Photo by Sarah Small

Students are engaged in a workshop by author Sonia Gensler. Each student attended a workshop during English class on the second day of the festival.

English Department Hosts Annual Literary Festival

author Hampton Sides acted as keynote speaker

March 30, 2020

After two keynote presentations – one by reporter Ben Montgomery to freshmen and sophomores and one by author Hampton Sides to the juniors and seniors – students spent one Friday attending literary workshops by a variety of professional writers.


Sonia Gensler Discusses How To Write Monsters, Heros

Sonia Gensler, a former high school English teacher and current horror book author, came to LitFest to talk about how to build the perfect horror story hero.

Her first book, “The Revenant,” was published in 2011 and ever since then she has been writing horror books.

She began her presentation by getting everyone familiar with the different types of monsters, so it would be easier to understand how the heroes work.  

Gensler went over the basic categories of monsters, what they do and how they can function in your story. Having this primary understanding of horror story monsters helped make the rest of Gensler’s presentation easier to follow.

There are multiple categories of “horror heroes” and picking the one you want in your story will determine the entire plot. Gensler’s favorite “horror hero” category is the youth, meaning children who encounter the problem, and then solve it with no help from an adult. 

“I really like that category because you feel more attached to the characters when they are children, so the story is more emotional,” Gensler said. 

Throughout the presentation, the entire audience was engaged and attentively listening to what Gensler had to say. 

“The presentation was really fun to listen to, especially because I love horror movies,” junior Lauren Bruns said. 

The other categories of “horror heroes” that Gensler talked about were the expert, the gifted and the wounded soul. 

The expert is someone who is a doctor or professor of some sort and is supposed to know everything, but at some point in the story, they don’t know what to do. This trait is what makes them such an intriguing character. 

The gifted are people who have some sort of supernatural ability they can use for good in the horror story. The gifted are often seen as timid in the beginning, but throughout the story, their power and ability grow stronger. 

The wounded soul is an individual who has had a rough past or maybe was even once a villain themselves. Their main goal at the start is revenge or justice, but as the story develops, they find the real reason they are trying to be a hero. 

Every student in that room was craving more tips and information about horror after Gensler finished her presentation. 

“I picked this presentation because I really like horror and it was cool to learn more about it,” freshman Jahrell McMillan said. 

Gensler was able to leave LitFest knowing that she educated, informed and inspired those who attended her workshop.

Matt Lyle Breaks Down Basics Of Comedy

Playwright Matt Lyle led workshops in comedy writing as a part of the Literary Festival.

Lyle started off the session by asking students if their friends thought they were funny. He coaxed most of them into raising their hands by adding the qualifier “sometimes,” and used this to prove that everyone is at least a little funny.

Then, he asked what made students laugh. He got a myriad of answers, the most common being TikToks, clever wordplay and something unexpected.

“People getting hurt can be funny if you know they’re going to be ok,” freshman Todd McPherson said.

After collecting these answers, Lyle said that these answers mostly boil down to one concept: an expectation, and a subversion of it. 

Lyle gave the room of students the sentence, “Outside of dog, a book is a man’s best friend,” and told them to each write a punchline.

“I’m illiterate and I’m allergic to dogs, so I’m really lonely,” James McAnalley said.

After hearing students’ own responses, he revealed the original punchline: “Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

Using the expectation and subversion framework, Lyle walked the class through making up an abstract sketch subverting the idea of a first date. A student came up with an unusual take on each stage of the date. Instead of a normal first date dinner, it was in space. Instead of a normal meal, they had alien tentacles. 

“I found his presentation really interesting,” senior Victoria Taverna said. “[I] really loved the amount of audience participation that occurred throughout it.” 

Lyle ended the workshop by prompting students to start work on their own sketches in groups of four.

Benji Harris Goes Into Significance Of Music

Benji Harris, a singer and songwriter, gave a Litfest presentation on the importance of music and how to write it.

“A good song can change the world,” Harris said.

“There’s a memory around every corner,” Harris said. 

Harris is a Highland Park graduate and got his start in music at 13 years old when he performed in HPMS’s  ‘Battle of the Bands.’

 “I wanted to get girls if I’m being real,” Harris said. 

