The Six-Week Odyssey
Most likely, you think you know something about writing.
Perhaps you have moments where you glide on the hot winds of elation, followed by crashes into complex canyons of doubt.
Whether you scribble stories into a secret notebook, or have published work that readers and writers praise, or anything in-between or beyond, you probably have more to learn than you think.
Let me start with Jeanne Cavelos.
Being someone who isn’t generally concerned with “credentials,” I didn’t research her too much. Besides, everyone will try to impress you with their pitch, right?
Sitting in an actual classroom at an actual college, glancing at the clock with anticipation racing through my limbs, but chewing a few crunchy grains of skepticism, I wondered if I would really learn anything.
Then Jeanne started her lectures.
What struck me first was her passion, commitment, and investment. Not just for the success of her program, but for the people who had gathered to learn from her.
By the end of Week 1, I was surprised by how thorough the material was. I was shocked by how much I had learned. I was disturbed by how much I hadn’t actually known. I was upended! Even elements I’d thought I’d grasped were expanded or deconstructed, their truths exposed.
Why be shocked? She has focused for years: studying, understanding, teaching, and writing. If you haven’t been doing the same, to the same degree and depth, then I’ll bet she’s going to show you things you didn’t know.
Each week we covered a new set of topics. I learned every day. Participation and questions were encouraged, as well as challenging ourselves. Sometimes, students would glance at each other across the classroom, their expressions saying it all: What? Are you serious? This is crazy…! Followed by frantic note-taking.
Details: hours of class in the morning. Daily critique circles, with a mix of private and group critiques. Journal assignments based on recent lectures, encouraging us to experiment, to sample techniques, to stretch ourselves. Guests lectures, with more private and group critiques: Steve and Melanie Tem, Cat Valente, Elizabeth Hand, Alex Jablokov, Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner, Gordon Van Gelder. A trip to Readercon.
One-on-one meetings with Jeanne personalized things even more, taking learning to yet another level. Early in the program, she examined three of our stories, and put a spotlight on five consistent strengths and five consistent weaknesses. We discussed these aspects and made a pact. We had follow-up meetings to examine progress, and to revise strategies for improvement. We came back to these ideas during critiques.
Besides this, Jeanne’s just… available. There were lunches, hallway talks, cookouts, and so on. She joked with us, she laughed with us, and any time we wanted to switch the conversation back to what we were working on, worried about, or excited for, she was ready to engage us. Not just ready: eager, excited. She spends more time than you would believe on both the program and her students.
The course is structured, detailed, and thorough. We started weeks before we arrived, with readings and writing assignments. We had a syllabus and a schedule for story submissions. We had resources to get ourselves ready. Throughout the course, we had practice, discussions, and games. I even won a cute, furry little alien thing at one of the cookouts! By the end, our brains were stuffed.
So, that’s Jeanne, and that’s the program. Now, let me tell you (briefly) about the students.
There is something magical about spending all day and all night surrounded by writers. If you have never experienced this, you won’t quite understand. Remembering this part makes me emotional and nostalgic.
We all love writing. Just try to imagine being around people who love the same things you love. Folks who geek out at taking apart and analyzing a sentence, who are excited to hear about your story, who can’t wait to go back over notes and talk about the lecture. People who appreciate your opinions and perspectives. Imagine doing what you love, and everyone around you getting why you love it, because they feel the same way.
Jeanne had one more ally: Olivia Do. Olivia worked as Jeanne’s “Evil Assistant.” A graduate from a prior class, Olivia lived in the dorms with us. She was ever-present and always available. She was genuine and helpful. She gave us an ear for venting, a sounding board for ideas, and often just spent time hanging out with us. She drove us to the grocery store, she checked up on us, while helping to keep the program’s gears running behind the scenes. She was absolutely great.
No amount of research or conversation will really explain what this program is or does. I can list a handful of the many topics covered, such as Originality and Genre, the Pleasures of Fiction, the Potential and Problems of Setting; not to mention the last week, focused on markets and publishing. I can talk about the insanely deep, insightful, and helpful critiques Jeanne gives. I can tell you about how my understanding has improved, of writing, critiquing, reading, and the industry in general. I can even tell you about the friends I made. Or maybe about the thousands upon thousands of words of notes we took.
It all adds up to one thing: if you haven’t gone, you should go.
And if you’ve already gone, why are you still reading this? You know better. Get back to your writing!