Review: Renowned Writers Speak To Students At 27th Annual Literary Festival

March 31, 2023

Each year, the school hosts a group of distinguished speakers with a background in writing for LitFest and this year was no exception.

Instead of going to their usual English class, students were given the opportunity to hear the speakers share stories and knowledge about various literary subjects including screenwriting, poetry, journalism and nonfiction writing. In celebration of these writers and LitFest, Bagpipe staffers covered the workshops and shared what made the presentations so impactful.

Award-Winning Author Discusses Writing Career At LitFest

Peter Heller shares writing and nature experiences with student body.

National best-selling author Peter Heller, the keynote speaker for the 27th annual Highland Park Literary Festival, has lived a life most people can only dream about.  

Heller was born and raised in Brooklyn Heights in New York where his father was a writer and his mother was a private investigator. At an early age he fell in love with reading and writing and remembers writing his first poem at just six years old. 

“It started out, ‘my eye, my eye, with which I see the world,’” Heller said. “I just knew I was going to be a writer.”

Although he grew up in one of the largest cities in the world, Heller never enjoyed the bustle of the metropolis. 

“I knew I wasn’t a city kid,” he said. “I went to camp, ever since I was nine, up in the Adirondacks for seven weeks at a time and I learned to canoe, hike and climb. I just loved it all.”

Knowing he would be better suited for country life, Heller begged his parents to let him move to Vermont when he was 15. His parents eventually agreed and he was sent to a boarding school there.   

“I never looked back,” Heller said.

After graduating from high school, Heller attended Dartmouth College where he studied English and biology, combining his love for writing with nature and the outdoors. Post college, Heller took on various jobs including kayak instructor, construction worker and pizza deliverer while he was trying to get his stories published in magazines. 

After his friend suggested that he write to Outside Magazine, a publication that blends the two things Heller loves most, he was hired to write a story about his experience going on a whitewater expedition in Tibet where he would make his way through the Tsangpo Gorge with a ground team. What followed was assignments to Peru, the Tien Shan mountains, the Pamirs and even the opportunity to join the crew of an eco-pirate ship belonging to the radical environmental group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society for National Geographic Adventure.

“There was this all-black pirate ship tied up with a jolly Roger skull [flag] and I walked up to it and I saw all these skulls and crossbones painted on the superstructure with the names of ships,” Heller said. “I realized these were all ships they had rammed or sunk. I kind of knew from the beginning that this was going to be really serious.” 

Despite the slightly intimidating first impression of the expedition he would be joining, it wasn’t long before Heller saw how passionate the group was about protecting sea life, particularly whales, and the lengths they were willing to go to keep them safe from harm. 

“It was like 40 people totally committed and ready to die to save the whales and I thought that was really moving because what they were really doing was trying to raise awareness about the crisis of the ocean through this sort of sensational activity,” he said. 

Still, no matter how many thrilling and life changing adventures he goes on, Heller always finds himself coming back to sit down to a cup of coffee and putting pen to paper. Heller has dabbled in different forms of writing varying from journalism to literary nonfiction, but he says fiction is undoubtedly his favorite genre to write. 

“Once you start making it up you can’t go back,” he said. “I get totally transported in writing fiction. The characters feel so real to me.”

Heller calls “The Dog Stars”, his 2012 novel about a pilot trying to survive in a post apocalyptic world, his favorite out of all of his published novels because of the emotional attachment he has to the characters. New Regency Pictures also recently announced that they had acquired the film rights to the book, news Heller says he is very excited about. 

Additionally, Heller jokes that he can’t get his creative juices flowing without several cups of coffee first and prefers working in coffee shops to his home office. He says the secret to preventing himself from getting writer’s block is to never write less than 1,000 words a day.

“I always go just past [1,000 words] until I’m in the middle of a scene that really excites me,” he said. “So what happens then is that I can’t wait to get up the next morning and keep writing. You get a lot of momentum that way.” 

For Heller, the most important part of being a writer is to find the joy in the work. His philosophy is that if he’s enjoying writing, then that will translate into the finished product and readers will enjoy reading his work. He says he hopes to have communicated this in his presentation to the student body and the rest of the community on March 2. 

“I don’t have any agenda. I just want people to be inspired to read,” Heller said. “Stories are not only fun and an escape, but they can really help us navigate our lives because they deal with all those big issues that are tough.”

During his presentation Heller also shared that while his journey to becoming a successful writer has not always been an easy one, it has definitely been worthwhile. He encourages students who are interested in pursuing a career in writing to push themselves and not be afraid to start over. 

“Treat it like an olympic sport,” he said. “Bring the best of yourself to your writing.”

George Getschow Demonstrates Power Of Truth In Writing

Author shares tips for creating meaningful non fiction works.

George Getschow, a journalism professor at the University of North Texas, shared his expertise on the subject of non-fiction essay writing during LitFest workshop day. 

A well-regarded reporter for the Wall Street Journal for 16 years, Getschow has dedicated his life to non-fiction works. His most recent project is a collection of essays dedicated to the renowned writer Larry McMurtry. McMurtry has been a huge inspiration on Getschow’s writing and essay career and he expressed his excitement about this new project when he spoke to students.

During his workshop, Getschow discussed the importance of truth and intimacy in writing. As a non fiction writer, Getschow understands the importance of making your reader believe what you are writing through establishing credibility and to feel a strong connection to your words.

Throughout the presentation, he worked to explain his writing techniques and the methods he employs to dig deeper into his own brain. Getschow also talked in great detail about his experience writing an essay on the power of silence and the ways he worked to research for the specific piece to make it as authentic as possible. 

His research included hiking in remote places, spending time in an anechoic chamber and sitting near an airport. He did all this while recording the sound levels with a decibel reader in an effort to understand how sound affects all of us. 

