I have vivid memories of the first year of my undergrad college experience, when I was struggling to pick a major and figure out what kind of career that would allow me to have. I was subjected to a lot of helpful advice from my parents and other miscellaneous adults. It doesn’t really matter what major you pick, they’d tell me, because you’re not primarily learning facts. You’re “learning to learn,” or “learning to think critically.” I scoffed at the time, but of course they were right.
Years later, in the middle of my graduate degree, I had that experience again, through Odyssey. I was a lot like a “high-schooler” of writing before I arrived: I knew some facts, and a few tricks. I was one of those who arrived at Odyssey with experience in the writing workshop critique format. Once a year at a convention for a several years, I’d sat quietly and received critiques on my work from a couple established writers. I thought I was pretty good about taking their advice, too: if someone said I need more sensory details, I’d add more sensory details…in that scene, in that story. What I was missing was the bigger picture. What elements of structure or character made any story or novel great, not just the one in my hand? What larger themes drove my work? What themes did I want to drive it?
That’s what Odyssey and Jeanne Cavelos gave me. Looking back, I wouldn’t tell you that Odyssey taught me plot, or Odyssey taught me dialogue. It did, of course, very good plot and very good dialogue, but more importantly it taught me to think about writing, and to learn about writing. It gave me a fundamental mindset that has helped me learn after Odyssey, and keep learning even now.
One example illustrates that best. I went to Odyssey having written short stories, so of course most of the particular facts I took away with me were about the short form. At one point I asked Jeanne if maybe I should be writing novels, because that seemed like where most people were getting published. She told me that I shouldn’t write a novel until I just couldn’t not write it anymore. So I didn’t. I wrote short stories for two years after I finished Odyssey, got a few published, and then I started my first real novel. And that’s what I sold. Not just that novel, but also two others, to Tor. (The first, Silver, is currently estimated to be out in 2012.) Odyssey gave me the thinking and learning skills to succeed years later with something I’d never imagined I’d be doing when I attended the workshop.
The other important aspect of Odyssey is all the other people. Faced with so many people pointing out the same weakness in your work, people you know are in your same situation, and rooting for you just as much as you’re rooting for them, you can no longer fool yourself into ignoring their advice. There’s another hard-to-define yet invaluable thing that Odyssey gave me: networking. I’m a very shy person, and so meeting new people at conventions and the like has never come easily to me. Odyssey was an injection of new, wonderful people into my world, and now they’re a community that has someone there to catch up with at nearly every convention I go to. Like having learned to learn, that community stayed with me long after my six weeks ended, and I’d gone back to my daily life across the country.
Rhiannon Held is a graduate of Odyssey 2006. You can find out more about her here: www.rhiannonheld.com.
For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.