Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Return from Paradise

I am too pooped to come up with a new image, so here's an old one. I drew this in pencil while on a picnic. I had to do something to avoid the missus's hippie friends. The background was done in Photoshop. The missus's dad bought a big print of this, which took me aback.

So here I am. I got back home on Sunday night, and it's taken me this long to find time to post here. There are two reasons for this: one, I'm so tired you would not believe. I did not actually sleep at Viable Paradise, but I did pass out for a couple of hours every morning. It's going to take me a while to stop nodding off every couple of minutes. I almost fell out of my chair a number of times in class this morning.

The other reason is that I've come back with a whole new work ethic, among other things. From now on, I write in the morning, and I work until I've accomplished my goals. Everything else comes after that. So you'll be seeing a bit less of me on the internets. It's all good, though.

I'm not going to give you the whole story. Non-participants may find the following irritatingly vague, but I've been informed in no mild terms that what happens at VP, stays at VP.

That said, this was a genuinely life-changing event for me. I went into this with semi-grim expectations. I figured I was going to be put into my slimy little place, tough-love style. I was ready for that.

I will admit that I had fantasies. Daydreams. Well, the daydreams came true, every last fucking one of them. And then things got better. Aside from my relationships with those I love, this was the best thing that's ever happened to me.

But as I said, I went in with some serious trepidations. I posted them on the Viable Paradise board, and found that I wasn't the only one who was worried. Lemme run my concerns by you, and tell you how they actually worked out.

What if I get lost?

Air travel is something that most people can do drunk. It was nowhere near as hard as I was afraid it would be. And once I hit Martha's Vineyard, I was wrangled by experts.

What if my back goes out on me?

This was nowhere near as bad as I'd feared. First off, I was extremely protective of my back. Things got bad enough so that for the last few days I did lay down on the floor for most lectures, where my belt dug into the top of my pelvis -- shoulda taken it off, but I still had illusions of dignity -- but I came out of it okay.

Plus, I gobbled pain pills like Tic-Tacs and washed them down with bourbon. If it's good enough for Elizabeth Taylor and Jim Morrison, it's good enough for me.

What if nobody likes me?

This was so not the case -- and this was the real breakthrough for me. The amount of affection directed toward me still has me on the verge of tears every time I think about it.

When I decided to attend, I knew that I was going to have a major neurochemical event of some kind. The descriptions of the experience that I read on line made it clear that, well. What I told the folks there is that the only difference between VP and a cult initiation is that they let us eat protein. I was not kidding -- sleeplessness, lack of solitude, a rigid schedule, lots of rituals -- this was way cult. Which is another way of saying that it was an initiation rite. A passage. It was, honest to golly gosh, tribal.

So I knew I was gonna have some kind of major emotional reaction at some point. But when it came? It wasn't what I'd expected.

I was laying on the floor listening to a lecture on the business end of being a working writer. And the unnamed speaker was talking about the importance of having a good spouse, and how you needed to pull your share in the relationship. "Don't be the bass player in a rock band," was one of his/her statements.

Well, as it happens, I play bass. And I recently had a moment of self-doubt in which I approached the missus and asked her if I was a worthless fucking parasite. (I may not have phrased it as delicately as that...)

Her response, lord love her and I certainly do, was to get pissed. I mean really pissed, like I haven't seen in the last fourteen years. And her response was basically, how dare you say that about my husband!

And when I remembered the fierceness of her loyalty and support of me, all of a sudden the kindness and appreciation I'd been shown over the course of the week flooded in on me and I was so tired, so stressed, so worn raw, that I had no defenses. People liked me. They cared for me. They wanted the best for me.

And more then that. They were grateful for me. I was a good person to be around. For the first time in my life, rather than seeing myself either in terms of my shadow side or my skills, I saw that I was a really nice person. Someone who doesn't hesitate to make sacrifices for others. Someone who cares, and who tries to act on that caring.

I've always admired sweetness and sought to protect it in others. And all of a sudden I saw the sweetness in myself, and I couldn't hide from it.

My whole approach to life has been based on self-loathing. If you've been reading this blog from the start, you've run across a few really unpleasant posts that hint severely at this condition. I've almost been institutionalized for a condition that pretty much comes down to hating myself.

Laying on the floor, listening to the lecture, I realized that I didn't hate myself any more. That all of a sudden, among the throng of voices in my head, there was one that said, "You're a good person. You're loved because you deserve to be loved."

It almost fuckin' killed me, got to say. I lay there on the floor and while I wanted to run off somewhere and weep, the lecture was too good, to useful, for me to abandon. So I pulled out my hankie and dabbed at my eyes and tried not to make a public spectacle of myself.

But while I lay there, another voice kept coming into my head. How am I going to live if I don't hate myself? What is my basis for existence? This question terrified me. I knew how to live with the constant desire to destroy myself, but this was so weird and alien and threatening...

There were people who were happy to talk to me about this. Who helped me through the first few hours.

And it turns out that it's actually easier not to hate yourself. I'm starting to realize that it takes a hell of a lot of energy to maintain a constant state of revulsion towards oneself. And I'm also realizing that many of the things I find most repellent in myself are borne out of insecurity. It'll take a while, but I think I've got a shot at growing up now.

It certainly took me by surprise.

And just for the record, I was only mean once during the course of the whole week, and I was mean to someone who a) asked for it, b) could take it, and c) really should have known better than to hand me a straight line like that. I can easily resist sexual temptation because I love the missus. I can resist tasty foods because I'm not a snacky fellow. But I cannot resist a straight line. Mektoub.