In one of his essays, he admits to the issues in his life that he’s been avoiding such as a book he’s been trying to write as well as the relationship he has with two of his children. Getschow believes that this kind of open honesty is what makes writing great. Even though he admittedly states that open honesty can hurt people more, he believes that doesn’t make it less important. 

The presentation was very interactive and he asked the audience questions and gave everyone copies of his essays to reference to give us all a deeper understanding. He asked for suggestions on his essays and asked about what we would include in our own writing to elevate it. 

According to Getschow, another strong tool for non-fiction writing is internal dialogue. The inclusion of internal dialogue works to elevate your writing to a much higher level, he explained. Dialogue that has deep emotion really connects the reader to the words on the page, which in turn makes them want to read more.

His presentation was very engaging and he was able to pull people into a conversation about essays, which in the beginning, most students didn’t seem as excited about. As the presentation continued, more students had questions both about his writing style and his work that he shared.

All of the tools he utilized to improve his writing tested the limits and boundaries of writing and he wanted the audience to use those tools too. The more observations and details added into someone’s writing, the more you can push the limits. 

This idea connects back to the overarching theme of Getschow’s workshop which was truth and intimacy. 

Getschow then went on to talk more about new and important pieces that he has written about. All of his pieces had some connection to him personally, either surface level or deep down. In everything he writes, there is a piece of him, even when writing about something that has nothing to do with him.

Lastly, he went on to explain that the most important part of any piece of writing, but especially essays, is the ending. The way a writer chooses to end their piece is what will sit with the reader after they have finished. The ending is what takes the reader out of their fictional world and into reality, so if the end feels sloppy or unfinished, the connection can never take full effect.

Getschow’s workshop was inspiring and gave the audience a new perspective on what it means to write an essay and how to place yourself into your writing. Going to Getschow’s  presentation was well worth my time and I would definitely recommend reading his writing to broaden someone’s non-fiction writing understanding.

Kael Alford Tells The Truth With Photography

Photography in the age of artificial intelligence

With a quick snap from a phone, millions of photos can be taken and saved. Each click catches a moment and a memory. 

Documentary photographer and journalist Kael Alford discussed the evolution of photography and how her style has changed over the years during her LitFest presentation.

Alford takes photos to create time capsules of communities and cultures, as well as important moments such as the war in Iraq. She tries to capture what is in front of the lens. 

During her presentation, Alford explained the history of photography, displaying photographs on the board to physically take us through it. 

She explained how photography didn’t start with the camera app and Photoshop one button away, but rather how photography evolved. It started as box cameras and photos in black and white. Eventually, it became digital photography and AI apps. 

Alford has added her own photographs into the mix, shocking us with her work and her color contrasts. 

Her tone drew me in, leaving me curious to learn more about the art of photography. I found it interesting how photography has developed over time and how photography grew around ourselves. 

Historical moments were also captured using cameras thus telling a story. The first war to be documented through photos was the Civil War and the photos were a shock to everyone not in the war because it displayed the gruesome nature of war.

Alford then went on to explain how people began to see photography as art and create artistic selfies. People would pose as artificial icons or recreate artificial iconic moments from film and take shots of them. Photographs were seen as theatrical and as fantasy, taking realism and placing it in a whirl. 

Alford explained how photography revolves around self-obsession and seeing ourselves in photos. I realized that I have also documented emotional moments in my life with friends and family so that I can reminisce later. 

Alford discussed and showed how everyone around us has documented a moment in their life in some way, whether it be with photography, writing or drawing.

When the obsession with ourselves grew, the obsession on how we picture ourselves grew. Photoshop began to take place, where women would photoshop themselves to look perfect or what they believe is perfect in society’s eyes. 

Throughout her presentation, Alford also incorporated points about women’s rights, emphasizing the importance of how photographs show the truth and force people to face societal issues. 

Alford engaged the audience by asking us to guess whether the photos she displayed were ones she took or were created by AI apps. Everyone was in awe and disbelief when each of our guesses turned out to be incorrect. 

Alford made us think about technology in the future, where realism and fantasy are no longer separate and where false messages messing with politics can be sent out. This is already happening and it will only be a few years before someone finds a new way to use photography and technology. 

At the end of the presentation, I began to see that photography is art and it pushes boundaries, while also blurring the lines between falsities and fact. 

After looking through all the photos, it became harder to see which photos held the truth.

Alford took the time to explain every aspect of the photos and made us doubt every moment that is placed before our eyes.

Albert Samaha Breaks Down Investigative Journalism

Reporter shares why human connection is vital to journalism

Aside from being an award-winning Buzzfeed investigative journalist, Albert Samaha is one of the most captivating and inspiring speakers I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. 

His refined story-telling abilities and experience in the field of journalism are clear from his presentation, and the way he describes his escapades (e.g., escaping Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as he was being chased by the country’s police force for his reporting).

As a journalist myself, I found his discussion to be incredibly interesting and educational, but I believe that it would be worthwhile for people outside of the focus of journalism to listen to his advice as well. When we walked into the room, Samaha was sitting casually at the front of the room, and his easy confidence was a testament to his expertise.

Samaha started off his presentation by asking the audience to tell him where we got our news, and how to identify a credible source. He dived into media literacy, talking about fact checking, red flags of an unreliable news source, and credibility. Admittedly, it was the least interesting portion of his entire presentation, but he still prompted audience engagement.

He then explained what investigative journalism really is. In case you didn’t know, it is finding and revealing verified, impactful and new information to the public.

Throughout his presentation, Samaha emphasized the importance of being able to effectively and fluently navigate social situations and connect with people, both in journalism and other aspects of life.

