Confessions of a Virgin Workshopper
By Christina Opalecky, VP 2000
Sunday afternoon they gave us all a photocopy of the schedule (pronounced shed-you-elle, we are in Martha's Vineyard, after all). Some meetings were made, a great deal of fluttering around and passing out manuscripts and straightening out of assignments occurred. For set-up and organization, I should say that though I have no basis of comparison, the pros seemed prepared, pleasant and accessible, and well prepared to handle any emergency requests.
I filed the schedule away somewhere without looking at it, and proceeded to begin my vacation.
Sunday evening I ate alone at Lola's. Lola's is the restaurant-bar attached to the complex of bungalows that constituted the Island Inn. Well populated by locals, the service was reasonably good, though the prices were not in line with the quality, Lola being a little over-proud of her 'Southern' style seafood, and your natives not knowing any better.
The irony of flying thousands of miles to eat 'Southern' style seafood did not escape me, but I have always been a sucker for nightlife. I had a bowl of cherry-stone clams that were perhaps a little too fresh (very gritty, more stone than cherry.) Several men tried to pick me up. I pondered whether the small bowl of warm, possibly-clear, liquid served on the side was a finger-bowl for me to clean my fingers with, or a broth to drink. The reasonable solution seemed to be to cover my bases and do both.
Sunday night I found the beach. When I was a wee, innocent lass, my mother, having better things to do than bother with me, entrusted me to the care of the nuns of Our Lady Queen of Hope, which included summer camp in the Upper Peninsula. The nuns had firm ideas about the necessity of mortifying the flesh and cleanliness and used to express these views by throwing us into Lake Superior at dawn. The first children in would usually break the ice, making it an easier landing for the rest of us. This had the effect of strengthening my constitution to the point where I have been able to enjoy my adult penchant for bad living with an unrivaled joi de vivre and the stamina it takes to drink a 6'4" redneck under the table while playing Mexican sweat, and had the added bonus of providing me with a lifelong resistance to cold water, despite two decades of living through Texas summers.
I went swimming in the night waters of the Atlantic ocean in the cool September night. Against the horizon golden clusters of light—ships, maybe—glowed against the flat black of the ocean. Robert had told me that Jaws had been filmed a few miles away from where I was staying so I kept a hopeful eye out for sharks, or hand-stumps that had been washed up on the shore, though I knew the scavenging crabs that so enjoyed such feasts were all probably asleep given the hour instead of properly scuttling about.
Alas, no sharks or crabs, but I did dig up some clams, and as I trotted along the wet sand, I suddenly realized that a green-blue glow sparked up at each smacking footstep. I stopped and pressed a palm into the sand, and at the pressure, my hand was outlined. —But I am digressing. This is supposed to be about the workshop, and the millions of fluorescent tinafore jelly-fish streaming in on the tide are a story for another night.
Toweling off in my room, I glanced at the forgotten schedule.
Good sweet GOD! was my first thought, looking over every hour, every precious minute, usurped, claimed by this wretched schedule, raided, stolen by this, this workshop. Didn't they know this was a vacation? And not only were the times listed in some sort of odd military jargon, but they started with 'breakfast' at 0700 and there wasn't a single aroma therapy session or Swedish massage being offered.
I immediately called Robert on the phone and voiced my alarm.
"What did you expect?" he said.
A good question.
What did I expect?
Well, not much. I was basically relieved that I hadn't, as yet, seen a single pair of Spock ears at this, my first 'sff' gathering. Other than that I really expected to be left alone to fuss around by myself, scout, and look for albatrosses. Remember, I had plans. Big plans. Also, though I had so far failed to spot any great white sharks, I was going to keep my eyes peeled for Kennedy mishaps. Those were my entire plans.
I was on an island. It was fall. It wasn't 100 degrees. What more was there?
"Some people probably want lots of meetings and group activities. They paid for it, you know."
"Group activities? You really think so? I can't imagine it."
"Well, why did you go?"
"I wanted to meet James and Debra, you know that—and get away from the hellish heat in Dallas. I have completed both goals. James and Debra are wonderful. The windows are open and it is still below 90 degrees in the room. We both know that the manuscript I brought up here isn't any good, so there is no point in going into that. Honestly, I supposed there would be a luncheon or two, with some hideous faux mayonnaise crab spread or something, but that was about it. What does 0700 mean?"
"It means you need to figure out how to work your alarm clock."
"There is something on this schedule called a 'one-on-one', do you think that is when they'll do the massages?"
"I'll be up on Friday, love," he said.
"They don't have any stores open past sunset, what is up with that? I thought the East was supposed to be civilized."
"I'll be up on Friday, love," he said.
"Everyone is going to find out I'm a fraud," I said. "I wish Marjorie had come."
As I rinsed the salt from the ocean off my skin, I reflected on the fact that I had booked his travel itinerary, and his little Cessna just might skew right on into the sea, as mine had nearly done, and that would teach him to be more sympathetic.
I dressed carefully. Faded jeans, frayed at the cuffs, perfectly tousled hair, a single silver and black onyx Victorian earring, bare feet and sun-glasses—it was before seven p.m., after all.
I padded through the wet grass down to the building that housed the main meeting room for this '0700 Breakfast.'
I believe there were some donuts. I had coffee. Not the group coffee. My father was an Eagle Scout, and though, despite his best efforts, he failed to imbue me with any actual wholesome qualities, I have never forgotten the motto: 'Never trust anybody to have what you need to keep your ass alive,' or, as they more coyly put it, 'Always be prepared.' I had brought my own Luzianne Chicory blend, very strong, cut with milk.
It was good. It was sustaining.
