Confessions of a Virgin Workshopper
By Christina Opalecky, VP 2000
My husband was the valedictorian of his high school. This meant, basically, he got to give a speech on the day the school pretended to hand out the diplomas.
Robert slammed two beers and approached the auditorium podium, the school colors waving gently behind him.
"Most of us," he began, "are going to have pretty ordinary lives. We are not going to be rock stars or famous brain surgeons. Some of us won't even make it up to third waitress on the night shift at Denny's. Let's face it," he said. "Life is going to be pretty mediocre for the vast majority of us. Very little of what we dream of becoming will happen."
Actually, I'm prettying the speech up a little bit. It wasn't quite that optimistic.
After that year, they added a new rule to the books: All the valedictorians must have their commencement speeches approved in advance.
What does that have to do with Viable Paradise? Well, nothing, really, but I've just always wanted to tell that story, and you're the closest I've gotten to an audience.
So by the third day at Martha's Vineyard, the routine had pretty much been established. Sunday or Monday night a troop of us went to the local grocery store for supplies. The tomatoes looked much the same as they do in Texas, the grocery store clerks slightly less stylish, a little more brutish, inbred—but you know how the North is. Allowances must be made. The store did have some interesting local cheeses. The cheeses weren't bad. I got some bagels and eggs to stock my dormitory-style refrigerator.
After my Tuesday breakfast, Stephen D., a fellow attendee, and I sat on a picnic table together and watched the sun burn off the dew. We talked about writing, San Francisco, writing, and, rather mundanely, movies we'd seen recently. The grass was that strange, almost too-bright green it gets in the early morning sun. Left over from some unseen wedding, the tarp of a white pavilion thwocked in the wind. Maybe the air even smelled of salt. It's something, to a land-locked girl, to see the ocean on the horizon. Dallas is a thousand miles from the coast. In every direction.
(No albatrosses were spotted, with wings beating majestically against the sky, though I did see a very fat robin laboriously flapping up to the top of a pine tree.)
Stephen's submission to the workshop was a haunting ghost story of a suicide coming to peace.
That's how I ended up classifying everybody in my head, not by what they did or where they were from, but about what they wrote: 'Larry' (or is he not really José Ferrer, a.k.a. THE EMPEROR SHADDAM?) wrote a fantasy novel whose mood evoked Robert Howard. Brenda, she wrote the short story of a nun on a Mars colony. Vanessa, she's the one with the lost boy in the rich, eerily magical world. Now Bill, he's the story of a corporate geneticist.
At 09:30, as I would do every day for that week, Stephen and I joined the rest of the group as we all gathered in the main room and talked for an hour about, yes, writing. At 10:30, the formal lecture would begin. It was Maureen McHugh's turn. She called her lecture Simplex/Complex.
I couldn't get far enough past the idea that the words sounded like an STD to ever figure out what that meant as it applied to what she said, but I listened. Maureen has a . . . sense . . . about her, a quiet, gentle intelligence. You want to listen to her talk. You inherently trust her. Her heart and her mind feel close to the surface.
She talked about extrapolation, and techniques that can help you create science fiction that will feel real in the way it predicts a possible future. She talked about finding your own strengths: Are you a clever writer, like Jack Womack, chilling and full of Elvis's? Are you a consummate storyteller like Stephen King?
She talked about characterization and how you push the story. Suppose your basic story is as grindingly cliché as Grandpa piling back into his time machine to murder Hitler? How, in the moment of imaginative sympathy, can you make the story more than just plot, can you make even the most stock events complicated and real? What if, while Grandpa is traipsing about the time-continuum, he is missing his bulimic grand-daughter's dance recital? How do you make characters human?
Ohhhh. Maybe that's what 'simplex-complex' meant. How do you make the simple, complex? And how do you make the complex simple enough to be articulated onto the page? How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you keep a moonbeam on the sand?
Well Maureen discussed these hows. It turns out that if you know the SECRET it's not hard at all. I can't actually tell you the secret. You have to go to the workshop to hear it. If you betray THEM I think they BLACKLIST you with EVERY EDITOR EVERYWHERE, oh, and make you wear funny hats, which is probably worse. That's how powerful THEY are.
After all that, we broke off for lunch, which for me was more like down-time. I hid in my room. My safe, quiet CLEAN room. The maids came by the rooms sometime between 0930 and 1200. I love the maids. Deeply and commitedly. I will never be unfaithful to them. I will tip. They washed my breakfast dishes. They made my bed. They gave me fresh towels and mopped up all the puddles left by my enthusiastic ablutions. They left all my papers alone. They were good people. Occasionally I would see them: shy, elusive creatures, pushing over-full carts around the grounds, carts hung heavy with brooms and clean towels and Windex bottles. They were doing these Good Things. Making the world a better place.