Little did he know how far music would take him. Since then, Harris signed a publishing deal, bringing his music to radio and television and into the public eye. From there, he started singing background and playing guitar for several huge artists. He has multiple songs of his own including “That’s How You Get a Girl” and “Love at First Dance.” 

As an artist, Harris knows his way around a crowd. Rather than opening his presentation with the expected icebreaker, he picked up his guitar and did what he does best: music. 

After the performance, Harris began his presentation. As a strong believer in the power of a good song, Harris wanted to teach his students about the impact music can have on its listeners. 

He chose to show a video that he found personally inspiring. The video featured an elderly man named Henry who was diagnosed with dementia. In his youth, Henry was a bubbly, bright-spirited man who loved listening to music. He had been in the nursing home for about 10 years and had trouble remembering his family members and answering simple questions. It seemed that Henry was very unresponsive. 

In the video, a caretaker hands Henry an iPod with his favorite music on it. Immediately, he lights up and starts singing and rocking to the music. The usually-mute senior was now able to answer several questions about his favorite music in great detail. 

Harris went on to talk about what one needs to become a songwriter. According to him, the number one rule of songwriting is to write what makes you feel something. This, he says, is because there’s a good chance someone will feel it too. 

He and the students learned how to write a song step by step. After being walked through his do’s and don’ts, the students were told to grab a piece of paper from their bags. They then were able to engage in a live creative process as the entire room worked together to make a song using Harris’s methods. 

The entire group was brainstorming and giving input for their song. Harris’s teachings came to life as the song unfolded.

Hampton Sides Shares How To Make Locations Come Alive

During the “On Location” LitFest workshop, narrative historian Hampton Sides discussed how to write more descriptively and make a place come alive.

Sides was always bored by history textbooks, but today he has made a career as a bestselling author through writing descriptive stories of battles and adventures in history. Some of his works include “Ghost Soldiers,” “Blood and Thunder,” “Hellhound on His Trail,” “In the Kingdom of Ice” and “On Desperate Ground: The Epic Story of the Chosin Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle.”

During the workshop, students were shown a picture and asked to describe it in detail. While students were doing this, Sides asked a variety of questions that prompted students to not just write what was in the picture, but write the details that help make a person feel transported there. 

“You try to break down a scene into all of its component parts, sort of deconstruct it and then reconstruct it,” Sides said. 

Sides also emphasized the importance of verbs when describing a place. He advised students to try to avoid weak verbs and too many adjectives, and he said verbs are the engine for good writing. 

Verbs can also take the place of adjectives by adding more than an action. Sometimes verbs can be associated with sounds or provoke more than just the idea of action. 

“Verbs do the work of adjectives better than adjectives,” Sides said. 

Sides told the students the importance of trying to activate all five senses in descriptive writing. 

“I think down deep in our bones we want to have our senses activated,” Sides said. 

Through listening Sides, students gained greater perspective on illustrative writing, particularly in nonfiction.

“I enjoyed hearing a professional’s perspective on how to write descriptively,” junior Flora Solymosi said.

LitFest helps provide students with a chance to learn or practice writing in a different environment. Students who attended Sides’ workshop were able to write freely and share with the group in an environment different from a normal classroom. 

“I liked being able to talk with successful people and practice writing outside the class setting,” freshman Justine Choi said. 

At the end of the presentation, Sides shared how he enjoys his job, and traveling to different locations in order to write about them more honestly. 

“It’s kind of a dream job, it’s a license to be curious,” Sides said.

Michael Gómez Teaches Students To Title Songs

For his Litfest presentation, songwriter Michael Gómez taught students how to write create song titles.

It was Gómez’s second year presenting at Litfest and although the artist hasn’t done any other presentations like this, Gómez’s personality filled the entire orchestra hall. His audience of about 20 students participated in processes Gómez uses when creating titles for his songs. 

“I think he did a really good job of engaging everyone in the room,” sophomore Elise Waterson said.

Part of the process was having students go through their Spotify playlists and pick out songs with titles they liked.

“Everyone always says ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ but we all do,” Gómez said. “It’s the same thing with songs; the title gives the first impression.”

Gómez, who became interested in music in high school when rap became popular, spent a lot of time making sure the students were the ones being creative in the workshop, and his love for what he does showed through how much he tried to instill creativity in the students.

“It was just obvious how much he loves what he does,” sophomore Libby Signor said. “You can always tell that by how happy someone is when they get to teach what they love to others.”

