What Viable Paradise Means to Me

There are only five days left to apply for Viable Paradise.

Immediately after Viable Paradise, I wrote about my impressions while my brain was still mushy from information overload and sleep deprivation. I stand by what I wrote then: it’s a liminal experience, and when you return across the water you will not be the same person journeyed forth.

Viable Paradise is specifically for people who are serious about becoming professional authors in the speculative fiction genre, and it’s a very doable time commitment compared to Odyssey or Clarion. The wealth of information doled out by instructors James D. Mcdonald, Debra Doyle, Steven Gould, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Steven Brust, Sherwood Smith, Elizabeth Bear, and Scott Lynch is simply incomparable.

I wrote before that beyond what we were supposed to learn through all the lectures and critiques and workshops, what I primarily took from Viable Paradise was the belief that I had the tools I need to be a successful writer and the sense that I’d finally found my people. And this remains true.

I know that when talking about an intensive writing workshop, I probably ought to talk about the transformative writing experiences. And I had those, of course, but it was an intensive and prestigious writing workshop; I expected that. I can confirm what others have said, but that misses what, for me, was more important that week.

I’m going to talk about the music.

For this to make any kind of sense, you have to understand that I have a complicated relationship with singing.

It surprises me sometimes how many close friends don’t know this. It isn’t something that I intentionally try to hide, but I suppose I don’t draw attention to it.

I have an enormous voice. I’ve had a lot of voice training to learn what to do with it, which probably accounts for much of the problem. Much of the training gave me a complex of sorts. It’s not that I believe I’m a bad singer, but I believe that I sing badly. Middle and high school performing arts teachers certainly exacerbated my problem, but it mostly comes from within.

What it boils down to is that my expectations of myself and my singing get in my own way. Because I know what I’m capable of, I have monstrously high expectations, which makes them ever more impossible to obtain.

It’s not stage fright the way I understand it. I used to be able to sing in front of people without any issues, so it’s certainly a learned problem. I don’t have any trouble dancing or acting, but singing is somehow more personal. No matter what bodily methods I have learned to help my singing, my voice still has moods that I can’t control. With dancing and acting, my brain has control; with singing, and writing, that’s not completely the case.

Singing at karaoke? I’m fine, because no one expects people singing at karaoke to even be able to carry a tune. Singing in a choir? Also fine, because choral music isn’t about one voice, it’s about many.

Singing by myself, though, in front of an audience? I almost can’t anymore.

I used to think it was simply a matter of training and practice performing, but the more I learned, the worse it became. Sometimes everything would be fine, and I would allow myself to hope, but I couldn’t help but also expect everything to work out the next time, and it would crash horribly. Tears and self-loathing following my recitals became part of my expectation.

I love singing, but it’s hard for me emotionally. Even when I’m singing well or singing along to popular music in my car, I expect myself to mess everything up. There’s a lot of baggage involved.

And I have this fear that I will somehow manage to destroy my ability to write, my enjoyment of writing, the way I destroyed my singing. That I will over-think or under-consider, that I will fail to walk the balance between “work” and “play,” that I will get in my own way and ruin my passion for myself. Because I’m the only one who can, and evidence suggests I’m perfectly capable of it.

My first night at Viable Paradise, I went up to the main deck to find Patrick and Bear making music.

They’d brought their guitars and sheaves of sheet music and were trading off playing folk songs. A couple other VPers were there as well, enjoying the music in nearby chairs while conversing or passing around the privilege of being the wooden croaking frog percussionist.

The chairs were taken, so I went and sat by Bear. I didn’t know any of the songs, but once the chorus came, I’d be able to sing along the next time. Quietly, tentatively; I do have a certain fondness for digging deep and bulldozing through a song with sheer force, but it wasn’t the time for that kind of singing. I thought, they don’t know that I should be able to sing the shit out of this, if that were appropriate. Everything will be fine. And so I set up expectations for myself to crash.

Bear tilted her sheet music in my direction so I could follow the lyrics and sight-read or make up harmonies. I am not a great sight-reader, and, as stated, I fuck up singing a lot, so this brought out a lot of out-of-key harmonies that everyone could have done without.

She let me rifle through all her music and offered to try and play anything I picked out. It was still in an unfamiliar key, and it was a different version of the song, and I was singing alone, and that didn’t go well either. I apologized and quieted down, but she kept prodding me to sing along with other choruses, or to at least manage the croaking frog.

I thought about leaving, because I was embarrassing myself, but I really wanted to be part of the music. Bear and Patrick didn’t seem bothered by my constant ruining of their songs, which I thought was awfully polite and circumspect of them, and they weren’t giving me any “go away” signals that I could discern. So I stayed as long as they kept playing, and I kept trying. And sometimes I didn’t fuck up horribly.

The next singing gathering happened in one of the instructors’ living rooms, I don’t remember whose. We crowded around with what remained of the scurvy cure, and I somehow found myself a seat close to the musicians. They played a song from the previous music session, and I sang along at the chorus.

And Bear once again motioned me forward.

I crept up a little, but not very far. I didn’t want to be in the way.

(This isn’t an uncommon sentiment for me, but in retrospect, I realize that I was going through culture shock then, too: VP was the first time I’d met new people since returning from Japan, and my introvert social skills were culturally confused.)

I think another song passed before Bear told me I could always look over their shoulders to read the music along with them, and I knew I was being deliberately dense. Her invitation wasn’t exactly veiled, but I was determined that she was being welcoming because she’s a wonderful person, not because anyone actually wanted me to sing with them.

But I dislike feeling dense, and I dislike backing down, so I went forward.

It helped that other VPers shortly thereafter started to do the same, and about three of us would huddle in front of the computer where Leigh Butler would look up the accompanying lyrics (so we really wouldn’t be in the musicians’ way) and we improvised harmonies to go along. Improvisation in music has never been my forte and makes me anxious in the most comfortable of circumstances, but I started to get the hang of it.

The next time the group got together to sing, most of the instructors had joined in the music, Steven Brust and Patrick doing most of the playing and Teresa singing with our huddling harmony group, and everyone had come together.

And it occurred to me that over the course of a few musical gatherings, despite all my hangups on singing and social interaction, I was having fun while singing. I was singing without emotional pain. And I couldn’t remember the last time that had been true.

Once I realized this, the familiar anxieties tried to reassert themselves, but they just didn’t have the same weight, and I ignored them.

A couple weeks later at World Fantasy in Toronto, there was more singing with Patrick and Charles de Lint and other attendees, and I sang again, and had fun again, and it was the most meaningful part of the convention for me, because I realized VP hadn’t just been a fluke. Even without Bear encouraging me or my VP family at my side, I could still do this. I could stand on my own and make art even when it had seemed impossible before.

And so we come back to writing.

Art is not created in a vacuum, but the creation of art is often a very solitary endeavor. As with life, even with support, the brunt of emotional and mental management has to come from within.

I don’t think I learned how to do this at VP. But at least where my singing is concerned, that’s when I started doing it with everything in my life. I certainly re-learned how to sing without pain, and so in a very personal sense VP, and Bear in particular, gave me back music. And if I can sing, then I can damn well write. Not always without fear, but I won’t back down or stop trying. I know I will step up.

That’s what I took from Viable Paradise.

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