It is extraordinarily difficult to encapsulate what happened during my week on Martha's Vineyard. I can give you a list of all the events that occurred, but it is insufficient to convey the emotional aspects. One of my classmates is working on a day by day series starting here, and I'm not going to go into quite as much detail as he is.
The listy, here's what happened part
Actually getting to Martha's Vineyard is an ordeal. For me it involved a flight on a 4-across plane up to Boston (2 hours), then a ride down to the ferry station at Woods Hole with the delightful Julia Rios, who I hadn't had much chance to talk with in a few years, (~1.75 hours), grabbing a sandwich while waiting for the ferry, the long water voyage (45 mins) for which the curing of scurvy would be required, and a ride over to the inn. I left my house around 7:15 am and got to the Inn around 3:30 pm (after a brief stop for groceries). I unpacked, settled in, and socialized until dinner/orientation.
The rest of the week followed a pattern: Monday through Wednesday we had group critique sessions from 9-10:30, lecture from 10:30 to noon, and an optional lunch session. Monday and Tuesday we had afternoon lecture/collegium from 1:30-4:15, followed by one-on-one sessions, then dinner at 6:30. Wednesday we had free after morning lecture, to give us time to work on our writing assignments. Thursday and Friday had no group critiques or one-on-ones, just lectures and collegia. All day. In uncomfortable chairs. Tuesday night was a round robin reading of a Shakespeare play, during which I got to play with my outrageous French accent.
The Monday evening excursion to see the bioluminescent jellyfish was worth it. There was another Friday night, when Bear walked around to all the rooms and said, "Jellyfish walk." Take the jellyfish walk.
There's a highly optional 6:30 am walk with Uncle Jim, which I was never awake for. Actually, technically, nothing is mandatory: we're all adults, and we can make our own decisions. At the same time, though, you paid your money and made the journey; skipping all the lectures is a complete waste of your time. (Only Mandatory Fun is mandatory.)
Because I finished my reading for Wednesday's critique session during the break before my one-on-one, I was able to hammer out my first draft of the writing assignment late Tuesday. That meant I had Wednesday afternoon mostly free (I needed to revise, after all), so I took a walk with staff member Pippin down to Methodist Munchkinland (technically the MV Methodist Camp something) while my classmates worked. I didn't want to bother them by being bored and talky, so I took my energy elsewhere. (I did feel really weird about writing such a short story that I was done so early, like I needed to make it longer. And now, for my sins, I have to revise it and make it longer.) I scouted what was still open in town, and after an excursion for dinner, I joined in the revision and a critique swap (until midnight, when I decided I was DONE and needed liquor).
The less boring part
One of the stories I was given to critique in my group was hard for me to read, because it hit close to home. And I started crying giving feedback in the circle. (The descriptions of losing a pet were very accurate and effective. One of my comments on the paper was "ugly sobbing.") I suppose that was a bonding experience for us...
The level of feedback from the students was good, especially by Wednesday, when we'd been through a couple rounds and learned more of what to look for. The instructors' feedback, both in group and one-on-ones, was helpful. One thing I kept reminding myself (and everyone else) when we expressed doubt that our writing was any good was that the instructors have no reason to inflate our egos by lying to us and telling us we're better writers than we are. We got in; there is some element in our writing that is not-quite-there-yet in a way that the instructors can teach us to fix.
The emotional part
Being at VP is a strange experience. You have your peers (classmates) and the instructors. But it's not really set up as strata, where the instructors dispense wisdom from on high. They're approachable. They'll answer your questions about submitting to markets, about what was discussed in lectures or critiques that day, about books in general, and everything else. Yes, many of them had their own normal work to do, but if they were in the common areas, they were game for socializing.
You spend a whole week thinking and talking about books and stories and writing, with side conversations about getting to know each other, current events (the day we got a government again was nice), fangirling the hell out of Pacific Rim (maybe that was just us), and just anything and everything. You have to read 40,000 words (max) and give critique on them. There is a kind of bonding that occurs through adversity, and another through proximity. VP gives both.
Viable Paradise is a liminal place. It's a temporary establishment on a place reached by a journey (across water!). The students are in a transition from good writers to professional writers. Lots of symbolism in liminality.
What I learned
I learned a lot of ways to be a more deliberate writer. I write subconsciously, so all the cool things like thematic ties and symbolism that people picked up on in my story weren't there by any deliberate act of mine. The subconscious is pretty cool, though, and it does things you don't even notice. But I'd like to be more deliberate in my work, so that will help.
I learned that I'm a better writer than I think I am. I learned that there are some types of lyrical prose that don't make me want to stab my eyeballs out, even if I'm not following the story at all. I learned that I can write outside my usual comfort zone.
I learned things I already sort of knew but at a higher level and with better explanations behind them. I had a few "OH THAT RIGHT" moments while frantically scribbling notes.
This was the right workshop at the right time for me. I'm glad I applied, and I'm glad I met everyone. Miss you already!