Viable Paradise: A Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop



Christina Opalecky

Confessions of a Virgin Workshopper

By Christina Opalecky, VP 2000

Part IV


It is Wednesday. But this Wednesday is a winter Wednesday. The wistful, end-of-summer, salty air of Martha's Vineyard is less than a memory. Gray Texas skies. Feet that have been soaked and cold forever, and many, many grackles in the leafless trees. That's right now. That's this Wednesday.


Poetics aside (that was me at my poetic best. Yeats can remain unrolled in his grave), I'm also drinking day-old, nucleated coffee and fretting about my to-do list of mundane life things that I must attend, but will avoid. After some more resolute and brave inaction, the list items will then be moved to the 'should have done, now I'm really screwed, so now I will most certainly avoid' list.

And, to top it off, I have this commercial playing in my head: Cut to woman dancing wildly in some hip night club. Sepulcher voice-over: YOUR DOCTOR NEVER SEES YOU LIKE THIS. Well, no, not unless you're dating your effing doctor, I suppose.

Maybe you haven't seen the commercial. Maybe I watch too much TV. If you haven't seen it, it's an advertisement for a drug that purports to treat bi-polar disorder. They used to call it manic depression. A rose by any other name . . . .

What does this have to do with Viable Paradise? I don't know. Mud is everywhere. My feet are cold and wet.

That Wednesday, of course, my feet were pleasantly warm, with the requisite sand between my toes from a dawn walk along the ocean. Wednesday was to be a 'free-day.' By Wednesday, the instructors felt, we'd be needing a break.

(Cut to woman lying in fetal position on floor. Deeply saddened voice-over: YOUR DOCTOR PROBABLY SEES YOU LIKE THIS. See, get it? When you're humming along, in your manic phase, you don't go to the doctor. You go to the doctor when you're depressed. See?)

But what they really meant was that by Wednesday, the instructors' cravings for the Crab Shack clam chowder would be irresistible, so they might as well be formalized.

We had our morning gathering, where, as on mornings previous, the coffee was truly worse than the sludge I'm drinking now, and where, that morning, I developed my theory that what makes editors and professionals different from us mere mortals is their inability to brew coffee, coupled with their obsession to consume it. But our morning gatherings had grown important; the definition of the day, people slung about on couches in groggy comfort. A rare chance to be included among kind and talk about ourselves, about books. To unbend.

Wednesday was not to be all play, though. We had a symposium scheduled, and I had my first one-on-one. It would be with Maureen McHugh. I was, truth be told, actually quite willing to forego the whole thing. I didn't want to face my writing. I don't like my writing.

It's funny how you remember things. Her suite of rooms was on the second floor. I remember that I went up the wrong stairs of the wrong building, but still managed to be early, because, though I wasn't anxious at all, and didn't start out 10 minutes early, I, you know, don't like to be late. What I don't remember is exactly the first thing she said to me, the first Words of Truth, the moment I'd come for.



"You're early."

But Maureen, despite my best attempts to distract her, actually did want to talk about my work, and so, for well over an hour, though I was flushed with awkward embarrassment, we did. Just she and I. And there was a Moment of Truth in there, a tight, tiny, little thing she said in the middle of discussing one of my characters that I was in the right place and time and space to hear. And what it was is absolutely none of your business.

It's private. It's mine.

Paddling in the Water

I will not attempt to describe the number and quality of vehicles used to convey our rag-tag group to the equally ramshackle Clam Shack, but the chowder was heavenly. Afterwards, our group went exploring the nearby public beach and working docks. Vanessa & Teresa rolled up their pants paddled about in the waves. A couple of the other girls joined them.

James and I leaned against an unoccupied life-guard station and watched them.

"James," I said, "Is nude sunbathing popular in Martha's Vineyard?"

"What!" James said.

"Well, I was just wondering why that sign there says 'No Nude Sunbathing.' Is it popular?"

"Harummm," James replied. "No, of course not." Danger

"Well, that's weird," I said. "Because, really, they don't put signs up for stuff unless it's been a problem. You don't see signs like, 'Do not eat vomit under penalty of law', cuz' most people just aren't even going to think of doing that. Words come after thoughts, not before. Like, you never see signs that say 'No shoving dynamite up your-'"

"Maybe it has been a problem," James interjected hastily.

We don't have many nude sunbathers in Texas. Not that I know of, anyway. Ticks. We have ticks. And in December we have mud and grackles. And manic-depressives. But no nude sunbathers.

(Cut to woman. The room is shot through with a dark light. A deep night wind owns the shimmering curtains.

