In 2012, I attended Viable Paradise, a one-week, intensive writing workshop held annually on Martha’s Vineyard the thirdish week of October. “Paradise” because duh, Martha’s Vineyard in October. “Viable” because only one week, not six. You don’t have to get a second mortgage and put your entire life — job, family, friends, etc. — on hold.
But you still get an amazing experience. A lot of awesome information from top-notch instructors; a lot of amazing socializing with your fellow students, the instructors, and staff; a lot of tasty food; and probably a little something else, as well: a tribe.
I wrote a retrospective post about it a few days after I got back. It’s linked from Viable Paradise’s page, and I notice an uptick in the number of hits each year around the time the new crop of students are accepted. :)
This year, 2016, marks the twentieth anniversary of Viable Paradise. Twenty. A two followed by a zero. That’s a lot of writers they’ve guided (~480ish!). They’ve put together a reunion the week before VPXX, and I’m going! As part of the whole ‘Twenty Years of Viable Paradise’ thing, they (the organizers) asked for volunteers from past years to write blog posts talking about their experiences, to help the VPXXers be ready for their week in Paradise. :)
This is one such blog post. And . . . it got a little long. I apologize, but I tend to get very excited and effusive about Viable Paradise. I can go on about it for hours if you let me. Just ask my very, very patient friends. :)
The rest of this is addressed directly to the twenty-four newly selected students of VPXX.
So, first things first! Which, I’ve discovered, is the perfect place to put things which are first!
Curse you, my old nemesis! I have it. Chances are, you have it, to some degree. I was absolutely convinced — convinced — that the only reason I got into VP was that they had found twenty-three awesome writers and needed a twenty-fourth person to make up the last place, and they pulled my application out of a hat. Never mind the illogic involved in that. Impostor Syndrome doesn’t do logic.
Know this, and try to take it to heart: you were selected because of your talent. Your submission was good enough, and you are in because you deserve to be there.
A lot of high-density information is going to be coming at you at relatively high speed. It will be fun information, and you will enjoy the lectures and the symposia and the . . . activities associated with The Horror That Is Thursday™. :) With that in mind, however, you might want to arrange to take a recording device to capture audio to take some of the pressure off of trying to take coherent, detailed written notes. They talk fast. :) A good many of the VPXVIers made recordings, and we have since shared them with one another using DropBox. They’re quite interesting to listen to and remember. I took notes and recorded. The notes consist mostly of bullet points.
You will get and give critiques. Maybe you’ve had a lot of critiques going into VP (I had), or maybe you’ve had very few or none. Either way, getting critiques from strangers — some of whom will be the instructors — can be a little daunting even if critiquing is old hat to you. One thing to keep in mind: No one there is against you. Or, indeed, your story. Some people may honestly not like it. Some people may gush over it. But all the suggestions, even the ones that might unfortunately be worded harshly or in such a way as to feel pointedly aimed at you and not the story, are done from a place of helping you to make your story the best it can be. To paraphrase Shakespeare (because pretension): “The story’s the thing.”
So! Try to make your own critiques about the story at hand, not the author, and try to phrase your critique in a way to emphasize what worked for you (and why!) as well as what did not (and why!). Avoid offering ways to fix it; just point out your issues and let the writer figure out the ‘how’ part. You’ll understand after VP. </cryptic> :)
Different things are going to stick with different people. And some of it doesn’t feel like you’re being instructed in writing at all, at the time. One of the instructors was showing us what I then took as just random stuff. Tangentially related — if at all — to the lecture he was giving at the time. But! The point he made when showing us the model house with the hidden, detailed room has stuck with me longer than any single thing any of the instructors said. I think about it almost every time I sit down to write. Your experience will almost certainly be different, and something another instructor says may resonate with you more than what Uncle Jim said does with me.
MacAllister Stone. OMG. I cannot say enough effusively wonderful things about Mac. But I’ll try. :) You’ve probably already received the email from her asking about dietary needs. And here’s the thing about Mac: she will take all of those requirements from everyone and come up with a menu that will be remarkably like all the other VP menus, but everyone’s specific needs will be addressed. For dinner, you will eat well. If you’re still concerned (and that is to be understood; I have issues I was very concerned about; see below), my big suggestion is this: ship some “safe” food to yourself at the hotel.
