Tag Archives: Viable Paradise

Invisible Things, Part 2: Viable Paradise

In the last post, I asked: At what point do you stop calling a problem situational and acknowledge that there will always be a situation?

I’ve had a few of those points in the last six months, and the bulk of these posts are going to address how my anxiety manifested in Peace Corps and how I’ve dealt with it in that context. But for this post I want to rewind a bit further, to talk about the first time I was ever part of a community[3] that discussed mental health openly and without shame.

VP XVIII students and instructors: the post is over a year owing, but this one’s all for you.

#

In June 2014, I was put on the waitlist for the Viable Paradise Writers’ Workshop, a competitive sci-fi/fantasy workshop that takes place on Martha’s Vineyard every October. It’s one of very few SFF workshops that looks good on a cover letter (at least for a year or so). It lasts a week and is led by big names and bedrocks of the SFF community: Steve Gould, Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear, Dr. Debra Doyle, Jim MacDonald, Steven Brust, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, and Sherwood Smith were the instructors my year[1].

Within a few weeks of being put on the waitlist, I received a second email. One of the invitees had dropped out; was I still interested in participating in the workshop? I took a few hours to stop bouncing off the walls and typed back an enthusiastic yes.

And then I took a few hours to be tremendously intimidated.

At 22, I was the youngest person attending the workshop. I’d just graduated with a B.A. in English. I did not have any publishing credits or even submissions to my name. When Steve Gould asked me, casually, if I’d ever tried to submit my workshop story, I stared at him with bugged eyes and narrowly refrained from asking outright, “I can do that?” (I think I substituted the slightly more worldly, “How do I find markets?”) I was not a part of the SFF community at that time. I’d never been to a con, I didn’t have any friends who were submitting to SFF markets, and my online interactions were pretty much limited to lurking silently on the blogs of authors I liked. In my mind, I was thoroughly outclassed, in terms of age, of life experience, of publications and connections. I was not a “real author”, whatever the hell that means — in hindsight I’m well aware that the SWFA, an MFA program, a casual reader at the bookstore, and a hardworking but still-unpublished writer are all going to give you different answers.

So that was my mindset going into the workshop: thrilled, but absolutely terrified. I remember my heart pounding as I sat on the ferry from Woods Hole to the island; I couldn’t focus on a single page of my book to read it. What if there was another VPer on the ferry and they came to talk to me? Worse, what if there wasn’t, or if there was and they didn’t? What if I couldn’t find the staff car once I got off the ferry? What if, what if, what if…?

Needless to say, I got off the ferry just fine, found the car, and got a ride to the Island Inn. All the staff and instructors were there already, along with a good number of my fellow students. I hung out in the staff room and did my best to socialize, but after a little while my nerves got the better of me — did I sound stupid? ignorant? snappish? reserved? — and I fled to my room. I wrote in the travel journal I’d brought and turned up my music loud enough to drown out my thoughts. When my roommate came in, I removed a headphone long enough to tell her that it was nice to meet her and I needed some quiet time; I simply could not imagine having a normal conversation at that moment.

(Many <3s to Shveta, who figures large in this post and the story it's a part of, even if I don't always say so explicitly.)

That evening, after dinner, we had icebreaker games. My group played Mafia, a game I was already familiar with and quite fond of, and I loosened up enough to participate pretty vocally. At one point I accused a fellow VPer of a suspicious smile, and at once he protested vehemently, “I can’t help it! It’s my anxiety!”

My brain halted.

You can do that? I thought, bewildered. Just say it? Just like that? And everyone just nods and — where’s the hush, the seriousness, the wary concern? Not here? Not now? We all just — nod and move on? The room became a little bit safer: That’s one less barrier here, one less thing forbidden to speak of. And a lot scarier: I don’t know how to talk about mental health. What if I say something wrong — no, what if I don’t say something and I’m supposed to — and I hurt somebody?

I couldn’t answer those questions, and I didn’t know how to ask them out loud. So the game went on, and I kept playing.

