Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Recovery: an addendum to the Odyssey workshop experience

I thought I'd shared all of my Odyssey Workshop related insights on this page, then I looked at a conversation I had with a friend over the internet in the months following my six weeks at Odyssey and realized there was more to share. It is an intense process that changes how you think about yourself and your writing--even changes how you read.  At workshop and upon return, there are bound to be growing pains.

I've heard it described as a "boot camp."  I've never been to boot camp, but I have played varsity sports.  Odyssey is like pre-season. You're learning the skills and building muscle memory and creating endurance.  It's rigorous.  You push yourself to the limit and you fall asleep exhausted each night.  Before regular season starts, coach gives you a long weekend off and you tell all your friends you'll meet up with them and then never see them because you fell asleep on the couch in the middle of the day.  But making varsity doesn't mean you feel like you're good enough for varsity yet. You screw up. Other players are smother, quicker, already know how to work with teammates you've just met. The first time you touch the ball in a real game isn't to make a pass, it's when you foot foul and lose the ball to the other team.

When I got home from Odyssey I slept. I woke up the next day, made coffee, sat down on the couch and fell asleep before the pot had finished brewing. Four hours later I woke up.  My incessant need for sleep lasted about three days. I thought that was the "recovery" period which was discussed while I was at Odyssey.  But then I couldn't write. This was something I was prepared for because so many people had told me about it.  So I made myself write--I felt very righteous about this, btw--even if I knew it was drivel, at least I was maintaining momentum. I thought I'd beaten the "post-Odyssey low," the one that people talked about with sad, compassionate faces in low, reverent tones.  

I read 15 books in under three weeks--a pace that, for me, meant I was spending almost every waking moment reading. It turns out this was my withdraw. I wanted to write but couldn't, so I self-medicated with books.  It was painful. The books that didn't live up to my Odyssey education nearly got flung into walls in my disgust. But then I ended up reading some extremely well written books. They were doing all the things I'd been taught at Odyssey and avoiding all the pitfalls I now recognized in lesser books. I despaired. I was certain I'd never be as good as those writers, so what was the point?

These were symptoms of the "post-Odyssey low" which I wasn't prepared for.  

Just like everything else, I was sure it wouldn't happen to me--I was still writing after all. But sometimes the low takes the form of not writing, and sometimes it takes the form of not believing in yourself.  But eventually you get yourself back together--or you give up on writing altogether.

Thankfully, I read some novels that were neither amazing nor crap. They made me feel neither sad nor angry. They made me feel like I, too, was a storyteller who could succeed. But I still wasn't able to write anything I was proud of, even if I was out of my death-spiral of self-loathing.

It was December, five months later, before I was ready to tackle a rewrite of a story I'd workshopped at Odyssey. And it wasn't until January or February that I'd finished a rewrite I wanted to show someone. (The rewrites of the rewrites are almost done as I write this in May). I wrote during those five months. Came up with a couple short stories (one of whichI threw out) and plotted a novel which I partially wrote and then restarted from scratch.

I kept working with my Odyssey classmates (online, now that we'd scattered across the world once again), worked with a new mentor, and finished my MFA. Being able to talk with others about what you've learned and how to implement it is an important part of Odyssey recovery.

There are Odyssey students who never recover. They stop writing and don't publish. As with everything, recovery is a choice, you make it happen, or you let it slide.  Most students who've chosen to get over this lull and recover have published.

Photo credit: gorjan123

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