Inspiration, education, celebration and percussion: A look back at a “Highlights” workshop

Since I first began this blog in August 2012, I’ve shared insights I’ve gleaned from various experiences such as SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators)conferencesworking at a fair, and even picking berries.  It’s always fun to learn new things, meet new people, and find inspiration in unexpected places. That’s why I’m so excited to tell you about my trip to Highlights magazine’s poetry workshop last week!

Highlights - Honesdale
The Highlights office in Honesdale, PA

The Highlights Foundation, based in Honesdale, PA along with its magazine and book-publishing namesake, helps authors to hone their skills by providing workshops and scholarships throughout the year.

The workshops are held in a beautiful area in the rural, rolling Pennsylvania countryside of Boyd’s Mills (about 20 minutes north of Honesdale), where the original creators of Highlights lived, complete with individual cabins for the writers and a large gathering place called The Barn, where much of the activity takes place.

As wonderful as the facilities are, though, the real strength of the workshops is the people who both organize them and attend them.

Highlights - The Barn
The Barn!

During last week’s workshop, “Poetry for the Delight of It,” I was joined by 14 other children’s writers who all wanted to learn about improving our poetry writing – and the folks leading the workshops read more like a Who’s Who of children’s publishing than just a ‘staff’ list:

David L. Harrison, who has written 80+ books for children and is the only person I know who has a school named after him. (And here I’d settle for just one publishing contract!)
J. Patrick Lewis, former U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate and author of 70+ books for children, who joined us via Skype.
Rebecca Davis, senior editor for Boyds Mills Press (Highlights’ book publishing imprint) and WordSong, the only imprint in the U.S. that publishes poetry exclusively.
– Renée LaTulippe, writer, poet, editor, and performance artist living the good life in Italy, who also joined us via Skype. (You can learn more about Renée HERE)

When you spend four days of your life eating, breathing, and sleeping poetry – and I do mean that literally – you can’t help but gain a wealth of knowledge. Here are a few choice tidbits:

Attendees Deborah Holt Williams, Kathy Doherty, and Heidi Bee Roemer – all of whom were recently published in Highlights – together with editor Kathleen Hayes (2nd from L)

1)  No matter how many times to submit, don’t stop.  One of the many staff members of Highlights with whom we had an opportunity to speak was Kathleen Hayes, the editor of Highlights’ two magazines geared to younger readers, “High Five” and “Hello.”  When I told her I’ve mailed 3 or 4 submissions over the past couple of years, she said some writers submit pieces every couple of months! (Duly noted Kathleen, duly noted!)

2) “Nothing succeeds like failure.” This is a direct quote from Pat Lewis, who reminded us that every rejection is an opportunity to learn, grow, revise, rewrite, and learn the value of perseverance and tenacity.  I think I knew that, but it’s hard to remember with all those rejection slips cluttering up the inside of my mailbox.

3) Everyone views poetry differently. This is something else I knew, but the point was driven home for me at the workshop.  While sharing some poetry with different attendees, two poems my critique group weren’t all that keen on were loved – while two poems that I had thought were strong received a lukewarm reception.  Were my feelings hurt? Not at all – any feedback is good feedback! Am I questioning whether I should continue beating myself up about when a poem can cease being revised? Oooh, yeah.

photo courtesy of Pat Cooley

4) Even when surrounded by familiarity, inspiration might still be waiting for you. The workshops are promoted as a way for writers to ‘get away from it all’ and relax, surrounded by nature. Chipmunks and garter snakes darted here and there, geese flew overhead, and the colours of fall were abundant as trees turned from their summer greens to brilliant reds, pinks, and golds. A small creek following an old logging trail near the base of the property, and nights were filled with singing crickets and quiet stars.

All of which I experience every day, living here in New Hampshire!  So even though I was anticipating great fun and inspiration, I was not expecting “nature” to inspire me any more than it usually does.  I doubted living in the woods, staring at trees, or taking a walk along the creek would have much impact on my writing.  Five poems in four days proves how wrong I was.  Never anticipate where you think inspiration will come from, and never underestimate your own power to inspire yourself.

Highlights - David
David Harrison with attendee Michelle Schaub

5) Poetry can be a lot more fun with percussion. One of the attendees, Jeanne Poland, brought a trunkful of African percussion instruments, from bongos to shekeres to Y rattles, which we all shared one night while David recited some of his poetry. We then all took part in a drum circle , one of us starting a basic rhythm and then each one joining in until everyone was performing together. You could feel rhythm as much as the camaraderie.

6) Poetry can be even more fun with alcohol.  Not a lot, mind you – just enough to remove your inhibitions if you happen to have performance anxieties.

7) S’mores can be more fun with alcohol, too. OK, well, I knew this…that’s why I brought the alcohol. But here’s what you do:  before toasting marshmallow, dip it in a high-alcohol liqueur like Drambuie, Grand Marnier, or Rumple Minze. The thing will immediately flame up once it hits the heat, the alcohol will have burned off, and you’re left with one really tasty marshmallow!

Just a few of the cabins!

8) Illustrators are in far higher demand than writers. This was a shock to me. When Ms. Davis recounted the story of how a recent book got published, she implied that the publisher was, for all intents and purposes, at the mercy of an illustrator who was taking too long to complete the project.

She described some of the issues editors and agents have to deal with in working with certain illustrators – how illustrators often work at their own speed and can make or break a project – and all I could think was, “I’ve gotta start brushing up on my artwork!”