Samaha explained how the first step in writing any investigative journalism piece is finding the right people to interview. Using an example from a story he wrote in 2015, Samaha demonstrated how there is no guidebook to interviewing people about what is likely the most traumatic events of their life, and every situation is different, so adaptability and compassion is a must for investigative journalism. He suggested that we don’t define people by the worst things that happened to them. A more genuine portrayal of the full scope and layers of someone’s life would add depth to your article. Frame the tragedy, or the point of the article, within a story of their life.

Samaha then led us through the beginning of actually writing an article. Over the course of reporting, an investigative journalist could be researching statistics, following people, and asking questions for months or years. The hardest part is choosing what small pieces of information, out of all that was collected, to use in the article, and in what order. In other words, how do we put the information in a readable format?

His answer, of course, is to start with Motown. The famous production company gained recognition in the 60’s for signing big name artists such as Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five, and the Supremes. 

According to Samaha, Motown was ahead of its time in that instead of the minute long song introductions that dominated the radios, the company tried to catch the listeners’ attention in the first ten seconds. Samaha equated this to journalism. In the modern day, journalists compete with all sorts of entertainment media for the attention of consumers. Attention is the most valuable commodity, so it is essential to grab and keep holding a reader’s attention. The best way to open an article is with action, and the point of the story. Then, follow with a sequence of explosive facts so that the reader does not lose interest.

Samaha finished his presentation with a reminder that journalism develops emotional intelligence and social skills. With that, you can go anywhere and do anything.


Bill Thompson Advocates For Self-Publishing

Author discusses how to be your own boss

When authors are done writing a book, many struggle to find a publisher and can spend months being turned away. This is why lots of authors, such as Bill Thompson, are self-publishing to avoid the drain on resources and energy.

Thompson, a self-published author, has experienced the difficulties of finding a publisher, until he started working with Amazon to release his own books.

In his LitFest presentation, he spoke in-depth about the ups and downs of self-publishing and why it may not be the path for everyone. 

Thompson first spoke on how the introduction of publishing directly through Amazon in 2009 was revolutionary for authors. 

Before self-publishing was introduced, there were few ways to be published and they generally required much more work, but with Amazon, authors can make lots of money with little difficulty. He explained that, since then, there have been many new options for self-publishing, but many still choose to work with Amazon.

One thing that enhanced the workshop was Thomspon’s clear expertise. He spoke without a written presentation, making it seem more like a discussion rather than a lecture. I learned a lot in a very short time because of this method. 

Eventually, Thompson transitioned to speaking about the negative aspects of self publishing. 

He explained that it is significantly more difficult to self-publish books as opposed to traditionally publishing books because you are running your own business. Having to keep track of the money you owe the government through taxes, setting your own deadlines, getting cover art and calculating sales tax can be incredibly time consuming and difficult if the authors have no experience with business management. 

Furthermore, these authors have to provide their own legal protection.

In addition to this, self-published authors have to get the resources publishing firms already have. They have to hire editors, beta readers and cover artists. 

Despite this, self-published authors are able to make a higher percentage of income from their book sales. Traditional authors tend to only get 20-30% royalties on their books, which is how they make money, but Thompson has gotten 70% of royalties because he is self-published.

At one point in the presentation, Thomspon passed around a sheet of paper for us to put our email on so we could get a free audiobook version of his self-published novel, which was quite generous and a strategic marketing method.

After he spent a good amount of time discussing these topics, he moved to the riveting topic of questions. He got in depth questions from the teachers and students alike. 

Overall, Thompson’s presentation was well-prepared and left me extremely knowledgeable in the world of self-publishing.

Meg Gabbert Makes Poetry Interactive

Writer proves poetry doesn’t have to be boring

Writer Mag Gabbert first fell in love with poetry in college. 

Since then, Gabbert has gone on to be an extremely successful poet, having been published in multiple journals and books. However, Gabbert explained during her LitFest presentation that she wishes she had started earlier on in her life. One of the main reasons she chose to host a workshop was to connect adolescents to their passion early on. 

To start off, Gabbert passed out a piece of paper, telling the group not to touch or flip it over. If this had been any other speaker, I would have gotten distracted and just read the handout, however, Gabbert had a way of keeping me engaged. 

On the board, she had written a well-known poem: “roses are red, violets are blue, honey is sweet and so are you.” Gabbert asked the audience what they thought about the poem and by the end of the discussion it had become clear that most of the group agreed the poem was overused and boring. 

To fix this, Gabbert had the students change it by calling on them to change a word, a meaning or a whole sentence. Everyone got involved and was interested and eventually the whole poem was changed. 

Throughout the process, Gabbert kept her audience engaged through her humor. She cracked jokes about her height, hair and life outside of poetry. It helped her to come off as more human and to calm down some of the pre-presentation jitters. 

In addition to this, Gabbert held everyone’s attention by asking questions and treating the audience as her equals throughout. When students asked a question, Gabbert took her time responding to them and would speak directly and smoothly. 

When I asked her a question, she answered it while making eye contact with me, so it felt more like a conversation with a family member than a presentation you were required to go to for English class.

Next came the most interesting part. The handout. 

We were finally allowed to flip it over and when we did, we came across a list of fill-in-the-blanks. We filled them in, but were told not to do anything else. 

I was dying to know what was on the next page, but Gabbert wouldn’t let us look until everyone was done. 

When we flipped the page we found iconic poems and stories. We all chose one and filled in our blanks like a Mad Lib, but Gabbert had found a way to keep everyone engaged in the simple activity. She started by reading her own out loud to ease everyone else into being able to read their poem out loud. 

When she asked for a volunteer, my hand was in the air. I didn’t even think about it, I was having such a good time. I filled out parts of the story of the Iliad, but this time, instead of being a story of grand adventure, it was a story of ice cream, cows and jack hammers flying. 

