098 – The Joy of Writers’ Conferences with Guest Marilyn Rhoads

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The Joy of Writers Conferences with Guest Marilyn Rhoads on the Write from the Deep podcast with Karen Ball and Erin Taylor Young

Writer—and president of Oregon Christian Writers—Marilyn Rhoads shares what makes the OCW conference such a joyous event. And how God uses writers’ groups and conferences to build lifelong friendships and support systems for writers. Come listen in and share the fun!

About Marilyn Rhoads

Marilyn Rhoads serves as president and Cascade Writing Contest Co-Chair for Oregon Christian Writers. She has taught in the Salem and Eugene public school districts and owned her own bookstore, Books and Things. As executive director of Orchard Inn, a non-profit agency, Marilyn wrote an extensive number of well-funded grants. She also fund-raised and marketed for the organization. Marilyn free-lanced for Harvest House Publishers as a proofer and end-reader for several years. She is involved in two critique groups and writes historical romance novels. The mother of two grown daughters, Marilyn and her husband, Jim, reside in the countryside near Eugene, Oregon, and are University of Oregon graduates. Marilyn holds a B.A. and an M.A.

Thanks to our patrons on Patreon, we can now provide an edited transcript of our interview!

Erin: Welcome, writers. We’re so excited to have you here with us in the deep. We have a guest! Yes we do!

Karen: Yay!

Erin: Her name is Marilyn Rhoads, and I’m going to let Karen tell you guys all about her.

Karen: I met Marilyn years, and years, and years ago at one of the Oregon Christian Writers Conferences. We’d been writers for a lot of years and have both participated in this conference, which is a great conference, and we’ll talk some about that. She’s a writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest, the best place in the world to live.

She’s the president of the fifty-six-year-old Oregon Christian Writers. They’re the group that holds that conference. And, just so you know, Oregon Christian Writers is a 501c3 organization. You know what that means? That means you can make donations that go to tuition assistance for the annual OCW conference or to one of their three one-day conferences. They really believe in giving back to conferences.

Marilyn has been a secondary teacher and a reading specialist, an independent bookstore owner, and she’s a prolific grant writer. She’s also a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers. Marilyn, welcome! We are so happy to have you here with us.

Marilyn: Well thanks! It’s wonderful to be with the two of you.

Erin: So, Marilyn, right off the bat let’s put you on the spot. We always ask people what does the deep mean to them. It’s different for everyone, and we love hearing the answers. So what does the deep mean to you?

Marilyn: The deep means laying down your life for Jesus. Doing whatever it takes to obey. To love others.

Karen: I love that.

Erin: That’s a great answer. As you’re in the deep, doing whatever it takes to obey, that makes me think about your service to Oregon Christian Writers. How did you even get started going to Oregon Christian Writers? What led you to them and led you to now become the president?

Marilyn: I was interested in doing fiction writing and I love historical romance. I spent a number of years doing various things. I had a bookstore, I was a teacher before that. I ran a nonprofit, a 501c3 here in the city of Eugene for homeless young women under the age of 21.

Erin: Wow.

Marilyn: I did extensive grant writing, and I’d sit there working with budgets which had to comply with the IRS. And I’d say, “Lord, someday please could I write something I enjoy?”

He gave me that desire. He fulfilled it. And I had started working for a missionary. She had a worldwide ministry. I had helped her write a book and then I wrote a book for her. We were going great guns and the Lord said to me, “No, you’re done.”

I said, “What?”

He said, “No. Write.”

I said, “I am writing. Write what?”

He never did tell me. I said, “Fine. I’ll write what I like.” So I did. I started writing, and I thought, “I need some help. I really do need some help, even though I’m an English major. There must be other writers somewhere.”

My husband saw a tiny little 2 x 2″ notice in the local paper and said, “There’s a Christian writing conference being held in Eugene. I think you ought to go.”

So I did and I thought, “Oh, what a sweet little organization with a little Mennonite president in her cap, and a treasurer who’s in her eighties, aww, how nice they are.” And then I heard their budget and I went. “Whoa. These people are professionals and they mean business!”