9) There’s a Giganotosaurus skull inside the Highlights office building. As in, a REAL dinosaur skull, the size of your refrigerator. If you want to see something cool next time you’re in Honesdale, put that on your list.

Top, L-R: Linda Dryfhout. Cory Corrado, Joy Acey, Michelle Schaub, Linda Baie. Bottom, L-R: Pat Cooley, Julie Stiegmeyer, Heidi Bee Roemer

10) You can’t put a price on relationships. Of course, this is a given – but in the context of this poetry workshop, the attendees, workshop leaders, and support staff (from Highlights Foundation executive director Kent Brown to Chef Joe), everyone was a contributor to the success of the workshop. To a small or large degree, each of the 15 attendees had an impact on the other. In fact, many of them are allowing me to post their photos here! We’re all planning to keep in touch, and I hope we do.

Was the workshop worth the cost of tuition and travel? Yes and YES.

Highlights - my cabin
Good ol’ Cabin #13

11) No matter who you are, you can always use some encouragement. Inside each of the cabins we stayed in were journals filled with stories and well-wishes from folks who had previously stayed there.  As I read through mine one night, I stopped and stared at the name; even someone like him, who writes all the time and has had much success, benefitted from the enlightenment and inspiration afforded by these workshops. It just goes to show, if you think there’s nothing else you can learn, you probably won’t.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES12) There’s not much cellphone service in Boyd’s Mills, PA. Not that that’s necessarily a problem, but you should be prepared!

A tremendous opportunity – and learning experience…

I can honestly say, with no hint of hyperbole, my experience at the workshop was life-changing. I was not only inspired but I gained some great insights into writing, publishing, and what I need to do to get these manuscripts that are piling up published.

Throughout the year, workshop topics cover everything from poetry and picture books to YA novels and interactive media, so if you’d like to find out more about the Highlights Foundation’s workshops, click HERE.

And if you have any questions about the one I attended, don’t hesitate to ask; hopefully I’ll see you there next year!


If you’d like, you can see more photos HERE!


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36 thoughts on “Inspiration, education, celebration and percussion: A look back at a “Highlights” workshop

  1. It was amazing, and you captured every piece of it so well, Matt. I loved getting to know you and hearing some of your own stories, and everyone else’s too. I’ve heard already from a few Poetry Friday people who have been to these workshops-what a gift they are. I can understand Tom saying he’d like to move in! thanks much for highlighting this last week!


    1. It was a great getting to meet you in person, Linda! I’ve ‘known’ so many of the attendees, like Joy, Cory, and Jeanne, only through networking, so it felt like we were all right at home. Thanks for stopping by, and for your support!


  2. Matt,
    Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us. I actually have the scholarship applications for Highlights on my desk, somewhere under the pile of kind rejections. After reading this, I’m digging them out tonight. Why do we procrastinate on the most important aspects of furthering our careers? I have about 7 free passes to submit to editors and agents right now from conferences I’ve attended. How many have I submitted, you ask? ZERO. Why…Fear that I’m not good enough, fear of failure, fear of everything. I have read your poetry and it is amazingly clever and sparkles brilliantly! You have inspired me to find my inner poet and find a way to get my butt on a train to Pennsylvania! Thanks!


    1. I appreciate your words about my writing, Angie – and all I can say is, DO IT! Remember what Pat said (#2 above). They say a published author is simply an unpublished author who didn’t quit…and there’s a lot of truth to that! I attended the workshop on a partial scholarship myself, which was a big help. Please keep me posted!


  3. Catherine Johnson

    Thanks for sharing such a wonderful experience. It reminds me of my jaunts with my kiwi friends although not such a famous group.


      1. Catherine Johnson

        Ha! Ha! We are pricing it up right now. Fancy driving but Phil won’t let me take my car. What to do hmm…


    1. Well, as I mentioned to Rebecca Kai Dotlich on my Facebook page, the thing I liked best was that the workshop sessions are very short – never more than an hour – so there’s plenty of time to write & relax & soak it all in.


  4. Kathy Doherty

    Oh, Matt, I’m still glowing from the experience! If heaven is half as wonderful as this workshop was with . . . being inspired . . . being renewed . . . making new friends . . . and spending time with Deb and my Chicago buddies, take me, Lord!


  5. Karen Eastlund

    Thanks for this summary, Matt. You caught it all, and highlighted several insights that I had overlooked. It was great getting to know you, rocking on the porch in Honesdale, and sharing poetry, food and laughter. Let us know how it’s going with the little ones. The days ahead could inspire some wonderful verses.


  6. Thanks for the detailed account Matt. Last summer I had actually been planning to attend this very same workshop, but then I decided to go to art school instead. Now at least I know what to look forward to if I ever get around to attending it. Meanwhile I’m taking encouragement from your illustrator comment … 🙂


  7. margaretsmn

    Matt, I read about this workshop at Linda Baie’s blog. So inspiring to be with nature and with other like-minded writers. I am filled by your post, but mostly with jealousy. Pennsylvania’s a long haul for me from LA, but I think I must consider this next year (or the next). Looking forward to seeing some of your poems.


  8. davidlharrison

    Matt, thank you for your thoroughly detailed post. I too had a wonderful time and am already looking forward to next year when my Skype guests will be Jane Yolen and Kenn Nesbitt, plus poetry editor Rebecca Davis in person. David


    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, David! And thank you again for all your work and time in holding everything together – we all appreciate your effort, enthusiasm, and encouragement. If I can find a way to afford it next year, you’ll be seeing me again!


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