#

A lot of Viable Paradise’s sessions are dedicated, of course, to the craft of writing: drafting, critiquing, revising, submitting. But a lot of what I took away from the workshop had less to do with craft, and more with surviving the long game of a writer’s career.

It’s a strange sort of person who’s drawn to write SFF professionally. You’ve got to have a keen interest in psychology, anthropology, philosophy — the way people’s brains work, the way the world works, the way both could work if things were just a little different. You’ve got to be disciplined enough to write when you don’t feel like it or don’t think you have the time, passionate enough to care about what feels like your hundredth revision, and gutsy enough to tell yourself your work is getting better when it’s received a dozen rejections.

That sounds wonderful, but it means that a fair number of writers are downright driven — they prioritize their writing success above their relationships or their health. “I crashed and burned because I wasn’t taking care of myself” is a regrettably common anecdote. And there is a documented correlation between arts professionals and mental health problems, though its nature is debated.

The instructors at Viable Paradise did not ignore this. Over and over, within the smaller workshop context and in terms of general advice, I heard the same things: Make sure you eat. Get enough sleep, even though there’s a lot you want to do. Exercise[2]. Socialize, or grant yourself quiet time, as you need. Take care of yourself. Stay healthy.

If you aren’t healthy, you won’t be able to write.

Mental illness was, for the first time in my experience[3], a topic on the table for discussion, instead of a shadow spoken of quietly behind closed doors. It loomed large in the stories, in the sessions, even in conversation, but it was not an object of fear. It was something a lot of people in the room lived with openly and addressed constructively; it was a fact of life.

“Talk to someone,” Scott Lynch said, in a Friday afternoon discussion dealing with depression and writers’ mental health. “Get help.” Mental illness is treatable, but it can take you down, and it will if you don’t address it. The resources are out there.[4]

#

Near the end of the workshop comes the infamous Horror that is Thursday. I will spare the unitiated any gruesome details, but for comprehension purposes I have to share this much: You have three days to write a story. This story be read by your classmates. The idea is to show that most writers at your level are, in fact, capable of dashing off something halfway decent in a pretty short timeframe.

I agonized over my Horror. Narrative structure is not my strong suit, and I run long rather than short. I have a developing sense, now, of how many words a concept needs — but I gained that after and as a result of attending the workshop. I started a novel, backtracked, ran out of time to rewrite, froze completely, and was pretty much dragged out to dinner Wednesday night when my roommate Annaka saw how badly I needed to calm down. I still didn’t manage to finish, and turned in an incomplete draft I very much disliked.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s not that important,” several people told me consolingly. And in the big picture I knew that. It was the connections I made and the skills I learned that mattered; and anyway, by Thursday we were all exhausted and only the really good stories would stick in people’s minds. But I couldn’t get over this jittery, terrified sense that I had failed somehow and was going to be judged for it (it didn’t help that my story was read by Bear, whom I was slightly in awe of, and a student who’d just recently gotten her first book signing, though both of them said very nice things). Here the whole idea was that we knew enough about writing to speedily compose an interesting if shitty draft — and I couldn’t do it.

I was a mess of nerves. I toughed it out until our afternoon break. I couldn’t sit still, but I couldn’t think straight long enough to decide what I ought to do instead. For about an hour I wandered around the main conference room pretending to read people’s stories, then hurried to the staff room to try and help with dinner. I lasted about twenty minutes into the meal before I pled a migraine and fled to my room, where I curled up on the couch for the better part of two hours in an anxiety- and exhaustion-induced daze.

#

The story I submitted with my application was about a woman had cheated on her dead husband being harassed by a ghost whose husband cheated on her.[5] Grief and guilt obviously figured large in the narrative, but one thing that had never occurred to me — one thing that several critiquers pointed out — was that the main character might be suffering from depression.

Those comments stuck with me, coming as they did on top of the mental health talks. (I admit I don’t remember the exact commentary now, a full year out from my last submission of the revised story; but it had to do with some small giveaways in the main character’s thoughts and behavior, and came in the context of a criticism or suggestion for revision.) My first thought: Woah. That’s what that looks like? How’d that end up in there? Should I keep it?

