Julia Duncan

Published by Wendy Dye on

Twenty Students Gather for 1998 Odyssey into Writing

Until Odyssey, I’d read many books about writing fiction, and thought I understood the fundamentals, but now I have an infinitely better grasp of the practice of these fundamentals and much more confidence that I can apply them methodically and intelligently to create professional fiction. —Dennis Meredith

Odyssey is a six-week summer workshop for writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, held annually in Manchester, New Hampshire. Jeanne Cavelos, former senior editor at Dell Publishing and winner of the World Fantasy Award for her work there on the Abyss imprint, is the director and primary instructor at the workshop. Once a week, guest lecturers visit to add their own perspectives and to critique students’ work.

The 1998 guests were Patricia A. McKillip, John Crowley, James Morrow, Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner, and Warren Lapine. Also joining Odyssey this year was writer- in-residence Harlan Ellison, in attendance for a full week.

Odyssey is an intense experience that includes classroom instruction, in-depth feedback on manuscripts, and a supportive yet challenging atmosphere in which to write and learn. Most of the twenty students who filled the available slots this year stayed on the campus of New Hampshire College, enabling them to spend time together outside of class, getting acquainted, discussing writing, and defusing tension.

Jeanne Cavelos is an experienced writer and teacher, but her background as an editor makes this workshop unique. Sometimes authors know only how they write and may not be able to help a student who does it differently. Because Jeanne has worked with many disparate authors, she respects a writer’s own process and focuses on helping students do what they want to do better. Her exposure to the students’ work for six weeks enables her to evaluate overall strengths and weaknesses and to give specific suggestions for improvement.




Harlan Ellison Inspires as Writer-in-Residence at Odyssey Workshop, July 13-17, 1998
      —Julia Duncan, Contributing Writer

Great peril and toil shall be thine ere thou comest to thy home . . .
      —The shade of Tiresias to Odysseus, mid-Odyssey

One student fled into the night after simply meeting Harlan Ellison–cleaned out his room and retreated, never to return. Two others cracked a little under the pressure. Three went to the hospital–one of them twice. Harlan’s week at Odyssey offered plenty of real-life drama, and most of that was outside the classroom.

Opinions about the experience of working with him ranged from “like a chainsaw enema” to “a privilege.” Harlan told us that an intensive writing workshop is something like an encounter session: We would learn more about ourselves and each other than we expected. With Harlan Ellison as a catalyst, some of that education was shocking, even emotionally violent, but most of us left Odyssey better writers than we were before. I believe that I came away a stronger person as well.

Writing Is Risk

It is not enough merely to love literature, if one wishes to spend one’s life as a writer. It is a dangerous undertaking on the most primitive level. For, it seems to me, the act of writing with serious intent involves enormous personal risk. It entails the ongoing courage for self-discovery. It means one will walk forever on the tightrope, with each new step presenting the possibility of learning a truth about oneself that is too terrible to bear.
      —Harlan Ellison, 1981

When I decided last fall to apply to George Mason University’s Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program, a friend said, “They’re all realists at Mason. You do fantastic fiction–you should study with someone whose writing you love. Go to L.A.; study with T. Coraghessan Boyle.” As appealing as that idea was, with a family, a mortgage, and a business moving to Los Angeles was not in my near future. I reflected, however, realizing that “work with someone you love” is good advice for an aspiring writer. No solution emerged until I saw the flyer for Odyssey, with “Harlan Ellison” emblazoned across it. Not only is Harlan among my favorite writers, but the first page in the schedule/address/miscellaneous crap notebook I carry around quotes the man twice. Immediately, I knew I must do this.

I had heard the stories: Harlan tears students apart so viciously that the room must be hosed down afterward; he once burned an unworthy manuscript in front of the class; when he taught at the Clarion workshop, Harlan told at least one man who went on to a successful writing career that he had no talent and should get a job. I believed the stories, yet I could not accept that these acts were capricious sadism, as most people seemed to think. I couldn’t imagine that the man whose work I admired, even loved, actually enjoyed ripping into people and being widely perceived as a monster. Behind the apparent harshness, I thought, must lie a commitment to creativity, to honesty, to art–a commitment to the writing. I respect such strongly held convictions and applaud the capacity to act on them without hesitation. In my years of participation in writing classes and critiquing groups, I have appreciated most those thoughtful, perceptive teachers and colleagues who could cut to the chase without sugar-coating their opinions. They have always been the most helpful of critics, and I often wished that I had the courage to be more like them.

Despite my beliefs, I was nervous. My faith in my own talent and determination is sometimes fragile, and I didn’t know if I wanted to endure such raw feedback. I contacted several people who knew Harlan and my work. I asked them what they thought. Everyone who replied said, essentially, “If you have the chance to be whacked in the head by Harlan Ellison, take it.” I trusted them, and I trusted Dan Simmons, who says that Harlan is at heart a courteous man. At the time I applied to Odyssey, I was going through a period of near-despair over the publishing crapshoot, and I told myself that at worst Harlan would be the writing patch, the cure that would finally enable me to quit this frustrating quest and move on to safer and more enjoyable occupations–say, demolition derby driving. Firefighting. Kickboxing.

