Graduate Comments

Marie Croke

The Breakdown of Being “Too”

Marie Croke is a Fantasy and Science-Fiction writer who won first place in the Writers of the Future Contest with the story “Of Woven Wood.” She has since gone on to have stories published in places such as Beneath Ceaseless SkiesDaily Science Fiction, and DreamForge Magazine. She lives in Maryland with her family, all of whom like to scribble messages in her notebooks when she’s not looking.  She attended the 2020 Odyssey Writing Workshop.

Many people, especially us creatives, suffer from bouts of insecurities. We’re constantly questioning whether we belong, whether we’re good enough, skilled enough to become the success we dream to be. In my experience, those insecurities have a culprit: the word “too.”

We’re “too old” to start a new skill; we’re “too young” to understand one. We’re “too uneducated” to have something worthwhile to say; we’re “too jaded” to think we could contribute anything new. We’re “too afraid” of rejection; “too confident” to take criticism.

And worst offender of all: we’re “too late.”

Too late to start; too late to rejoin; too far behind to ever catch up to that amorphous destination we think we should have already achieved.

This is where I found myself before Odyssey: in that state of thinking I was “too late.”

I’d sold a few stories, won a prestigious contest, and indie-published a book, but that had been years ago, as if it’d happened to someone else in another life, another world. Then I’d needed time to step away, to combat personal demons, to refind my love of writing by removing the onlookers over my shoulder. But jumping back into the submission game, with my rejection number slowly inching up once more, I couldn’t help but feel as if I’d lost my chance, as if there was some single moment I’d missed out on and now that it was gone so too was my ability to be a writer.

So I came to Odyssey looking for direction.

I wanted to figure out what might I be doing wrong, what bad habits I may have picked up without knowing, what writing techniques I had been missing out on. I came to Odyssey in the hope I’d be able to craft a new moment, a new chance, but that hope was mitigated by that word “too” constantly singing in my mind.

During my six weeks being inundated with an entire class of other like-minded people from all over the world, I found that yes, yes I can craft not one, but many, many new moments for myself.

What I discovered was that I had been far too wrong in my thinking of the word “too.” That chances aren’t single moments; they’re the accumulation of many moments. Whether those moments are done in writing—constantly pushing my craft to be better—or whether those moments are done in submissions—constantly putting my words under editor scrutiny—or whether those moments are merely the conversations between writer friends—bolstering one another at our lowest points and celebrating our achievements

That every time I learn something new, I get to try that out in my fiction. Every time I receive criticism, there’s a chance I can become a more in-tune writer. Every time I submit is another opportunity to sell. Every time I meet someone new, it’s a chance to find someone to stand beside in solidarity.

That being “too late” doesn’t exist, because the world of publishing is always welcoming, whether you’re a first-time writer or keep coming back, and filled with people who are all using the same words to tell the stories only they can tell.

At Odyssey, I got the chance—one of many—to rewrite the way I think about that word “too,” helped along by the friends I made, Jeanne’s impressive ability to pick apart worries and reconnect them into confidence, and the six long weeks of sleepless nights of immersing myself in words.

I’m “too focused” not to keep going. I’m “too in love” with writing stories not to keep writing them. I’m “too full” of experiences and emotions not to have them sweep into my stories. I’m “too excited” for tomorrow to let yesterday drag me down.

And you are “too.”

I decided to apply to Odyssey because I’d been writing and improving, but I wanted to write more and improve faster. The workshop promised to be an intensive experience, and I loved the idea of a crucible that would push me to change and grow beyond what I could accomplish on my own. I knew my stories had good ideas at their core (or, at least, posed questions that were interesting to me), but I felt like I had trouble sticking the landing—like there was always something left out that should be on the page, but I didn’t know what.

In preparation, I mulled where I was going wrong; a few weeks before Odyssey began, I thought I’d solved it: I have trouble connecting to people and can’t seem to understand them, and that is what makes my stories weaker than they can be. If I could just live inside their skin a little deeper, if I could just truly get in their heads—maybe even become a method writer, somehow—then, then I would get where I want to go.

I reached out to Jeanne immediately, and she shared a number of books she found valuable and a suggested reading order. I dove into the first one (The Art of Character by David Corbett), highlighting and taking notes and dutifully studying. I thought I was well on my way.

One of the phrases my mom always used when I was growing up, particularly when I was trying a hairstyle or piece of clothing of which she didn’t approve, was “a person can’t ever really see themselves.” I’d dismissed it as a teenager, thinking that this was just another tactic for her to get her way (and I think she’d admit it was)…but on seeing photos of myself from my younger years, I realized she was sometimes right, too. The mirror lied to me because my eyes didn’t see clearly—not every time, but sometimes.

During Odyssey, I realized that I didn’t see the right things when I observed my work—Jeanne, in becoming a mirror and new eyes for each student, helped us adjust our focus. We had three one-on-one check-ins with her, and in my first one, she laid my writing bare in a way that I’d never been able to perceive before. The trouble, she told me, was not with my characters; I have an apparent knack for dysfunctional relationships that might concern me if I didn’t find them so fascinating. Instead, she focused on plot and its interaction with character. Most importantly, she gave words to a thought that I’d danced around but never fully wrap my head around: unity. In a single conversation, a story I’d been struggling with fell into place.

I had a lot of revelations during Odyssey: some right, some wrong, all worthwhile. The focus of the feedback and the relentless way we were asked to interrogate our writing and that of our peers helped me test hypotheses and figure out how to implement changes when my hypothesis was confirmed. I still have a ways to go, but Odyssey gave me the tools to make the next steps on my journey.