Dinners are social events at VP, but you’re expected to fend for yourself for breakfast and lunch. Uncle Jim has pancakes and what I’m told (see below) was amazing maple syrup for breakfast. But what I did was to get a box of non-perishable stuff and ship it up to the Island Inn about a week before we were supposed to arrive. When I got there, my box was waiting for me in the office. Cereal I knew to be safe for a diabetic. Stuff for late-night snacks. Whatever you think you’ll need that’s light enough to not cost an arm and a leg to ship, won’t spoil, and that you might need while you’re there. Just ship it and forget it. You will be told that food is expensive on the island (it is), and while they took us directly from the ferry to the grocery store/supermarket before hitting the hotel, I was glad I had shipped certain things from home. I bought perishables. Stuff to make enough lunch for the whole week (I know some people bought bread, peanut butter, and jelly; I got tuna, cheese, noodles, and veggies, and made a casserole.) Every room will (I believe) have at least a stove top, if not an oven. Plan accordingly. :)
When the week was up, I had some of my shipped stuff left . . . and I just tossed it. It wasn’t worth taking back home. I used all the perishables (milk, eggs, veggies). I had some olive oil left that I think I gave to Mac. :)
The staff of VP consists of VP alums, for the most part. They’ve been where you are, know how things work, and are there specifically to help you. If you have any problem, seek out a staff member. Feeling overwhelmed? Talk to them. Need a trip to a pharmacy or grocery store? Ask the staff. Need to blow off steam? Go to the staff suite. Want to socialize? Head to the staff suite.
Special Medical Needs
This one is aimed at people with specific medical issues. You can skip it if that doesn’t pertain to you. I have a chronic intestinal thing that crops up periodically, and has for more than twenty-five years. It comes with horrible pain and, if left untreated, a visit to an emergency room. My doctor and I go way back, and I can call him up and say, “Doc, I have that thing again,” and he believes my self-diagnosis and phones the pharmacy with a prescription for antibiotics. No wait, no muss, no fuss. Because this thing crops up related to stress and diet, I let him know that I was going to be on Martha’s Vineyard for a week, that I’d be eating food I didn’t have any control over, and that there would be potentially high levels of stress involved. He gave me a prescription for the antibiotics, just in case. You don’t know how much of a load of worry this took off me. If I ate the wrong thing or got too little sleep or whatever, and came down with this issue, I could have missed a day or more of VP dealing with the fallout. As it was, I knew that I could get the medicine in a matter of a couple of hours. So take care of yourself and if you have a medical problem like mine . . . maybe talk to your doctor ahead of time and set something up to ease your mind.
Now, onto more fun things. :) Socializing! This was something I deeply wish I’d done more of. There were dinners and other times when everyone was together, and I had a great time. I’m very much an introvert (No, really!), and shy around people I don’t know. (Golly! A writer who mostly spends time alone and has problems getting to know people? Go on! ;)) It’s very hard for me to start a conversation with people, even when we have a blindingly obvious thing in common: writing. As a result, I didn’t seek out more socialization. This is the biggest regret I have about VP. I’ve kept in touch with almost everyone from VP to one degree or another. But I barely got to know several of the others, and it’s entirely my own fault, and no reflection on them. So my advice: if possible, get to know those people. They’re your tribe. But, at the same time, you know you better than anyone else does. So take care of yourself, as well. If you need me-time, take it. Everyone will understand. Most of them probably need it, too. :)
I didn’t partake of any of Uncle Jim’s pancakes and maple syrup because I was worried about my blood sugar. But I could have gone up and joined in the fun, regardless. I went to bed freakishly early (midnight) every night, listening to everyone having a lot of fun upstairs (I was on the lower floor), but I knew (thought?) that I needed a certain amount of sleep or my immune system might compromise and I might get sick . . . but I wish now that I’d just gotten a couple of hours less sleep per night and spent time hanging out. The cold I probably would have gotten the week after would have been worth it. :) But again, you know you, and take care of yourself. People will understand.
Uncle Jim’s hikes! Again, I didn’t go on any of them because Reasons. Mostly because I felt like I needed that extra hour of sleep rather than getting up and spending an hour walking around Martha’s Freaking Vineyard in October getting a little exercise in the insanely fresh, nippy, early morning air and talking about . . . who knows what? I didn’t go! I have no idea what they talked about. But I’ll bet it was interesting! :) If you can manage at least one morning walk, don’t make the mistake I did. Again with the ‘you know yourself’ caveat.
The Wifi at the Island Inn is . . . there. Mostly. I wouldn’t rely on it too heavily. You won’t have time to be online much, anyway. But just know that if you’re used to lightning-fast network speeds, you’re going to be underwhelmed.
