Posted in Writing

My Cabin in the Woods: 5 Days at the Highlights Foundation

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.

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I have to admit, this little welcome packet gave me the heebie jeebies. Luckily, I didn’t need to use it.

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.

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Can you pick MY nightmares off this board?

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?)
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Photo from the Word Garden

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.

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What Did I Get Out of My Highlights Experience?

I got:

  • 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!

 

 

Posted in Random, Writing

Who Wants to Illustrate My Muse? 

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I’m not much of an artist (obviously), but I’d love to have an illustration of the muse I created in my “The Night Before Deadline” poem. Here are the lines that describe her:

For only a moment, my vision was blurred,
then on my desk perched a girl like a bird.
Her fingers were pencils, her toes were erasers,
her teeth, when she smiled, were sharper than razors,

perfect for cutting unneeded description
and murdering darlings with flawless precision.
Her feathery hair was purple and long,
and her delicate wings were the color of song.

She wore loose-fitting clothing with numerous pockets;
around her neck, hung trinkets and lockets.
Her colorful pants were rolled up to the knees
and ornamented with stitched memories.

She wiggled her nose and winked one green eye,
then stretched out her wings and started to fly.

Are there any artists/cartoonists/doodlers out there interested in bringing my muse to life for me? If so, send your picture to cariejuettner[at]gmail[dot]com by February 14, 2016 with the subject Your Muse. I’ll share the best images on my blog and then give a prize to my favorite representation of my fickle little friend.

Have fun! And be careful—she’s been known to bite.

Posted in Poetry

The Night Before Deadline

TheDesk

 

The Night Before Deadline

‘Twas the night before deadline, and all over my desk
not a character stirred—the manuscript was a mess.
The computer was on, the cursor was blinking
in hopes that a plotline would soon enter my thinking.

The coffee cups were empty, the blogs had been read,
yet nothing—no nothing!—danced in my head.
I’d just poured the wine and sat down in my chair,
lamenting the fact that life’s so unfair

when suddenly in the back of my mind came a spark,
a tiny dim flame that lit up the dark.
Away to the keyboard I flew like a bat,
toppling my wine and disturbing the cat.

The monitor glowed with a whiteness so bright,
illuminating a screen empty of type
when my desperate eyes, full of repentance,
saw letters and words and even a sentence!

With such clever language and the skill to enthuse,
I knew in a moment it must be my muse.
At eighty words per minute, her ideas arrived,
and she crafted and molded them, brought them alive

with similes and metaphors and unique turns of phrase,
without tropes or adverbs, nor worn out clichés.
From exposition to denouement,
she filled my story with suspense and awe.

When the last word was written, the document saved,
I thanked my muse and decided to be brave.
“Please,” I said, “will you show yourself?
I’ve no idea if you’re human or elf.”

“I yearn to behold the face of the being
who inspires the writing I do that’s worth reading.”
There was a jingling sound, a flash and a shimmer,
and the air in the room seemed to get thinner.

For only a moment, my vision was blurred,
then on my desk perched a girl like a bird.
Her fingers were pencils, her toes were erasers,
her teeth, when she smiled, were sharper than razors,

perfect for cutting unneeded description
and murdering darlings with flawless precision.
Her feathery hair was purple and long,
and her delicate wings were the color of song.

She wore loose-fitting clothing with numerous pockets;
around her neck, hung trinkets and lockets.
Her colorful pants were rolled up to the knees
and ornamented with stitched memories.

She wiggled her nose and winked one green eye,
then stretched out her wings and started to fly.
“Wait!” I called, finally finding my voice,
“Can’t you stay? Must you go? Is there no other choice?”

“Think of the work I could do in a year
if only you stayed by my side, always near.”
She blew me a kiss and tickled the cat,
and said, “Silly writer, where’s the fun in that?”

Then, with the jingle bell laugh of a sprite,
my muse fluttered out into the dark night,
but I heard her whisper as she took to the skies,
“Now that it’s written, don’t forget to revise!”

© Carie Juettner, 2015

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS to all the writers out there! 🙂

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[Remember– if you comment on my blog posts between now and December 31, 2015, you’ll be entered to win my book giveaway!]