When most people hear Highlights, they think of colorful magazines strewn across end tables at doctors’ offices. They think of “Find It” pictures and Goofus & Gallant. They think of stories for children. But there is much more to the Highlights Foundation than just their seventy-year literary legacy, and I got a small taste of it last weekend at the Books with Bite workshop.
My trip began with a tour of Highlights and Boyds Mills Press in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, just a few miles away from the retreat center. It was interesting to learn that the magazine, which was started in 1946, is still a family business. The current CEO (only the third the company has had) is the great-grandson of the founders. I met him later at the “barn,” the large meeting house which serves as dining hall, living room, and workshop space. He wore suspenders and told jokes over breakfast. He and the other Highlights staff were always around, sharing meals with us and asking if there was anything they could do to make our stay better.
But what could we ask for? The retreat center—composed of the “barn,” the farmhouse, the lodge, and over a dozen cabins, all perched on the edge of beautiful woods with hiking trails—is quiet and serene. Writers have the space they need to think or work independently, while also having plenty of opportunity to converse with other attendees about ideas, craft, industry, or just chat about the weather, which was pretty perfect in early October. The place is large enough to house multiple groups at a time, and some workshops overlap, which means there are always new faces to meet at lunch or by the fireplace after dinner. During my five-day stay, I met picture book authors, illustrators, and nature writers. My friends and I were the only horror writers in the bunch, which automatically made us the “creepy kids.” It didn’t help that we accidentally left our brainstorming board up during dinner. Oops.
Speaking of dinner, you would not believe how good the food is at this place. Seriously. Writers (and teachers for that matter) are not people used to being pampered, so when the website said all meals were included, I expected a Days Inn-style breakfast, a ten-foot sub for lunch, and pizza for dinner. I was wrong. The Highlights retreat center has amazing and accommodating chefs who prepare spreads of fresh, creative, delicious food three times a day. Four if you count the appetizers before dinner. (And why wouldn’t you? They were scrumptious.) I have no photos of the food because I was too busy eating to take pictures, but trust me, it was phenomenal. All of it. Every meal. I still have the three extra pounds I came home with to prove it. SO. GOOD.
Having never been to any other Highlights workshops (yet) I can’t say what each one is like, but the Books with Bite workshop, led by Nova Ren Suma and Micol Ostow, provided a nice balance of critiquing, discussion, and down time (for writing, hiking, or napping—I did some of each). Most of us arrived Wednesday afternoon, got a tour, settled in, and then met for dinner. Sunday was breakfast, a final meeting, and departures. But the three days in between all followed the same schedule. Here’s how it went:
A Day In the Life of a Horror Writer
- 8:00-9:00AM – Walk from cabin to barn to drink coffee, eat delicious food, and chat with other attendees
- 9:30-Noon – Workshop (Our group had nine participants, so we discussed three writers’ pages per day.)
- Noon -1:00PM – Eat delicious food and chat with other attendees
- 1:00-5:30PM – Free time to write, read, hike, nap, or talk to other writers (There was an optional writing prompt session for an hour during this time. This was also when one-on-one conferences took place between attendees and their mentors.)
- 5:30-6:00PM – Appetizers and drinks on the patio
- 6:00-7:00PM – Eat delicious food and chat with other attendees (On the first day, I also had the pleasure of meeting Denise Fleming, whose picture book workshop was ending. The Highlights staff made a beautiful speech about her and named a scholarship in her honor. Then they gave all guests copies of one of her books, which she signed.)
- 7:30-9:00PM(ish) – Meet for discussion topics/readings/ghost stories (The ghost stories night was particularly interesting and inspired a strange nightmare/spooky experience which I’ll write about later.)
- 9:00PM-morning – Free time to sit by the fire, write, sleep, or read horror stories on the porch while listening to the coyotes howl (Can you guess which ones I usually chose?)
As I said before, I don’t know how Books with Bite compares to other workshops, but I was impressed by how present and approachable our mentors were. Nova and Micol not only critiqued our pages, led our workshops, and facilitated our discussions, they also ate every meal with us, joined us for writing prompts and sharing, and offered feedback and advice about everything related to writing. It was wonderful being in such capable, creative, kind hands.
Nova and Micol were incredible, and their expertise and insight were invaluable. However, I found out you can also plan your own retreat at Highlights, where you work at your own pace without the aid of a mentor. It’s called an “unworkshop,” and I met several writers and illustrators who were there for that purpose. They were spending a few days in the lodge or the cabins, either individually or as a group, working on projects while soaking up the Highlights ambience. Hmm… sounds nice.
What Did I Get Out of My Highlights Experience?
- Great feedback on my manuscript
- A new vision for the end of my novel
- 20 pages of notes
- 15 books to add to my reading list
- 10 new friends
- Connections with writers from around the country
- Rest and relaxation
- A boost of energy and inspiration
- One spooky experience
So the only question I have is… who wants to plan an unworkshop with me???
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