Bring a memory stick or something along those lines. Something handy to have on you for, say, copying documents on . . . to then dash up to the staff suite for printing . . . in the wee hours of Thursday morning, for instance. </cryptic> Oh, and virus-check the crap out of it. No need to give the staff your nasty computer virus. :)
Stay An Extra Day
I know this is something you’ve heard before, but if at all possible for your schedule and your expenses, stay the extra night and leave on Saturday instead of Friday. There is a lot of socializing that goes on that last night, and it’s a lot of fun. Also, since you can’t take home the open bottles of booze, they tend to form a . . . booze buffet, if you will. I did not partake, being a non-drinker, but there was much rejoicing. And music, and just . . . an all-around good time. So if you can, stay until Saturday.
I will close this lengthy post by relating a little story that exemplifies the entire VP Experience™ for me. I smile every time I think about it.
On Wednesday, a group of us walked into town for lunch. We also spent some time sightseeing. When we walked back, Nicole came dashing out of her room and ran up to us and said, “Quick! I need a way to dispose of a body by burning, but I have to be in the room with it while it burns!” (I’m paraphrasing, here, and I hope Nicole will forgive me if I’ve made her sound not like herself. Or, you know . . . kind of murdery. Which, one hopes, is not like herself. You know, I’m going to stop, now.)
Now, a random group of people selected off the street might have many reactions to a statement like that, but none of us even blinked. Instead, several people started offering suggestions and asking clarifying questions. “A fire that would consume a body will need to be hot. How big can the room be?” “Do you want the body reduced completely to ash?” “How much time do you have?” Etc. A short discussion ensued, but I didn’t hear most of it. Because I kept walking while grinning to myself. It had just hit me. These people are my tribe. They get me.
And that is a wonderful feeling to get.
Enjoy yourself. Get drunk (if you drink), but not too drunk. Have some Scurvy Cure. Play silly games. Play poker with Steve-with-a-Hat. Have pancakes. Take walks. Go and see the fireflies of the sea. Tour the town. See the Methodist Munchkin-land. Visit the lighthouse and watch the sunset. Read a dreadful romance out loud. Sing along. Have a beer with Billy. Bring your pajamas. Lament the dreadful, Dreadful, DREADFUL, unexquisite agony of writing. Become a Thing. Join the Mafia. Enjoy the food. Take a binding oath (or two). Seek out the staff if you have problems: that’s what they’re there for.
And the less said about The Horror That Is Thursday™, the better.
This is both an example of how my brain operates and how amazing The Internet is. And a writing lesson, but in a very left-handed sort of way.
Today on Facebook, a friend of mine made a post asking his friends to recommend a recording of a specific piece of music by Handel.
My brain instantly seizes upon the scene in a M*A*S*H episode where Charles Emerson Winchester, III, asks Margaret Houlihan for a specific recording, with the joke being that the recording doesn’t exist. (Or so I thought! Keep reading.)
Being the snarky person that I am (I’m sure you can’t tell that by any of my posts, here), I instantly responded by typing, “I recommend the 1923 recording by Shnobble” and then stopped. That’s not the exact line. But to get the exact line, I’ll need to know which episode it is.
I have a friend named Mike who is a huge M*A*S*H fan. As big as me. We have frequently talked for long periods of time about M*A*S*H and are able to recognize episodes based on a single line of dialogue or a fragment of plot. I knew it was a late-series episode, and that Margaret was asking a favor . . . but that’s all I had to go on. I asked Mike, and he recognized it, but couldn’t remember exactly, either, only noting that it was probably a 10th- or 11th-season epsiode. So I called up M*A*S*H episode guides and started looking through the titles and short synopses.
I immediately found one in the 11th season that looked promising: “Say No More.” But it involved Margaret coming down with laryngitis and not being able to make it to Tokyo for a probably romantic assignation, so Charles contacts the doctor and has him come to the 4077th, instead. An “uncharacteristic” nice gesture by Charles. But not the one I wanted.
A few minutes later, scanning backwards, I located another possible one in the 10th season called “The Birthday Girls,” which involved Margaret wanting to go to Tokyo for her birthday, but instead getting stuck in the godforsaken middle of nowhere, Korea, with Klinger in a broken jeep.
The episode guide didn’t elaborate, but I was sure that was the one. So I looked up the synopsis of the episode on a better site. It said that Charles asked Margaret for a particular recording in exchange for taking over her teaching duty that she had to miss in order to get to Tokyo, but didn’t reveal the name or the recording. Crap! I’d have to just watch the episode.
I break out my DVDs of M*A*S*H, locate the 10th season, find disk 2, and insert it into my computer. Where it was rejected. Several times. Drat! So I put it into my DVD player and played it on my big screen TV in the living room, fast forwarding to where the scene takes place. Captions on, of course, so I could get the names right.