I have been a teacher and a union rep years ago so I understood what it took to run an organization like that. So I was very impressed.

Karen: That is very cool.

Erin: So what benefit do you think you’ve gotten from being involved in that organization?

Marilyn: Well, you make a lot of lifetime friendships. I’m very close to people in my critique group. I’m close to people I volunteer with because we’ve been through a lot together. As you go through challenges together and you have to rely and lean on one another, you value one another more. You learn together.

Erin: Yeah.

Karen: So talk to us about your volunteering—you volunteer as the president. That’s a rarity these days, for someone to volunteer and do such a big job. So what draws you into being a volunteer?

Marilyn: Well, the answer I always give people is that I just made the mistake of volunteering one time too often! The real answer is that the selection committee came to me and said, “You have a choice.”

I said, “Really?”

They said, “Our president is retiring and her position will be open, so you can have one of two positions.”

I said, “I thought I was done here. I’m thinking I’m in my twilight years, can I just have some rest?” No.

So they said, “You can have either the summer conference director position or you can be president.” Lindy was already doing the summer conference director position, and she was one of the selection committee.

So I said, “Okay then. I guess I’ll be president.”

So they put my name up, and you know, we got in. I do have an interesting story of how I got my first job at OCW if you’re interested.

Karen: Yes, please.

Marilyn: Well, I had only been around for year. I had been to all their conferences, and one of the nominating committee was in my critique group, and she nominated me. They didn’t want me because I had only been in the organization for a year and some of these people had been in there since Moses was alive.

So they didn’t want me, and I thought, “Great, I don’t want you either. I mean, you’re wonderful, but I don’t want to volunteer. I’d been a professional volunteer for years. I don’t want to work that hard.”

The person they had in mind decided not to do it, so they asked me again. They just asked if I’d allow my name to run. So I asked my husband and I asked my Bible study leader, whom I respect greatly.

They said, “Did you pray about it?”

I said, “No, I don’t want to do it, so I didn’t pray about it.”

Karen: Because I know what God’s gonna say…

Marilyn: Yeah I knew what he was going to say. So I did pray, and I said, “All right here’s my bio. You can run my name on your election.”

One of my other critique partners said to me, “Marilyn, congratulations on being the new program officer!”

I said, “No, no. I just allowed my name to run.”

She said, “Sweetie, they only run one name.”

Being naïve is not exactly safe. You need to do your homework.

Karen: I love that. Well, you do a terrific job. You had me come in to be keynote speaker for one of your one-day conferences. In addition to doing the annual conference, which is a big deal, you guys have three one-day conferences throughout the year. That was so much fun. I only live about three and a half hours south of where the conference was being held and came in.

The thing that has always impressed me about OCW is just how warm and friendly everyone is there. And how open they are to hearing what you have to say. When I got up on the stage to speak, everybody was just on the edge of their seats. They were there, and they were excited, and they were involved and ready to hear what God had for them. I really enjoy the conference a lot.

Marilyn: Well, we liked having you. I have a story about you. You were there, and there was a glitch at the summer conference. You know, big conferences, there’s always a glitch when you get that many people together. I said to you as we were passing in the hall, “I need a favor. We have a new conferee who’s heartbroken because she submitted her manuscript but it didn’t get reviewed. I’ve heard you say before you spend five minutes per manuscript. Would you spend five minutes on this lady so she won’t cry?”

You said, “Of course.” And you did it. So I thought that was wonderful!

Karen: That’s neat!

Marilyn: I remember at another conference, one of the editors was ill, and he had nineteen manuscripts to review. He was deathly ill with the flu, and you came up and said, “I’ll do it.” So I think when it comes to laying down your life, Karen, you have really done some wonderful things for OCW.

Karen: Oh, thank you. Well, I love you guys. I really do. It was interesting, for a lot of years the summer conference used to be over my birthday. When I was working at the publishing houses, you guys invited me every year. I told my husband, “I love this conference, but I’m only going to do it every other year so at least I have a couple of years of birthday at home.”

