(Re)Connecting with the Craft
By Katherine Hall van der Vliet
If you're reading this, chances are you're thinking of applying. I hope you're thinking of applying. Maybe you've printed the application and your pen is hovering over the first box. Maybe it's already filled out and you're trying to choose a submission story. Maybe all that's been done, the envelope sealed and stamped, and all that remains is to gather up some courage and deposit it in the mailbox.
Hopefully, this can provide some of that courage.
This past summer, the sweltering summer of 2013, I graduated from Odyssey. The number of adjectives I could fling at you to describe the experience are legion (rigorous, exhausting, thrilling, life-altering, HOT, to name a few) but for brevity's sake: It was revolutionary. It changed how I read, and how I write, and I am better at both for it.
To attend Odyssey is to live, breathe, talk and dream writing. I spent my every waking hour (and there were many, many waking hours) surrounded by other writers who wanted to develop their craft as much as I did. I learned more about writing in those six weeks than I'd learned in my whole university career, a career that included a B.A. in English-Creative Writing and an M.A. in Journalism.
Most importantly, I fell in love with the craft all over again. That, more than anything, made Odyssey the best decision I have ever made for my writing.
Here was what Odyssey looks like, on a nuts-and-bolts level:
The day started at 9 a.m. sharp (and woe to the latecomer!), with two hours of intensive lecture, followed by full-group critiques of submitted stories. We critiqued 2-3 stories a day, and every person submitted 6 stories over the course of Odyssey. Once a week, a guest author visited to instruct us and give us valuable insight into the professional writing life (our guests included Jack Ketchum, Patricia Bray, Adam Troy-Castro, Holly Black, Nancy Holder, and Sheila Williams).
After class and critiques, we scurried back to our college dorms to prepare more critiques for the next day and to write our own stories. Most of us only got a few hours of sleep a night and several of us--myself included--ended up forgoing sleep altogether when we had a story due the next day. While there were no classes on weekends, everyone slammed noses to grindstones to try to get their stories written and, if lucky, edited a bit before submissions the following week.
If it sounds grueling, that's because it was.
It was also worth it, every last minute of it.
Now here was what made Odyssey special:
The rigor and high standard must be attributed to our teacher, fearless leader, and Evil Overlord, Jeanne Cavelos, who led us on a steady march through plot, character, style, causal chain, point of view, voice, tense, description, idea development, publishing and the business aspects of writing (to name a few topics). More than just teaching us the concepts, Jeanne gave us a language to communicate story strengths and weaknesses that I didn't realize I was missing. We couldn't have asked for a more knowledgeable teacher or a better mentor.
Along with lectures, Jeanne also took part in our group critiques. Jeanne's critiques are thorough, and not for someone who can't take criticism, but she does it with the compassion and sincerity of someone who has been there as a writer herself, and who believes you can do even better if you know where your faults lie. Listen to her advice, and you won't be disappointed by the results. I'm indebted to her for everything she taught me.
I also found mentors in my classmates. Never had I worked with so many talented people from around the world. Their passion and determination were inspiring, and with them I rediscovered the joy of talking about a story idea with someone who 'got it.' We pulled no punches when we critiqued each other, and we celebrated our successes together. We wanted each other to improve.
Since returning from Odyssey, I have written, revised and submitted more short stories than I ever wrote in my life before Odyssey. I have returned to my current novel project with a vengeance and can see an end in sight. The Odyssey community, both my class and the alums of classes prior, have provided me a wealth of knowledge, wisdom, and support that I couldn't have found had I not attended.
Make no mistake: writing is hard. No book, course, or lecture can replace the act of pounding out words and revising over and over again. Nothing can guarantee success. But losing the thrill, the love of writing CAN guarantee failure.
Somewhere in that muggy New Hampshire summer stew, I rediscovered that love. I have Odyssey to thank for that.
Go apply. You won't regret it.