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Julie Dao: My Highlights Retreat–Cabins, Cuisine, and Public Speaking, Oh My!

Please note: this post first appeared on Julie Dao’s blog on May 22, 2017. Thanks, Julie, for letting us reprint it here!

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Crafting Successful Author Visits workshop at the Highlights Foundation! 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 came 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 I saw 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:

One of the little rings of cabins all over the Highlights Foundation property!
One of the little rings of cabins all over the Highlights Foundation property!

This is Cabin 14, where I stayed for the week!
This is Cabin 14, where I stayed for the week!
 Each cabin had comfortable twin beds, but none of us had to share! (I don’t think)
Each cabin had comfortable twin beds, but none of us had to share! (I don’t think)
The cabins had everything we needed: a writing desk, heat and A/C, coffeemakers, and a fridge stocked with soda and beer
The cabins had everything we needed: a writing desk, heat and A/C, coffeemakers, and a fridge stocked with soda and beer

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:

The Barn!
The Barn!

The interior of the Barn… such a beautiful space! You can see the loft up top where yoga sessions were held a couple times weekly.
The interior of the Barn… such a beautiful space! You can see the loft up top where yoga sessions were held a couple times weekly.
 We had farm-fresh, chef-prepared meals every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Yes, I am now spoiled for everyday life.
We had farm-fresh, chef-prepared meals every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Yes, I am now spoiled for everyday life.
The view from the loft!
The view from the loft!
The buffet table again!
The buffet table again!
A little snack bar that had coffee, tea, lemonade, snacks, and chocolate 24/7...
A little snack bar that had coffee, tea, lemonade, snacks, and chocolate 24/7…

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.

 The food was RIDICULOUS. Like, five-star quality, three meals a day every day. I was on a restricted diet and had no problem finding fresh, healthy food to eat.
The food was RIDICULOUS. Like, five-star quality, three meals a day every day. I was on a restricted diet and had no problem finding fresh, healthy food to eat.

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?

The path leading up to my cabin.
The path leading up to my cabin.
A pretty stream in the woods.
A pretty stream in the woods.
The lilacs were in full bloom.
The lilacs were in full bloom.
We had gorgeous weather 4 out of the 5 days! It did get very chilly at night (into the 30s).
We had gorgeous weather 4 out of the 5 days! It did get very chilly at night (into the 30s).
Everything was in bloom.
Everything was in bloom.
The cabins at night! It was like looking at a cozy little village through my window.
The cabins at night! It was like looking at a cozy little village through my window.

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!

Everyone in our group was wonderful! Going around the table starting at 12 o’clock: me, LaTisha, Aram, Andrea, Leah, Jan, Carmen, Peter, and Cindy.
Everyone in our group was wonderful! Going around the table starting at 12 o’clock: me, LaTisha, Aram, Andrea, Leah, Jan, Carmen, Peter, and Cindy.

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.

Talking about Magneto’s backstory!
Talking about Magneto’s backstory!
The kids were so wonderful and attentive. Best listeners a newbie presenter could ask for! Also, they asked some truly excellent questions about villains, backstories, and the writing process.
The kids were so wonderful and attentive. Best listeners a newbie presenter could ask for! Also, they asked some truly excellent questions about villains, backstories, and the writing process.

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.

I like to pace when I talk (it helps get rid of that nervous energy)! Plus I get to make eye contact with and stand near everyone.
I like to pace when I talk (it helps get rid of that nervous energy)! Plus I get to make eye contact with and stand near everyone.
Probably talking about Maleficent and Aaron Burr.
Probably talking about Maleficent and Aaron Burr.

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.

Trying so hard not to cry when this lovely student and her friend ran up to hug me at the end of the presentation.
Trying so hard not to cry when this lovely student and her friend ran up to hug me at the end of the presentation.

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.

 Me and the brilliant, gracious Peter Jacobi. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from him! (And talk classical music, too!)
Me and the brilliant, gracious Peter Jacobi. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from him! (And talk classical music, too!)
Carmen, Jan, and me!
Carmen, Jan, and me!
We were like a little family! I will miss all of these folks and cannot wait to read their books!
We were like a little family! I will miss all of these folks and cannot wait to read their books!

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…

Posted on: June 28, 2017

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