Graduate Essay: “What to Expect from Odyssey Online” by J.A. Schimmel

headshot2020J.A. Schimmel is a 2018 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, as well as several of the Odyssey Online Classes. When the world is not on fire, she divides her time between Illinois and Michigan while writing speculative fiction and slowly racking up rejections.


Once upon a time, I worked on writing creative fiction mostly on my own. Inevitably, I came to the end of where writing in isolation and studying published works would allow me to grow as a writer. I could see that in my work, but I couldn’t identify where my weaknesses were and improve on them. So… how to solve this issue?

The answer for me was The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust. In 2018, I took my first Odyssey Online class: “Saying the Unsayable: Building Meaning and Resonance Through Subtext” with Donna Glee Williams.

I thought I was prepared for the work involved. In terms of hours set aside for reading, writing, critiquing, and other coursework, I was. I was not prepared for how my understanding of the craft of writing was going to radically transform. In just six weeks I gained more writing tools than I likely had in the previous six years of working on my own. I got valuable feedback from my classmates and from Donna Glee. I got handouts and reading lists to study long past the final class.

I then followed “Saying the Unsayable” with the Odyssey Writing Workshop later that year, and two more Odyssey Online classes at the beginning of 2020: “The Heart of the Matter: Bringing Emotional Resonance to Your Storytelling” with Barbara Ashford and “Standing Out: Creating Short Stories with That Crucial Spark” with Scott H. Andrews. What is it about these classes and workshops that keep me coming back? What keeps me recommending them to other writers, even after taking courses from other writing programs?

First and foremost, the instruction. When an Odyssey class explores subtext, you’re not just going to read Hemingway and talk theory. In addition, you’ll learn how you can reliably manipulate information to dictate the conclusion you want readers to have. When an Odyssey class asks how to transform a good story into a great story, the instructor breaks down and shares the various tools an author can use to hook readers and editors. There is ample opportunity to ask questions and gain clarity. There are discussions between students comparing their insights and experiences as writers and readers. There are private meetings with instructors that allow students to hone in on their own needs.

Best of all, you’re asked to practice with all these new tools. Then to read your classmates’ practice pieces and break down what aspects worked and what aspects didn’t and why. From there, it’s a matter of time and practice to perfect these skills.

Second, your success in these classes does not depend on where you are on your writing journey. When I realized how many of my classmates in “Saying the Unsayable” were published, several of them with pro sales, and how many were graduates of the big workshops like Odyssey and Clarion, I panicked. I wasn’t published; I’d never even taken a creative writing course before. I wondered if anyone would take me seriously. I wondered what I was doing in this class, if I belonged there. But I needn’t have worried.

My background didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was there, I was willing to learn, and I actively engaged with the material and with my classmates. I wasn’t treated any differently from any of the other writers by the instructor or my classmates. That equality has remained true throughout all of my experiences with Odyssey’s classes and workshops. Odyssey is not about who’s got the better resume; it’s about everyone being there to learn and be writers together.

Which brings me to my last reason for coming back again and again. When you get accepted into a class with Odyssey, know that you’re about to work not only with talented individuals, but with people who are kind, supportive, and as passionate about writing as you are. As a graduate of the online classes, you gain access to a wider community of fellow graduates via message boards. They’re an invaluable resource that can pay dividends for you for years to come that you never lose access to. Graduates come from all walks of life, each with unique perspectives. There’s always someone around to offer insight, recommend a book, offer much-needed support after rejections, or celebrate publications.

I am far closer to where I want to be as a writer today than I was three years ago. I’ve gained innumerable tools, worked on improving my skills, and am growing exponentially. I know where my weaknesses are; I know how to go about working on them. And most importantly, I’m no longer alone.

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