Throughout her presentation, Gabbert connected with the room by using her humor and her expertise. By the end, the whole room was laughing and smiling and I left the workshop truly hoping Gabbert would return next year, so that other students would have the same wonderful experience as I did.

Kurt Voelker Shares What It Takes To Make A Hit Movie

Screenwriter gives tips on writing a screenplay

When I first walked into screenwriter Kurt Voelker’s LitFest workshop, the atmosphere was very focused. 

He drew in the viewers attention while being very direct and straightforward with his presentation. He made sure to talk about enticing topics to keep the audience entertained.  

Voelker graduated from Harvard and went to graduate film school at the University of Southern California. He has written screenplays for companies like Warner Bros, Paramount, Disney, Fox, Sony and MTV. 

His presentation included a lot of student involvement with questions and showing film clips to make points. In order to demonstrate the complicated world of directing and screenwriting, Voelker chose to use, in his own words, the “first true Hollywood blockbuster”, Jaws. 

He said that the No. 1 most important part of directing is the casting. He utilized the film to show how actors bring the story to life. Additionally, Voelker used a multitude of examples within Jaws that inspired other filmmakers. He would play a scene for around five minutes and then add commentary and ask the audience questions about the clip. 

I thought that was very interesting and it grabbed my attention.

Voelker used a famous moment in Jaws to discuss the difference between experienced and inexperienced actors and explained why hiring experienced actors can make filmmaking a much easier process and produce better quality work. 

In the scene he discussed, a mother whose son was killed by a shark slapped the main character. He explained what went on behind the scenes and the casting process that went into the scene being discussed. He used that clip in the presentation to share with us how the shooting process can be totally chaotic behind one short scene

He continued by explaining the necessities of a truly good movie. He talked about the importance of conflict, whether it be conflicting needs or conflicting desires, to make a film great. He argued that without conflict, there is no drama to pull in the viewer and keep the attention, therefore there is also virtually no solid basis for the movie.

Veolker also went on to share his experiences in the filmmaking industry and some stories he has heard from other directors about celebrities and cast members, making his presentation even more entertaining.

Voelker’s screenwriting presentation was very engaging and well explained. I really enjoyed learning all the tips and tricks for screenwriting and hearing about the elements that make up a good movie. The workshop was extremely insightful and I would highly recommend the workshop to students next year.

Lizzie Combs, Sarah Galaro Discuss Modern Media’s Affect On Narrative Storytelling

Advertising and writing are one in the same

Sleeping students, exaggerated yawns and unfocused kids are what usually fill my first period English class.

But when Lizzie Combs and Sarah Galaro presented to us about ‘How Narrative Storytelling Took Over Modern Media’, the students suddenly became interested and engaged with what they were learning. 

Combs and Galaro are not only co-presenters, but sisters who have taken the same career path. They are both theater majors who now work for marketing firms. Because of their knowledge of both careers, they were able to explain why the two things were so similar. 

The presentation started with famous ads like M&M and Pringles. They used these ads not only because they appeal to the age group of the students, but because they tell a story within 30 seconds. 

For example, they explained that the reason the M&M ad worked so strongly was because it engages the audience and it gives them a positive memory to think about the next time they come across M&M’s. 

After watching the ads, Combs and Galaro discussed what made them such good ads. They shared the key elements that go into making an ad and how they are used every day.  These elements include a story plot and the hero’s journey to develop the ad into a memorable story.

Combs and Galaro then went around the room and asked the students what they thought made a good ad. At first there were little responses, but over time more people chimed in.

 Combs and Galaro made answering questions fun for the students. They awarded the students with praise and appreciation for answering, even if it wasn’t a correct answer. 

Then, instead of giving the usual lecture or notes that LitFest presenters give, Combs and Galaro sent the students off to come up with an example of a good ad for themselves. The ad would be to promote LitFest and share how it positively impacted students. 

We were put into groups of five and were given 10 sheets of paper. We were then told to write out each element of the ad and share it to the class. 

Out of the five presentations we watched, most started with the burden students endure of going to English class each morning. It then transferred to the students finding out they were going to Lit Fest and instantly their mood changed to excitement. After the LitFest presentation, the students went on to be famous writers and LitFest speakers themselves. 

These ads had the key elements it takes to create a well-thought out and creative ad. With speakers like Combs and Galaro, LitFest becomes a valuable experience that can influence students to explore the various ways to express themselves. It would be a mistake for them to not come back to LitFest in the following years.

Ben Montgomery Explains Importance Of “Wish Song”

Author makes a case for a strong thesis

Journalist and author Ben Montgomery gave an enthusiastic lecture on the importance of a “wish song” in Disney movies.

Montgomery is a New York Times bestselling author, former reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and has taught journalism at various universities. 

Montgomery began this workshop by asking students to think about what their favorite Disney movie is, then asked them to share it with peers. Next, he had the students think about what the main character wanted in the movie, and when that desire started. Montgomery told us specifically to think about what the wish song is.

Montgomery explained that the “wish song” takes place at the beginning of the movie and represents the protagonist’s desires. He emphasizes that without a “wish song,” most movies don’t feel as complete.

To prove his theory, Montgomery had students share their favorite Disney movie, then he played the wish song from that movie on the board. For example, one student said their favorite Disney movie was “Moana”, so he played “How Far I’ll Go.”

To further engage the audience, Montgomery asked the students to sing along and offered whoever sang the best a signed copy of his bestselling book “A shot in the moonlight.” His book was on display at the front of the room for everyone to see, and motivated students to sing even better than they had been.

After he played Moana’s “wish song,” I looked around the room and noticed multiple students having epiphanies. They didn’t realize how prevalent the “wish song” was in Disney movies, but this lesson taught them all about it.

Previously, many thought the character just follows along the plot, but really the character goes on an adventure after its desires are outlined in the wish song.

