An Ode to the Odyssey Writing Workshop
Odyssey Writing Workshop is a six week, intensive writing workshop for those who are serious about speculative fiction. There's an application process, a huge time commitment, a steep fee, and almost unlimited possibility for growth as a writer.
“Odyssey is tougher and more intense than any workshop or writer’s conference I’ve attended. By having one mentor and total immersion, I’ve made more breakthroughs in six weeks at Odyssey than in two years in an MFA program. Jeanne is thoughtful and compassionate, but doesn’t let students get away with anything. Her insightfulness and dedication are Odyssey’s greatest resources.” –Eileen Wiedbrauk (see full announcement of 2011 session)
I attended in 2010. When I was deciding whether or not to attend, I scoured the internet looking for people who were writing about their experience that didn't sound like a sales pitch or a press release. I started to worry that the program was candy-coating the truth. That's why I'm posting this on my own site even though parts of it have been used by Odyssey in press releases and blogs: to keep it independent and unaffiliated. Turns out, people weren't candy-coating: they really are that over the moon about the workshop.
MY ODYSSEY STORY:
In the second year of a traditional, three-year MFA program, I applied to Odyssey because I was ticked off.
The first day of my very first MFA workshop, the instructor sat down and told us "none of that genre . . . stuff." His struggle to not use a different s-word was hard won. When I went on to participate in MFA classes with other instructors who allowed genre writing, I watched the occasional student turn in science fiction or fantasy and witnessed the rest of the workshop students refuse to take the story seriously, or spend large chunks of time trying to figure out the tenets and tenants of a genre they clearly weren't familiar with. I told myself that I was in the MFA to learn to write; I could focus on sentence, style, and structure while suppressing my love of genre for three years--no big deal.
It was a big deal.
Two years into the process, I was bored. Bored with the stories I was reading, and worse, bored with the stories I was writing. I cobbled together a story that (in my mind) was pure fantasy, only to have my professor insist I was writing surrealism--badly done surrealism. And he insisted that the story be changed to hold to the tenets of that genre. A genre that I (then) knew almost nothing about and (to this day) have no interest in pursuing.
I was angry that I wasn't getting what I wanted from my MFA program, that I wasn't being listened to, and that no one was willing (or able, if we're being honest) to discuss the kind of short form fantasy fiction being published today. So instead of following my professor's advice and taking the story down a path I had never wanted it to go down, I brushed up the story and sent it to Odyssey. I put my application in the mail on the absolute last day possible to make the deadline and received my acceptance a few weeks later.
Where my MFA faculty had encouraged me to write "clockless" or "slice of life" stories (ones that have no ticking clock, or events but no plot, respectively), Odyssey taught me what a plot was and how to build one into my story ideas--my stories instantly became more interesting.
I walked into Odyssey thinking I'd get feedback from an in-the-know audience of genre fans, learn about what makes speculative fiction tick, and force myself to write to meet all the workshop deadlines (not an easy task). I got all that and more than I'd expected, like a total overhaul of my writing process and an understanding of how the publishing side of things works. Best of all, I found an instructor who listened to her students: Jeanne Cavelos, the instructor, met with each student privately at least three times over the course of the workshop, when we met she'd tell me, "This is what I see and where I could see it going--but where do you want to take it?"
THE SKINNY ON THE WHOLE EXPERIENCE: (written March 2011)
Workshop: It took me a few days to adjust to the workshop format. The Iowa workshop format (the way most colleges run workshop) just has everyone jumping in whenever they feel the urge to comment. Yes, they come with prepared line notes and end notes, but the actual workshop is a big group discussion with a faculty member as instructor/referee. Odyssey didn't do that. We each got precisely two minutes to speak, and once my two minutes were up (there was a timer involved), I had to stop and let the next person go. Once everyone had gotten his or her two minutes, Jeanne Cavelos talked for as long as she needed to, addressing both the well done and the not so well done in the story. She was always good at telling you what you'd done well and what she saw you improving on week to week. She'd write two to three pages of single spaced notes for each story. She wouldn't read all of her notes aloud to the class -- usually just the big stuff and the stuff that pertained to recent lessons. (As a teacher, I appreciate this move to help reinforce her lectures).