Keep in mind that all of this is so I can make a one-line snarky comment on a friend’s Facebook post. Just wanted to remind you of that. :)
Charles says, “Lately, I have had a craving to hear the Beethoven Emperor Piano Concerto.” Margaret replies something to the effect of, “So that’s all it’ll take? I get you a record?” Charles continues, “Well, of course it must be the incomparable Artur Schnabel as soloist.” Margaret again replies about that being a snap. To which Charles qualifies, “Ah — And not the 1947 performance. It’s just tentative. On the other hand, the 1932 performance with its limpid runs. . .” Margaret replies that she’ll get it. “If I have to, I’ll find that Schnabel guy and bring him here to play it for you!” (or something like that).
And I had my quote. “I recommend the Schnabel performance, but not the 1947. It’s tentative. But the 1932, with its limpid runs…” Aaaaaand done. Research complete, I moved on.
I share the information with Mike, who in the meantime has also inserted disk 2 of season 10 and is watching it, and provided me with the exact wording of the entire conversation, as you see it above. (Charles’ parts only, which is why the Margaret parts are paraphrased.)
But . . . then I start to wonder who Artur Schnabel was. I’d never paid attention before to the name, because I assumed that because of the resemblance to the word ‘snob’ that Charles was just being a jerk and sending Margaret on a wild goose chase for a recording that didn’t exist, possibly by a piano soloist who didn’t exist. “Shnobble,” as I’d heard it before.
So I Googled Artur Schnabel. And discovered that not only was he a real person, he was quite famous for his recordings of Beethoven piano pieces, including a 1932 performance of The “Emperor” Concerto (The Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73). Stunned, I went to YouTube. And sure enough, there it was. The 1932 performance. I listened. I don’t know what “limpid” means in terms of music, but I’ll be honest, it was quite a performance. I enjoyed listening to it.
. . . Then, I wondered, “Well, was there a 1947 performance?” and I went to YouTube again. By now you’ve probably guessed that there was, indeed a 1947 performance of the same piece, and . . . it wasn’t as good as the 1932. Again, I’ve no clue what Charles meant by “tentative,” but I will say I greatly preferred the 1932 performance to the 1947.
“Wait a minute,” said my brain. It says that a lot, actually. (Just between you and me, it can get quite annoying.) “What,” it demanded, “was the point of that whole conversation, then? If Charles actually gave Margaret a legitimate recording, then it makes him far less of a jerk in that scene.” Note: LESS of a jerk. Instead of sending Margaret on a wild goose chase for a recording that doesn’t exist, he’s now just making fun of her for her lack of sophistication and knowledge about “classical” music, and perhaps for not being able to find a 20-year-old recording of western classical music in Tokyo, Japan.
Basically, my entire understanding of that character has altered, based on this little research rabbit hole down which I found myself falling. Don’t get me wrong: I dove in head first, secure in the knowledge that I would fall into something very like Wonderland.
To bring this back around to writing (because, hey, this is my writing blog): writer Lee H. Grant, who wrote that episode of M*A*S*H, added this little tidbit of character building to this episode, and probably knew good and well that the vast majority of the people watching the episode (in 1982) would have never heard of Artur Schnabel, may or may not know what Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73 was, nor that it was also known as ‘Emperor,’ and nevertheless put it in there because the character, Charles Emerson Winchester, III, would know about it in 1952(ish), when the episode took place. Because Charles was a snob, was a music lover, and had a very wry sense of humor. Perhaps, the little smirk on his face after Margaret promises to “bring that Schnabel guy” back to the 4077th to play it for Charles in person was because Schnabel died in 1951, just a short while before the events of this episode would have taken place, and not because he was a supreme jerk who was reveling in the cruel joke he’d played on a friend.
What writer in his right mind would write something that obscure into his work?
Answer: A good writer, who knows his character, and wants to get the details right, that’s who.
What have I learned from this? Basically, that a good writer does his/her research, to get it as right as possible. “You’re an author. You know that borrowing of the real always gives a better foundation for fiction. There’s a rhythm and sense to reality that’s hard to fake.” This was said to me by Nick, the friend on whose Facebook post I made the snarky comment that started all this. :)
Thank you to Mike, Nick, and Lee H. Grant for making this little lesson in writing possible. And to the anonymous people who compiled the wiki articles about the episodes and the anonymous YouTubers who illegally ripped and uploaded the recordings of the music so I could hear them. They were “limpid” and “tentative.” Apparently.
I was listening to a podcast earlier today and it happened again.
Guest: Um . . . Not really. I can’t think of —
Host: Well, not Wikipedia, right? Whatever you do, don’t use Wikipedia! [laughs]
Guest: [laughs] Right.