Montgomery tied this lesson back into everyday writing- how you have to clearly state the purpose of your writing, most likely found in the thesis statement. Without a strong thesis that clearly shows the motivations or reasons, the story will not be strong.

He cleverly used Disney movies to display this important lesson of the “wish song,” making it easier to understand while also making it entertaining for students.By associating Disney with writing he put a twist on how writing can be “fun” and can be used creatively, opposed to how most students see writing as just required for school.

His thoughtfully crafted workshop showed the importance of the “wish song” while tying it into everyday writing, to help students write better. This workshop struck a chord with how many students can write better, by just emphasizing the main purpose of their writing. 


Benji Harris Presents Songwriter Talents

Artist uses his 15 year career to inspire students

Songwriter and performer of 15 years, Benji Harris returned to the school after graduating in 2003 and shared his songwriting talents with the students.

The first band he formed in eighth grade was “The Southhampton All Stars.” They started the band for the school’s talent show, and from there, they were able to play at private clubs and parties across Texas. 

Five years after graduating in 2008, Harris moved to Nashville to pursue his career. He formed a trio “Scarletta” and their genre mainly was country.

After they split up, Harris began playing guitar and touring with popular country singers like Sam Hunt, Carly Pearce, Jordan Davis and Mickey Guyton.

He’s written over 1,000 songs, has appeared on “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers” where he continued to show off his songwriting and music skills. 

Throughout his presentation, he shared the difficult times he faced as an artist, how to recover from them, and how he continued to pursue his musical dreams.

He performed and demonstrated his original songs while also covering a few during the process. Throughout the performance, he remained positive and upbeat as he demonstrated the different melodies and rhythms.

During the presentation, he described his life and how he started with music, which was with his friends, and eventually, his journey would progress from there as he continued with his music career. 

He would later discuss that the music career wasn’t easy and that he was rejected and turned down a lot of times. For three years, he would put off music because of how damaging the rejection was, but eventually, he came to his senses, picking up his guitar and continuing to pursue his dream. 

He engaged with the audience by asking questions, so he and the audience could collaborate to write a song. He asked questions about how heartbreak would feel or how being hurt feels. He wanted the audience to become more emotional with their responses, and by asking those questions, the audience could respond better and engage more with Harris. 

Even with Harris’ little time, he created a small portion of a song with the audience in just under five minutes. The song’s creation demonstrated Harris’ talent with his gift of songwriting. 

Towards the end of Harris’ presentation, he created a small song with the audience and kept the spirits and dreams of future songwriters and musicians alive. He kept repeating how that criticism should help build you as an artist rather than bring you down. Even though words can hurt, he kept pushing for the audience to keep believing in themselves.

Michael Merschel Projects Joy

What young writers can learn from “The Beatles”

Michael Merschel, author of “Revenge Of The Star Survivors,” has a passion for the band “The Beatles” and the process they went through to write and produce their music. 

Merchel danced and twirled as the music of “The Beatles” played throughout the classroom. 

It was amazing to see how happy and content Merschel became when speaking about “The Beatles” and moving to their music. The energy radiating from Merchel put an immediate smile on my face as I could visually see how happy he became as he spoke about the band.

In the lecture I was taught about how we can learn from their writing and use their strategies in our own work. 

One of their strategies included using fill-in words until you can find the right fit. 

For the song “Something,” the band could not figure out the right words to put into the line “attracts me like no other lover.” They used words including “attracts me like a  pomegranate” until they landed on the famous line. Sometimes we must use silly words until our mind can grasp the right words to put into our work. 

In addition to this, he said how it’s imperative to have fun when creating an artform. Sometimes the most silly and funny things can make the best result. Making good memories and creating a form of art for the right reason is ultimately what makes someone feel the most successful in their own mind. 

Merschel also described the 10,000 hour rule, which was featured in the book “Outliers.” “The Beatles” played about 1,500 concerts before they became the well-known band they are today. The more the band rehearsed and performed, the more recognition and experience they gained, causing them to become masters of performing. 

Along with success comes rejection. “The Beatles” were denied by over four record companies before getting signed. 

What I learned from this presentation was that even the most talented people experience rejection. In order to succeed, someone must struggle at first as success does not come easily. It’s important to not give up and follow dreams no matter what anyone says. 

Merschel also discussed how in someone’s own work, someone can also take inspiration from other people’s works. The band took inspiration from Little Richard, and Paul McCartney frequently told the press how he learned everything he knew about performing from Little Richard. “The Beatles” always expressed their love for other artist’s work and how they incorporated different styles in their own songs while putting a unique spin on it. Sometimes, in someone’s own work, they can show how different artists have inspired them. 

This is completely different from plagiarism and using someone as inspiration helps them form their own unique style. 

Merschel’s vibe and happiness was wonderful to experience. I enjoyed his presentation so much the year before that I came back again this year to watch it. His love and dedication is inspiring and taught me to never give up on my dreams no matter how much rejection and judgment I might face. I totally recommend going to his presentation as his happiness and love for “The Beatles” radiates throughout the room, creating the best and most engaging atmosphere.

Sonia Gensler’s Guide To Making A Monster

Horror author presents to Litfest students, explains the nuances of horror characters

Sonia Gensler came to the high school to discuss what she believes is the secret to creating the perfect monster, which she is an expert on as a horror author. 

Gensler has written three books throughout her decorated writing career, which she discussed in her presentation. Her first novel, “The Revenant,” is about a teacher who experiences terror in school surrounded by elites and mystery. Her second, “The Dark Between,” is about otherworldly scientists trying to bridge a gap between the world of humans and spirits. Her most recent novel, “Ghostlight,” is about a group exploring an eerie house to shoot a ghost film. 