As I mentioned, I had trouble adjusting to this workshop style. At first, I would just hit on three or five points that I wanted to mention and then ceded my remaining time to the Speaker -- yep, I treated it like I was in the House of Representatives. Everything else was there in my line and end notes -- my time on the floor was limited, I thought, why read the whole bill aloud? Slowly I realized that it would be best to give a digest version of my entire end notes during my two minutes. And this was more welcomed by my peers because as it turns out, many people don't read their line and end notes until they leave Odyssey. (Which is why Jeanne counsels that you should at least read her line notes before your next submission since she tries to nip formatting and other mistakes in the bud.)
The thrilling part of this format was that it held none of the volatility of the Iowa style workshop -- and if you've always found Iowa style workshops calm and helpful and non-argumentative then lucky you. The fact that we couldn't engage in arguments, or reductive discussions, nor could we drown out the voices of the unsure, unprepared, or not as well read, meant that everyone talked, everyone felt their opinion was worthwhile when they left workshop. It meant that the writer got a better sampling of her audience's reaction.
It took me a while to adjust, but I'm a convert now.
Jeanne Cavelos does not play favorites. She does not anoint a golden child(ren). She does not tell people to give up now. She's very aware that there are other workshops that do this (their stories live on in infamy on the internet and possibly in Storyteller so I won't repeat them here), and therefore Jeanne purposely does no such thing. Her attitude and professionalism show that her mission is to help writers on their journey to writing better no matter where they are on that journey or where they're likely to end up.
Learning from an editor: During my scour-the-internet-for-more-information phase, I found some people on a forum arguing the pros and cons of intensive summer programs. Some of it was just should I go? is it worth it? talk and some of it was specifically debating Odyssey vs. Clarion vs. Clarion West. One of the people was having a fit that at Odyssey you learned from a former editor instead of other writers. I couldn't understand why learning from an editor would upset someone. Writers all work differently. And most writers, when they become teachers, teach you to write like them, which may not work for the student. Editors are used to working with a wide range of writing styles and still getting the writer to produce the best work before going to print. The idea that it's a former editor running Odyssey ... well, what working editor would have time to take six weeks off to teach you? And that former editor is a working writer who is actively publishing. Besides, it's not like all her editorial experience suddenly fled her head because she left New York.
Odyssey vs. Clarion: I'm really not qualified to compare the two because I haven't been to Clarion. Actually, I have no desire to go to Clarion. When I was applying, it came down to the matters of pedagogy, location, and money. I liked that Odyssey had a Six Weeks of Growth plan with one person tracking and encouraging your process instead of a new teacher coming in each week. I could drive to New Hampshire instead of fly to the West Coast (even though Detroit to New Hampshire is fourteen hours one way). And not only would my travel expenses be lower, but the tuition and housing fees were lower at Odyssey. These were the big three factors for me. But each person has different criteria that's important to them.
I picked up a vibe that fantasy was considered inferior to sci-fi at Clarion -- which might be an outdated assumption that's been propagated by the internet, but it was enough to make me nervous. I'd already been in a program that found my genre inferior, didn't want to repeat that.
There's a rumor on the internet that Odyssey is "fantasy focused" and less interested in science fiction or horror -- this is not true. Some students walk in knowing they will write SF only, or fantasy only, or horror only, but many write in multiple genres during the six weeks. There is no intentional "focus" beyond "speculative fiction."
My online research of other people giving their opinions showed that when people had been to both workshops they inevitably said that the two workshops cannot be compared. Yes, they're both six weeks of speculative fiction, but the experiences are vastly different, and those who attended both couldn't say which was "better."
Types of writing: The name [was*] Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop -- but don't take that too seriously. Speculative would fit in there just as well as fantasy. We workshopped stories that were science fiction, high fantasy, romantic fantasy, urban fantasy, second world, real world, literary fiction with a speculative twist, space opera, living ship, vampire, Orwellian, absurdist, robocop-ish, dark fantasy, horror, really really nasty gucky horror, dimension jumpers, zombies, werewolves, alien invasion, fantasy-western. You may be the only person who does writing type X, but you are definitely not the only person who's interested in it. [*note: the name of the workshop has changed since the original posting of this page. What was previously the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop is now the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust.]
The workshop was also a great place to try new types and styles of fiction. I'd not written much science fiction before, but Odyssey was a safe place to try and fail because I got really useful feedback for my next attempt.