Gómez made a point though of making sure that students knew that wherever their brains led them, they should go, especially in an activity where they were writing down the first words that came to their mind.

“One plus one doesn’t always have to equal two,” Gómez said throughout the presentation.

By the end of the workshop, Gómez had students read out their titles for songs they had come up with and wrote them down. Some titles were “Litlitfest,” “Butterfly Bones” and “Sailing Alone Around A Room.” 

As the students left Gómez left them with one final thought as he shook everyone’s hands on the way out.

“Just remember, if you are ever stressed, or just need an inward reflection, music can do that for you,” Gómez said. “This is a good way to clear your head and just be a kid for a while.”

Kurt Voelker Speaks On Film, Directing, Screenwriting

Among the Literary Festival presentations was Kurt Voelker, who is 53 years old and is a film writer and director in Hollywood. 

Voelker had always had a passion for writing, and was lucky enough to be friends with someone who worked at CBS Films. The friend was able to get Voelker a job as an assistant at CBS, and during his time working he not only grew fonder of film, but his writing improved as a result.

“Advice that I would give to anyone pursuing film and screenwriting is to take writing classes, but don’t take too many because you will not only be repeating material that you already learned, but you will just be getting practice and not the experience you need,” Voelker said.

He feels it is extremely important to gain experience from internships and other direct work in the industry to be able to see first hand the creative process from other’s perspectives.

The filming industry is extremely competitive, and the process of selecting which movies play in theatres is just a small part. Having a successful film usually means spending a lot of money for production, advertising and casting while trying to keep room for possible profit. For being on set every day or even writing, it is vital that your cast is always punctual and reliable, because without a reliable cast the whole project can be set back. That being said, there are some lessons to be learned from when things don’t go according to plan.

“Rejection is what makes a good writer, because without it we will never be taught or pushed to the level we need to get to,” Voelker said. 

One of Voelker’s idols, David Mammoth, taught him a lesson for the film industry, which is “butt in chair.” This lesson is crucial in film, as Voelker has learned throughout his career. The idea is once you are in the figurative “chair,” you need to work as hard as possible to stay in that chair, because once you get up and leave someone better is going to take that spotlight and make it their own. 

Michael Mooney Presents On Journalism, Feature Writing

Michael Mooney, a New York bestselling author and writer for well-known magazines, presented on Feb. 21 during the Literary Festival workshops. 

During his presentation, Mooney went into detail about his background and how he became a journalist and author. Mooney was born in Grapevine, Texas and during his high school years he did not know what path he wanted to take. He ended up going to the University of Texas to study journalism.

Having a major in journalism, Mooney was able to land an internship with the Dallas Morning News, where he realized that newspapers did not have the writing style he connected with. The newspaper scene did not allow him to write about interesting public figures, something that is important to Mooney.

“I realized the newspaper business was a terrible place for me,” Mooney said during his presentation. 

With this realization Mooney decided to try his hand in magazine writing. Mooney has written for magazines like Texas Monthly, D-Magazine and GQ. He enjoyed writing about weird and interesting stories. 

Mooney went into detail about how a story should be focused around an interesting person. Mooney also said that he loved the process of discovering information about whatever curious subject he was researching. 

“I like learning about what makes people tick,” Mooney said. 

Mooney won The Best American Crime Reporting award in 2009 for his D-Magazine story, “The Day Kennedy Died.” In the same month he won The Best American Sports Writing Award for “Royal Flush,” which is about professional and amatuer poker players in Florida, and was also published in D-Magazine. 

In Mooney’s presentation he discussed how respect is the most important factor in journalism. For Mooney, the key to writing about people is going into the story with an open mind and with no assumptions or opinions. 

To wrap up his presentation, Mooney had the students partake in an exercise. Students would write down public figures that had different political or social beliefs than them. This was meant to encourage discussion on why these people acted how they did, helping students see things from a different perspective. 

Mooney emphasized as the final takeaway how everyone is worth dignity and respect and that stories start with an interesting character. 

Author Elizabeth Silver Teaches Non-Fiction

At the Literary Festival on Feb. 21, author Elizabeth Silver presented non-fiction storytelling. 

In her time at Highland Park High School, Silver was part of the school newspaper, the literary journal and took all the English classes she could. She knew she wanted to pursue a career in writing but wasn’t sure what that was. 