Then I thought: I dunno if I can write that. I dunno if I have a right to. If I’m, I dunno, capable of doing the research right to make it feel authentic to people who actually have depression.

And then, on Thursday night, after I’d recovered somewhat in my room: Fuck. I can write that, can’t I? Something is wrong and I…I can write about it. In this story. Maybe. Or am I just, like, overwhelmed by all the discussions and taking on something I don’t actually understand? I mean, why would I ever think I understood depression well enough to write about it?

I never really reached a conclusion on that point. I tried a draft which ended with the main character asking to see a psychologist, but that wasn’t the point; it undermined her casual belief in the ghosts. If depression lived in the story, it was underneath the surface, driving Holly to do stupid things without ever being acknowledged. And where I was pulling that kind of pain from, what was driving me to write about it — I didn’t know how to acknowledge that. I don’t think, in hindsight, that I was depressed, although I was very unhappy with my circumstances; but I was in the midst of a dialogue about it even as, for the first time in my life, I confronted a huge load of fear and shame at the idea that something might be wrong at me.

And so, sitting alone in a quiet room feeling so afraid that I wanted to cry, I asked myself, timidly, Is this normal? I don’t think this is normal.

#

So Viable Paradise did a lot to shift my sense of what it means to take care of yourself, and why (on a purely practical level) it’s important. It really was the foundation for many of the habits that I’ve since developed. I suppose the question remains: If I suspected I had a problem more than a year ago, why didn’t I try to follow up on it then?

Part of the reason is that I simply had no idea how to talk about it. I had a very overwhelming experience where mental health was discussed in a safe environment, but it did more to bewilder me than to clarify what I ought to do — it was just too much at odds with the silence I was used to. I bit my tongue because I didn’t know how to speak up or who to reach out to; then the workshop was over, and I went back to Buffalo, and my contact with all the people I’d met was limited to critique emails and the occasional Google chat. Viable Paradise was eye-opening, but it was never intended to provide an entire framework for someone to understand and cope with mental illness.

And honestly, I still didn’t want to believe that I had a problem anybody could identify and help me out with. I was still saying to myself: I’ve never had a panic attack. I’ve never slept for days on end. I’ve never wanted to hurt myself. I’ve never had a breakdown, and whatever’s going on, it’s never really stopped me from doing what I want to do. I’m okay, really. This will pass. It’s just a tough situation.

The excuses were wearing thin, but…look. When your issue is characterized by irrational and incomprehensible nervousness to the point of genuine fear, you’re thoroughly intimidated by authority figures (like psychologists!) and by the mere hint of an idea that your friends might not support you, and you have no clue what to do with the idea that your brain might not work like you think it does? The idea kind of spirals until you’re terrified, and the only thing you can do is look the other way and pretend it never occurred to you in the first place. In an environment characterized by shame and solemnity, if not outright silence — which was the case in most public situations, although I knew I had friends addressing struggles of their own — it is really, really difficult to accept that you might have a problem and you might need to talk about it without feeling totally ashamed and helpless.

#

Again, for the sake of caring people, I am going to end with a firm note: This was a year ago. This is not the way I am feeling now. I’ve moved past that and, to be quite honest, I have no desire to return to it and rehash it. I’ve included this post as part of the larger story because I think it’s really, really important to acknowledge what a difference it makes to have a supportive and explicit social culture, and because I want to give credit where credit is due. I’ve moved on. This story will, too.

#

Oh, and a final note for Twitterers: I’m on hiatus from Twitter while I’m in Mongolia, with the exception of blog autoposts. I won’t see any replies to my Tweet about this. Please share and discuss as much as you like; but if you want to get in touch with me personally, you should either comment here or shoot me an email (reneenmelton at gmail).