Ha ha ha. He he. Ho ho.
There’s this meme out there in Internetland that is oddly persistent. That meme is that Wikipedia is the absolute, bottom of the barrel, worst place to go to research anything, because it’s always, always wrong. I’m sure you’ve heard it. You may even have perpetuated it.
“I got it from Wikipedia, so take this with a grain of salt, but . . .”
I’ve also heard celebrities being interviewed, and they’ll say things like, “You got that information from my page on Wikipedia didn’t you? It’s wrong. I have no idea where it came from.”
The thing about Wikipedia is this: it’s free. It’s editable by anyone.1
That’s both a good thing and, necessarily, a bad one. I can go on Wikipedia right now and change the facts on the page about the Hubble Space Telescope to indicate that it was built and launched by Serbia in 1573 by rogue centaurs intent on proving the moon is made of Camembert cheese. But that will be corrected almost immediately. And if I do something like that too often, I’ll attract the attention of the Powers That Be. <insert ominous chord here>
Apparently in contradiction to “popular belief,” Wikipedia has editors. A dedicated group of unpaid volunteers from around the world who police the site, watching for suspicious behavior, and taking action when needed. I know at least two of these people, and it’s no small undertaking.
But here’s where I’m headed with this entire rant: if you find something on Wikipedia that you can prove is wrong, fix it. That’s the entire point of the site. It’s meant to be a public domain encyclopedia maintained by the public. The idea being that all of us are smarter than any one of us.2
Now, should you go on there and just correct something without citing references? No. That’s a waste of time. Someone will notice your lack of citation and probably revert the page to its state before you edited it. Not out of malicious intent, but because without a citation, it’s your word against the word of everyone else who has ever edited that page.
I was listening to an NPR show called “Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me” a few years back (November 4, 2006 to be exact) on which the “Not My Job” segment featured guest Jimmy Wales, who is the creator of Wikipedia. The producers of the show decided it would be funny to give him a quiz gleaned from some of the more trivial pages on Wikipedia. It’s a funny segment, and one I can highly recommend. That link up there will take you to that particular segment so you can listen to just it and not have to wade through the entire show if you don’t want to.
The funniest part to me, though, is when Wales himself says (at 8:25 in), “Wikipedia is really, really, really strong in the area of Japanese cartoon characters. And if you push that ‘Random’ button, I think about 33% of what you find in Wikipedia is Japanese cartoon characters.” The host, Peter Sagal, later quips (at 9:05 in), “You’re right, I kept pressing the ‘Random Entry’ button to find material for this, and, like, every other one was a Japanese video game.” [Note: the button is actually a link labeled ‘Random article.’]
All joking aside, here’s where I hope to set the record straight on something. While Wikipedia may indeed be unreliable on certain subjects, on academic subjects — for which there is much published reference material — it is no more or less inaccurate than Encyclopedia Britannica.
There have been a number of studies that have upheld this conclusion. Circular reference alert: This article on Wikipedia is about the accuracy of articles on Wikipedia. There are a number of caveats in the article and in the studies themselves, but the gist of it is this: Wikipedia is surprisingly (for most people) accurate on scientific or academic topics. You can probably safely use it as a starting reference.
I’ll finish with something I learned at Viable Paradise in 2012. Dr. Debra Doyle lectured about research and how to go about it. The thing that stuck with me is this: always try to find the original source for information. How does this relate to Wikipedia? At the bottom of well-written Wikipedia articles are links to sources that are cited. Use those as your starting point. Glean from the article what you want, and then focus in on the parts you need further clarification on. Go to the sources cited by Wikipedia. Then go to the sources cited by those sources. And so on. Eventually, you’ll end up at the bottom of the rabbit hole wondering where the last fourteen hours of your life went, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll have a (weary) smile on your face for having found the information you needed.
And if you take nothing else away from this rather long-winded rant, make it this: If you find something incorrect on Wikipedia, fix it! That’s the entire purpose of the site.
- It is possible to get banned from Wikipedia for various offenses such as vandalism. For example, in May of 2009, IP addresses owned or operated by the Church of Scientology and its associates were banned from Wikipedia for relentlessly pushing its own agenda, including editing Scientology-related pages to remove anything they deemed inappropriate or that would reflect negatively on the church. Individual users may also be banned for similar offenses. Topics may also be locked down and set uneditable because of frequent vandalism.
- Even for very, very smart people like Steven Hawking or Albert Einstein. Do you think Hawking knows anything about bat physiology? Do you think Einstein knew anything about the behavioral patterns of Japanese snow monkeys (macaques)?