After majoring in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, she traveled to Costa Rica where she taught English and wrote for the local English newspaper. Then she moved to New York to work in publishing. 

“From that experience, I decided I wanted to write fiction,” Silver said. “I wanted to write novels. I wanted to write short stories.”

Silver then decided she wanted to get her master’s in fine arts, so she moved to England to study at the University of East Anglia. 

“It was there that I really honed in on the ‘craft’ of writing,” Silver said. “You spend all this time reading and working on your piece, but you are getting to know other writers. You’re getting to know yourself as a writer and figure out what you want to say and then learn how to do that over time.”

Following her time in England, she went back to Philadelphia and taught college English. When she got nervous that her writing career wouldn’t work out, she applied to law school and studied law for three years. 

From there she got a job on the Supreme Court in Austin, Texas. She worked on death penalty cases and visited to death row. 

“That was the turning point,” Silver said. “It was the moment when I realized it was the non-writing job that gave me a story. It gave me a really interesting story to tell.”

From her experience in the Supreme Court, she wrote and got her first book published, “The Execution of Noa P. Singleton.” 

“That was a start,” Silver said. “That book was published in 7 languages, optioned for film, and I wrote the screenplay for it and started the career that I had dreamed of.”

Since then, she has written a second book that is a memoir. She now lives in Los Angeles, California with her family. 

At the Literary Festival, Silver’s workshop presentation, “Truth and Storytelling: Bringing Your Life to the Page,” covered the basics of writing personal narratives.  

Once Silver shared her background, she then explored the difference between fiction and non-fiction. She asked the class what they thought the difference was and freshman Margaret Henderspon answered. 

“Fiction is something that is not real or made up while non-fiction is about a specific thing with real facts,” Henderson said.

Silver then followed up by explaining that fiction is usually based on true emotions and experience and the author is just making up facts and a story that goes around it. 

For students who didn’t know what a memoir meant, Silver described that it is a non-fiction piece, but it isn’t necessarily about a person’s whole life. It is only a particular topic or moment in the author’s life that they choose to analyze. 

After Silver finished clarifying her base information, she gave the students a writing prompt. The topic was: “When I think about my mother, I feel ____”.

She then had the students call out adjectives that they would use to describe their mother, and she wrote them on the board. These included words such as safe, happy, worried, protected and encouraged. 

Next, Silver instructed the students to complete a six minute free write in which they were to follow the same prompt about writing about what their mom or dad means to them. She reminded them to not worry about grammar, spelling, or censorship and to just get words on the page. 

When the six minutes were finished, she asked the group what they thought about it. Most people said the time felt too short and they didn’t have enough time to get what they wanted to say on the page. For those who thought it felt long, they believed it was difficult to come up with enough things to say to fill the time. 

The students were told to share their writing with a partner. 

When everyone was done sharing, Silver concluded her presentation by commenting on a writer’s journey and the final point of their writing. 

“The minute you figure everything out and finish writing out your own story, it’s your story, no one else’s,” Silver said. “There’s a lot of power in that. Nobody can steal your voice and nobody can steal your story.”

Sue Batterton Teaches Narrative Through Advertising

At the 2020 Literary Festival Sue Batterton came to speak to students about her career as a creative writer for advertisements.

During first, second and third period Batterton presented her workshop, titled “Poetry in Advertising”. In her presentation, Batterton talked about the details of her career and shared advice about the advertising business. 

After earning a Master of Fine Arts in fiction and poetry and the University of Texas, Batterton worked her way to a job at The Richards Group advertising firm. Among her more notable clients are Ram, Chrysler and Chick-fil-A. One of the advertisements presented at the workshop was an Alfa Romeo commercial, which showcased the shade of red the car is available in. Oftentimes the final product of these advertisements can have a rather high production cost. 

“She told us it probably cost roughly the same as the movie ‘Parasite,’” junior Michael Ngo said.

As a creative writer at The Richards Group, much of Batterton’s time is spent making drafts of advertisements. The rest is largely spent working with advertising teams as they work with brands, or produce the final version of an advertisement. In addition to her work in the advertisement industry, Batterton has also done some creative writing without corporate sponsorship. Included among these works are three television pilot scripts.