She's alone, painting her walls red.

Swell idea.)

Stephen Gould found them, of course. In fine Tour Group fashion we took our Wednesday and traveled on to peruse the scenic and historic lighthouses of the island. As you would expect, the lighthouses tended to be situated on rocky cliffs and dangerous promontories that boats are typically encouraged to avoid. It's so cliche to say, but the vistas were breath-taking. Cliffs, and crashing, majestic oceans, and all, are hard to beat.

Pictures never quite capture the sky.

On the look-out station, some of us found it necessary to parade on the stone fence, with nothing between us and the bottom of the cliff.

(We can tell she's frenetic again, because she pauses to wipe the sweat off her upper lip. That's a universal sign of freneticism.

They taught us about universal signs of freneticism at VP. See what you're missing if you don't attend?


—Good God, what would my doctor be doing up at 3:00 a.m. helping me paint for? We used to be able to paint in the middle of the night with some expectation of privacy.)


Yes, indeed. I am not one of those who court adrenalin and CATASTROPHIC, PLUMMETTING DEATH by playing about on stone fence guards. Instead, I was standing next to the solidly bolted long-distance telescope. Come high winds, I would have something to cling to. It was one of those coin-operated jobs, and Mr. Gould was the man with the money.

I took a deep breath.

"Argh!" he bellowed in my ear.

"Aaughhhh!" I shrieked back, and clutched the strong metal base of the telescope thingy, waiting for the doom wind to swipe us all tumbling to our majestic and wind-swept end.

"ARGHH!" he cried, not to be outdone.

I opened my eyes and squinted up at him. There he stood, transfixed—nay, riveted—to the viewfinder.

He grabbed my wrist, dragging me forward, and thrust my unwilling eyes upon the sights.

The, uh, . . . sights. nudist

All I can say, because children might be reading this, is that a) clearly, the Authorities of Martha's Vineyard had not been rigorous enough in their distribution of signs, and b) why was the woman clothed and reading, according to the telescopic finder, Wuthering Heights?

(Red paint? No self respecting bi-polar paints their walls red in the middle of the night. WHITE. Clean. Stark. Control. Red is messy. Red is out of control. When you're manic, you are striving for control. White promises order. And white accuses. White is the empty page. White is both the need to control, and the utterly crippling reproach of not being able to do so. Red is not only tacky, it's just too simplistic.)

I want to tell you about Friday's lecture. I'll tell you about Debra's really wonderful discussion of language in Friday's installment. But right now, remember, it's cold, and it's winter, and I want to talk about Stephen Gould, finder of male nudists, lecture. What good is writing anything at all if you can't rearrange events to suit your purposes? (Or so they taught me at VP.)

Stephen Gould gave Friday's lecture. He called it 'Pros & Prose'. Clever, eh? I was expecting something clever, anyway. Some smooth end, some polished thing.

It was not smooth. Stephen talked about the things that can go wrong. Not wrong to your prose, but to you.

(The woman stops. She stares at sloppy, half-done, red paint job. HAVE YOU TOLD YOUR DOCTOR ABOUT ALL THE PROJECTS YOU'VE STARTED, BUT NEVER FINISHED? Such a sad voice. So much caring, so much disappointment in that paid for voice.)

There was an author, a very well-known name, Stephen began. She said it started with just one teaspoon of sherry, just one, at the beginning of each writing session, just to . . . get going.

(Back to the fetal position. What happened to the paint brush? You know, they always leave stuff like that out. She would have to have consciously decided to curl up into the fetal ball. Put the brush in the sink. Arrange her billowing, dark, wind-swept nightie just so—YOUR DOCTOR PROBABLY ONLY SEES YOU LIKE THIS.)

Stephen said the author's name, with her permission, but it's not really my place to tell you.

(Please. Please. Please, voice-over. I get it. I need to wash my hair. YOU NEED TO TELL YOUR DOCTOR ABOUT—)

It didn't end with one teaspoon. It just began that way. There are, for your edification, 150 teaspoons of sherry in a bottle, and that writer counted them all.

(Be quiet, voice-over.)

After our sight-seeing, we returned and regrouped to our little bit of beach & sea & resort. People made dinner arrangements with each other. I didn't.


I wanted to be alone. The planners of VP were right. By Wednesday, it was all a little too much. I was a little . . . raw.

I found a picnic table. Because it was the end of the season, we had the resort to ourselves. Here I was, in Martha's Vineyard. I stretched out. Watched the sun set. The sky you can't capture in a picture, or paint with words.

