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


Deborah Walker said...

Errr, that sound a bit grim. But it was good, yes?

Eileen Wiedbrauk said...

The actual workshop was fabulous. The time afterward was definitely grim. Getting through it was/is worth it.

Deborah Walker said...

Thanks, Eileen. I've just been reading you post about Odyssey as we speak.

I must admit I'm jealous, I'm in the UK and I'm never going to go. But maybe its a good thing, I've a terrible feeling I might be one of those writers who never writes again. I've never cared for critting for example, but I would love the taught elements.

But, I want my writer's epiphany.

Oh, well, just got to soldier on. Thanks for the insights.

Beatrix Cottonpants said...

I'm so glad you posted this. I've been thinking about applying to one of these programs for years, and it is hard to find accounts that don't feel like advertisements.

Christopher Owen said...

Hi Eileen,

Just wanted to say thanks for all the Odyssey info here on your site. I'm going to be attending this summer, and as such I've been searching out as much info as I can find about Odyssey. Your site has some of the best I've come across. Thanks again.

Elizabeth Twist said...

(Before responding to the post proper, I have to say, Beatrix Cottonpants, your name is perfect!)

Eileen, I think this is good information for anyone thinking about attending a workshop like Odyssey.

I wonder what that post-workshop low / lull / dead zone is all about, though. Maybe your writer self needs some time to adjust to all the changes in how you think about writing, and how you perform the act of writing? (More and more lately, I'm starting to think about writing as performance...)

It's like you've just had this huge infusion of energy and information. You need time to absorb it all - it needs to get into your cells, into your DNA. Naturally, that's going to whack you out for a while. Or something?

Eileen Wiedbrauk said...

@Beatrix: I too had trouble finding info about Odyssey that didn't sound like an ad -- and actually, the wikipedia article on the program is flagged as "careful: sounds like an advertisement"! Which is why writing this and hosting it independent of the Odyssey website is so important to me. I also recommend Gerald Warfield's account. I actually was uncertain if it was even legit until I talked to Elizabeth Twist who said she'd been hearing about it for years ... and then I checked out the Writers of the Future award ceremony where that year three people had thanked Jeanne Cavelos and the Odyssey Writing Workshop in their acceptance speeches.

@Chrsitopher: congrats on your acceptance and decision to go! Best advice: take a box fan. Srsly. But if you'll be there this summer then I'll meet you at the end--I'll be attending TNEO which overlaps with Odyssey for a one evening social event.

@Elizabeth Twist: you've got me thinking ... but that's another blog post not a comment.

Christopher Owen said...

Thanks for the tip, Eileen. See you this summer!

kelworthfiles said...

Thanks for the sharing. It sounds like quite an extended recovery period.

I'm thinking this evening that I'm not going to get into Odyssey this year. But hopefully I might be able to swing the CSSF!

andrewjcooper said...

My post odyssey low lasted six months. i felt like everything i was writing was crap. but i, too, recovered! Good luck at TNEO.

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