I will say the room was a nice size, big enough for the 20 odd instructors and attendees that made up the workshop, but not so big that it was awkward. The obligatory prints were not so appallingly hideous that they drew the eye. The couches and chairs were comfortable and well-cushioned and the conference building was solely ours for the week, and always a good place to run into somebody as the week progressed.
So the introductory meeting began.
I managed to keep the dork-ass nametag from sullying my soft-grey chamois tank-top by dint of surreptitiously tearing the odious thing up into thousands of tiny little pieces and sticking them down the pastel couch cushions. I resolved to tip the maid later. O, looking around the room at all these wholesome, happy, well-adjusted strangers, good decent people and aspiring writers, all highly educated and competent, I knew this had been a dreadful mistake. They had only admitted me to fill a slot.
We went around the room, 'introducing ourselves.' I believe I said something like: "Never mind my name, you morons, how dare you lot put me in this room and make me feel like I'm in junior high again? Do you have any idea how uncomfortable this kind of group situation makes me? Somebody will frigging pay for this. Whose idea was this? I will drink the blood of your first-born children and they will like it."
Okay, just kidding. What I said was, "Hi, my name is Christina and I'm an alcoholic." A couple of people shifted uncomfortably. "Wrong group?" I said, "Isn't this AA? No? Thank God, does anybody have a frigging drink, it's like, what, 0715 or something?"
Or perhaps I said, "My name is Christina Opalecky . . . . Hee."
I don't remember what anybody else said.
What happened next, or James D. Macdonald:
I came to Viable Paradise at Martha's Vineyard to meet James D. Macdonald. James has asked me not to tell anybody his dark secret. His dark secret is that he is the biggest softie I have ever met. I would feel worse about revealing this if it wasn't so patently obvious to everybody that has ever had any contact with him whatsoever. He's just, you know, a nice guy. We had been conversing via email off and on over the previous year, and he and his wife Debra, had been mentors to me, talking me out of the trees on more than one occasion.
But you know, you can't actually teach writing.
Because of this, workshops are problematic creatures.
Viable Paradise was laid out as a series of lectures, one-on-one discussions with the pro instructors on the student's work, and group discussions focusing on one work, with five students and a pro moderator.
James was to deliver the the first lecture. James was going to tell us all the secrets of plotting.
Uh huh. You know, secrets are funny things, aren't they?
Really, though, that was okay. This workshop was, for me, more of a pilgrimage, and my biggest fear was, you know, what you want the world to be, and what it turns out to be, those two things never seem to come together very well. What if I didn't like James or Debra? What if they didn't like me?
He is a big man. Handsome, tall and broad. Oh, he has a little paunch and that VP t-shirt wasn't the most flattering thing I've ever seen him in, but he has big feet and a big, booming voice and it's all powered by a passion for people and life and general goodness that you don't find very often.
In short, he was exactly how I had pictured him.
We piled into the main conference room for our first lecture. (Mostly) eager little acolytes happily waiting to be enlightened on the secrets of the intractable plot. There is no doubt that James is a master on the subject. I've seen him at work, and during the unfolding week, I was to see him spin a convoluted, yet coherent story off the top of his head—and plotting is something that, God knows, I wouldn't have minded the secret of. Anybody who has had the misfortune to read any of my work will certainly agree I can't plot my way out of a wet paper bag.
But, virgin to conventions though I was, I did not have quite the same hopeful look on my face that so many of my bright-eyed and bushy-tailed fellow workshoppers did, and it wasn't just because I was, unfortunately, mostly sober. I knew something they didn't.
I knew that you can't teach plot. No matter how good you are at it. I knew that James couldn't do it.
And I think James knew he couldn't do it.
I watched him pace around the room and he caught my eye and winked.
So he did what all masters of the trade do, he began with distraction, a magic trick, not a bad one, and yes, there is an underlying truth there about the role distraction plays when you're trying to get something clunky and tricky across that you can't explain very well but that the reader has to know. You keep your adept hand waving boldly, and you talk loud and fast, and you hope to God that the hand nobody is paying attention to can pull it out, and James said just that.
A model house was brought out, to illustrate the absolutely fundamental fact the fact that fiction is not the verisimilitude of life, but the suggestion of life. True. Vital for the writer to internalize. Nothing to do with plot, of course. At some point, a giant (relative to the house, at least), man-eating caterpillar attacked the model roof, its yellow and black spines humping along the top timbers, which at least brought it back into genre. If I recall correctly, Carol rescued the poor, monstrous beast.
The model house actually burst into flames at some point. I think that was James' favorite part. He was very enthusiastic. It was important to him that we got something out of this experience.
More magic tricks ensued.
The truth of the matter is, there is no secret into how to plot. You just ask yourself the question: And then what? James is simply very good at answering that question. You can't teach that.
Was the lecture helpful? Was it a success? Was it worth risking my life in that Cessna?
Yes, I think it was.
I think all of us desperate little wannabees walked away with three facts indelibly imprinted on our squishy little brains: Something has to actually happen in the story, and then something else, and then something else, up until the end-and it helps if those things are somehow connected and meaningful. Something has to happen. James kept coming back to that, and it's a very serious point.
Secondly, writing is not about presenting the world, it's about presenting just enough of the appearance of the world so that the reader plays the game with you, and finally, if nothing else is working, always remember to talk loud, look big, and have lots of distracting props.
Maybe we'd heard these things before, but there was still something very constructive about hearing them again, and hell, it was fun.
Maybe the workshop wasn't going to be so bad after all.
James was pretty cute. -James, we got something out of the experience.
Now if only I could figure out how to write stories where things actually happen.
How did I avoid the inevitable 'writing assignment'? What about the rest of the pros? What were they like? What were my fellow pilgrims like? What about all those other things on the schedule? What did I have for dinner? What about the albatross? All very important questions to be addressed in the next installment of the virgin chronicles.