Words fail.

There are times, few and far between, when I can unbend, and allow myself to just spill onto the page. For a brief time, it all seems okay. Even good. Even . . . even alive. Red.

But then, it's time to read what you've written. You wipe your upper lip, because you can't sustain freneticism forever. Stupid wall. That red isn't quite the potent shade you thought it was. Half pure, accusing, unwritten, reproaching white. Half ruined, splattered, crap-ass, garbage red. You did that crappy, tacky red part. Why you couldn't see it was a bad idea in the first place is a mystery. And you forgot to put drop cloths down on the carpets. And it's three a.m. And your doctor never sees you like this.

Because your doctor would never understand.

(But, I say, paintbrush dangling stupidly-where the hell do I put this thing?—please. Please. Those were the only words I could think of, and it doesn't seem that there is any way I can make them better. Wait-no, wait. I can rework them. Other people do it. Other people write magic words. Let me just . . . smear this red around a bit.)

(Hurray! Now you've made a sort of crappy lifeless pink. There is no way to salvage the mess you've made.)

Thank you, Mr. Voice-over. I've noticed. I get it. I'm not color-blind.

Stephen talked about them all, all those voice-overs we play in our head. Talked about all the Train Wrecks you never hear about.

My back was stiff from the picnic table. The sun was full down, and-

—and I realized that not only was the sun full down, but the moon full-up—Full—Had I mis-read the calendar? So bright . . . the moonlight. . . . it burned. I stumbled, clutching my cramping stomach, as I struggled to rise. In those few, stretched, seconds of humanity left, I realized, I had misread the calendar. The thing I feared, no matter—

I staggered, fell to the damp grass. The pain was intense, ripping up my spine. Dropping my face into the dirt. I scented, unwilling and without conscious thought, and yet as completely as if hearing the fugue of the world, each blade, bitter and blossoming to senses inhumanly, wrongly, suddenly, too acute.

I threw my head back and screamed, a scream that became a howl somewhere, and the white-cast shadow was no longer that of a woman.

Okay. Just kidding. I just wanted a transition. Seriously, I didn't turn into a workshop werewolf and spend the evening wallowing in the blood of . . .

They taught us how to do transitions at VP.

People had finished their dinners, but the evening was warm and beautiful, and there were many room doors open throughout the resort, all belonging to VP'ers. I could hear Patrick playing his guitar, as Stephen accompanied him on the harmonica and James spun dark stories of the ER to the assembled group. In a room below, Debra laughed as Alexander, her son, danced on their bed. Teresa sat outside, on one of the balconies. My swiveling ears caught it all.

Outsider, I galloped through the tailored lawns, hid in the shadows, marked her, sitting as she was, a little alone, watching the stars. I planned my ki—I mean—

"Grrrhhhh," I said, spittle spraying off my fangs, eyeing the pulsing jugular. I tore the sandal from her foot. Savaged the sandal. Die! Sandal! Die! Back and forth, break the sandal's back!

"Come out of the moonlight, Christina," Teresa said. "I think you need to talk."

"Wraaurghh!" Evil, filthy sandal! teresa

Filthy, filthy wall.

"Christina," she said. "Why is there pink paint all over your fur?"

I thrust my muzzle into her lap.

She boxed my ears soundly. Fair play.

Maybe I had a good cry, and maybe it was nice to be understood.

Stephen didn't insult us by pretending to have any real advice on how to shut-down the voice-overs. He didn't have a prescription to offer.

And it's not the truth that I walked out of Viable Paradise, so invigorated as a writer that I never found myself staring at the walls at three in the morning, either, though it would be nice to tell you so. There have been times when what seemed sensible was to simply quit. The world would not stop, or even notice.

It's winter now, and I've had some time to think about a lot of things. Mud & grackles put one in a thoughtful mood.

I'll tell you one of the things that Viable Paradise gave me, outside of the insights on my writing, outside of the marvelous technical discussions, outside of watching the discipline it takes from real pros who woke up in the morning, and while I walked along the beach, they wrote, or they stayed up too late, and wrote.

I found a way not to quit forever.

Paint dries.

To Be Continued...

Did I have to buy Teresa a new pair of Birkenstocks? Will I ever be sensible again?--No, scratch that last question. Let us have a question with some hope of a positive outcome--Will I ever answer the questions left dangling from the previous installments? What about my next one-on-one with Stephen Gould? Is Stephen Gould really that cute and sensitive? What about my group critique? All this and more will be answered in the next installment!

Part I

Part II

Part III