No such luck. Harlan liked my work and doomed me to a lifetime of struggle. Still, I was fortunate. While Harlan did not burn anyone’s manuscript in front of our class, there were some chainsaw-enema moments.

“The problem is you’re doing such fucking stupid idiot crap. This present tense son of a bitch shit. How many times do you have to be told? The present tense is obtrusive.”

“[This story] is such utter bullshit that we ought to whip you with chains.”

“. . . in the first percentile of really awful titles ever written by anyone in the history of literature . . .”

“There’s not one moment of real life in this story.”

Harsh lessons, hurled epithets, repeated threats. Yelling. Tears. Pain.

And a great deal of laughter and warmth and truth. My suspicions proved correct: The man does not enjoy ripping into people’s work when he knows it hurts. He honors his own beliefs, and he does so for the writing, for what matters, for art. He teaches as he creates, and as he lives, honestly, unblinkingly, and passionately. He risks all.

Stay Connected to Your Work

You cannot discourage a real writer . . . Break a real writer’s hands, and s/he will tap out a story with feet or nose.
      —Harlan Ellison, 1990

Whether critiquing, joking, or telling stories, Harlan holds back nothing. He shared moments from his own life that moved some of us to tears. He gives in full measure, whatever he does. The night he arrived in New Hampshire, he told us, “I’m here to give you what I can give you, based on forty years’ crap. And I will do it whether you want it or not. That’s my job. My job is not to be nice to you . . . I can be as wrong as any of you. Do not think in any way that I am a deity. But I’ve been doing this for forty years and there’s some shit that I know and I know well, some stuff that I can do and do well, and I will give you as much of that as you want. There is nothing you can ask of me that I will not give you in this week. So ask me and I will do the best I can for you. I’ll give you everything I got.”

Harlan does not lecture about art. He critiques stories. Nothing is too small or too large for comment, and as he says, “I have a very low tolerance level for irritating bullshit.” We heard a lot about irritating bullshit: grammatical errors such as the wrong preposition or verb tense or pronoun; awkward word choices and poor sentence structure and bad paragraph breaks; repeated words and superfluosities and “schoolgirl syntax.” We also heard about our lazy reliance on computers and word processors. “Folks, you are putting your faith in the devil-god, and it’s going to jerk you around. Someday it will bite you. It will lose you an entire novel; it will have your manuscripts looking imbecilic. For godsakes, don’t fall into the thrall of a piece of machinery. Stay human. Stay connected to your work. Be aware of what it looks like. I hope that message will get across to you if nothing else I say this week does.”

After the umpteenth stupid error that we should have caught by reading over our work–on paper, out loud–or by having someone else read it, Harlan said our manuscripts appeared to be “printed out by clones at a pod-mall.” One of his recommendations was to “write by hand on actual paper with an actual pen, ball-point, or the bloody end of your goddamn index finger, if that’s what you need. Because only in that way will you come back into contact with your words. You people are not attached to your work.”

Other sorts of issues were also attended to. A story must contain cause and effect–without that structure, the reader cannot understand what happens or why. The plot needs purpose. A story must have interior tension and consistency–text and subtext should balance, and circumstance or coincidence cannot be used in favor of the good guy. Frontloading a story is dangerous; backloading is worse. All good points, and all meaningless without character. Harlan said it again and again, and then he repeated it: Character is the engine that drives the story. “Without character, you are thrown back on the artificiality of linear, sequential anecdote after anecdote. That is the dopey way of writing. There is no subtext, no confluence, no something back here that pays off up there. Character is the engine that drives the story.”

Characterization ranks so high on his list that Harlan even shared with us some of the secrets he “learned in the Orient.” Body language, he said, “reveals everything, and as a writer, if you know body language, you will have characterization endlessly. You can walk into a room and you’ll see the way people are sitting, or the way they look at you, or the way they respond or the inflection of their voice . . . If you want to be a good writer, all you have to read are the Sherlock Holmes stories. They are based upon observing.”

Find Your Own Way

I think it is urgently important for a writer to know everything. Everything.
      —Harlan Ellison, 1998

There are three things in the universe Harlan does not know. Maybe no one knows them. Name a subject; he can speak on it. Movies, old radio programs, history, opera, space flight, massage . . . well, if you’ve read much of his writing or seen him lecture, you’re aware of his range. We conversed on subjects ranging from Norwegian goat cheese (delicious) to Kafka to feng shui. He knew I was married just by looking at me, and I don’t wear a wedding band. His second day in New Hampshire, he told me I tend to over-intellectualize. He’s right.