Gensler grew up in Tennessee, where she experimented with drama and band. From there, Gensler describes her previous jobs as ‘impractical,’ varying from being a historic home director to a museum interpreter. Eventually, she settled on being an author with the goal of spreading her love of horror literature to those who share her passion for the genre. 

There are several types of monsters, and Gensler dissected what each type was. The presentation  mostly included  photos and identification of monsters. This involved a lot of student input about the monsters and sharing opinions. 

As a class, we started by looking at unique scenarios, identifying which characters were monsters and which were not. The primary example was the difference between Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster. While Frankenstein’s monster is identified as a monster, he did not ask to be born. He was created. 

The real monster, as we as a class found, is Doctor Victor Frankenstein, the man who created the abomination. Being able to identify the different roles of the characters was an essential part of the presentation.

After a series of identification slides, we moved on to identifying the different types of monsters. Some were clearly creatures, such as the shark from Jaws, however, some were humanoid, such as Dexter from the popular serial killer drama, “Dexter.”

Overall, Gensler was very well spoken and an entertaining presenter. The atmosphere she created for the students was positive and lighthearted. The discussion topics were open to all students as Gensler rolled through her slides depicting certain types of monsters and the process it takes to create one. 

Building a monster to Gensler is similar to creating a person. There must be goals and values, otherwise, a monster falls flat. If a monster is destroying everything, but there is no reason behind it, it makes for a more dull story and gives little meaning to the protagonist’s actions.

The effectiveness of a monster is closely tied to the motivations, strengths and weaknesses of your protagonist, according to Gensler’s website. These two must intertwine in not only events but also values and more.

Gensler was a wonderful presenter. I have absolutely no doubt that all that were in her class for litfest would love to see her on the docket for next year’s list of presenters.

Ashley Schumacher Gives Unorthodox Advice

Author encourages students to find inspiration in strange places

If you are ever afraid to tell an idea, first say it to an animal-shaped eraser because you are your sponge person. 

At her LitFest workshop entitled “From a Brain Trickle to a Brainstorm,” fiction writer Ashley Schumacher gave listeners beautifully unconventional advice – and an animal-shaped eraser. 

To be entirely honest, when I walked into the second-floor classroom, roughly four minutes later than I was supposed to because I couldn’t find the classroom where Schumacher was giving her presentation, I had low expectations. 

Admittedly, having seen one too many English teachers give their two cents on brainstorming, I thought I knew what Schumacher would say. So, I sat in a chair to her left, got out whatever notebook my hand grabbed first, and was utterly blown away. 

Schumacher’s first advice was the kind she said no English teacher wanted her to give. She advised that google is an invaluable resource, so use it. Schumacher used the example of a “Macbeth” essay, for which she said she would first see what she could already find, not to steal, but to learn. Or, as Schumacher phrased it, “be a sponge.”

Schumacher sees no problem with using whatever resource she can find, partly because, in her eyes, originality is an impossibility. If the fiction writer did not have my attention before, she certainly did now. 

And if my attention had not peaked then, it surely did when she showed a collection of Tik Toks she had saved and the ideas for books that they inspired in her, joking that Tik Tok was good for the brain and that she would not be invited back next year. These tiktoks ranged from a man angrily playing the piano to a dead puppy, and the ideas Schumacher thought of ranged from kidnapped children to a magical cello. 

When formulating her ideas, Schumacher reiterated that they do not have to be brand new to be interesting. When explaining what she meant, Schumacher cited how successful many retellings have become, saying that the story will be original because the author or the perspective are different. Because, just as writing a totally new story is impossible, so are two people writing the same story. But, Schumacher also mentioned that a not-uncommon experience for her was thinking of an amazing premise for a book, only to discover the idea was already available at Barnes and Noble.

Schumacher also explained how the tropes of a story – especially when developing characters – are not original, but they are useful. A trope, such as a romance between a “sunshine” character and a “grumpy” character, will not make its debut in something currently being written, but they are reliable and do not in any way mean the story is unoriginal. 

In her workshop, Schumacher even went as far as to give out a worksheet where listeners could write their favorite tropes and character combinations to glean inspiration from. This list also included a place to write favorite settings and plot twists, as well as what skills the person filling the sheet out already had and what they could speak about for ten minutes without preparation.

  Schumacher explained that using one’s previous knowledge is important when writing a novel. She furthered her point by saying that many of her books were set in places she herself had been, and often stalked on google maps. And, while her skills in repairing ice cream machines that she learned working in an ice cream shop are unlikely to make an appearance in her books, if she has a skill, then so do her characters. 

Schumacher also shared her advice for how characters can almost begin to write their own stories, saying that when stumped on what to write next, put a character where they don’t belong – or with people they do not belong with. Or, in her own words, “mess with the vibes.”

Yet, even after all the paths to a good story that Schumacher illuminated, the fear of sharing a new idea is not foreign to her. But, for this, Schumacher has found a solution – eraser animals. 

Idea Buddies – as Schumacher referred to them as – were Schumacher’s tried and true solution to embarrassment when sharing ideas. Because, Schumacher stated, how could one be afraid when talking to something so cute. As a gift to those in attendance, Schumacher generously brought a basket of pet erasers for those in attendance to keep and use. And, since I’m sure everyone is wondering, mine is a tiger named General Stripes. 

Schumacher’s presentation was not what I expected. She was not boring, and the advice she gave was not tired. Moreover, she was funny, comfortable in front of a crowd, and gave real, applicable advice that did not feel copied from a wiki-how page. If, despite her jokes of not being allowed to, Schumacher returns for LitFest next year, I will gladly be the first to sign up for her workshop.

Michael Gomez Engages Students In World Of Songwriting

Artist and producer encourages getting in touch with creative side

Dallas based musical artist and producer Michael Gomez gave an engaging and inspiring presentation about the simplicity and beauty of creating powerful song titles. 

