Monday, November 23, 2009

Highlights Founders Workshop- Nonfiction Storytelling










I was fortunate to attend the Highlights Founder's workshop on Nonfiction
Storytelling Nov. 4-8 in Boyds Mills, PA. As a bonus, my BFF and critique partner, Carmen Oliver attended as well. It was so great to share the experience with a friend and so valuable to share it with a colleague.


Though our particular workshop focused on narrative nonfiction, the comments left in each cabin's guest book attested to the quality of content and education from each of the other workshop topics held throughout the year. It seems nobody is disappointed after a Founders workshop.


The weather in Pennsylvania was frigid (coats, hats, gloves,) but the
hospitality extended to us truly warmed our hearts.


Here are the highlights for me:


* Isolated location in the foothills of the Poconos. About 20
charming cabins have been built on the 1500 acres where Dr. Garry Meyer
founded Highlights in 1946. Every participant of a Founders workshop is
assigned their own well-appointed cabin with a fantastic view of hills and forest. The fact that there are no phones in the cabins, no cell phone reception, no televisions, and no radios added to the charm. As for WI/FI, they have a satellite system for visitor convenience, but it doesn't work under cloudy conditions. HA!


Endless trails on the property offer great "thinking" time while enjoying
the prestine woods. I really tried to find one of the timid Black Bears we
were told about. No such luck.


* The workshop is held in the living room of the Meyer's old home.
Participants choose a comfy spot on the couch, chairs, or floor. The house
is now used exclusively for Highlights, Boyds Mills Press, and Calkins Creek
Press functions. The limited class size (we had 8 attendees) matched with
the intimate setting made for a relaxed immersion into the world of
nonfiction storytelling. The Highlights folks are planning construction of a
conference/retreat center on the property, with the intent of keeping to the
intimate, warm atmosphere.


* Our faculty included Barbara Kerley author of many award-winning narrative nonfiction picture books including WHAT TO DO ABOUT ALICE, THE DINOSAURS OF WATERHOUSE HAWKINS, AND WALT WHITMAN: WORDS FOR AMERICA. Her titles have garnered several honors including a Sibert Honor and a Caldecott medal. Barbara generously (and bravely) brought early drafts of her books to illustrate her revision process. One day was devoted to Barbara's invaluable experiences with research, word choice, tone, and her all-important message of finding the "so what" in every story, particularly nonfiction picture books.


* Kim Griswell is a long time editor of Highlights magazine and the book arm, Boyds Mills Press. She was a wealth of knowledge. Kim has written a truckload of articles and stories for magazines and she's working on her novels as well. For this workshop, she wore her editor and teacher hat-offering practical advice and nuts-and-bolts information about using fiction tools to craft entertaining yet TRUE nonfiction works- including magazine articles. Kim is also a frequent conference and workshop speaker in addition to being a writing coach. Her biggest message was the importance of identifying the story's "nutshell" which is that deeper heart of the story. Kim's "nutshell" matched with Barbara's "so what" offered great clarity.

* Attendees submitted 2000 words in advance for the faculty members to
critique. Everybody had a designated 30 minute critique the first day which
resulted in revision suggestions to be presented two days later. Since the
faculty stayed on property with the rest of us, we tended to talk about each
other's projects and craft the entire weekend, not just during our critique
slots. Of course, we also got to know each other as friends so we frequently launched into chats about life beyond our writing careers just as new friends would.


* Each day, we were given assignments to complete and a couple hours in which to complete them. With the built-in writing time alotted, each was a doable and productive exercise.


* A group critique which involved either sharing a manuscript or
talking through an idea or concern with the group was fantastic. Receiving feedback from nine writers was amazing!


* The food: Like Chautauqua, the Founders workshops are fueled by the
most delicious food you can imagine, lovingly prepared by the same
chef/caterer who has handled the events for the past 20 years or so.


* A tour of the Highlights editorial office in nearby Honesdale, plus
Boyds Mills Press right next door. We met the staff and asked tons of
questions of the editors. A few of the editors joined us for dinners, as did
author/illustrator Neil Waldman. The grande (though subtle)finale was Kent Brown's appearance at our last breakfast. He didn't stay long, but he made us all smile.


* The workshop inspired several AHA moments for me. Honestly, the proverbial
lightbulb lit up on several occasions. Sometimes, it was when Kim
or Barbara was speaking about the nitty-gritty craft, other times it was listening to other's comments and questions. I came home with great clarity about two of my current works-in-progress, plus two solid new topics to begin research on.


* I would recommend a Highlights Founders workshop whole-heartedly.


The only negative about our trip?


* Leaving my cell phone in the driver's car when he dropped us off at
the Scranton airport. He didn't have his own cell phone turned on, so we
couldn't reach him.
* Carmen's cell phone batter dies, leaving us with no communication
other than pay phones.
* The frustrating flight delays in Chicago that forced us to stay the
night, returning home 13 hours late.
* Learning that my phone was safely on its way back to the Highlights
office to be over-nighted to me, then receiving a call that my Blackberry
was stolen from the driver's car when he stopped for lunch.
* The time spent worrying about the sensitive content of my phone
while dealing with the Pennsylvania State Police and AT&T (By the way, there
is no way to disable a Blackberry OR protect the data saved to it. UGGGH!
(My new Iphone is really cool, though.)