mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)

Teaching at Odyssey

Yesterday I had the pleasure of teaching the students in this year's Odyssey: Tthe Fantasy Writing Workshop, which is being held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. Last year, Jeanne Cavelos, the director and principal instructor of the workshop, asked me if I would serve as the summer's first guest lecturer, and I accepted with delight. Even though I left full-time teaching a while ago, I still enjoy the thrill of working with a group of students in a classroom. It's even better when the students are there by choice, dedicated to improving their skills in a field that obviously means a lot to them.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of a summer science fiction and fantasy writing workshop, it's fairly easy to describe. Students from all over the world gather for six weeks in one location to write stories, critique stories, and learn about writing. I attended Clarion in 1994, and I usually recommend any of the Clarions or Odyssey to anyone who has the time and is serious about their writing. Odyssey does have one major difference from Clarion, which is the advantage of having one principal instructor present throughout the whole summer. Although Clarion does have directors present the whole summer, usually they fill a more administrative capacity. Jeanne serves as the head administrator, but also as a writer/editor/instructor herself. But like Clarion, Odyssey does bring in other writers and editors to serve as guest lecturers. Later this summer, the students will learn from Rodman Philbrick, Michael A. Arnzen, Elizabeth Hand, John Clute, and George Scithers, and the Special Writer-in-Residence will be Nina Kiriki Hoffman.

As for my own day at Odyssey...

I arrived a little before 9 AM and spent the first hour and a half presenting what I've come to think of as my workshop on "Idea-Building: Character, Context, and Plot." (Actually, I spent the first few minutes apologizing for having to switch my appearance from Friday to Sunday.) Generally, this discussion involves any one of three parts: trying to define the genre of science fiction and fantasy, playing the idea-building game, and exploring the concept of the plot skeleton. It's a good workshop to present near the beginning of a program like Odyssey, as it generally helps the students start to focus on the tools they actually need to turn a cool idea they have into something resembling a story.

During the morning session, I also worked in some discussion of professionalism in writing, and I explained how I came to write "Kaddish for the Last Survivor," which the students had read in advance of my appearance.

Over lunch, the students asked me questions. They were a little apologetic about it, since they felt it made it difficult for me to eat. I let them know that my official schedule for the day specified that I would be answering questions over lunch, so that made them feel better.

The afternoon began with actual workshopping of three stories. Now, I'm going to be honest here, even though I know that the students may very well come check out my blog to see what I have to say. (And if you are out there, please say hi!) The stories we critiqued were about what one would expect from the students just starting out in their first week of the workshop. None of them were atrocious -- there, now they can all breathe a sigh of relief -- but they did suffer from many of the beginners' mistakes that most of us struggled with as we became writers.

On the other hand, the level of critique was quite high. As I joked after the first critique, Jeanne may not yet have a group of professional level writers in the class yet, but she does have a good group of editors. Many of the students saw the same flaws in the stories that either Jeanne or I noticed, and it's obvious to me that any one of her students this year has the potential to eventually produce publishable material. Overall, I was most impressed with the brightness and enthusiasm of this group of students. I hope they manage to keep it up over the course of the summer.

On a personal note, I was amused to see how much of my own teaching was influenced by the teachers I had at Clarion thirteen years ago. I kept sharing pieces of advice mentioned by my own instructors: James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel, Ellen Kusher, Delia Sherman, Claire Eddy, Howard Waldrop, Kate Wilhelm, and Damon Knight. In particular, I shared a few of Howard's bon mots, such as this gem: "You can make a reader go 'Huh?' anywhere in a story but not on page nine. And you can never make a reader go 'Huh? What?' A 'What?' is a non- realization of the preceding 'Huh?'" (For more on my own Clarion experience, see my essay The Clarion Call.)

The day ended with my meeting individually with four of the students, to deliver private critiques of their stories. Again, none of the stories were yet at a publishable level, but they all had something in them that could be turned into a publishable story, once the students pick up the skills they need.

I wish them all the best of luck, and hope they'll remember to share with me news of their eventual success.
Tags: personal, science-fiction, teaching, writing, writing-advice

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