Back from Starry Coast

So last week I spent a week in a beach house in Charleston doing the Starry Coast writers’ workshop with ten strangers. No longer strangers after a week together! I had very little idea what to expect, other than the immediate practicalities, but I went in with a great deal of hope, a bunch of chocolate to share, and a theory that I could deal with almost anything for a limited time.

It. Was. Great.

I am used to coming out of critiquing sessions and having to think a long time about what I want to do with the ideas I got there. While the ideas here were diverse and sometimes contradictory (as they should be!), I got so much clarity of path that I’ve been doing the revisions right away before my local writers’ group meeting, rather than waiting to triangulate from it. I really loved how much variety in project there was, and how the structure of the workshop let us line up with the manuscripts we had the most to say to in the in-depth critiques. I came out of it so energized and ready to do this project and also the next, completely unrelated one. I am also prepared to boost the other projects when they’re done and ready for some cheerleading, because there is some serious stuff going on there. You’ve seen the post-workshop smugs of, “I got to read that first!” before, and I’m sure you’ll see them again from me. (Because I did.)

When I’ve read other people talking about this sort of workshop setting in the past, they have burbled about sitting out on the porch looking at the ocean to critique their novels, and I have gone, yeah, okay, ocean, porch, whatever. But! We sat out on the porch looking at the ocean to critique our novels and it was so great! I think it was Desirina who pointed out that a certain amount of relaxation helps, and that was definitely the case here. For one of the crits it was raining gently. There were dolphins in the sea going by.

And the sea. Oh my dears.

So…the vertigo, as I told you before I left, continued terrible. But I wanted, oh, how I wanted, to go in the Atlantic anyway. In addition to having no sense of balance whatsoever, I have gas permeable contacts–you know, the little tiny ones that wash easily out of one’s eyes–and no sport goggles or even sport band for my glasses. So: no sense of balance, no ability to navigate the beach with my cane or get into the water safely, no ability to tell up from down once in the water, very limited vision.

I packed my swimsuit anyway. I knew I couldn’t do it by myself. I thought, well, if there isn’t a time when the weather is good, if there isn’t a way the beach is situated so I can do it with help…most importantly, if I don’t decide that I can trust anybody to help me…we’ll just see what happens. No assumptions.

You can see what’s coming. Everyone there, everyone, everyone was beyond wonderful about my vertigo. Seriously. All week long. I’m choking up writing this, because I literally cannot imagine that they could have been better if it had been planned around me, which of course it wasn’t. Nobody was sitting around fussing, that would have been far worse. People went off and did things without me that I couldn’t do all the time, and that was great, that was how it should be, because if they were hovering going, “Now…no one can do anything if Marissa can’t do it too!” that would have been awful. But. I cannot think of one single person who did not very casually help me out, offer assistance when it was needed, take a moment to seamlessly take their turn being the one to see that something was bothering me and lend a hand. Every. Last. Person.

If you haven’t dealt with a balance disorder, you might be thinking, oh, well, good, you got nice people. Or even “good people.” And I did. But nice people, good people, even people who know me well, screw this stuff up all the time. I’m pretty sure that at least one of the four people who kicked my cane out from under me coming home in the Atlanta airport was probably a very nice person–they just weren’t paying attention. For the workshop I got nice, good people who happened to be observant in the right ways to make dealing with my very nasty health problem as easy as it could possibly be under the circumstances. I am so grateful to every single one of them for that.

So on Friday when we didn’t have anything else going on, Molly and Michael helped me into the ocean. They each took an arm and held me steady, and they helped me out as deep as I wanted to go and let me experience it, vertigo and all. It was amazing. It was a three-dimensionally utterly disorienting experience, because the sand does what wet sand does under your feet, and so the only solid points of reference I had in the universe were their arms. But I felt utterly safe. They were not going to let anything happen to me. And Molly is a natural at guiding people with a balance disorder, saying what the terrain is going to do and what’s going to happen with the waves. In the middle of it all, the sun came out from clouds and was even more dazzling to my vision, and my inner ear started doing very slow backflips (that is, axis of reference doing complete spins so that up was at some points literally down), so if there was some kind of space station salt water sand and pool system, it would probably be very much like that, terrain leaving under your feet as you stepped, water coming up at intervals utterly unpredictable to you, light feeling more or less omnidirectional, only sensation and the safety of trust in other humans doing what they said they would.

I referred to going in afterwards as “sobering up,” because it very much was. The aftershocks stayed with my system significantly for hours and hours afterwards, the sensation in my feet and my balance system of who-knew-what. Unnerving. Fascinating. Worth it.

The thing about a balance disorder is that you get very accustomed to what you can and cannot do safely, and having something that feels new, that is new, but that is also completely safe–that’s rare and precious. I haven’t captured a tenth of it here. It was a great gift.

There were other lovely things that were much more mundane and easy to describe–cooking and eating other people’s cooking/baking, going out for meals, going to the Hunley museum, playing games, hanging out talking until all hours, companionable reading in the common living area–so great, so great.

I’m paying for it now. I did basically the second half of the workshop entirely on adrenaline. Food is not at all my friend right now (I failed at gelato, just for reference–I made a try at a bowl of homemade gelato and failed), and I am so disoriented that when I woke up in the middle of the night the other night, I had zero physical cues for where I might be. Like, up, down, sideways, who even knows. It was the level of disorientation where you hold very still because the bed might or might not decide to abandon you, and without any sense of gravity, you have no idea which direction will be the wrong one that will make it do that. So I’m trying to get a little better rested, hoping that the meds will kick in (ANY MINUTE NOW DAMMIT)…and still revising this novel as many hours a day as I can manage, because the next one is breathing down its neck.

Everyone needs to spend time on how to get better. No matter what stage you’re at, no matter what kind of thing you’re doing, you need to spend the time with other people examining it, turning it over, thinking about what makes it work and what could make it work better. And this was a week dedicated to that in some very concrete ways. I wish that for all of you, whatever it is that you’re doing, at whatever level.

So: workshop. Yeah. Hell yeah.

I didn’t catch up on things like posting the link to the interview F&SF did about my story, and then tonight I saw a best stories of the year so far link on IO9 mentioning that very same story. I am pleased and abashed and feeling like I am not doing my share to promote the issue of F&SF it’s in. But honestly, at the moment the thing about “I would forget my head if it wasn’t attached” is particularly apropos because it doesn’t feel as though it is. So if there’s something I should be doing for you in the next little bit and you’re afraid I’ve forgotten, please remind me! I don’t mean to have forgotten.

Oh, one last somewhat relevant thing in that regard: I had already read Robert’s gorgeous first novel The Glittering World before the workshop, and now I know him, and he is doing an audiobook Kickstarter! Audiobooks are important for access! Audiobooks are fun for the whole family!…um…the whole parts of the family you will allow to listen to really dark fantasy, anyway. Maybe just the more grown-up parts of the family in this case. Anyway, go check it out.

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