The Highlights Writers Workshop at Chautauqua doesn't really need a plug. It's on the wish list of many children's writers. It's as wonderful as you've heard. The setting is beautiful and conducive to creative growth; the faculty is excellent and mixes readily with the conferees, even at breakfast, lunch, and dinner; the workshops are meaty and inspiring, and the staff works tirelessly to make sure everyone's needs are met. It also costs more than many of us can easily afford. That's why it's good to know that scholarships are available. Now is the time to apply. The deadline for early applications is December 15. The final deadline is February 11. Click here to find out how to apply. It's not hard. Maybe this is the year you'll be able to invest in your dream.
I had never traveled to the south of France, but when my friend Jennifer offered me the use of her tiny house in tiny St. Nazaire de Ladarez, I knew I had to go. My friend Yoshiko was available to come, too. Much of the trip was about miracles--me, who was nervous even about catching a cab in New York, would manage to drive a rental car from the Barcelona airport at rush hour (or maybe they're always rushing in Barcelona), handle a stick shift (which I hadn't done for decades except for a quick brush-up session in my friend Janet's car--I do have such brave friends), and find my way to our destination--a four-hour drive. And what a beautiful drive--the snow-capped Pyrenees on one side and the Mediterranean on the other for much of the way. And there's nothing like getting lost for meeting lovely, helpful people. I met a lot of lovely, helpful people.
St. Nazaire (we're on a first-name basis now) is nestled up in the mountains ("at the end of the line," someone remarked). Here's a bird's-eye view.
It feels exactly as it should--as if you'd suddenly dropped into the 13th century. The stone houses cling to each other up and down the narrow, winding streets.
Maybe I lived in medieval times in a former life. I felt completely at home there.
Jennifer's friend Julie was staying in St. Nazaire and generously made us feel welcome and showed us around. She even took us to a jazz concert held in a neighboring village--real French jazz! Meeting her was another miracle.
With Julie's hand-drawn maps in hand, we visited several nearby villages, driving through beautiful autumn-colored vineyards on the way.
The best way to bond with place, we found, is to enjoy it while sipping a petite cafe at a table in the main square.
Of course, markets are another good way.
But my favorite part was always wandering the narrow streets. I told Yoshiko that I'd heard in the old times you had to be careful walking in the streets, because someone was likely to empty a pan of wash water (or worse) out of the window onto your head.
As I was locking our door on our last morning, I heard a splash and saw a torrent of soapy water come spilling down the street. Just a last little miracle.
If you'd like to see more pictures of our trip, click here.
I don't know where it comes from, and I don't know where it goes. I only know that when it's here, my life suddenly has balance, purpose, and joy. At the risk of jinxing myself, I'm happy to report that I've started work on a couple of new projects that have that all important element, flow. Who knows what got it started. Maybe it was some kind words from a couple of editors. Maybe it was the brainstorming I did to come up with ideas (which didn't seem to produce any usable ideas). Maybe it was the "homework" I did, analyzing published novels for character and plot development. Maybe it was a book I picked up at random on creativity (Expect the Unexpected (Or You Won't Find It), by Roger VonOech). Maybe it was the moon. I think whatever we do to feed the muse helps. I hope she'll stay around for a while. I'll do my part by showing up.
I lost a good friend today. Not a two-legged or even a four-legged friend. This friend, a tall, sturdy blue spruce, had lent its quiet, comforting presence for as long as I've lived here. It greeted me as I came up the drive, provided a shady oasis on hot days. When summer comes, I move into the guest room because it's cooler. The tree was the last thing I would see before I went to sleep, standing like the mast of a ship against the stars. In the morning, it became Central Park for the birds.
Today, it was cut down to allow access to my septic tank, which it grew on top of. Yes, life is full of irony. It's still a shock to see the landscape without it, to look out the bedroom window and not find it standing guard. Of course, it's that way whenever we lose a loved one. The landscape changes. There's a hole where the loved one should be. And eventually, the scar in the ground is healed. But there's always a place in the heart that holds the memory.
1. Sleeping on my porch (when it's too hot to sleep inside). Just me, the stars, the crickets and frogs, and . . . the raccoons. (Not my photo, unfortunately, but they were just as cute! I just hope they stay out of the blueberries.)
I recently attended a Highlights Founders workshop at Boyds Mills, Writing Your First Novel, led by Sandy Asher. I stayed in one of the private cabins, the one dedicated to the memory of "Uncle" Jack Myers, the science editor of Highlights for many years. Jack was like a favorite uncle to those of us privileged to work with him, so it was a special pleasure to stay there, surrounded by photos of him. Through the windows I had a serene view of the green, bird-filled woods.
Sandy runs an intelligent, productive, and supportive workshop. Lots of good insights and reminders to bring home and chew on. Lots of hands-on exercises for that "oh, I get it" moment. Lots of thoughtful critiques. Lots of good food, too!
