I’ve been traveling. Not across borders, at least not national ones, but definitely to another realm. My destination – the mountains of Pennsylvania and the writers’ retreat owned by The Highlights Foundation. My goal – the privilege of spending a week with Patti Gauch, editor for 29 years at Philomel. My eight fellow writers come from both coasts and have worked with Patti before. Some are published, a few are about to be published, and some are not quite published yet. They represent the extraordinarily broad range of literature called ‘children’s’ – from cuddly and reassuring to edgy and disturbing. I fell in love with Patti last November at an SCBWI weekend workshop and was over-the-moon when a cancellation allowed me to join them. They know what to expect of the week. I am about to learn.
To begin with, there is the retreat center. From the desk in my very own cabin, I look out over woods erupting into spring. Fridge stocked with drinks, coffee maker, Queen Anne armchair, wood paneling, quilt covered beds, front porch with glider, and walls exuding inspiration from the hundreds of writers who have worked here.
There is the ‘barn’, where we have our own meeting room and dining room. Open 24 hours a day, it also happens to be the home of the Ice Cream Freezer with tubs of four flavors (plus Magnum bars) and a table with other writers’ essentials (chips, coffee, fruit, candy bars). And speaking of yummy, the chef and his staff outdo themselves in serving wonderful (and healthy) meals, cheerfully meeting our group’s various food requirements. At our five o’clock sessions, when we critique each others work, they serve us
wine and appetizers.
But, of course, the real reason we have come is to spend time with Patti.
Whether we write for seven-year-olds or seventeen-year-olds, she showers her decades-long experience on us as she hones in, sentence by sentence, on every missed opportunity to engage our readers – and gives praise when we succeed. Her schedule is grueling. She takes each of us for daily 40-minute sessions, the first at 6:30 a.m., going over her extensive notes on our work and discussing where to go next. After breakfast she leads an hour session on an aspect of craft, with exercises and discussion. More individual sessions follow during the morning and after lunch. At five, two of us read pages we have worked on and Patti and the group give feedback. Following dinner together, we meet from eight to nine and Patti guides us as we look at the work of other writers, seeing examples of how they do it. Then she retreats to her cabin to read our revisions until midnight or so. Such generosity.
Leaving is hard. We have supported each other through authorial and other crisis, laughed a lot, become involved in the stories each of us is bringing to life, and written more intensely than we ever could have on our own. Patti has helped me see where I must take Mukisa, my young Ugandan, and how to make Africa come alive for my readers. At our last session she gives a personal goal to each of us to help in carrying on with our own stories, and we know she truly cares that we succeed. She has nurtured us in the very best way. We vow to stay in touch.
And then one of our group offers to host a week with Patti next May!!!! Hands pump the air. We’ll be there!
In other writing news – my YA Viking novel, Thora’s Hammer, is a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Break-Out Novel contest.