South Whidbey woman pursues dream to gather writers

"Celeste Mergens, left, founder of the Whidbey Island Writers' Conference, presents a scholarship award to South Whidbey High School student Erica Sherman at the 2000 event. Mergens will again open the conference with a welcome from Whidbey this year.Parents ask their toddlers, when tears begin to flow or screams of frustration rend the air, What do you want? Tell me what you want. A few years later, the children are advised to ask straight out for what they want and to say please and thank you. It sounds so simple.Yet most of us continue through life, hemming and hawing, We procrastinate and fret. We don't believe we can ask for something simply because we want it.Some years ago Freeland resident Celeste Mergens decided to ask. She knew she wanted something, so she went about making it happen.A budding writer with book-in-hand, Mergens had attended two of the renowned Maui Writing Conferences. It was all she'd anticipated, but it had been difficult for her to manage the expense and the time away from her young family. In 1997, Mergens began working to accomplish her vision of creating a gathering of the best novelists, biographers, playwrights, storytellers and poets available, to inspire and mentor other writers. She founded the Whidbey Island Writers' Conference. She had no money, no volunteers, no committees, no writers--only her dream.She likens her quest to that in the movie, Field of Dreams, telling herself, If I build it on Whidbey Island, they will come. Her husband Don promised to be with her all the way. Her children -- Ashley, Jason, Dane, Kevin, Raymond, Breana and Reed -- applauded and gave her big smiles. She took her dream to friends and other writers.I was delighted to discover there were any number of fellow dreamers in the community, she said. Catching her enthusiasm, they talked, planned, wrote letters, made phone calls, begged, borrowed, and wondered if they could do it. From the beginning, lights at the Mergens' house burned late into the night and again in the early hours of the morning. The house is quiet then, with the children asleep, an easier time for work, Mergens said. She still works late and rises again early for East Coast calls, and to respond to e-mail, she said.The initial group of writers' conference supporters quickly organized themselves into what they termed the board, pooling their talent and experience in the complicated task of putting together so major an event. One of the first questions I was asked was how, with no hotels on Whidbey, could I house all the people coming to the conference? Mergens said. I phoned our local Bed & Breakfast Association and discovered there were 700 beds available between Clinton and Coupeville. We were off and running.As the planning progressed, Mergens adhered to a commitment of perfection and an insistence that the Whidbey Island Writers' Conference should be unique, distinctly Whidbey, personal, supportive and a fun opportunity for learning.It took 16 months for the dream to become reality. In March 1999, with fear, trembling, and sometimes panic, she said, Mergens, the 'board' and a large troupe of volunteers, launched the first Whidbey Island Writers' Conference. From across the country and from Canada came 150 participants, plus the presenters. Though not in a climate like Maui's, the Whidbey Island conferences have been like a pool party, where teachers and students alike have bravely jumped into the water, splashed each other, laughed, cried, swum laps, waded in the shallow part and relaxed. They have left weary on the last day, but revitalized and asking for more. For two years, Mergens and her crew have smiled and promised another conference The first two conferences provided participants with the opportunity to write poetry with an accomplished poet, design plots with a best-selling author, talk to publishers and agents, listen and learn. Those attending have also enjoyed the unique first day of 'Fireside Chats' in private homes. And Mergens was emphatic when she said, Our goal is to continue the one-on-one supportive and enriching approach in all subsequent Whidbey Island Writers' Conferences. The word has been passed: success. The third, 2001 Whidbey Island Writers' Conference will take place soon, March 2-4. And as she reviews the past two years Mergens says that one of the hardest parts of the job now is having to say no to presenters who want to return again after a second year. We have to rotate them, she said with a sad smile. One called to ask if it were possible to return and just hang out at a table in the cafeteria to talk writing?With success has come growth. Reservations and inquiries for this year's conference have come from as far as France and Africa. Mergens estimates attendance will be about 250, and speculates that enrollment will have to be closed if it reaches 300 in the future. We want to keep the conferences small and personal, and the planning for our 2002 conference is already under way.Mergens recalled that the conference budget of two years ago, in 1999, was $3,500 and they made it, nearly. This year, she said, our expenses are much higher, with arrangements for 39 presenters, two receptions and two lunches, more space for workshops and classes, plus packets, programs and advertising. She is serious as she expresses her sincere gratitude for the quality time of the coordinators and the quantity of hours donated by all the volunteers. She is also most grateful for the cooperation and generosity of the community. How does Mergens, the 21-member 'board' and the volunteers feel on Sunday afternoon when the conference is over?We lean against a wall and slide down to the floor, she said. Feet are bleeding, heads are throbbing, bodies aching, but we're smiling and thinking to ourselves, 'We can do it another year, but thank heavens now for the clean-up committee.'Is there any time off? Yes. Work stops during the month of May. But in June, Mergens is back again, once more inspiring, motivating and guiding. The dream springs to life again. "

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