What if I'm not enough of a science fiction and fantasy fan?

This worked to my advantage. I may not have known about the slang (although I can now define squee, squick, and cracktastic), may not be hip to the games, the fanfic, all that stuff -- but I was able to hold my own as far as the literature goes.

Tell you what. I have no idea where my work is going to fall, (see below), but I officially declare an alliance with fandom. They are my people, and now I know this. Everyone was funky-fine.

What if I'm too (insert profanity) pretentious?

Hey, I pulled it off. I'm just pretentious enough. When I spoke of my feelings that I was a literary writer, they seemed to think that it was a reasonable claim.

What if it turns out that I am a complete fraud?

Such was not the case, he giggled. The single weakest compliment I received on my writing was, "Thank you for being a very good writer." It was made clear to me over and over in no uncertain terms that I got the goods and I got 'em in spades. And then the stakes were raised.

Look out, world. Here comes the oaf.

What if I'm not the special bunny?

At one point, I told someone (cough Hugo winner cough) that I was making chili-dog casserole. (Click here for the recipe. It's the funniest recipe you'll read all day, I promise -- and it'll tell you how to make something really cracktastic.)

After telling them that yes, there would be gobs of melted cheese and nacho rings as well, I took off. The individual in question called after me, "I might love you best of all."

(Chili-dog casserole can do this. I am not kidding. And of course, the statement wasn't true because they love all their children equally.)

At this point I had no barriers, and before I knew what was coming out of my mouth, I said, "That's because I'm a special bunny. Everyone should feel that way about me."

Behind me came a chorus. "You are, and they should!"

What if I'm not as smart as I think I am?

One dude there referred to himself as 'a bear of little brain.' He was pretty fucking smart. The range of knowledge these people had on tap was intense. History, science, every area of trivia you'd care to imagine.

I liked it. I liked it a lot. And I never felt intimidated, because I knew that they could always ask me something about dinosaurs.

What if I was only accepted in order to give John Scalzi the opportunity to extract a hideous revenge in recompense for the criticism of Old Man's War I put up on my blog?

What happens in Viable Paradise, stays in Viable Paradise.


Julia Rios said...

Sean, I have no idea how I missed your casserole entirely, but I am sad that I did! Glad you got home safely.

Sean Craven said...

I'll tell you how you missed the casserole. They -- and you know who I'm talking about -- took about thirty-five seconds to scrape the pan clean. It was, like, all kinds of Discovery channel.

Next time I'll make sure you get plenty.

Glendon Mellow said...

Incredible experience, Sean. I like the discipline you are imposing in the mornings. I've thought lately of doing the same for some daily drawing.

The more I think about it, the more appropriate your blog title seems. Well, the "renaissance" part anyway.

Unknown said...

I switched to the "write first thing in the mornings" schedule as well when I got back from VP last year.

Interesting how much your experience mirrors my own. I can't really name a Single Best Thing that happened to me--it all just kind of blended together into this big, awesome dish. The feeling on having found one's tribe, the professional and personal validation, the spot-on criticism of my work, the contacts, the twenty-odd new friends I made...

Glad to see that you VPXIII folks had as good a time as we did.

--Marko (VPXII)

Anonymous said...

What a nice warm fuzzy post. I'm glad to hear that the VP experience continues to be the same amazing epiphany it was for those of us at VP XII.

Also, don't forget you have an extended tribe in the Bay Area. There are three of us from VP XII who live in SF. You can find us via the yahoo group and we do have little get togethers. Next one is at SF Litquake this Thursday.

All the best,

Sean Craven said...

Glendon, thank you. The whole rebirth thing is the real point of this exercise. And I'm going to try to work some sort of daily drawing into my schedule. I'm really becoming aware of how improved every one of my creative skills are when my draftsmanship is up to snuff.

Marko, it was fantastic. And the sad thing is that it's like your first kiss -- it's a one-time only deal. Now I want to get good enough to be an instructor.

Madge, I'd love to meet the VPXII crew in SF. Thursdays are off because of my 3D class, but I would really like to arrange something. Is Litquake the Charlie Jane Anders thing?

Anonymous said...

I am one of the evil "clean the dish" casserole eaters. I freely admit it. I absolutely adored the mild side. @=)

Deirdre Saoirse Moen said...

I'm another VPer in the bay area (VI and VIII). You've got a tribe!

RW Ridley said...

Damn, got choked up a little reading this. You just nailed every insecurity I have, and I've never been to VP! I'm happy it worked out so well for you. BTW - Scalzi's usually placated with a pound of bacon.

Peter Bond said...

This a lovely and emotional post. But then I read the casserole recipe and nearly dies laughing! Thanks for brightening my day.

Sean Craven said...

Brandy, I don't regard those who devoured the casserole as evil. Not even the ones who had two helpings. As a cook, my goal is to strip away all trappings of civilization and leave my victims in a hapless state of animal gluttony.

Mission accomplished.

Deirdre, I'm glad to hear you're out there. It would be great to have some kind of meeting of the Bay Area VP veterans. And as it happens, one of the main characters in my novel-in-progress shares your name.

RW, I'm fairly sure they don't let you write unless you have those insecurities. I know I wasn't the only one carrying that baggage at VP.

Peter, I'm glad you liked it. There are times when I think the only things standing between me and sticky-sweet sentimentality are sincerity, humor, and ultraviolence.

Anonymous said...


You just gave me a lift, bringing back my own VP experience while talking about nothing that happened to me: thanks. Yay cult experience!

I'm glad I came to check out what you had to say.

Now, back on my head!

~Bethany Powell, VP Elevenses

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