Julie Mcdonald commentary: Conference draws wordsmiths to Twin Cities for learning, camaraderie


They drove from Seattle, Portland, Eugene, Astoria and parts in between — and at least one rode the train — and helped fill Twin Cities hotel rooms last weekend to teach or attend the Ninth Annual Southwest Washington Writers Conference.

It’s always inspiring to gather with people who share your love for the written word. We learn from agents, published writers, poets and others during workshops and leave inspired if perhaps a bit overwhelmed and exhausted.

“Your conference has an informality and friendliness that some of the larger conferences often lack,” said Alan Rose, a Woodland author who taught a workshop Saturday on writing grand openings and has taught for Willamette Writers. “The setting and the atmosphere are welcoming and relaxed and make for easy networking and finding others of shared writing interests.”

“The connections I have made through attending this conference over the years have turned into lifelong friendships,” said Connie Jasperson, a volunteer who recently moved to Olympia from Tenino. “I’ve met people I can talk to about every aspect of the experience of writing as well as craft. No one’s eyes glaze over when you try to explain your main character’s inner demons, and you find people with struggles similar to your own.”

The conference grew from a Thursday evening writers’ critique group that met at the Centralia Unity Church and drew writers from Mossyrock, Toledo, Centralia, Napavine, Olympia and elsewhere. We decided in May 2014 that we should host a writers’ conference in September, which wasn’t the brightest idea as we didn’t have a lot of time to organize and publicize it. The late Micheal Hurley, of Mossyrock, recruited a friend of his, well-known author of mystery thriller and suspense books Robert Dugoni, to keynote the conference. We scheduled a series of workshops and then scrambled to find enough paying people to cover expenses. Two weeks before the conference, I feared we’d either need to cancel or fork out several thousand dollars from our pockets to cover our costs.

Lo and behold, we paid our bills and raised nearly $1,000 for the Lewis County Literacy Council. The next year we benefited the Lewis County Historical Museum, then the Veterans Memorial Museum and the Centralia Fox Theater. Keynoters included historical fiction writer Jane Kirkpatrick in 2015, memoirist Jennifer Lauck in 2016, and bestselling fiction writers Dugoni (again) and Mike Lawson in 2017.

Then we asked the Lewis County Writers Guild to organize the conference, which it did with thriller author Simon Wood as keynoter in 2018 and mystery and suspense writer Halle Ephron in 2019. The guild earmarked proceeds for Centralia College Foundation scholarships, expanded the conference to two days, and formalized the Southwest Washington Writers Conference as a nonprofit.

The COVID-19 pandemic killed the 2020 conference, and I received an email in January 2021 saying the guild no longer wanted to run the conference, which truly is a lot of work. Either we took it back or let it die.

Those of us who started the conference wanted to see it keep going and growing, so we accepted responsibility for organizing the 2021 conference, complete with masks, sanitizers, social distancing, and temperature taking. Marketing guru and novelist James L. Rubart taught a master class on author branding, and Melanie Dobson, a historical fiction and time-slip novelist, served as keynoter. She’s one of my favorite authors. In fact, I drive nearly 200 miles round-trip one evening a month to a writers’ critique group she hosts at her home in Sherwood, Oregon, just so I can learn from an expert. She has taught workshops many times at our conference and returned again this year to teach a wonderful session, “From Spark to Story.”

Last year, we invited another of my favorite authors, science fiction and fantasy writer Jeff Wheeler, to keynote the conference and teach the master class. And this year, we were fortunate to have Elizabeth Goddard, who recently moved to Centralia, serve as keynoter and teach several workshops while two authors from the Willamette Valley taught the master class. Last year, we donated about $2,600 to the Centralia College Foundation for scholarships.

“What a wonderful tradition this conference has become!” said Sandy Crowell, of Olympia, one of the founders of the conference and author of The Land Called Lewis. “I left inspired.”

This year we invited people to pitch novels to agent Scott Eagan, of Puyallup, and speak with local editors — Eric Schwartz, editor-in-chief of The Chronicle, and Krysta Carper, with LewisTalk and ThurstonTalk — who graciously agreed to take time from their Saturday to meet with writers. 

Although I’ve headed the conference, just like with my daughter’s wedding, it never could succeed without help from a host of volunteers past and present — Kyle Pratt, James Pratt and Amy Flugel of Napavine; Debby Lee and Debbie Majores, both of Centralia; Mary Stone, of Castle Rock; Robin Montgomery and Danette Emberlin-Fuhrer, both of Adna; Joyce Scott, of Chehalis; Kristie Kandoll, of Olympia; Debby Lee, of Centralia; Jaimee Walls, of Vancouver; Aimee Cardenas, of Morton; Don Harkcom, of Lacey; and Jasperson, Crowell, Bill Lindstrom, Johanna Flynn and Sherry Stacy, all of Olympia. 

I’m grateful to Gorham Printing in Centralia, which has sponsored the volunteer-run conference since its inception. In addition to printing the program, the company has donated money for scholarships. 

Presenters and conferees rave about the scrumptious boxed lunches delivered each day from Dawn’s Delectables. When they ask, I always sing the praises of the Centralia sandwich shop and tell them where it’s located so they can stop next time they’re passing through Centralia.

Bobbi from Book ’n’ Brush in Chehalis does a fantastic job running the conference bookstore, but it’s a huge job, so one of our volunteers, Danette, assisted her (and graciously drove to the store for water when we ran low).

Robin, our conference secretary who writes for LewisTalk and ThurstonTalk and travel pieces for the Shaka Guide audio tours, said she enjoyed “learning practical tips from experts, meeting other writers and making connections.”

“I came away inspired, motivated and encouraged,” she said. “I can’t wait to put some of these ideas into practice!”

Every year I return home from the conference exhausted and tell my husband it’s past time for me to quit. This year was no exception. I crawled into bed, spread Biofreeze on my neck, popped a couple of Tylenol, and slept. 

But on Sunday, as I tallied nearly a hundred evaluations of the two-day event, I was excited to read comments about how much people enjoyed the conference. 

I was even more heartened to see many people indicate a willingness to volunteer. As the saying goes, many hands make light work.

Mary, our conference treasurer, referred to the Southwest Washington Writers Conference tagline when reflecting on the event.

“SWW’s tagline, ‘We are inspired to write and write to inspire!’ couldn’t have been more well-said than at this 2023 conference.”


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.