Living arrangements: The campus is charming. There are monks in full monk-garb wandering around the cafe and library -- how charming is that? (What is monk-garb called? Habits? Cassocks? Robes? Tunics? Wikipedia was not helpful in this venture.) St. Anselm's campus is very small, as in I circled the outer perimeter in a 25 minute walk many evenings. The walking was to clear my mind -- usually because I was trying to come up with a story idea on a deadline. Even without attempting to clear your mind, you will do a lot of walking. The apartments are spartan college living. No air conditioning. Hanging in the AC of the computer lab or library or cafe or the local Panera is a necessary retreat. Especially when your house-mates start a cold war about the direction, location, and usage of fans in the apartment.
A day in the life of the work/study student: I was the work/study the year I attended. My classmates commented that they didn't know how I dealt with the extra work, but really I never knew Odyssey without the extra work so I had no idea what another 1-3 hours of free time would feel like each day.
Breakthroughs: Almost every one of my classmates had a breakthrough during the workshop, an "Aha! moment" when they suddenly realized what was wrong with their work. Everyone's later stories were much better than their week one stories. Some people got noticeably better around week three and then got more and more tired by week six. Some people had something click in the last three weeks of workshop and their week five or six stories were the best of the bunch. It doesn't depend on how bright you are, it depends on what your blocks are that you need to overcome. Everyone has fantasies of arriving and being told their work is perfect, just keep at it, and everyone then identifies blocks they didn't know were there.
Some stuff I learned fresh -- like caring about order in description (which I can't explain succinctly so I won't bother to explain at all) -- but there were many things that I understood in theory like "upping the stakes," which I thought I was doing in my own writing until Jeanne pointed out in my own work (1) how low the stakes were and (2) examples of ways to up the stakes. It wasn't until she gave me specific examples of solutions (explained it in practice instead of in theory) that I finally understood what the problem actually was.
This workshop is not about dissection. It does not open up your story like a frog in biology class, then walk away with the stomach gaping and the liver pinned to a board. This workshop is about surgery. It identifies the cancerous masses in your story and removes them, closes up, then starts the patient on a course of follow-up treatments. If you're not cool with someone discussing ways to fix (i.e. change) or possibly re-write your story then maybe you shouldn't apply.
Of course, "re-writing" your story is -- as all critique advice is -- a suggestion you can take or ignore. Just because someone offers you advice doesn't mean you have to follow it. Therefore it follows that just someone offering you a brilliant way to re-write your story doesn't mean that you have to do what they suggested.
By week three, I'd learned enough to figure out what was wrong with my story ideas, but not enough to know how to fix those problems. Identification was the first epiphany. I'm not certain if I've had the second epiphany yet. I'm working on it.
The ugly truth: Your second epiphany may not happen at Odyssey. Your first epiphany may not happen at Odyssey. You may wait weeks or months after the workshop before it hits you. These will be ugly, frustrating months when none of your writing seems to work. These are growing pains; they're worth it. You will get along with your roommates; you will not get along with your roommates; shit happens. By week five you will want to cry from exhaustion; you will be sleep deprived; people whom you thought were very nice during week one, now get on your nerves. People will try to mother you and your stubborn streak will make you want to snap at them until they stop mothering -- okay, that's just me; I don't like it when my own mother mothers me so I really don't do well when other people try to sooth, smother, or do my work/chores for me no matter how stressed I am. You have your own buttons, someone will accidentally push them. The novelty of the "summer camp" situation has wears off. Those dreams that haunted your sleep before you got to campus--the ones where you got voted off the workshop--start to return. You think you're not getting any better, you've already had one epiphany and the next one is no where in sight, and all you really want to do is go home to your soft, familiar bed, sleep for twenty hours and wake to find the cat has snuggled up next to you. You will get home and read books that are amazing, that violate none of what you've learned not to violate at Odyssey and you will cry because you are certain you'll never be that good. You will get home and read books that have so many flaws you're surprised the paperback didn't shatter into a hundred pieces when you threw it across the room and into a wall. You will patch and repaint the wall. Your reading for enjoyment will be severely limited because you now know too much about craft. Your ability to read for enjoyment will, a few years later, return, but like everything else in life, it will have changed and evolved.
Do I recommend it? Hell yes. It's worth it. It's all worth it.
Odyssey Writing Workshop website: www.odysseyworkshop.org. Odyssey accepts applications between January and the first week of April (usually), see website for specific dates and requirements for application.
They also do a handful of small online courses early each year with application/registration in the fall; I haven't taken one of the online courses, but as I understand it, they're tightly focused instead of comprehensive as the six-week workshop is.