I awoke this morning from the only good night’s rest I’ll get for the rest of the week.
My feet hung from the foot of the bed, the comforter twisted around me. The regular size twin beds in the guestroom aren’t quite long enough for my almost-six-foot height. I get out of bed, brush up, and check my intense backlog of RSS reader items while my roommates awake.
The conversation soon turns to writing philosophies. One of us wrote a semi-religious short story inspired by Buddhist imagery; the other has had multiple sales in magazines and anthologies. I can’t help but be envious. This guy clearly has his shit together, while I feel like I’m barely keeping up with the conversation some of the time.
We make plans with some of the other early arrivals to meet for breakfast in Oak Bluffs, the nearest town on the island. We walk down the road skirting the beach, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It is the first time I’ve seen it in at least four years. I stop to take pictures, then run to catch up with the others.
We buy groceries and eat at Linda Jean’s. They’re known for their blueberry pancakes, but I order a special called “the Captain Nemo,” a kind of scrambled egg seafood delight, with shrimp, lobster claws, and scallops. I can barely touch my toast by the time I finish, it was such an intense breakfast. We spend a good hour or so sightseeing in Oak Bluffs, including the intricate, diminutive “gingerbread house” summer residences. We then ride back into town, one of my roommates having driven his car into town for the groceries.
One thing I discovered is that the most learning at Viable Paradise is happenstance, occurring in conversations between instructors and students outside of lectures.
Feeling drowsy, myself and my roommates head to the staff lounge to get coffee. The coffee isn’t ready yet, so we sit in the living area and listen to an extended, philosophical conversation between Steven Brust and Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Soon other students come to listen and contribute. We had completely forgotten about the coffee.
Just minutes after the last students arrive on the island, we’re quickly given a lecture by Brust on the nature and practice of critique groups. Some of it is ground covered by others, but one thing that stands out is how informal it can be. The group should be composed of specialists, balanced to cover as broad a ground as possible. Everyone should be friends, or at least friendly. And most importantly, critique should be descriptive, not prescriptive.
The other instructors and staff trickle down to the basement with us while we students socialize. I’ve decided to avoid using names whenever possible, due to the sensitive nature of these workshops, as well as to preserve the magic of Viable Paradise. Fickle magic to be sure, fueled by quirky passion and human willpower and love.
Jim MacDonald covers what is expected of us this week. We’re given the manuscripts to critique when we break into writing groups, placed in messenger bags along with a notebook, pens, and a brown bag containing a toy. (We’re told it’ll be important later, so I won’t reveal what it was just yet.) The instructors and staff are purposefully vague on some details, such as what happens on Thursday night, referred to as The Horror. When it happens, I’ll be discrete in how I describe it, if I do at all.
And then came Mafia.
Due to the large (24 students) class size, we’re broken into two groups to play an icebreaker game, variously referred to as Mafia, The Thing or Werewolves. Run with a game master, the rules are simple, but the implementation is complex, as described by Teresa N. H. Bluffing in Mafia is on a far more interesting level than Poker, though the stakes are far lower.
I soon learned the personalities of many of the students and the instructors I play with. We’re ethnically and sexually diverse, having come from different states and countries, but we all have that writerly spark, that geeky passion. We get each other’s references, sometimes finishing them before the other has a chance to. Playing the game puts me at ease; that’s likely what it was designed for.
I have an early start tomorrow. MacDonald guides a three-mile walk at 6 AM down a trail on the island. It’s not strictly necessary, but encouraged, and any more face time with the instructors I’ll be happy to take advantage of. At least until they make me cry.
That could happen. Critiques begin tomorrow. Mine will be on Tuesday.