(I attended Viable Paradise in 2012. Here’s some advice to this year’s writers, to be read after you finish.)
So, you’re on the ferry back to the mainland.
First, you’ll probably be sick. Don’t worry, it’s either a head cold or some bad allergies. If you don’t live in the northeast, you’ll be exposed to all kinds of new germs and pollen while you’re at Martha’s Vineyard.
Chances are, you just said goodbye to a few fellow writers, the ones you got to know best while on the island, as well as the instructors and staff. It’s okay to cry a little. The stiff wind on the ferry will dry your face out.
Back on the mainland, you drive back to your apartment, or perhaps you take a plane from the island airport back home. That mean head cold does you no favors for your sinuses as the pressure drops and rises in the cabin. Meanwhile, you’re reading through the copious notes on your manuscript you received from your critique group. If it’s overwhelming, feel free to put it aside. Chances are, you will have no idea how to act on your notes for a few months.
You arrive home. After a few days of recovery, you’re back at your day job. Early in the week you realize you still haven’t finished unpacking that one suitcase. You toss things into the wash heedless, when suddenly you stumble on your nametag. You hang it up on the wall on your corkboard, a reminder that this thing actually happened. It’s like Harry Potter glancing at Hedwig every few minutes after his first year at Hogwarts.
You have a giddy kind of feeling inside, as you sign up for a half-dozen online workshops and forums, effervescent and overflowing. (Your relatives wonder why you’re so full of yourself!) It’s pride, it’s the afterglow, it’s the feeling of vindication that all of us writers seek. Bask in it.
It’ll be gone soon.
How soon depends. Maybe you get caught up in a project at work that takes you away from writing for a few months. Maybe you revise that VP submission story, paying close attention to the notes everyone has given you, and it doesn’t sell anywhere. Maybe you get tired of hearing of success stories on the mailing list. Regardless, the effervescent feeling is gone. You’re just flat.
That flatness, it sticks. You’re not sure why. I’m a graduate of Viable Paradise, a real writer now! Why aren’t my stories selling? You can’t even be bothered to resubmit your story somewhere else. You start another, but you don’t finish it. Or you do, but it’s worse than the one you wrote a year ago.
Or maybe you sell it. Viable Paradise was just one step on the long staircase of your career. You had been preparing for this life for a decade, perhaps two, for a dream you’ve had your whole life, and instead of you finding success, it finds you. Suddenly you’ve signed a contract, you have an agent, you have an editor gently guiding your paper boat down the whitewater rapids of the industry.
Regardless. The workshop, that magical week you spent in a place too beautiful to have been the backdrop for Jaws, it’s long over. Because it’s not Hogwarts. It’s not a place you can go back to. (You can visit Martha’s Vineyard any time you like, of course. But it’s not the same thing.) You keep the tools you’ve learned, the workshop materials, the souvenirs you bought at that store on the way to the ferry. But the experience? It’s gone.
Remember this. No matter where you end up, the workshop is just a step on your own staircase. Maybe the first solid step of your writing career, or one among dozens, or the steepest you’ve ever ascended. It’s just one step. Your staircase, it might make a sudden 90 degree turn, and you just stepped into a place you never knew you were going. It’s not a coronation, nor some mystical rite instilling the spirit of Shakespeare onto your mortal coil. It’s just a workshop. You’re going to stumble. You’re going to fail. You’ll wonder whether you should have gone in the first place. Just remember: it’s not Hogwarts.
Hogwarts is what happens later.