“I would say half of my time is spent writing, it depends if I am on production or not, but I would say I spend at least three hours a day at my desk writing,” Batterton said.

Because many modern advertisements take the form of a video, the majority of the presentation was spent watching, going through and discussing different advertisements. The advertisements shown were from a varied group of industries and brands, including Ram and Johnnie Walker. Several sports advertisements made for an Under Armour campaign, written by notable modern poets. 

Batterton showed these different advertisements to point out how writing one takes a lot more than people would assume at first glance. Most will have deeper importance then just the product being displayed.

“[I had never noticed] the metaphors within commercials, and it opened my eyes to other commercials,” senior Sam Hinkhouse said.

Ben Baby Speaks On Importance Of Storytelling

ESPN reporter Ben Baby gave a presentation discussing the importance of narratives in sports writing.

Many of the attendees were student-athletes, who were intrigued by the workshop name.

“I’m excited to learn about sports writing because it seems really interesting,” senior golfer Sydney Love said. 

Baby started his presentation with one of his favorite stories about a man who worked in oil and gas, fought in one boxing match and became a champion. The story behind the boxer is what caught Baby’s attention, which reaffirms Baby’s point that narratives are important in sports.

Baby continued on with stories that humanize players. When watching sports on a screen it’s easy to forget that the players are people too, but their narratives show that relatable, human side of them.

He also recommended that when players play poorly they should talk to the media to explain themselves. It’s easy for the public to get mad at an athlete, but they are slower to get angry when they see how the player is disappointed in how they played too.

Baby also discussed how everyone has many sides to them, and often only one side is portrayed in the media.

“I don’t like being viewed as just a writer, and athletes don’t like being viewed as just athletes; that’s why telling all sides of a story, especially in sports writing, is so important,” Baby said.

Another one of Baby’s points was narratives are what make you feel invested in a sport or an athlete.

“I don’t care about the cheer as a sport, but the storytelling in the documentary Cheer made me care,” said Baby.

“I thought the presentation was really interesting and I liked learning about narratives in sports writing,” senior Ashley Nelson said.

Beyond just learning about sports writing, the main takeaway for most from the presentation was how narratives give meaning to sports.

FBI Agent Tracy Walder Walks Through Autobiography Process

The annual Literary Festival brought many speakers, one of whom was Tracy Walder, a former CIA and FBI agent.

From 2000 to 2004, Walder worked in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations as Staff Operations Officer in the Counterterrorism Center’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Group. During her time in this department, she was sent to several different regions of Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Her role was to assess the plans and capabilities of terrorist groups. 

In 2004, Walder became a Special Agent at the FBI and specialized in Chinese Counterintelligence Operations. She later became a teacher and taught history at The Hockaday School here in Dallas. 

Walder’s workshop focused on how to write an autobiography and she used examples from her own memoir to make what she was saying clearer to students. She also explained how to write a good story that would keep readers interested. 

“It was important to me that my story was a narrative and not just facts,” Walder said.

One of the key points in her discussion was how to find interesting moments in one’s life and create a narrative around them. She explained that many times people will glaze over fascinating and important details because they find it uninteresting. She went on to say that it’s vital not to let these stories go unnoticed because they may prove to be interesting to unexpected audiences.  

To further extend her point, Walder had the students participate in an exercise. She read aloud various questions that each student answered on a sheet of paper. They then traded papers with someone else and were asked to circle the answer that seemed most interesting to them.

After this, each student took turns interviewing their partner about the circled answer to learn more about it. When this was done, Walder asked the group if they were surprised by what their partner circled. Most said they were.

“I thought the whole workshop was very cool and interesting,” sophomore Mary Kate Ferguson said. “I’m going to buy her book and I can’t wait to read it.”

While most of the allotted time was taken up by the activity and Walder reading aloud from her autobiography, she ended the session by answering any questions the students had for her and speaking more in-depth about her writing process. 

She explained that one of the challenges of getting her book published was that the CIA’s Publications Review Board kept requesting that she remove any highly classified information. Walder said it took her four tries before she was finally allowed to publish her book.

She also revealed that an ABC television series based on her autobiography is in production. “Grey’s Anatomy” star Ellen Pompeo will serve as executive producer with Walder acting as a consultant to the series. 

To learn more about Walder’s life as a CIA and FBI agent, be sure to check out her new book, “The Unexpected Spy.”

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