My decision to attend the Highlights Foundation Writing and Illustrating Nature and Science for Kids and Teens retreat could not have come at a better time. As of writing this, I am only one month removed from my date of separation from Air Force active duty. The transition has been more difficult than I expected. For this reason, I knew I needed to meet and connect with other creatives, and to dive deeply each day into exploring what was possible for my storytelling. You can learn a lot on your own, but creativity is inherently collaborative. All the work we create now is in dialogue with artists and writers who have come before and work alongside us. I needed to be amongst fellow writers and illustrators and grow my community. 

When I got to the campus, I found my way to my delightful little cabin. The interior was decorated with memorabilia from Jane Yolen who has written over 400 books for children! I was thrilled to be surrounded by her poetry, advice, and books. When I walked around campus, I discovered plenty of spots to tuck away and work. I discovered The Word Garden, with tons of rocks inscribed with various words or symbols. Perfect for assembling poetry or sentences! I also spent hours in The Art Coop – a chicken coop turned art studio! I walked the halls of the Lodge and Barn, which had original works of art hanging on the walls from prominent illustrators. I will admit…seeing work signed by Eric Carle made me feel daunted! It reminded me of walking the halls of the Air Force Academy or Pentagon, where massive paintings tell the history of those who have come before and shaped the institution. I had to remind myself that the work of those whose books lined the shelves of the library and whose art hung on the wall had all started exactly where I was now: square one, one book released, very first retreat ever. 

Our daily classes flew by, and we got to explore “STEAM by the Stream” where I sketched on a rock right above the water flowing by. We stargazed at night and learned about the Perseid meteor shower. Stars shot overhead, the space station meandered across the sky, and satellites flew by – all against the backdrop of the Milky Way. I learned so much in just a few days… how to stop and really see what inspiration is within reach. How to draw forth that inspiration and write for different age groups, in different styles, and for different segments of the book industry. I was given so many tools for storytelling, I know it will take months to feel them all sink into my writing practice. I want that knowledge to settle deep within my bones. 

So much of the creative process is mastering your own internal flow for bringing ideas forth. Often (especially early in the process) ideas may get shot down by other people as “strange, not going to work, good luck with that etc.” This is often why I am very careful not to spread my new story ideas too widely in the beginning, because they are tender at that stage. The book dummies I brought to the retreat explore mycology, marine biology, and somnology. After receiving excellent feedback from instructors, I see that each story has a long way to go! Barely brought forth from the universe, I must trust in the value of my ideas until they stand on their own. Entering into community with my fellow writers and illustrators strengthened the ideas I have for my next three books and gave me the insight necessary to bring them forth. My world has expanded significantly with more ways to improve my storytelling. 

The first piece of advice I ever give anyone who wants to pursue a creative path is this: dial into the community that shares your interests. Do not try to do this alone. Even knowing this, I hadn’t realized how badly I needed to grow my creative community until I sat amongst my classmates and reveled in their ideas and talents. Something clicked into place for me on this trip regarding identity. When I looked at my classmates, all of them had amazing careers in STEM, education and many even had PhDs. All of them were actively pursuing their creativity by weaving together all the different aspects of their identities and interests. A passion for the weather led one of my classmates, a Meteorologist, to write a book educating children about storms! 

I wondered “what if… the dichotomy I always perceived from within the military… wasn’t the whole picture?” You know what I mean, that whole concept of “creative versus not creative.” I always believed we are all creative, but that some people have more trouble than others accessing it in a rigid system of hierarchy. But…if we are all inherently creative… what if we find ways to express that creativity through the interweaving of all our identities, rather than the singular selection of an identity?

I think the strongest potential for our self-expression lies within the intersection of all our identities and unique interests.  

No one else has that unique combination of passions and lived experience that you do. This is why no one can tell the stories or make the art or music you uniquely can. It’s not that you “are or are not” creative, it is that you have (or have not yet) woven together your experiences and interests in such a way as to pull inspiration from them. 

The Highlights Foundation Campus is a place where everything feels possible. It has this insane energy… like a cross between Disney Land and the Vatican… an energy of spiritual possibility. Reverence. The ideas you have are automatically honored and accepted by your fellow creatives, no doubt whatsoever. It is a place where you can receive honest critique on how to improve your work, with no threat of someone diminishing or shooting down your ideas. This is a rare thing, and it’s not something you often find when bringing your ideas to life. Attending the retreat was life changing. When you feel present in your full potential and meet others equally within theirs, anything can happen. Stories. Movies. Dreams. Book magic is strange, but it is very real. We cannot begin to imagine what is possible for us until we take our daring first step – a concrete act of belief in what has not yet been made real. Whatever steps you decide to take in the direction of your dreams, know that all of us walk alongside you in full belief in what you are making possible!