Last month, I was privileged to attend Viable Paradise, a week-long workshop for writers of speculative fiction.
After we left, many of my fellow students blogged lists of what they learned that week. Usually ten things, generally about writing.
I tried, but I couldn’t.
That week was -- and the memories of it remain -- too expansive to compress into a list. And I think I still need the memories to sprawl like fabric before the pattern has been cut. To remain as potential. There is no need to hurry. I will run my fingers over the cloth and appreciate its beauty before I make it into something more.
(It will be a cloak. That’s a different story).
I can’t tell you ten things I learned about writing. I can -- and will -- tell you this one thing I learned about me.
I AM NOT ALONE.
When I was a child, I lived between two unrealities: the Little House on the Prairie books and the Star Wars movies. Each, in its own way, resonated with my internal wiring -- they rang the heck out of my bell -- and I spent a lot of time in my own head, telling myself stories drawn from those sources.
At the time, it occurred to me -- in the vocabulary extant before someone coined ‘mashup’ -- that it would be kind of, well, awesome if this prairie place could include (and this -- I thought -- sounds so crazy that I can’t tell anyone because they’ll think I’m nuts...) the Force.
And Lightsabers. And Wookies! And evil emperors, princesses, and monsters!
And a Quest! Oh my God... A QUEST! What if they had to do something? Go out and fight... Something evil. What’s more awesome than fighting evil?
Wow! Someone should write that! That would be so cool! It would be way cooler than anything anyone ever wrote!
Or, obviously, it would be Fantasy.
But I didn’t know that.
It amazes me that I remained ignorant so long.
My world didn’t lack for doors. Sometimes I stepped through them to enter rooms filled with wonders of fairies and elves, princesses with swords, quests, myth, dragons, wizards, mechanical wonders, vampires and warewolves. The Horse and His Boy, The Last Unicorn, Time/Life's The Enchanted World books, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Princess Bride, Greek Mythology, Monte Python’s Holy Grail, The Gunslinger, Twin Peaks, The Sword of Winter, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Hobbit, Dune, Harry Potter.
I didn’t comprehend the gravity that bound these things together. That what rang my bell was the speculative element. The sense of wonder.
So I walked through doors into rooms I believed were singular and unconnected. I marveled over the contents, and then exited by the door I’d used to enter. I never tapped the back of the wardrobe or looked behind the curtains for the hidden latch. I never knew there was an entire realm of wonder on the other side.
And -- to be brutal and honest -- I was enmeshed in a destructive myth about myself and my place within the larger world. From a young age, I believed that I had to get a PhD and then discourse in an erudite manner with my fellow academics about some really big, important topic in order to call myself a success. In order to be listened to. And I wanted someone to hear me. My belief that “great” books were only found in the section marked “LITERATURE” was part of this. I kept to the far edges of the bookstore, away from things with the taint of genre.
It is hard to write those words. To admit I felt that way.
At twenty, I walked through Prague with a friend. Two characters appeared in my mind. One held a sword, the other had magical powers. A story spun out from them, and it remains the place that my mind goes when it is free to do as it will. Sixteen years later it has sprawled into a world much richer than any I could have imagined that first day. I know which parts I imagined in grad school, the ones I hid in during the first hard months after my daughter was born, and the ones that came to me on long drives across this country. I tell myself these stories over and over, refining as I go.
Perhaps someday I will write them down. I didn’t at the time because this life-encompassing story felt subordinate to my college degree, to my work, or to whatever else I had going on. I mean, how could the overarching narrative that dominated my imagination be important when it was just... A fantasy?
It took a long time to strip all that nonsense away. It took the solitary confinement of Death Valley; an unplanned, career-ending baby in the Land of Little Childcare; and a single-wide, up-on-blocks, filled-with-mouse-shit Inyo County library trailer. A trailer where I found Paladin of Souls, The Mists of Avalon, and Silver Birch, Blood Moon. A trailer where someone handed me Assassin’s Apprentice. There was nothing to stop me from Googling these authors and ordering their books off Amazon. So I did.
My career felt over. My baby wasn’t impressed if I read Literature as he nursed. I wasn’t getting enough sleep and I needed to listen to the tolling of bells that resonated. I needed to spend time with things I loved.
So I opened the window and moved -- unabashed -- into world of wonder.
WE ARE NOT ALONE.
There are no words more powerful than these. Maybe all human language, myth, and story is no more than us telling each other this one truth, over and over again.
The path was the first sign that I was not alone. There are no paths where none have traveled. This path -- the one with the stories that resonated -- was covered with fresh footprints and breadcrumbs. The trees along it were marked with neon blazes. I knew there had to be others.
I wrote. I read. I found authors I liked. They showed me doors into other worlds. I went through those doors to find other rooms, more doors. I took classes. I learned. I wrote more. I became better. I took a hike, saw a man, had a dream (and listened to it), and then I started to write a story. When it slowed, I had another dream, took another class, connected with other writers, heard a song, wrote more, and submitted the thing.
That is how these things happen.
This makes me smile:
I wrote a story about a woman who learns there are doors to other worlds. Magical worlds. This knowledge changes her life. I was accepted to Viable Paradise on the first 8,000 words of this story. I crossed the water and went through a door to a magical world that has changed my life.
It is one thing to know you are not alone. It is another to spend time in the community of storytellers.
I arrived at Viable Paradise to find myself among friends. People who love what I love. Magic and science, myth and words. Not just as consumers, but as creators. The fledgling gods and goddesses of our own worlds. Together we learned from others with even more experience at godhood.
They didn’t act like deities, or expect to be treated like them. They’re just folks, too. People who like to talk and sing and have fun.
In that week, we talked about books and writing, and about the coolstuff that you have to put in there. We talked of demons and children and jellyfish, triangles and spirals, mazes and labyrinths and chess, poker, the environment, yarn, of boats versus ships, writing markets, snow, love, hats and ipads, horses, rocks, cookies, swords, knives, hair, hair dye, spaceships, guitars, birds, kimchee, whiskey and curry. And all the wide worlds in between.
We were not constrained by the hard edges of reality, only the sense of wonder which -- in the end -- isn’t a constraint at all. It is wings.
On the final evening, I sat on the floor of a room surrounded by people playing music. It started with Signal to Noise and it ended with Landslide, and I can’t recall where it went in between. But somewhere in the midst of those songs I moved through a door in my own mind and left a piece of myself elsewhere.
My initials are carved into some old tree. You probably know the one.
Oh, gods. There is this whole other world. It is Fantasy but it is also Real, and I spent way too much of my life denying its existence. It is the world that we make together when we tell each other stories and sing each other songs. When we create things.
I went there. With a whole bunch of amazing people. It was awesome.
I am still struggling to come back. Maybe I never will, and I hope that’s fine, too. Writing, like life, is a journey. And it isn’t easy. But I’ve heard nothing worth doing ever is.
I sit in front of my computer and look down this ancient road of story and myth. It is covered in breadcrumbs and footprints. And coolstuff.
I look to my left, and I look to my right. I have companions now. My new Veeps, and the other writing friends who have joined me along the way. I am ready for the journey.
What did I learn at Viable Paradise?
More things than I can count or list. This one truth that contains them all:
I AM NOT ALONE.