Writing per se was not the only subject Harlan addressed in the classroom either. He talked about business and taking care of ourselves. “Times are tough for writers, and it’s tough because of the devil’s plaything [the computer] . . . the generations that are coming up don’t look to books for entertainment. They got cd-roms, video games, Internet, television, movies . . . and that means that times grow harder and harder for writers. There is less and less room for serious writing. That means that me sitting here and teaching you to write well is programming you for disaster. You’ll have to find your own way.”

He warned us, again and again, that writing is not an easy way to make a living. He told stories about good writers, prize-winning writers, who have to work lousy jobs and borrow money to make ends meet. He bewailed the media tie-ins that some of those writers turn to because they must eat. While conceding that “you do what you have to do” if you have a family to support, his advice was, “Never write anything unless you just want to write it.” And furthermore, “Get paid. This is the best advice you will hear throughout this entire workshop. Get paid. Give nothing away. Read your contracts. Work as professionals. You are a cottage industry. If you don’t keep good records, if you don’t have contracts, you will screw yourself.”

Writing is a tough job. We probably all knew that before we went to New Hampshire, but Harlan drove it home. We worked. He was softer on us than I hear he used to be when he taught week-long workshops; we didn’t write a story a night. But all of us turned in two or three stories that week, most of them written in a single evening, on top of critiquing dozens of manuscripts. Harlan was almost gleeful when he said, “I think these stories are terrific because they’re filled with the flaws. The pressure situation makes the pustules [come] to the surface, and we can take care of them.” That, after all, was the point: get better. There was encouragement along the way, as well. Harlan confessed that he wrote a clumsy line or two at one point, and he improved. “I grew to write better by having people swat me in the head as I have swatted you . . . It ain’t a race. You’re only in competition with yourself. “

Your Mission Is . . .

There is no nobler chore in the craft of writing than holding up the mirror of reality and turning it slightly, so we have a new and different perception of the commonplace, the everyday, the ‘normal,’ the obvious. People are reflected in the glass. The fantasy situation into which you thrust them is the mirror itself. And what we are shown should illuminate and alter our perception of the world around us. Failing that, you have failed totally.
      —Harlan Ellison, 1977

Harlan paraphrased William Faulkner several times: “The only thing worth writing about is the study of the human heart in conflict with itself.” In an essay he sent to the Odyssey students before the workshop, Harlan makes the point clearly. “The only stories that live on, that are worth . . . writing, are the ones that speak with force to the human condition. Writing about people should be your mission.”

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Yet, during my years of studying literature, I’ve read stories about pie, stories about bars, stories about fish. Unsuccessful stories with nothing to say. So many people, it seems, have built such terribly thick walls around their hearts that they would have trouble recognizing real emotion biting them on the nipple.

We guard ourselves, as people and as writers, from pain. Before Harlan’s week, there was a certain hesitancy in many of our classroom critiques, a palpable reluctance to be severe in what we said out loud about our colleagues’ stories. There are many reasons for this diffidence, but I’ll mention only one: We all know how hard it is to put our creations on the table to be scrutinized, analyzed, and dissected. Dan Simmons says it’s like sending your children out to be criticized. Writers know how it feels, and a lot of us like less to give pain than to endure it.

Franz Kafka wrote to a friend, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” I believe this. Good writing ought to address the human condition, and it should do so with power and a sharp edge. Otherwise, why bother? Good writing hurts–and people to whom good writing matters must be willing to feel a little pain. We have a responsibility, when we enter into a contract with our colleagues to workshop stories together, to tell the truth. As Harlan said, “I learned early on that to lie to people about their abilities is not to be kind. People who don’t have it should be spending their lives doing things that will bring them pleasure and will bring them rewards and will bring them approbation. Being dishonest is for you, it’s not for them. It’s because you don’t want to deal with their bad feelings.”

Part of Harlan’s philosophy, as he stated in 1973, is “you never reach glory or self-fulfillment unless you’re willing to risk everything, dare anything, put yourself dead on the line every time; and that once one becomes strong or rich or potent or powerful it is the responsibility of the strong to help the weak BECOME strong.” His example inspired me, in at least one instance, to sidestep my self-doubt and say what I was reluctant to say about another student’s work. I realized at the time that I did it for myself more than for that writer; we both survived, and it was good. I came through Harlan week with a little more faith in myself, a little more courage to risk pain, a little more fortitude. I hope all of us gained some insight, even the student who fled, even the two who cracked.

Of the three who went to the emergency room, two are fully recovered, I’m happy to say. The other one heard, from a stranger at Worldcon in Baltimore, the rumor that she had suffered a heart attack – not true, though her symptoms were enough like one that the ambulance crew treated her as a cardiac patient. Her pain – from GERD, look it up – had nothing to do with Harlan Ellison, whose compassion and concern were touching. It was a tough week, but I’m feeling much better, thank you.

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face . . . You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” In working with Harlan, I did something I imagined I could never do, and I am better and stronger for it than I expected to be. I might feel differently if he had told me to seek work as a day laborer or if I had disagreed with him more, but speaking for myself, the experience was worth every moment of peril and toil.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I will continue my endless journey toward home.

Wendy Dye