From the start, Gomez was friendly and had a relaxed presence that swept over the room. He began his presentation with few notes, speaking to the students in a conversation-like style and drifting around the room as he spoke. I found his approach to be simple yet effective. 

Cutting through the air of exhaustion at 8:00 in the morning and the harsh lights of the room, Gomez’s presentation inspired laughter, deep thinking and creative collaboration. 

Gomez began by talking about his experience in the industry and what he has come to learn about creativity and art itself. He used vivid metaphors and relatable anecdotes to get across one main point: the importance of art. In his words, this importance lies in art’s ability to convey a deep feeling and create meaning that you just can’t find anywhere else. 

His initial points resonated with me greatly and left me feeling excited to see where his presentation was going next. 

After some introduction to the world of songwriting, he gave us a series of exercises about lyric imagery, with the end result being a completely unique song title. In the first exercise, he had us shout out some words and from there we wrote a list of other related words, just letting our thoughts flow.  

The second exercise also focused on word choice, it was a rhyming exercise, another crucial part of songwriting. Using both of these exercises, and our Spotify Wrapped, we each came up with a unique song title and some students shared with the group. 

The final exercise was the most fun and the most engaging. He called it the “pipeline game.” After students shared their song titles, he asked for “producers” and “marketers.” The producer’s job was to use the created song titles and assign them a genre and an artist who they thought was fit to perform the song. 

The marketer’s job was more on the business side as they were responsible for deciding which strategies to use to market the song. After all the groups shared their responses, Gomez provided specific feedback and guidance. 

By the time his presentation had reached the end, the room, which began with tired students shuffling in, had melted into laughter and intrigue. Throughout his explanations, Gomez taught us some crucial skills: both thinking deep, and not overthinking. His lessons and examples gave me the opportunity to have an internal conversation with myself as well as a conversation with a group of other students generating creative thoughts. 

The presentation even went as far as to inspire me to dive back into the world of musical arts which I abandoned a while ago. 

Overall, I really enjoyed Gomez’s presentation. I learned a lot and gained new perspectives about the importance of art and creativity. Throughout the hour, Gomez stressed the fact that every person is capable of being creative and this point is what stuck with me the most. 

At the end, Gomez finished by telling us that writing and all other forms of art can create relatable emotion and genuine human connection and I was endlessly inspired by how well he was able to connect with us in just one hour’s time.

Bubba Flint Explains Cartoon Creation

Editorial cartoonist brings insight to the cartoon world for students

William Bubba Flint gave an insightful presentation about his job as an editorial cartoonist, and how his job has shaped the cartoon world in Dallas. 

As I walked into the room, a slideshow presentation was shown on the board, and students filled the seats as the bell rang. Flint was relaxed and eager to talk about his life-long career in the cartoon world. 

Flint began by giving an introduction about himself, describing his years at Southern Methodist University, and showing all of the newspapers and articles his cartoons are put in. His cartoons have been featured in news sources such as the Dallas Morning News, The Dallas Cowboys Star, White Rock Weekly and Fort Worth Star Telegram. 

Next, Flint told students that he illustrated seven children’s books, and has done multiple graphic posters for bands like “Alice Cooper”, and “Old 97’s.” I found this piece of information intriguing as I love rock bands, and hanging posters in my room. I was also surprised that someone who does such detailed cartoons can make creative and out of the box graphics for live events. 

Flint went on to describe the process of creating a cartoon. Typically, editors will send roughly three pages of information, and Flint takes that information and transforms it into two sentences of political comedy. I never knew how cartoonists come up with their ideas, but Flint made it sound so easy as he has a journal where he sketches daily.

Flint then gave insight on how to make a graphic novel. His process starts with creating an idea, then he layouts the idea on paper. Next, he makes roughs on each panel, adds words to the drawings, and pencils out the final draft. Lastly, he uses color ink and cleans up the graphic.

As the slideshow progressed, Flint brought up “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and told the students that it took eight years to complete because of how much detail was put into the cartoons and stop-motion. 

Flint makes hand done graphics rather than a computer because it gives more of an advantage than everyone else that does graphics on computers. I liked that Flint wanted to follow his own path and not do exactly what other graphic artists did, so he could maintain his own personal style. 

Towards the end of class, Flint asked if anyone had any questions for him. One student asked Flint if he had ever faced mental blockage when creating cartoons. Flint responded by saying he has never had a mental block in his thirty years of being a cartoon artist. He went on to explain that if society is being silly everyday, he has a new idea everyday. 

At the end of the session, Flint asked students what bothered them about the school, and students gave feedback to issues they think need to be addressed. With this, Flint expressed what those ideas would look like as a cartoon, and what would go in the thought bubbles. 

I wasn’t too enthusiastic over this topic going into it, but Flint was expressive about his work, and encouraging as he wanted students to make cartoons at the end of class, which made me feel encouraged and inspired as well. 

By creating new work daily, Flint is focused on his work and staying on track for future assignments. I found it fascinating that Flint never had a mental block before because artists almost always have a blockage or time period that they stop working for numerous reasons. Knowing that Flint creates something new everyday made me determined to do what I love everyday and never stop creating.

Sarah Hepola Guide To Memoirs

Author explains capturing one’s own story

Memoir writer Sarah Hepola’s LitFest workshop, “The Power of Memoir and Personal Writing,” successfully helped teach students how to identify the origins of their own personal memoir.

Hepola has been a writer for a lot of her life. Her most well-known contribution is her memoir “Blackout: Remembering the things I Drink to Forget” which became a New York Times bestseller in 2015 and was for sale the evening of March 2 during the Keynote Speaker Event and during the school day March 3 in the library. 