[1] I realize this doesn’t really add context for those of you who aren’t well-read in the SFF genre. All of these people write or edit books for a living and have been published multiple times. Their publications include bestsellers and/or many solid books over the course of a long career.
[2] Or, as Bear put it, “Your body is not a meat-puppet.”
[3] To be perfectly clear: I have many friends who have struggled with mental health on some level at some point in their lives. Most of those friendships predate this workshop. I have no doubt that any of those friends could have been a source of support or at least information for me. But they never said, and I never asked. Because even when my close friends would have been accepting and understanding, the wider community (at its smallest, my larger circle of friends and acquaintances; at its largest, the American public as a whole) presented a front of silence, non-understanding, and fear. It’s hard to get away from stigma entirely. And even in friend groups that were largely supportive, there was often worry, frustration born of the impossibility of perfect empathy, sorrow where empathy did exist, and guilt. I did not want to cause any of that for anyone. Before this workshop, I had never been in a situation where mental health struggles were normalized.
[4] Do any VP18ers have quotes or recordings from that talk? It made a huge impression, but for the life of me I can only remember the general tenor of what Scott Lynch said, and I think I’m conflating specifics with some stuff he’s written online.
[5] It was a solid journeyman-level work — got the point across without being remarkable in concept or execution — and has been shelved indefinitely after several rounds of revision/resubmission.

Settling in

First off, and unrelated to the rest of the post: This week is the 19th year of Viable Paradise, the SF/F writer’s workshop I attended last year. Missing my fellow VP 18ers and wishing lots of fun, enlightenment, and whiskey upon this year’s attendees!

October 30th will mark the end of the first quarter of Mongolia’s school year. It’s hard to believe I’ve been at work for almost two months — the time has flown. I’ve gotten a lot busier as I settle into my routine (hence the lack of posts last week — I desperately wanted to write a VP-related post but needed sleep more).

Here’s what I’m doing in the day-to-day:

I wake up around 6:30, get dressed, eat breakfast, and work out if I have time.

Between 7:30 and 9, depending on my schedule, I leave home. It’s a half-hour walk from my apartment to my school. When the cold gets bitter I’ll probably take a taxi or the bus, but for now it’s a good time to relax and prep mentally for the day.

The secondary school day is divided into 7 periods and lasts from 8am until 1:30. Mongolian teachers’ schedules operate more like a college schedule in the U.S.: you’re expected to be at school when you have class, but can go wherever when you’re not teaching. I show up for the first hour penciled in on my schedule and stay until the last — sometimes this means I’m there all morning and into the afternoon, but other days I only have one or two classes. During the school day I plan and teach lessons with my counterparts, do grammar, writing, or speaking one-on-ones with them, take Kazakh lessons from one teacher, or — if I have a blank hour in my schedule — practice my Kazakh with non-English-speaking teachers and work on my own lesson plans.

My schedule isn’t fixed, because my CPs want me to work with different classes, but I teach about 5-6 40-minute periods a week (10-12 counting lesson planning), do 2-6 hours of Kazakh/English exchange, work through maybe 2-3 one-on-ones, and spend 1-2 periods planning for afternoon classes.

Some afternoons I teach as well: one teachers’ methodology class and two concourse (graduation exam) classes. In the next few weeks I should also be starting an English class for non-English teachers and at least one English club for students. If the class is after 3, I usually trek home for lunch, but if I have an earlier class I eat at the school canteen (which serves хуушуур. only хуушуур).

After class, I go home, finish my workout, and write a little bit if there’s time. Two evenings a week I hold an English class for police officers, and I usually spend two other evenings prepping. Sometimes one of my CPs invites me over for dinner or just to hang out. I try to be in bed by 10:30.

On the weekends, I write, clean, and cook for the week (cafes are a thing here, but instant meals aren’t, so home cooking is a must). I chat with my next-door neighbor, if we’re both around. Some weekends all of us PCVs will be in the aimag center, in which case we hang out!

In two weeks, however, we have the semester break, and I’m told I won’t need to attend any of the teacher development classes happening at the school. I admit I’m looking forward to the break: while I’m working slightly under a 40-hour week, the wide spread of my classes (in terms of scheduling, type, and level) and the chaos of an unpredictable schedule are leaving me a little bit tired.

Backstory: the invitation

The summer passed slowly. In June, I took a TEFL certification course (through Oxford Seminars; seemed like a solid program, though I haven’t got any basis for comparison). This was partly to enhance the competitiveness of my application, and partly because I felt — still feel — thoroughly underqualified.

Actually, it may be helpful for me to list my qualifications here:

  • a Bachelor of the Arts in English/Creative Writing from a small SUNY (State University of New York) school.
  • one academic year as a peer tutor in my school’s College Writing Center (around five hours a week, ~80-100 hours total) — primarily one-on-one sessions working rhetorical structure, grammar, and citation — following a semester-long practicum including composition theory.
  • volunteering for a literacy organization, tutoring a student one-on-one and designing my own lesson plans/curriculum — at the time of my application I’d only just finished the month-long training, but I’ve since clocked about a year (another 80-100 hours) of weekly sessions.
  • TEFL certification — four sixteen-hour weekends learning some basic language-learning & education theory and best practices for teaching English to non-native speakers.

It looks pretty on paper, but: I’ve never been responsible for a whole classroom; I’ve never worked with students younger than I am; and I’m not certified to teach in my own state. Many of my friends — virtually all of teacher my friends — have a minimum of two years working toward an education degree. By that standard, I really am massively underqualified. I really hope this three-month Pre-Service Training beefs up my classroom management skills.

September arrived, and with it the year’s first cold winds. Buffalo, for those of you unfamiliar with New York State geography, is one of the snowiest cities in the U.S. — we get around eight feet a year. The past few years have been especially awful thanks to climate change. I began to joke with my friends and coworkers that of course I wasn’t going to Thailand — instead we’d have a horrible winter, and as soon as it started to warm up, they’d ship me off to one of the coldest countries in the world.

I shouldn’t have said anything. Sure enough, in the middle of September, I got an official email: As the Placement Officer for the Thailand program, I am writing to inform you that all positions for the program to this program have been filled. Your application will now be prioritized and considered for the next possible program for which you qualify. … Specifically at this time, we are looking at Mongolia which departs May 2015.

I replied that I was willing to wait until May to get into the Mongolian program. Less than two hours later, I got my formal invitation to join the Peace Corps as a Secondary English Teacher.

This, of course, meant that Buffalo had the coldest, snowiest winter I have ever experienced.

The invitation came with about a hundred pages of PDFs: a description of my responsibilities, notes on the history and culture of Mongolia, a safety and security primer. The email politely requested that I read these and respond within seven calendar days.

I flew through the readings over the course of a weekend (at that point I was working the document control job full-time) and accepted my invitation. I got an autoresponse informing me I would be contacted within few days. This was September 18th. On the 22nd my legal kit was mailed out — I had to find a place to get fingerprinted and return it through FedEx — and my medical portal was updated.

I had planned to attend a science fiction/fantasy writing workshop the week of October 13th. Not yet having heard from anyone — not, in fact, having any points of contact known to me — I shot an email to my placement specialist to let her know I would not be able to respond to emails.

She responded that I now had four main points of contact: the Mongolia country desk, SATO, Medical, and Staging. I was supposed to have received an email with a checklist, and could I please “let us know” if I hadn’t received it.

Having no idea which of the contacts was applicable here, I replied to the placement specialist, CC’ing the country desk, and asked to have the checklist resent. I left for the workshop; it was an absolutely wonderful experience, andI developed an entirely new perspective of myself as a writer and a professional. I threw myself into my writing when I returned home, and two months flew by.

December: I still hadn’t heard anything from the Peace Corps. It was just over five months from my tentative departure date, and I was a bit worried. I checked my email history and realized the placement specialist had never gotten back to me. I sent an email to the country desk and received no response. The following week I sent an email to Staging, asking for the checklist or at least direction to the appropriate email — and, lo and behold, within twenty-four hours I had access to two new portals, fifteen Mongolian language lessons, two online classes, a series of forms, a new resume request — oh, and a passport and visa application I was supposed to have filled out within a week of receiving my invitation.

I was understandably rather panicked.