Of course, getting to know fellow participants is one of the best parts of a retreat. For some, it was their first time to come to a workshop like this. That takes courage. I enjoyed seeing everyone grow more comfortable and more confident as the workshop went on.
Thanks to Colleen Sanders for the photos!
Sandy Asher and David Harrison have a very special Web site, America Writes for Kids, dedicated to helping teachers and students connect with writers. If you are a published author who would like to be listed on their Web site, just contact them. You can link to their Web site, or for a small fee, you can create a page on their site.
The view from my porch is pure heaven this morning! Nature accidentally shipped us some weeks of May in April. The air is make-you-want-to-run-around-the-yard warm and smells extra rich with oxygen. Sequins of dew glisten in the grass. Trees wear new-baby fuzz of green and rose. The birds whistle to each other, enjoying the view from their own porches. And here I sit, queen of all I survey, pecking on Minnie, my lovable laptop.
I wasn't this happy a few weeks ago. I ran into a rough patch when I felt as if my muse had not only deserted me but had come to the wrong address in the first place. I was stuck, stuck, stuck, and I despised everything I wrote. I do not pooh-pooh fortune-cookie fortunes. The one I drew read "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence." So I kept slogging. I also needed this quote from Ellen Potter's interview on my friend Clara Gillow Clark's neat blog: "Things I hate about writing: I guess I don’t really hate anything about writing, but there are lots of times when I slam my head down on my desk and moan, 'This is hard!'” I eventually saw where I had wandered off course. My muse and I reconnected. I learned/relearned a few things that I hope will make me a better writer. Writing is not for the faint of heart. There sloughs of despond, but there are green fields, too.
Kim Griswell and I are going to talk about our favorite subject, the Hero's Journey, at a Highlights Foundation Founders Workshop soon. The date is April 16-18 and the place is Boyds Mills, PA. This is a little more in-depth look at the stages and archetypes of the classical hero's journey described by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler. We will be focusing on the Shadow, your hero's ultimate test of the quest. We'll show how the ideas apply no matter what kind of children's novel you're working on. If you love this stuff, too, and would like find out how to use it to strengthen your manuscript, come join us. KL Going, author of KING OF THE SCREWUPS, will be our special guest. Here is the link.
I actually enjoy snow, but it was a little hard to adjust to, having just returned from warm and sunny San Diego. I have two uncles living there, my mother's older and younger brother. My mom passed away several years ago and I like to keep in touch with the family that remains. My uncles are 92 and 86, but you would assume that each is ten years younger if you met them.
I had brought some old family pictures with me--pictures of my grandparents when they were courting and of my mother and uncles when they were children. I wanted to ask my uncles to give me more information about who was in some of the pictures and where they were taken. That led to their getting out even more old photos, as well as diaries and other memorabilia. What followed was a story fest, as my uncles relived their childhoods growing up in a small mountain town in Virginia in the 1920s and 1930s. Afterward I realized that something magical had happened. I had heard so many stories that a hologram of the town had formed in my head. I could stand at the end of the swinging bridge that led to the school and watch as boys (being boys) tried to swing the bridge and scare the girls. I could look up and see Uncle Jack as a small boy playing on the flat roof next to the apartment he lived in while the family's new house was being built. I could look up the steep street in front of that house and see my Uncle Harrell coming down on a sled, with his friends keeping watch at the intersections.
Both of my uncles live very much in the present, but for at least a little while, the past became alive and touchable. I thank them for that gift.
I have some good news to share! Heinemann Publishers bought a story from me for their Leveled Literacy Intervention program--for a series of short books for 5th graders reading at a lower level, and they are interested in seeing more. So I'm feeling quite content at the moment. I seem to be getting back on track to being a writer.
I've been reading a lot lately about the creative process. I finished Anne Truitt's series: Daybook, Turn, and Prospect: The Journal of an Artist. I'm reading Wabi Sabi for Writers. I'm rereading Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. So it seemed quite serendipitous when I received a new book written by an old friend, Jillian Sullivan. It is called Fishing from the Boat Ramp, and it takes the form of a dialog between Jillian and a friendly, mysterious mentor. It has many wise and helpful things to say about the writing process, expressed in beautiful language. Here is a short excerpt:
"'Writing is like flying a kite," he said. "You don't know what is up there, what invisible currents or energies are there or how the air works. You launch the kite up, you hold the string in your hand and you feel the energy hum through it. You look up at your kite duck and leap and soar and you have wonder. You know you hold the string, yet you are not making the kite fly."
I am a writer for children and a former editor for Highlights and Highlights High Five. I live in a little farmhouse almost 150 years old in an ancient apple orchard in northeastern Pennsylvania, two miles from the Delaware River. The view from my porch is rolling fields, pine-covered hills, and deer and turkey. Here is where I sit and write when summer comes, watch the hummingbirds and chipmunks, and listen to the rain.