Graduate Essay: “How to Decide When to Apply to Odyssey” by Julian K. Jarboe

jarboeJulian K. Jarboe is a writer and sound designer from Massachusetts. They are a 2018 Graduate of Odyssey and a Fellow at the Writers’ Room of Boston. Their other work can be found in Strange Horizons, The Fairy Tale Review, and the LAMBDA Award-winning Best Transgender Speculative Fiction series. They can be reached via their website, juliankjarboe.com.


Ask yourself: why now? Why this year? There are as many good reasons to go to Odyssey and as many ways to improve and learn from your experience there as there are writers who attend. When you graduate, your extensive readings, your writing, and your notes will all be down on paper to keep and reference forever, and yet, there is no way any former student could simply hand over their teetering pile of manuscripts and handouts and promise you the same experience or growth achieved by your own attendance. There is not even a way some past or future version of yourself could promise you this, either. Timing, in the personal sense, matters.

Perhaps you have scoured and practiced and gained as much as you possibly could from books, articles, podcasts, reading widely, and writing as often as you can. You may have hit a plateau, or have become aware that you don’t know what it is you don’t know that you don’t know. You’ve already tried isolation—for creativity it does at first seem like a terribly romantic approach—and possibly hit something in the dark, echoing bottom of your own thoughts. Well, this might be true next year, too.

But this year, while part of you seems to spin in place, another part is changing direction. You’re about to move or get married or you’re thinking about quitting your job or you’ve been laid off. You have the summer off before or after another program. Your kids are finally old enough to babysit each other. Something is different this year that may not be true every year that makes it logistically possible for you to attend, yes, but there’s more to it. You’re not just moving along a track: you’re searching. That spinning in place you’ve been doing, at least with your writing, turns out, in fact, to be the wind-up spring for a trick you didn’t even know you could do. This is not a stable quality of life, but it is a rare balance between knowing who you are and being prepared to change.

You’re ready to re-learn ways to write stories but you have a sneaking suspicion what or who they might be about. You have something you can offer others and you know that when they offer you their own thoughts, suggestions, questions, and support, that this is treasure. You will let yourself, and your drafts, be what they are without judgment (there is no reading and writing, only rereading and rewriting). You will let others do the same.

At Odyssey, you will get a few people together, put on some tea, set a timer, and write until the timer rings. You will stretch, whine (and/or wine), vent, and then do it all again. You will think you are too tired or busy to go to the Friday picnics and then you will see them from your dormitory window, and as though following a fae into an enchanted clearing, you will go to the picnics. You will ask for what you need and you will even get it. You will find there is an uncharted territory between friend and colleague and it is most fruitful when you lean into the vulnerability of the former and the courtesy of the latter. You will not try to impress each other but you will impress upon each other.

It has been said elsewhere that Odyssey is not a place to come and “party,” though you have a hard time imagining how it would be possible. You will notice that it is also not quite the place to try to hunker down and be a hermit, either. You may want some time to yourself, or you may need to seek out solitude to focus or brainstorm from time to time, but the person you are, whom you have brought to this experience at the right time, is seated in a circle with others. Oh, sure, some luck, and interpersonal chemistry, factors in. Mostly it’s that Jeanne is actually very, very good at this whole group learning thing (you will wonder how she does it all, and she will giggle and say that she is wondering the same). A room full of spring-loaded people, arranged in a ring, doing something very hard and very much worthwhile, their mechanics clicking in place until the whole summer is a strange and wondrous automaton.

That is what you cannot recreate from notes, though you will refer to your notes for years to come. And that is what heightens Odyssey from a very hard summer class (and it is, also, a very hard summer class) to the transformative experience so many graduates describe it as. When nothing else will do, when you feel the click inside, that is when the time is right.

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