After lunch was the time when, instead of group discussions or lectures, the pros focused on us and took the generals to the specifics of how we could apply them to our actual work—or just things to think about, anyway. This is the special stuff you can't get out of a how-to-write-book. Every attendee received two formal one-on-ones, and could schedule further meetings. (I think everyone of us did. My one-on-ones were with Maureen M. and Steven Gould, but I also arranged one with Patrick. The instructors were very accessible.) We also each had a 'five-on-one', where one of the pros would moderate a smaller group (consisting of five fellow-attendees, imagine that) discussion of the work you had brought to the workshop. Mine were scheduled on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, so outside of the five-on-ones I participated in for others, my Tuesday afternoon was very relaxed.
Back at 1600 for another group discussion, followed by dinner and socializing. Enough about writing, already. Tuesday was pizza & Shakespeare night, with Teresa, dressed all in black with a black hat, taking donations to pay for the pizza. It was a wise choice, the milder Maureen would have come up empty-hatted, but when Teresa takes donations, you donate. Roles and scripts in The Tempest were handed out. Beer was handed out. Our performance was, of course, splendid. Patrick pulled off the difficult role of Prospero with aplomb. Debra Doyle has a beautiful voice and played the ingénue with not a small amount of amusement and irony. Steven Gould minced and pranced as Shakespeare's inevitable fairy like nobody's business, with his red-blonde hair and blue eyes bouncing across the room. I was the dissipated and disloyal Sebastian—ah, typecasting! But there is no doubt in anybody's mind that Brenda and Vanessa as Stephano, the drunken butler, and Caliban, the monster, respectively, stole the entire show.
I hadn't read or seen The Tempest before, but Shakespeare is for speaking out loud. If you put your mouth around the words, no matter how incomprehensible the text looks, somehow meaning comes out of it. Everybody did a solid job of moving it along, a good time was had by all, and barely anybody hurt, not even the skunk that attempted to eat the leftover pizza. (My personal highlight of the evening. Watching a dozen adults scramble in terror at a creature the size of a wee housecat whose only desire is a crust of chewed-on pizza is a wholesome, if rather countrified, pasttime. By the way, real-life skunks look just like the cartoon-skunks. See, cartoons are educational.)
After the Shakespeare reading the late night crowd took over. Something slightly stronger than beer was broken out. Teresa and I talked about agents late into the night. She is an admirable woman with an admirable constitution.
These were the rhythms of the days, then. Up early, talking with fellow attendees, pottering around the grounds, to a group meeting and a lecture, in turn, from each of the instructors in their area of strength. The afternoons were spent in split-up intensive, private discussions of our specific works and then long nights of talking and . . . other things. (I deny all rumors of any 'hog-tying and martini' incident. Besides, there are no pictures.)
I staggered back to my room sometime before dawn and called poor Robert, though I don't recall what we talked about. Maybe I told him I was thinking about his speech that morning.
"You know, the speech you gave in high school, at your commencement."
"That was over a decade ago."
"—I think people can achieve their dreams. I think I can be a writer."
"I know that's what you think, sometimes. Sometimes, on the other hand, you think you're a miserable failure."
I don't know where he gets ideas like that. I ignored him and continued. "I think part of it," I said, "is that you have to act like your dreams are possible, even if you don't believe it. That's why I came to this workshop. It was an act that said to myself: I believe this dream is worth pursuing. Even if I never publish, that's okay."
"Really? What I recall you actually said before you went to the workshop was that you were going to go to quit writing, as a final good-bye to James, who had helped you out so much—but that the truth was, and your precise words were, 'you were a miserable failure and you just didn't have what it took.' You said 'fraud' and 'talentless idiot' a lot."
"What's so wonderful," I said, a dreamy (okay, slurred) tone creeping into my voice, "is that everybody here, for this one magic week, treats you like you're really a writer."
"You hear," Maureen had said at the end of her lecture, "that you should 'write about what you know.' But what does that mean to us? We write about spaceships and elves. We don't 'know' anything about spaceships and elves. What you know is yourself. You know your own quirks, you know your own obsessions. For me, my obsession with gay guys and subways created China Mountain Zhang.
"What you're obsessed with, what you're ashamed about, embarrassed about, all those little things in your head, that is what you know. That is what fuels your fiction. Write about your obsessions and your readers will be obsessed."
"Well, then you're in then," Robert said. "You're all fucked up. You should have lots of fuel."
"Oh, Robert," I said, "I'm so utterly cliché in all my insecurities, though!" I railed, taking this moment to dramatically flop onto the nicely made bed, "How? In this moment of imaginative sympathy, what details do I need to give you to make this real and powerful and compelling? (—See how much I'm learning?)"
"Hmm," he said. "Why don't you tell me what you're wearing?"
"I'm glad you're having a wonderful time, Christina."
"I'm having a wonderful time, Robert."
But tomorrow would be my dreaded one-on-one with Maureen, closely followed by the group ATTACK, and then the one-on-one with Steven Gould. What was I thinking? How did those go? What Great Truths were discovered? What happened to the pinafore jellyfish discussed in Installment Two? Did I get sick, or was my own constitution adequate to the indomitable Miss Teresa's? Why did we spend the next evening discussing Emergency Room visits? All this and more, in the next installment of the Virgin Chronicles.
Special thanks to Catherine Dybiec Holm for sharing her notes on Maureen's lectures with me. Apologies to Maureen if I messed up what she said.