Graduate Essay: “Why Your Personal Odyssey Was Life-Changing, from Someone Who Hates the Word ‘Life-Changing'” by Iris Hwang

Iris Hwang is a student at Columbia University. She loves fantasy, horror, and historical fiction. She is a 2022 graduate of the Your Personal Odyssey Writing Workshop.

I have always wanted to be a writer, but before Your Personal Odyssey Writing Workshop, I felt frustrated over my stagnant writing progress. I knew my stories could be better, but I didn’t know how. I took several college-level workshops and seminars. I read a dozen books that promised to make me a better writer, including a bizarre one that advised me to practice extensive meditation and argue with my inner critic in the mirror. I wrestled with self-doubt: Am I really a writer? If I am a writer, why am I not getting better?

When I learned about Odyssey, I was optimistic because of the glowing reviews and the impressive writers on the graduates’ page. But I was skeptical when alumni said Odyssey was “life-changing,” because I have taken several good workshops but didn’t think any of them was “life-changing.” But now that I am done with the program, I can say Your Personal Odyssey was actually life-changing.

The new Odyssey program is a personalized workshop that makes you the writer you want to be. In most workshops, there are 15-20 people, so the instructor (understandably) prioritizes the needs of the entire class instead of focusing on each person’s writing. Your Personal Odyssey is a one-on-one experience, and Director Jeanne Cavelos gave me Iris-specific advice. In most workshops, your stories get critiqued twice, maybe three times. In Your Personal Odyssey, Jeanne gives you six critiques with detailed, pages-long explanations of your strengths, weaknesses, and how to improve. When I complained about an issue with my plot or structure, Jeanne would scour her encyclopedic memory of writing knowledge to give me tailored suggestions. Instead of giving me generic advice like “never give up,” Jeanne would say, “It seems like you have a very specific idea of the ending, but not the middle. What needs to happen in the middle to ensure that the ending feels earned?” Working with Jeanne is like having a literary wizard by your side, giving you important advice and tools for you to succeed in your writing quest.

I cannot overstate how much my writing improved when Jeanne diagnosed my writing weaknesses. It was like doing an exercise incorrectly for years until a trainer tells you what is wrong with your form. After examining several of my stories, she told me that although my characters were sympathetic, my character arcs tended to be weak. I reread my stories and realized that although I’d given my characters sympathetic qualities and placed them in interesting situations, they didn’t change over the course of the story and were reactive, rather than active. This is a realization that I never made on my own. Because previous writing professors I’ve had only saw my writing twice a semester, they had never told me this either. Furthermore, because Jeanne worked with me over the course of months and several stories, she identified which areas I improved and which areas remained consistent weak spots. At the end of the workshop, Jeanne told me I had made significant progress in my structure and setting, but that character arcs and emotional arcs remained fairly weak, despite my efforts. This let me know that character and emotional arcs are particular weaknesses to look out for in future stories, which I still pay attention to today.

You might be wary of the time commitment. I felt nervous reading the ominous warnings about how Odyssey is so much work, but I should not have worried. To be clear, I did work hard during the workshop, but it was enjoyable work. Instead of scrolling Instagram for hours, I’d write outlines for my stories, analyze the writing of authors I admired, and watch Jeanne’s riveting lectures about dialogue. Furthermore, I put effort into my Odyssey assignments because I knew they were essential to my success. Sometimes, you know you can skim your readings or do half-hearted work and coast by in class because the professor won’t really check. But in Odyssey, Jeanne read every single assignment I turned in and addressed my questions and concerns, so I felt motivated! It’s hard work, but you won’t feel overworked. For the record, I slept 8 hours every night.

You might also worry that because this is a virtual workshop, it won’t feel engaging. As someone who started college at the beginning of the pandemic, I totally understand. During some of my first college Zoom classes, I fell asleep a lot and woke up in an empty Zoom room. But I’d argue that virtual Odyssey was much more riveting than any in-person workshop I’ve ever been to! Every minute I spent brainstorming ideas with Jeanne was interactive and engaging.

This is a workshop for science fiction, horror, and fantasy, which was very refreshing for me. I’m interested in writing in lots of genres, including mysteries and historical fiction, but I was happy that I could write the horror stories I wanted. In other workshops, some instructors unfortunately prioritize “literary fiction” over genre fiction. In a previous workshop, I wrote a fantasy horror story about a cannibal pig. My workshop peers asked if the story was an allegory about political oppression and urged me to turn it into an Animal Farm-style story, when what I wanted was a story about a cannibal pig. Here, Jeanne helps you write the story you want to write, not the story she thinks you should write. She is not prescriptive, and she genuinely wants to help you become the writer you want to be.

During Your Personal Odyssey, I wrote the best stories I have ever written in my life. But what’s really exciting is that I know I’ll write much better stories in the future, thanks to Jeanne’s tutelage. Odyssey has dispelled my fears that I’m not really a writer. I am a writer, who now has many more tools at her disposal. I wish you luck, future Odyssey student, for the amazing journey you’re about to embark on!


One comment

  1. An exceptional essay and with real candour. My guiding principle, also as an aspiring writer but with a few more decades on me, is always follow your instincts rather than the well-meaning advice of others. Every writer has a uniquely individual voice that is particular to them and the experiences and innate qualities, good and bad, that have formed them. Finding and refining that voice into a good storytelling instrument is difficult. It takes time and most good writers take a lifetime doing it. I believe the key thing to finding your voice is trusting the ideas and concepts and scenarios that occur to you, entirely on their own merits, no matter how unlikely or unpromising they may initially seem. What comes directly from your inner voice is the most authentic thing, and it will guide you. Ultimately you don’t need to imitate any other author or writing principle, as long as the story is coherent. If it ain’t, put it aside and use in something else! Each story and piece you write is part of your creative evolution and the best thing to do is try and test and push yourself to the limit of your talent each time. That’s how you advance it.

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