New Kid On The Block (Odyssey: The Fantasy Writing Workshop)
by Lea C. Braff (from The Market List Web)
To begin at the end, here's what happened to me on the day I left Manchester, New Hampshire after the 1998 Odyssey Writing Workshop.
As I stood in the crowd of "Seats 30-60" ticket holders waiting for Southwest Airline's gate to open, I heard a familiar voice behind me. Erica? I knew that she could not be there, but I whirled around. Nope, no Erica. On the plane headed home, I heard another one, off to the right, just out of sight. Morgan? No, Morgan could not be on this flight. Nevertheless, I looked for him. I couldn't help myself. Finally, in Baltimore-Washington International Airport, it came again, behind and to the left. James? This time I managed not to look. Really, it couldn't be him.
Yes, I hallucinated voices on the way home. My husband and son met me at the airport, so I had no excuse to feel lonely. No excuse except that the bonding process in a well-run workshop is intense.
Structures set up to reinforce that intensity comprise the strength of a writing workshop. They're probably the source of rumors circulating about the experience. You know the list: They're hotbeds of well, hot beds, the students springing into liaisons. Participants can't write a word afterward. Workshops change lives. They're magic.
I had heard those myths. Uncertain about whether I had what it takes to make a career in fiction, I wanted the luxury of six full weeks to think about nothing except writing. Earlier, Clarion East twice found my stories good enough for an Alternate's slot, but because it's rare for anyone to drop out of Clarion, that did not get me out of town. (Clarion West didn't even offer a place as Alternate.) After I turned fifty, I fretted that some time soon I'd be too old to do it. When I read and heard good things last winter about Odyssey, the new kid on the workshop block, I decided to give it a try. I sent in my fifteen-page writing sample, this time to Jeanne Cavelos, Odyssey's director.
Jeanne is a former senior editor at Dell Publishing, founder of the Abyss line of horror, and author of The Science of the X-Files, The Shadow Within (a Babylon 5 novel), short fiction, articles and essays.
Even after the glorious letter saying "Congratulations! You have been accepted into Odyssey," arrived from her, I dragged around mental baggage: I would be the oldest person present. All the brilliant young hotshots would write rings around me. Women only would be attracted to a workshop labeled as "Fantastic Fiction," not "Science Fiction."
None of my worries were rooted in fact. It would have been hard to find a more heterogeneous group of people in North America. Twelve men and eight women started the course, from all over the continent. In age, we ranged from 17 to older than me. Jeanne asked each of us to bring our all-time favorite genre story; there were no duplications. The depth and breadth of the genre knowledge they exhibited impressed me. The first morning of class, Jeanne asked each of us to say why we wanted to write fantastic fiction rather than ordinary mainstream fiction. To a person, each one said what I was thinking, that this genre is more beautiful, more exciting, more full of wonder than any other.
Jeanne structured the course rather strictly. Every working day of the six weeks, all participants meet for class lecture. It ran at least an hour and a half, sometimes longer. The topics covered included showing versus telling, setting, character, point of view, plot building, suspense, and exposition. Some of it must have seemed redundant to the English majors, but to those of us who never thought about the topics in any systematic way, the presentations ranged from eye-opening to revelatory. For example, Jeanne advocated outlining a story before it's written, a brand-new idea to me. It sounded a bit mechanical, but I wrote it down with the rest.
After a short break, class reconvened for critiquing, this time with the chairs arranged in a large circle. Everyone needed to see everyone else. For the first three weeks, that meant twenty students plus Jeanne and any visitor, but during the second three weeks, the students numbered nineteen.
We read and critiqued at least two stories every day, sometimes three. I'd arrived with the notion that this would be a fast exercise, but it was no such thing. We read each story twice. First we read it quickly, as if reading it in a magazine. The second time we read more slowly, making notes about usage or grammar, asking questions when confused, even suggesting other ways to say what we thought the writer was trying to convey. Jeanne drew up a checklist of things to look for. I found that I could not critique a story in under two hours.
Each person provided four stories over the six weeks. A few of the more daring members brought no old stories with them and wrote all four on site. (I was not that brave; two stories were tales that looked good at home. Only at home, as it turned out.)
Eight guest speakers appeared, mostly writers, but once the editor of Absolute Magnitude, Warren Lapine, and once Dr. Jack Cohen, the well-known geneticist. We feted each visiting dignitary at a very low-key reception. (New Hampshire College rules mandated no liquor or beer, so guests munched potato chips and sipped soda.) The original idea of the receptions had been that students could meet well-known writers in an informal setting, but shyness and the awkwardness it brought meant that usually the famous person wound up surrounded by a ring of staring faces, each student struck dumb. Patricia A McKillip, John Crowley, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, James Morrow, Harlan Ellison and Warren Lapine all cheerfully soldiered on despite the initially uncomfortable situation. By the end of a reception, usually everyone had relaxed a bit.
On the following day the guest speaker presented his or her own views on an aspect of writing that the class was currently exploring. Because we easily fell into the attitude of The-Word-According-to-Jeanne, visitors provided a healthy antidote.
