Posted 29 July:
- Jeanne Cavelos explains what happened at the Odyssey Workshop
Dear Locus ,
I was hoping Gene Wolfe would have the first, last, and only word on what happened during his week as writer-in-residence at the Odyssey Writing Workshop. But many voices are now speaking on this subject and drawing conclusions that go beyond what Gene said in his letter. I appreciate Harlan Ellison's efforts to report the details of what happened. If you've read his second letter on this topic, posted on the Locus website on 7/28 ("The Gene Wolfe Brouhaha--An Informed Follow-Up to One and All"), then you have a good sense of what happened. I feel, though, that since this issue has generated a fair amount of criticism of the Odyssey students, I owe it to them to clarify a few facts.
As anyone who has participated in an intensive, advanced workshop knows, critiques can be extremely painful to the author receiving them. Most students come to Odyssey without a clear idea of the weaknesses in their writing, and so learning about them, repeatedly and in great detail, is an eye-opening experience. On opening day, I warn them that the workshop will not only challenge their intellects, but also their personalities, emotions, egos, and morals. Over the course of the six weeks, students go through many different emotions: fear, resentment, anger, despair, determination, excitement. In fact, the students once described it something like this:
Stages of Odyssey:
These are very like the stages of grieving, and indeed the students are grieving, over the lost image of their writing as powerful and accomplished. But with the last stage they come to accept a more realistic view of their current writing skills and focus their attention on taking their work to the next level.
- ice cream
This is exactly what the class of 2003 was doing this summer. They were working through all of these emotions, sucking it up, coming to terms with the weaknesses in their writing, and working with determination to improve those areas.
Unfortunately, one student was not able to handle the experience in a constructive way. This student was going through serious personal and family problems, and the stress of the workshop on top of those was more than he could handle. He acted inappropriately several times over the course of the six weeks, and each time I took him aside and spoke to him. He would apologize and promise not to repeat the behavior, but a couple weeks later it would recur. His inappropriate behavior reached a horrible climax the day after his story was critiqued by Gene Wolfe.
Gene, his wife, the student, and I had all arrived at class early on Friday of Gene's week as writer-in-residence. Gene asked me to call campus security, since they had locked a gate blocking access to his dorm room. When I left to make the phone call, the student, presenting himself as if he spoke for the entire class, handed Gene an angry letter. The letter made it sound as if the whole class was rising up against Gene. The class, however, knew nothing about the letter.
The conversation between Gene and the student was very emotional. Several students entered the room, put down their books, and quickly left, feeling that the two of them should be allowed to talk in private. These students went outside and stopped all the others from coming up to the classroom. Unfortunately, this made it seem to Gene as if no one was going to show up for class, giving credibility to the student's claim that he spoke for everyone.
When I returned to the room, Gene had already made his decision to leave, believing it the best thing for the class. I tried to convince him to stay, as did several students who followed him to his dorm, but the damage was already done. Gene was deeply hurt, and the class was furious that this student had pretended to speak for them and had driven Gene away. It was an awful series of events, by far the worst thing that has ever happened at Odyssey. I have apologized to Gene, as has the entire class, including the student in question.
This student should not be vilified. I don't believe anyone could have handled the stresses he was under without breaking in some way.
As the workshop leader, I am clearly responsible for what happened. In retrospect, I can see many things I might have done to avert this situation. But I didn't do them, and Gene's week at Odyssey was cut short.
Gene did an incredible job as writer-in-residence, providing honest, perceptive feedback and delivering focused, insightful, well-prepared lectures. The students obviously learned a lot from him, because the final week of the workshop was filled with references to concepts and techniques he had introduced.
I'd like to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Gene and Rosemary, and to the class of 2003.
Director, Odyssey Writing Workshop