but it’s taken a bit to sort out a new schedule, commute, gym time, Jim time and have brain cells left over. As I suspected it would, though, the writing is sneaking from the back of my brain to the front with increasing frequency. First an idea for a story that is just a tiny bud and needs some work to grow, then an idea for a blog post (a real one, not this one), and then the thought of returning to a short story that might could be a novel.

The very day I went back to work full-time, I received a response on my latest story from a major magazine editor, saying it wasn’t quite right but they’d like to see the next one. It is so encouraging and exciting to hear from someone to whom I’m not related that my writing doesn’t suck. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a “next one” to send.

My goals for this year is to write and submit four new stories. Unless I go back to that novel……