John Crowley, for example, discussing "point of view," said about second-person p.o.v. – "If you can get away with it, then write it that way." (Jeanne later clarified that just because he could pull it off, didn't mean that we could.) Delia Sherman urged us not to ". . .worship at the shrine of the god of Plot." Patricia McKillip set us to writing exercises, which surprised everyone. (We'd quickly got used to the idea of lecture-only.) Each writer brought his or her own gifts to bear on the subject at hand.
The visitor also critiqued stories during the class period with the rest of us, one of the most useful aspects. In addition he or she talked to two or three students separately, about stories sent ahead of time.
So things buzzed along for three weeks. The group fell into the habit, initiated by Julia Duncan and Sharon Keir, of meeting around the picnic table in front of the unlovely row of our grandly-named "townhouses." With no air conditioning, it was worth fighting voracious mosquitoes to unwind and learn more about each other than permited by the oddly intimate process of critiquing.
But an undercurrent of tension became more and more prominent as week four, Harlan Week, approached.
Harlan Ellison was the only writer who stayed a full six days on campus with us, in the same spartan quarters. Many of us had read everything he'd ever written. Others boned up, especially with the stories in the new book, Slippage. Most of us knew the legends – apocryphal and real – that have swirled around him for more than thirty years. We got tapes of his Politically Incorrect appearances and made time to view them. As the fourth Sunday approached, people got jumpy.
Which was amusing in retrospect, because he and his wife Susan couldn't have been more charming during the initial reception. Nevertheless, one man proved resistant to the charm, and during Monday's class, packed up and left for good.
On Monday morning, Harlan started by saying that he'd read Julia's story first. We nodded. All of us knew that Julia was a fine writer. Then he talked about how disappointing he found the rest of the stories in the pile.
My story was in that pile. I started to squirm.
The language got warmer, and pretty soon we were all squirming. Harlan believes that a writing workshop is something like an encounter session, and acted on that belief. Our structural and grammatical shortcomings were pointed out in painful and emphatic detail. For example, my story's title was ". . . in the first percentile of really awful titles ever written by anyone in the history of the literature." (To find out more about that week, go to Ellison Webderland (http://www.menagerie.net/ellison/ellihome.htm) and click on "Harlan Teaches.") So it went, person by person.
There is one thing good about this mode of critiquing. It is tremendously motivational. When Harlan Ellison (Harlan Ellison! He whose stories exploded in my brain thirty years ago, and still do) tells you that your story is emotionally dishonest, you do pay attention.
He was right, of course. That story did not evoke any true emotion. Class broke up and everyone scattered to write the next day's story. (He assigned three topics during the first three days; we were also expected to read each other's work. I hear that this schedule was kinder than what he's demanded in the past.)
I've experienced problems in finishing stories, but never in starting them. Until that week, beginnings were always easy. That Monday afternoon, however, I stared at the screen for an hour and a half before I began writing. It was a very, very short story with a simple plot. But by god, it was honestly felt.
So the week went. Harlan gave out funny alien refrigerator magnets when a student improved, which sounds like a dumb motivator, but it worked. Harlan made himself available almost all the time, emotional tempests blew up, the weather turned hot, the lack of air conditioning and of sleep told on everyone, Susan Ellison had to leave early. Three people got sick and one of them needed the emergency room. (Fortunately, none of the illnesses proved serious.) By Friday, twenty-one exhausted people faced each other in the circle. It was over at last.
I cannot compare the experience of that week to anything, because I've never experienced anything like it. Army veterans tell me that Basic Training contains the same elements. All right, I'll accept that. It certainly bonded the group. On Saturday most of us met as usual at the picnic table to say farewell. Harlan passed out the final goodies – more magnets. We knew that nothing an editor ever told us later could compare to what we'd already heard. Mostly, we felt happy for the experience.
Whenever I sit down at the computer, I remember some of what he said. Harlan hates computers, both because they let us write too fast and because it's too easy for the wrong word to intrude. "Write your next story with an actual pen on actual paper," he suggested. "That way, you can feel the words." I did it, and understood what he meant. Another time he said, "Read the finished story out loud. The problems will jump out at you." They do, you know.
When I arrived on campus, I worried about missing television, but my housemate and I decided to skip it. Miss it? Within two days, all of us were plunged into the Ocean of Story, much richer and more interesting than anything could ever be on the tube. We plugged into a web of new relationships, too, when an outing to a Lebanese dinner topped by belly-dancing, or an evening walk on the beach, became genuine highlights. We experienced them more deeply than we ever would at home.
It took a week to unpack and to feel like I had really come home.
I believe I think about fiction in a different way; certainly, I am less easily satisfied now. I outline stories. (Maybe it is a time-saver, at that.) I read my stories out loud when I think they're done, and usually discover that they're not done yet.
If you want to find a 1998 Odfellow at a con, look for someone wearing our snappy light blue on black T-shirt. The back reads, "You have no talent, and I must scream." If I want to hear the voices of my classmates – or Harlan's – again, all I have to do is start writing a story.
Odyssey: The Fantasy Writers Workshop Jeanne Cavelos, Director 20 Levesque Lane Mont Vernon, NH 03057 http://www.sff.net/odyssey/
About the Author:
Lea C. Braff is the secret identity behind fiction writer Rosemary Sullivan. Both of them are a middle-aged woman who lives an exemplary life in the Midwest, made much more interesting with the addition of large amounts of fantasy.
Copyright © 1998 by Lea C. Braff. All Rights Reserved.