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The Most Memorable Conference

You never forget your first conference.  I don’t mean the first writers conference that you “go” to. I mean the first conference where one of the organizers asks you to actually stand up and talk to an audience.

There are a lot of reasons I will never forget that “first” conference as a presenter, which was the inaugural Scribblers Retreat Writers Conference at St. Simons Island, Georgia in May of 2009. The fact that it was set in my earthly view of heaven just made it so much better!

As usual, when it comes to outstandingly good things, serendipity had a lot to do with it. Not quite everything, but a lot.

Although I live in Wisconsin, I grew up in Chicago and so I claimed “expatriate” status and joined the Chicago Writers Association several years ago.  I can’t say enough good things about the CWA in terms of people, and encouragement, and talent, and opportunity—it’s an incredible, vibrant organization with, among other things, the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame to its recent credit. As a writing organization in a large city, however, it also serves as a focal point for organizations looking for donations, talent, participants, and the sharing of assorted good news.

One tidbit of information that was passed along to the group by email was the announcement that the Scribblers Retreat conference was starting up and promoting itself. The location was St. Simons Island, Georgia. 

This particular island in Georgia is literally my favorite place on earth. When I was still married and our children were younger, we spent several Easter vacations and/or spring breaks there enjoying incredibly long walks on the flat beaches when the tides were low, watching pelicans fly past our beach towels, looking for dolphins, and taking bird-watching tours of the salt marshes. (Okay, the bird watching was always my idea, but we had fun…)

Post divorce, I looked back on those vacations wistfully, and wondered whether I would ever have a reason to return and walk out at low tide, surrounded on three sides by water and feeling like I was at the absolute end of the earth, waves at my ankles and wind in my hair.

I emailed one of the conference organizers, Jeanie Pantelakis (now a literary agent), with the revelation that this new conference was going to be held in my favorite place on earth. I included a link to my blog, Running with Stilettos, and mentioned that I had recently compiled a bunch of my essays into a book. We hit it off, and a few emails later, I was on board.  I didn’t care that I was volunteering my time and paying my own expenses…I was going back to the island! I felt happy. I felt triumphant. I felt GREAT!

I rented a car for a day when I got there, and spent time touring the island, spending time at stores and places that had always seemed a bit short-shrifted when four children were the focus of my attention. Far from feeling melancholy at returning under such different circumstances, I felt somehow vindicated.  I felt adventurous. And I felt incredibly welcomed. In my spare time, I forced myself to climb to the top of the lighthouse.  In previous visits, my fear of heights had kept me grounded while my spouse took the kids to the top and I waved from below, my stomach lurching with vertigo just to watch them up there. Jeanie booked a horseback ride for me at the luxurious Sea Island Club (now the Sea Island Resorts) nearby on my “off” morning, and with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, I climbed aboard a pretty chestnut mare for a trail ride beside the ocean. I had broken my back in a riding accident nearly fifteen years before, and had not felt good about getting into a saddle since then.  But this time, riding was delightful and relaxing once more.

I came away from the island with a profound sense of gratitude for this opportunity, not just because I got to stand up and talk about writing to an audience, but because I got to return to a place I loved and felt my soul restore with every step I took there. I made life-long friends, had emotionally ground-breaking experiences, and even eventually ended up with a very nice book blurb by author William Rawlings—who had been the keynote speaker at the conference—for my NEXT essay collection, "Heck on Heels."

I spoke again the next year at the Scribblers Retreat conference, and am on board to give a presentation on the subject of self-publishing there in September of this year as well. Yes, of course I am absolutely thrilled to return to the island yet again…although technically the conference has moved upscale since the last time I was there and will be held on Sea Island.

But I will certainly never forget that first time!