A while back, I was asked to be writer-in-residence at the 2010 Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. It’s a six week intensive residential writing program, held up in New Hampshire, and run by Jeannie Cavelos. My role, should I choose to accept it, would be to spend the 5th week living in the dorms with the students, splitting my time between lectures and one-on-one sessions.
I accepted, of course. Not only did it sound like fun, it would get me out of the city for a week in July, which is always a plus.
Those of you who live on the East Coast already know the second half of my plan didn’t work so well: I left the city, yes, but the heat wave followed me all the way up to New Hampshire, where we were housed in dorms that didn’t have air conditioning. The wag who named my 3rd floor apartment “Hell’s Penthouse” hadn’t been kidding.
Yeah, we hit 100 degrees several days running, and I was living in an under-the-eaves apartment with no a/c.
And yet… I had a wonderful time. Yes, even the seriously? 9am? lectures, and the staying up until midnight to finish critiques, and the mosquitoes oh dear god the mosquitoes in New Hampshire are vicious.
The experience, overall, was amazing.
Much of that can be credited to the sixteen students accepted to Odyssey this year. A wildly varied bunch, ranging in age from 21 to Much Older, they all shared two common elements: a desire to hone their skills, and a level of energy, even after five weeks of little sleep and much work, that awed me. They showed up, they worked their asses off, they took critique from each other and two old warhorses (that would be Jeanne and myself) and nobody lost their shit, at least not in public (there were an awful lot of booze bottles in the recycling bin, though)
And it reminded me what it takes, what it really takes, to succeed.
Talent, yes. Creating characters and stories that become real, that mean something to your readers, is not a gift everyone has. If you do, it’s not enough to possess it: you have to work it, nurture it, and demand more and more from it. But even then, talent alone is not enough.
I realize that’s heresy to a lot of folk. I’ve seen talent go to waste because the owner of it didn’t want to actually work, or thought that it was enough to be pretty on the page, as though the fact of talent’s existence would make everything else magically fall into place.
It doesn’t. I don’t care what you’re good at; talent alone doesn’t make anything happen.
Knowledge, certainly. Knowledge, and the willingness to learn things – even things you might rather not know, the nitty-gritty business side, or the things that are outside your comfort zone, or seem too minute, or too boring or too off-topic to know — and then go learn more. As my students can probably recite in their sleep by now: “‘Write what you know’ doesn’t mean write less, but learn more.”
Beyond that, beyond facts, it also means learning yourself. Understanding what drives you, moves you, makes you feel., and then how to take those feelings and transfer them to your characters, to make them think and feel and move in three dimensions. A character who is not stuffed full of details is a character who cannot stand on her own.
Dedication, absolutely. Without a fierce dedication to your craft, there’s no way anyone would work the hours it takes to improve, much less keep going despite the rejections and roadblocks we encounter on a regular basis. Without dedication to getting better, there’s no way any of those sixteen would have survived even one week of intense critique and rewrites, much less six. And they not only survived, they thrived.
But what it takes, most of all, is love. Love of the act of creating. Love of the act of learning. Love of the story, and the words, and even loving the pain that it takes to get the story and the words right, because it is an incredible act of pain to take critique and use it to shape your words into something better.
Many people want to have written. Many people want to point to something and say “I wrote that.” But the ones who succeed, the ones who have what it takes — the ones I saw sweating it out, day after day– are the ones who love what they’re doing.
Odyssey — any good, long-term program — strips away everything else, every excuse, and every distraction, and shaves you down to the essential question: do you love this enough?
I think these guys have a damn good shot at making it. And looking at them made me take a long hard look at myself. It had been a while, years covered and smothered with deadlines and obligations, stress and the occasional “why couldn’t I have gone to med school?” But when I, sweating and exhausted in Hell’s Penthouse, stripped of all excuses and distractions, asked that question, I could say yeah, yeah. I love this, too.
How about you?