Julie McDonald Commentary: Conference Draws Writers From Oregon and Washington to Centralia

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We did it!

In the midst of a pandemic, we held the Southwest Washington Writers Conference where more than four dozen authors gathered in person Friday and Saturday at Centralia College to learn from one another while enjoying much-needed camaraderie — albeit with many precautions employed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“It was wonderful to connect with other writers in person after such a long COVID hiatus,” said Yvonne Kays, who drove from Bend, Oregon, once again to attend the conference with her friend, Anna Snyder. “You always offer an excellent array of workshop choices. Melanie Dobson gave an inspirational keynote address Saturday and her workshops on writing historical fiction were filled with helpful suggestions, video clip examples and valuable resources. You hit another home run!”

“It’s inspiring to discuss the storytelling craft with other writers and share insights on publishing and advertising,” said author Jake Blake of Toledo. “This conference helped me to see where I need to focus my efforts to reach my target audience.”

Jim Rubart’s Friday master class on “The Art of Branding” struck a positive note with Bill Lindstrom, of Olympia, one of the conference volunteers.

“I was especially moved by his presentation, which was informative, educational, emotional, inspiring and often humorous,” he said. “It was a great kickoff.”

Nobody wanted to create a super spreader event, so volunteers involved in organizing the conference followed all guidelines set forth by Centralia College — and more. We wanted to hold a safe conference where people could connect and learn in a healthy way.

To that end, volunteer James Pratt of Chehalis used a digital thermometer to scan the temperatures of everyone who entered the Walton Science Center Friday and Saturday. Fortunately, we didn’t need to turn anyone away because of a fever.

We required masks and gave one to anyone not wearing one. We provided only prepackaged foods — oranges, bananas, individually wrapped breakfast pastries and snack bars. We ordered scrumptious lunches from Dawn’s Delectables — delivered by owner Dawn Merchant herself. People raved about the lunch in their evaluations and asked us to order them again next year.

Each of our rooms held hand sanitizers with several large bottles scattered throughout the lobby. We bought Clorox wipes to sanitize the tables between sessions.

Our team of volunteers was phenomenal. Speculative fiction author Kyle Pratt of Chehalis, our webmaster and James’ father, served as the technical go-to person, while Amy Flugel organized room monitors who introduced presenters and ensured safety protocols were met during each session. Romance writer Debby Lee taught a workshop, put together raffle baskets and sold tickets, raising $180 for scholarships. Authors Sandy Crowell and Bill Lindstrom, of Olympia, helped recruit presenters, proofread materials, and post signs throughout the building.

“Our writers conference, I think, is a special gift to all of us,” said Crowell, author of “The Land Called Lewis” and editor of “Water, Woods & Prairies,” a history of Thurston County. “It’s small, intimate and inspiring. We get to learn from highly qualified people as well as share our own experiences and work. I had a lot of cobwebs dusted off and new sparks set off.”

My fellow Chronicle columnist Brian Mittge posted photos and provided a Facebook Live video of our Saturday morning keynote, which posed the only issue with social distancing. We were limited to 54 people in the auditorium, which meant presenters had to watch the keynote in another room so paying conferees could see it in person.

Book N Brush in Chehalis graciously offered to run the conference bookstore, and Gorham Printing in Centralia printed our posters and conference programs, provided bags to each conferee, and gave a donation to underwrite the costs so we could raise more money for scholarships offered through the Centralia College Foundation, which handled the money.

All proceeds from the conference benefit the foundation.

We experienced a few pandemic-related hiccups. One presenter didn’t feel comfortable presenting in person, so we recorded her presentation and then called her via Zoom for a live Q&A afterward.

Another one who was teaching two workshops emailed a few days before the conference with bad news: He was exposed to COVID-19 and, although vaccinated, he was in quarantine to avoid potentially spreading the infection. We canceled his workshops, although he graciously provided his handouts to people who registered for his workshops, and conferees still had five others to select from during each period.

And, a few days before the conference, I received an email from John Hughes, Washington state chief historian.

“I look forward to seeing you Saturday, though I’m having deep misgivings about setting foot in a county with such a large cohort of anti-vaxxers,” he wrote. “I’m a cancer survivor, with a still-compromised immune system.”

He asked that only people who are vaccinated attend his workshop, “Shut Up and Listen!”

We never want to compromise anyone’s health, so I emailed those who had signed up for his workshop to ask those who are unvaccinated to select another workshop to attend.

We also had a couple of people cancel because they suffered from sinus issues and couldn’t see wearing a mask for two days. Believe me, I sympathize. In 1995, I was diagnosed with Samter’s Triad (also known as Aspirin-Exacerbated Respiratory Disease) — a chronic condition of asthma, nasal polyps, and aspirin allergy. I’ve undergone five sinus surgeries — with a sixth scheduled later this month — so wearing a mask for two solid days appeared daunting. But it wasn’t impossible, especially when it meant doing my part to keep others safe. I just sweat a lot.

On Saturday morning, Mittge drove to Winlock to pick up Roy Wilson, author of dozens of books on the Cowlitz tribe, prayer, and mediation. He inspired organization of the writers’ critique group that met at Unity Church in Centralia, which spawned the Southwest Washington Writers Conference in 2014. We honored him for his service.

It was so fun to gather again in person after more than 18 months of semi-isolation.

“Julie did an amazing job of organizing the whole show,” Crowell said.

I was honored to receive a beautiful bouquet of red roses from Chehalis writer Joyce Scott, who showed up early Saturday to help us set up, and a gift from my terrific team of volunteers: Sandy, Bill, Kyle, James, Debby and Amy. And presenter Mary Stone of Castle Rock won a raffle prize and gave it to me as a thank you.

I was honored and humbled to help organize the conference, which has as its theme: “We are inspired to write and write to inspire!”

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

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