I'm not new to talking, sharing ideas, or stating my opinion, especially stating my opinion! After all, I taught elementary school for 30 years! However, my audience has typically been smaller,just family, the classroom, or just talking to myself!

My blog has two goals: be an outlet for sharing thoughts on writing children's books and the path to publication (got my fingers crossed that I'll get there) and a place to chronicle my journey of losing my sight. Sometimes I imagine these two paths will overlap .

Thursday, July 28, 2011

                                        The Charm of Chautauqua

Lake Chautauqua at sunset. 

       People told me Chautauqua changes you. They're right. It's an incredible place; think Brigadoon meets the Land of Oz. 

       Walking around on the first afternoon, it felt like being in an enchanted village. No, not Harry Potter-esque, more like strolling through a sea of Victorian, gingerbread houses with lush gardens everywhere. The first thing that struck me was how quiet the place was. People automatically just whisper, nodding hello rather than speaking. Even the dogs don't bark aloud! Seriously. (How do you suppose they manage that?)

      The main path through Chautauqua is a red brick street ( kind of reminds you of Oz's Yellow Brick Road) It took me a day or two to master the path because it's uneven, bumpy and full of posts with reminders that it's for pedestrians only. Not to mention the kids riding bicycles and the older folks riding along on their scooters.

      Chautauqua, having begun as a place for religious training, has appropriately named buildings and homes: The Hall of Christ, The Hall of Missions, The Methodist House, The Lutheran House, The Presbyterian House, The Baptist House.... you get the picture. A little unnerving for a Jewish kid! So you'll appreciate the irony when I tell you that I got locked in The Hall of Christ one morning. And according to Kent Brown, Executive Director of Highlights Foundation and Christine French Cully, Editor-in-Chief of Highlights Magazine no one, in the  26 years of the Writers Workshop at Chautauqua, has ever been locked in there. Leave it to me.

     Okay, okay, I'll tell you the story. Being a visually impaired individual, I decided it would be easier for me to pull a rolling book bag than carry a heavy one on my shoulder. [Highlights Foundation gives you about a dozen novels/picture books/how-to books in a canvas bag upon arrival. The route to The Athenaeum Hotel- where breakfast was served daily at 7:30AM- was downhill. That meant after eating, going uphill to get to class, at a rather steep grade I might add. I didn't want to pull my rolling bag back uphill, so I decided to take it over to The Hall of Christ [THOC] before breakfast to save a seat near the front where I could see. It was just a little after 7AM when I dragged the purple wonder [bumpity-bumpity-bump] up the 12+ stairs at THOC. The door was unlocked, I went in, but there was no light. Undeterred, I used my cane to feel my way up the aisle to the second row. I pulled my purse out of the bag and was placing the purple wonder on a seat when I heard a klunk back at the door. I called out hello in case someone was coming in...no answer. Back down the aisle, feeling my way, through the sanctuary doors to the front door; I pull on it and it's locked. 
There were a few more frantic pulls- actually rattling the door- before I realized: A) I was locked in, B) no one would hear me if I yelled, C) I was going to miss breakfast, and D) the first person in would find me sitting there and I'd have to explain why (so embarrassing). What to do??

     Luckily I remembered I had Roger's cel number in my phone. [Roger is the Highlights Foundation Trustee who greets you when you arrive and arranges for your luggage to make it to your "house" while you have orientation and he's the moderator on the online discussion board.]  Anyway, I called Roger. 
Gail: Roger, I need help, come rescue me.
Roger: Okay, where are you Gail?
Gail: I'm locked in The Hall of Christ. Not such a good place to get locked in if you're a Jewish   kid!!
Roger: LOL How did that happen? Never mind,  I'll be there in a few minutes.

      We made it back in time for breakfast but the tale of my adventure spread. I decided to "own it" and called it was my personal Mixed Up Files of Ms. Basil E. Frankweiler . (book in which kids get locked into a museum) Who knew it would have a lasting effect.... I got locked in a small one-person elevator a few days later. Well actually twice, but that's another story for another day. 

Kathy Erskine (middle)
     Kathy Erskine, author of Mockingbird  (2010 National Book Award winner) spoke the first night on the 10 best things about Chautauqua. While I can't remember all of her list,  this list comes close:
  • Connections- this is a stress-free way to connect with editors and publishers and even pitch some ideas.
  • Congeniality- not only are all the participants friendly, all the faculty and Hightlights staff and any family members there are warm and so solicitous.
  • Confidence Building- even when you are wondering if you have the talent and skill to be a writer, the faculty (and the friends you make) encourage and support you. They remind you that they were once in your shoes.
  • Colleagues- reading through the participants' bios you found people who were novices, self-published, well published, and those who weren't even sure if they could write. And you're all in it together, as equals. The faculty treats everyone with the respect given to world famous authors....even though no one has ever heard of us.
  • Comprehensive- the classes offered covered the writing spectrum: picture book, early chapter books, MG and YA novels, e-Books, poetry, memoir, historical fiction, nonfiction, science and nature. And if that wasn't enough, there were "how-to"s on doing school visits, handling the business of writing, submissions, and dealing with rejection.  I'm sure I left out a few.
  • Cuisine- the food was awesome and plentiful (too much!). They accommodated vegetarians and carnivores, not to mention sugar-aholics and earthy-crunchy healthy eaters. There was a hospitality house you could visit all day and most of the evening where there were snacks, soda, yogurt, fruit, and water bottles....always. Outside THOC, there was a huge cooler packed daily with soda and water bottles.
  • Challenges- from the homework assignments given by your manuscript reader between your sessions to the record heatwave and loss of electricity in the entire community endured for16 hours.
  • Critique groups- people spontaneously formed groups and critiqued each others manuscripts. So helpful.
  • Camaraderie- I met 5 people online at the discussion board prior to going to Chautauqua so I felt like I had "built in" friends when I arrived. At least another dozen are now included in my Chautauqua Buddies email list. Many new writing friends.
  • Comprehension of being a writer- when you explain to someone that you completed a page of revisions that day, the look you get often says: is-that-all-you-did? Being surrounded by so many people who: GET what it's like to spend many hours alone writing and then you have to toss it and start over,  GET the feeling of finding the perfect words to convey a situation in a story, GET looking at some tiny thing or hearing someone say something odd and think "there's a story behind that" is priceless. And wonderful. It gives you a sense of belonging.
      So that's my overview of the week at Chautauqua. Next post, more stories and words of wisdom from several of the speakers.
*sigh*  I miss Chautauqua.


  1. I have ALWAYS wanted to do this! I can't wait to read all of your posts! Congrats!!!

  2. Sounds EXACTLY like I've dreamed it to be. *Sigh*

  3. Sounds like a fun week bonding with kindred spirits. Glad you had a great time!

  4. That is too funny. Locked in the Hall of Christ. hooray for Roger. It seems we all have our misadventures at Chautauqua, along with the life changing moments.

  5. Oh wow, what an experience. One day, some day, I'll make it to Chautauqua!

  6. What an awesome week! Not the getting locked in THOC by yourself, but everything else. I hope to be able to go do something like this one day.