The memoir follows her alcohol addiction. Hepola was an early drinker because of the influence of her cousins and she wanted a release from being shy. When she was 23-years-old, she got a job at a newspaper company where they openly did drugs at work and they enabled her to drink at work. She did eventually quit drinking at the age of 35 and she doesn’t drink anymore.

To start off her workshop, Hepola broke the ice by asking us what we would like to know about writing memoirs and she asked this same question throughout the workshop, which was nice because I could tell she wanted to help us with our memoir writing.

Hepola delved into her background, saying that she was an alumni graduating in 1992 and she originally wanted to be an actress because she was a “drama nerd.” However, she realized she wasn’t going to be able to become an actress. Her family didn’t have a lot of money, but she was able to get a great education at Highland Park. One thing that she knew was that she knew that she had a great imagination and enjoyed writing, so she decided to go pursue that.

One thing that I liked a lot was that Hepola brought pictures from the Hilites dance that she attended as well as her graduation pictures and she wanted us to pass them across the room. I think that by showing the pictures to us, we were able to connect a little bit more because we still have dances like Hilites.

As we passed the pictures around the room, Hepola asked what memoirs we know. She had pulled up a list of the bestselling memoirs and not very many of us knew many of the memoirs, but she said that it was okay that we didn’t know many. We then talked about all of the memoirs on the list and those people’s stories.

Then Hepola asked us what the difference was between something someone posts on social media and a memoir. She said that social media is a means of telling someone what they want to hear, whereas a memoir is how life really was.

Since Hepola wanted to get to know us better, our first exercise was to write down six nouns that describe us that we all later shared with the class. She said that through those six nouns, we had created a story of our lives.

The next exercise was to choose one noun to describe ourselves and it could be separate from the six nouns. Once we were done sharing those to the class, Hepola said that that one noun would be the title of our memoir.

She then asked again what we wanted to know from a memoir writer and someone asked how she remembers what she’s already said. 

Hepola explained that memory is a good selection of drama. However, she shared her pages of certain scenes with the people who were in those scenes and she said that if someone relies on their own memory, it will most likely be fiction. She continued by saying that if someone wants to keep a good relationship with the people in the scene, they should share those pages with them. She also stated that someone should not pretend to know more than they know and to always stick to what they said and not what someone else thinks they meant.

Someone else asked how important it is that we tell a story. Hepola explained that it was essential that we have one and that we identify our story and our voice in our memoir.

The story, Hepola stated, is the beginning, middle and end of the story someone wants to tell in their memoir.

The voice, however, is the style of someone’s words and ability to transmit their storytelling into their writing. Hepola compared Taylor Swift to Nicki Minaj to help us identify different types of voices. Both of them are singers, but they have different music styles and sing differently. 

To conclude that discussion, she said that the voice has to stand out in ordinary stories and vice versa because if someone has an ordinary story and an ordinary voice, their story won’t be differentiated from other people’s stories.

A common feature of some memoirs is that they aren’t actually written by the person in the story, but rather by a ghostwriter. Hepola expressed that she did not like ghostwriters because she couldn’t hear the actual person’s voice, only the ghostwriter’s. She said that memoirs need to be the most direct access to someone’s story and a ghostwriter could block that path.

Near the end, she said that nobody has to give anyone permission to write and they don’t need to go to college to become a writer. Hepola said she hoped that we will know that our lives are interesting and worth writing about.

Overall, her workshop was very informative. I didn’t know much about memoir writing going into the workshop and it was a fun experience. Hepola was very down-to-earth and I thought her story and her journey to quit alcoholism was incredible.

Matt Lyle Bring Humor To Workshop

Hilarious, yet informative workshop

Writer, actor and director Matt Lyle’s workshop “Comedy Math: 2 + 2 = Banana” was a fun, informative and humorous workshop that had me and the class laughing really hard.

Lyle has produced a multitude of plays such as “Big Scary Animals” and “Hello Human Female,” his most notable being “Barbecue Apocalypse” which was nominated for an American Theatre Critics Association Steinberg New Play award.

As students walked in, they were instructed to grab a pencil and a piece of paper for the exercises in class.

Once everyone was inside the classroom, Lyle asked the students to raise their hands if they had ever made their family or friends laugh. As a follow up question, he asked them why they thought it’s important to laugh.

Lyle then explained the science about laughing, how the release of endorphins make us laugh and how laughing lowers blood pressure, which I thought was very interesting information.

In addition to this, Lyle also stated that laughing is a social thing and how it helps us build connections with friends because of things like inside jokes.

Then Lyle asked if students had ever laughed at themselves and shared their funny moments with the class, which I thought was a nice ice breaker because students became a little bit vulnerable. 

Lyle stated that children between the ages of three to eight laugh 200 times a day, whereas adults laugh only 26 times a day. This difference was because children haven’t had as many experiences as adults and therefore laugh more. 

Next, Lyle wanted to know what types of things made the students laugh and what makes something funny. After students shared various answers, he asked if there were any things that people said that other students agreed made something funny. Things like an unexpected outcome and overall randomness were a common trend that people thought made something funny.

For their first exercise, Lyle instructed students to finish a joke. 

He explained that there were two parts to a joke: the set up and the punchline. The expectations are in the set up and then the punchline acts as a surprise.

Lyle wanted students to add a punchline to the phrase “My grandpa has the heart of a lion, and…” and share their answers with the class. This exercise allowed for a lot of creativity and hilarity ensued.

The final exercise was for the students to work in groups to create their own joke. The format of this joke would be to pick a situation, list four typical things to do in that situation, add an unexpected event and then repeat the second item with the new element. 

After students were done with that, they shared their answers with the class, which also led to an uproar of laughter.

In the end, this workshop was an enjoyable and hilarious experience. I liked how Lyle interacted with the students a lot and how everyone was laughing until the very end of the workshop.

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