From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Odds of Odyssey

With summer comes the advent of writing workshops, including some of the most prestigious, Clarion and Clarion West. We’ve asked three participants in such workshops to share their hopes, fears, and motivation in escaping to a lengthy workshop. The first commentator is Jason Heller, speaking of Odyssey.

Some are unlucky at love. Me, I’m unlucky at learning. I dropped out of high school (once) and college (more times than I care to remember). I’ve never learned how to speak a foreign language, how to feel comfortable in a fancy restaurant, or how to do my taxes right. Hell, at the age of 37, I’ve still never learned how to drive stick.

And yet here I am at Odyssey, trying to learn how to write.

Most of us unlucky learners wind up becoming autodidacts. Which is can be pretty effective–to a point. Eventually, though, the self-taught turn into the self-trapped. No one yells at you. No one challenges you. It’s all carrots, no sticks. Your mind gets locked in a loop coordinated by all the things you’ve already proudly figured out for yourself. You settle into that groove. Nothing–or, at best, precious little–new gets in.

I started writing fiction a year and a half ago as a New Year’s resolution. Hey, it was either that or give up coffee, which I wasn’t about to even jokingly consider. I’d been a fan of science fiction and fantasy my whole life, and I write nonfiction for a living, so I’ve always figured that those two critters scrambling around in my skull would eventually run into each other and get it on.

So I sat down and wrote. A short story for starters. It wasn’t half bad. I got my first rejection slip, said “meh,” and kept writing and submitting. A few months later, I’d made a sale. And then another. Within a year of my first submission, I’d somehow miraculously sold a dozen stories.

It was the worst thing that could have happened to me.

I’m going to Odyssey this summer–six weeks of intensive, uninterrupted, boot-camp-style, speculative-fiction workshopping way out in the wilds (okay, the milds) of New Hampshire–because I need to break out of this horrible cycle of submission, acceptance, and publication. Why? These quick fixes are not forcing me to grow as a writer. I’ve dug myself a very narrow niche that I’m fairly okay at mining. A mere 18 months into my self-guided writing regiment, though, I’m already in a rut.

This may sound funny coming from a lifelong Ramones fan like myself, but here it is anyway: Ruts don’t make careers. And they sure as hell don’t make artists.

Yes, you may punch me in the face right now. I have delusions of artisthood. I know I have something to say, stories I’m quite megalomaniacally convinced only I can tell. In a way, I’m glad it took me so long to start writing fiction. I have a lot of catching up to do–which is why I’m at Odyssey in the first place–but I’ve also lived a fuck of a lot of life over the past few decades. Lots of grist for the mill. Fuel for the fire. Bullets for the gun.

Still, I can tell there’s a disconnect between what’s churning around in my soul and what’s actually making it onto paper. It comes in spurts and flashes, and I believe that’s why I’ve had a few sales here and there. But I want to probe deep, find that swollen sac of weirdness and wonder and sadness that’s been festering inside me all these years and wring it out like a sponge into the open mouths of all the world’s thirstiest–

Wait, where was I? Ah, yes, Odyssey.

I’m at Odyssey, oddly enough, to be taught. Like I said, I suck at that kind of thing. But maybe, just maybe, this old dog can learn a new trick. Maybe I can learn to learn. What are the chances that I have some kind of massive, magic breakthrough in my fiction while at Odyssey? Slim to none. That’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to surround myself with other hungry writers, to dunk myself in the craft, to be told in no uncertain or sugar-coated terms what’s truly wrong with my writing. You can’t get that from a rejection slip. And, believe it or not, you can’t get that from an acceptance letter.

I’ve been lucky enough to get a few carrots so far. Time to even the odds. Time for a few sticks.

That ought to learn me good.

When not sifting through the beautiful wreckage J.G. Ballard made of reality, Jason Heller writes about popular culture for The Onion A.V. Club and various other publications. His weird fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Sybil’s Garage, Farrago’s Wainscot, Apex Magazine, and others. He’s also currently trying to break his inexplicable habit of quoting Iron Maiden lyrics every 15 seconds. Can I play with madness?

Tagged as: