Writers Elizabeth King Gerlach, Liza Porter and Janice Gilbertson

Writers Elizabeth King Gerlach, Liza Porter and Janice Gilbertson

I’ve never been a joiner. At age seven I was kicked out of Brownies for insubordination. When I was twenty-something, personality assessment tests administered by prospective employers determined that I was a “maverick” employee, someone who consistently went my own way and generally believed my opinions were unimpeachable.

I’m older now. With age comes insight: sometimes other people know things that I would like to learn or have access to resources that I would like to have. Though the lonely chained-to-the-desk side of writing is where I’m most comfortable, I recognize the need for working with other writing professionals.

The best place to find these allies is in writing organizations. I belong to Western Writers of America, Pacific Northwest Writers Association and Women Writing the West. Each of these groups holds an annual conference.

I cry, I scream, I drag my worn-down heels, but eventually I acknowledge that there’s no substitute for meeting other writers, editors, publishers, agents and publicists in person. Casting a mournful eye at my savings account balance, I choose one conference a year, fill out the form and sign up for a few intense days in a vibrant writing community.

Last week I attended the Women Writing the West conference in Redmond, Oregon. Upon arrival at Eagle Crest Resort I checked in and picked up a schedule. Friday and Saturday were packed with tours, workshops, pitch sessions and special events. I inwardly rolled my eyes and wondered how I’d survive the pace, the crowds, the tsunami of information that was coming my way. As I settled in to my room, poet, novelist and conference crony Janice Gilbertson called. We hooked up minutes later and grabbed dinner before the literary storm rolled in.

And what a storm it was! 110 attendees banded together as conference chairs Jane Kirkpatrick and Shanna Hatfield set the tone for the coming days, creating a safe and respectful environment in which to learn and grow. I joined the tour of the impressive High Desert Museum and Atelier 6 (a print shop and gallery in Bend, OR, that featured an exhibit of Edward Curtis photos), watched a screening of Heathens and Thieves with Q & A by director Megan Peterson, attended a wide variety of relevant workshops and ate a piece of chocolate cake so delicious it made my toes curl. Many of us signed up for a longed for but nerve-wracking “pitch session” with an editor, agent or publicist, a brief one-on-one meeting for persuading one of the above to publish your manuscript or take you on as a client. No conference is complete without a dinner or two honoring the work of high-achieving members. The LAURA awards for short stories and the WILLAs for published books were presented and the winners in attendance read to us from their work. If you’ve never been to an author reading put it on your bucket list, it’s a feast of nuance and expression.

An event that one week earlier had created panic in my soul (when I realized I needed to buy pantyhose for the first time in 20 years) transformed into a happening that I wished hadn’t ended quite so soon. I’ll try to resurrect that feeling the next time I’m filling out a conference registration form and grinding my molars in dread. It will save my dentist a lot of trouble.

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