It’s that time of year. It’s cold. It’s dreary. People stopped giving you Christmas presents weeks ago. You’ve been forced to put on real clothes and go back to work, where no one is leaving prettily-wrapped homemade baked goods on your desk anymore. (What’s up with that?) You’ve just broken your first new year’s resolution, and the second one is only holding on by a thread. Plus, there’s something called “Blue Monday” looming on the horizon, which sounds like a cool new bar, but is actually just the name coined for the most depressing day of the year. As if anyone needed that added to the calendar.
In short, things are pretty gloomy.
Why not celebrate the gloom? Embrace it through art.
Last month, I posted my formula for naming a lit journal, and several of you shared your creative creations. The one that made me smile the most, however, was mine: Morose Penguin Review. I have to admit, I sort of fell in love with it. And if there’s a better publication for these gloomy late-January days, I don’t know what it is.
So here’s what I propose. Make yourself a nice cup of tea or pour yourself a double bourbon or open a five pound bag of gummy bears—whatever you indulge in, I don’t judge—and write some gloomy poetry. Because for one month (and one month only) I’m going to publish the Morose Penguin Review here on this blog.
Here are the guidelines. We’ll keep it simple.
Theme: Morose Penguins Genres: Poetry Deadline: January 31, 2018 (midnight CST) How to Submit: Send one poem (any form, maximum 30 lines) and a two-sentence bio using the contact formon my website. I will read them all and publish the best. And possibly the worst. Payment Upon Acceptance: Publication on my blog, a virtual pat on the head, and the satisfaction of knowing that you have lessened the gloom (or multiplied it, depending on your piece) of millions* of readers.
(* Actually, probably more like 100 readers.) What I’m Looking For: Poems about morose penguins that make me laugh or smile or think or go “Aww…whoa.”
I realize this is a short turn-around time, but if we wait too long, winter will be over and no one will be gloomy anymore. Plus, if you get your submissions to me by the end of January, I can publish them in February which, let’s face it, is just a slog of twenty-eight blue Mondays in a row.
That’s it. Surprise me. Wow me. Make me laugh. Try not to traumatize me too terribly. Above all, have some fun and distract yourself from all the gloom. I look forward to seeing what you send me.
On Saturday, I had the privilege of hearing Alan Birkelbach speak at the Austin Poetry Society‘s November meeting. Alan, a former Texas Poet Laureate, read several of his enchanting, relatable poems, talked about his involvement with the Words of Preservation project, gave advice on the publishing industry, and led the audience in a short writing exercise– all in just over an hour. It was a great afternoon, packed full of inspiration.
The writing exercise was about what Alan called “friction poems.” We were given a list twenty well-known figures (both real and fictional) and twenty commonplace occupations. Our job was to place our famous character in a situation where they could not possibly exist and… see what happens. We had ten minutes to write.
Here’s what I came up with. (I’ll let you figure out which character and job I chose.)
“Who are you?”
“Are you our sub?”
“Where’s Ms. Davis?”
“What’s your name?” “You may call me Ms. M,” she said.
She wore dark glasses
and a long flowing dress.
Her hair was wrapped in a scarf.
The students rolled their eyes and giggled.
They changed seats,
lied about their names,
threw paper balls at the fish tank
when her back was turned. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” she said.
They ignored her.
She passed out worksheets
about subordinate clauses.
They drew pictures on them instead.
She asked for a volunteer
to read the daily poem.
They made fart noises
with their armpits. “I’m warning you,” she said.
Finally, when two boys who were
fighting over a juice box
made it explode orange liquid
all over her desk,
Ms. M. had had enough. “That’s it!” she cried. “BE. STILL.”
And then Ms. Medusa took off her sunglasses and let down her hair.
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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Don’t forget– If you comment on this month’s posts or share them on social media (and tag me), you’ll be entered in my OCTOBER GIVEAWAY!