A couple of weeks ago, I attended the “Crafting Successful Author Visits” workshop at the Highlights Foundation! If you follow me on Instagram, you probably saw all of my photos and captions raving about the food. I was invited to attend last spring by my good friend and 2013 Pitch Wars teammate Alison Green Myers (follow her on Twitter here!), but I couldn’t go because I had just started a new job. Fortunately, the stars aligned this year and I was able to pack my bags for a week in Pennsylvania!
I’ve never been a fan of public speaking. Standing alone in front of 10, 20, 30, 40+ people and talking at them is not my idea of a fun time, especially because I was painfully shy in middle school. I bust out of my shell in high school and am now very social and outgoing (on the Myers-Briggs scale, I am almost exactly in between an introvert and an extrovert), but public speaking still isn’t my favorite thing.
When Alison invited me to do this workshop, I thought: Here’s a chance to improve, learn something, and maybe not throw up in front of a crowd, even if I don’t ever LOVE being front and center. Plus, speaking to readers is a major part of author life and something we will all have to do at some point.
SO, I made the drive to Honesdale, PA, and fell head-over-heels in love with my accommodations:
There was a journal on my bedside table that had entries from every single writer and illustrator who had ever stayed in Cabin 14. So I happily added my own entry, with a little quote from FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS to help encourage the next person! So if you ever stay in Cabin 14, let me know if you see what I wrote!
All of our meals and classes were held in a building called The Barn, which was conveniently right next door to my cabin! The architecture is gorgeous, as you can see:
Before I go into what we actually learned (yes, we DID learn something, I wasn’t just sleeping and eating and lounging on repeat… though that sounds like a perfect retreat), I want to share the most important pictures from this week-long experience.
With the comfortable cabins, out-of-this-world food, and idyllic nature setting – with woods, fields, and trails by the stream – you’d think it would be the most relaxing week ever, no?
My workshop had six students, including me: all published or soon-to-be-published authors. And as relaxing as it all might seem from my pictures, we were stressed out. The curriculum is intense and it was clear we were there to work hard. We spent all day every day in lectures with our brilliant faculty: Peter Jacobi, Carmen Oliver, and Jan Cheripko. On two occasions, Peter made us get up without warning and give an impromptu speech, which Jan then videotaped so we could all critique as a group. We also had to learn how to properly read out loud (since readings are another big part of author life) and of course had to get up and be videotaped for critique!
Any spare moment we had was spent working on our presentations. We were each assigned to a different group of students at nearby schools and had to prepare a talk based on our books. The faculty gave me forty – yes, FORTY – eighth-graders at Wayne Highlands Middle School. I nearly passed out when I saw that number, having expected 15-20 tops. I’m sure you are laughing at me as you read this, but honestly, I have never in my life spoken to that many people at once!
I made a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Villains as Heroes,” which was all about villains and antiheroes in honor of Xifeng and FOTL. I picked bad guys and girls from stories I thought the kids would enjoy, including the Marvel universe, Harry Potter, Disney, and Hamilton the Musical!
I was very, very concerned about keeping them interested while teaching them something valuable at the same time. And then the faculty had me make some super last-minute changes (like, literally the night before) So I was struh-ESSED. I broke down into tears because it was all so overwhelming, and my ultimate dream was coming true but also terrified me, and what if the kids hated me and I did an awful job???
As it turns out, I worried WAY too much.
I’ve internalized Peter’s two biggest tips: “You should be nervous!” (as long as you let nerves push you to perform better) and “Be prepared.”
I had the first one in spades, but I also had the second. I had rehearsed over and over until I nearly lost my voice. I knew my material inside and out. And, contrary to almost all school and work presentations I had ever done … I cared about what I was saying. I was passionate about my subject, for once. And when Jan finished introducing me and left me alone in front of forty eighth-graders, their teachers, librarians, and school principal… I was 110% ready to go. I won’t say I was on autopilot, because I was actively thinking about everything I said, but it felt so natural and easy.
The anticipation is the worst part, I think, of public speaking. Once I got up there, it was a cinch. Jan told me afterward that the teachers enjoyed the talk, too; one of them said she wished the entire school had been there! I spoke for 45 minutes straight and the students seemed engaged and interested and made eye contact with me the whole time. THANK GOD! I was so worried I would bore them. Nothing is worse than a boring speaker when you are in middle school with a zillion things on your mind, but they were so bright, attentive, and thoughtful, and asked me some phenomenal questions at the end.
What an experience!!! I told you I was scared, overwhelmed, and stressed to the point of tears, and yet I would gladly go back and relive this if I had the chance. It was exhilarating and fulfilling, and I nearly cried again at the end when two students hugged me and another signed a drawing he’d done for me.
It was the moment I realized: I am literally living my dream.
All in all, it was the experience of a lifetime. And now that I’ve been thrown into the deep end, I honestly don’t feel scared of public speaking anymore!
The Highlights Foundation has a lot of other workshops running all year, too, so if this is not your cup of tea, check out some of the other programs they have on their website. There was a YA fantasy workshop going on at the same time as my own (I think it was being taught by Laura Ruby and Anne Ursu) and everyone seemed to be having an amazing time!
And now I’m planning out when I want to go back…