Marilyn: Aw, that’s wonderful.

Erin: The cool thing about those conferences, you mentioned Karen as a faculty member, I mean, being on both sides—I’ve been on both sides as well, as a faculty member and attendee—I love how the faculty are always pulling for the conferees.

For those writers out there who maybe feel a bit intimidated by going to a writers conference, the faculty there are pulling for you. The volunteers are pulling for you. The people who put those conferences together are pulling for you and rooting for you. We’re always there to help, to do good, wherever and however we can, because we’re all on the same team. We all want to see God glorified. We want to see words on paper that change lives through God’s grace.

Marilyn: That’s right. We are all on the same team headed for the same direction with the same ultimate destination in mind.

Karen: Right. That’s one of the blessings of writing for God. You’re not in it for yourself. You’re in it to accomplish His purposes, and only He knows what those purposes are—whether it’s publication or whether it’s something else. The beauty of it is when you meet people at a writers conference and when you establish, like you said, those life long friendships, you can support each other in the midst of the journey. When things get difficult you have friends there to lift you up. When things are great you have people to rejoice with you. You can’t replace that sense of community.

Marilyn: No, you can’t.

Erin: Having been, as you have said, to many OCW conferences, tell us a little bit about what one day at one of the conferences would look like. Maybe the summer conference? It’s coming up right? That’s in August?

Karen: It is.

Erin: We’ll have a link to that conference, guys, in the show notes. So, Marilyn, if you can, describe what one day at the summer conference would look like.

Marilyn: Well we do breakfast however you want it, which is relaxing. You don’t have to be downstairs at 8 AM. You can choose when you appear. We have devotions. Which aren’t likely because I’m a night owl.

Karen: Yeah, me too.

Marilyn: I’m with friends for a long time in the evening. Our theme is Cheetos and chocolate in my room. We actually had someone show up and think that we had chocolate-covered Cheetos. No, we don’t. We have Cheetos and chocolate, and we always bring extra food. My roommate is Julie Zander. We do the Cascade Contest together, so we’re war veterans. We have to work very closely together on that one.

So we get up and do breakfast however you want it. You can go sit in the restaurant and look at the river, which is fabulous. The location is incredible. Or you can have room service. Or we usually just bring a muffin and coffee or tea or whatever. And then we go downstairs and we have devotions and morning worship. And that’s fabulous. It’s a wonderful way to start the day. This year Bob Hostetler is going to give our little devotional messages every morning.

Karen: Aw, he’s great.

Marilyn: He’s funny! I know, he’s wonderful. Then we go to our coaching class. I’m going to go to Stephen James this year. By the way he’s doing the early bird the first day of the conference. So we go to a coaching class, whatever you choose, I think there’s thirteen different ones, seven hours total.

Erin: Nice!

Marilyn: Then we get out for lunch. OCW still does the name tags on the table so you can sit with an agent or editor or whomever you choose to sit with. We also do something wonderful for new people. I’m kind of in charge of the newbies, and we have special tables for them. If they want to get together, network and pass around cards and be there together, they can do that.

I always have special people situated at those tables to give them great advice. Sometimes it’s a shortcut. They wanted to see a Karen Ball or an Erin Taylor Young, but they’re trying to publish a cookbook, that might not be in their best interest. So we’ll try to put them with the right person and shortcut what’s happening with their conference objectives.

In the afternoon, there are two workshops. People choose from about twenty-four. Then we usually have a panel at about 5 o’clock. An agents panel, magazine editors, book editors panel, something current that’s going on. And then we break for dinner.

The bookstore is always going on, the prayer room is always going on. On day two, the writing center appointments go on, where you can actually meet with an editor or an agent for fifteen minutes each.

Erin: Nice.

Marilyn: Or we have something different, which are mentor appointments, and those are half an hour. For example, I hope to get a mentor appointment with Brian Bird, the screenwriter.

Karen: Ah, right.

Marilyn: Yeah. So there are all sorts of things to do. After dinner, we start night owls. Those usually go until ten o’clock at night. When you’re through, you can socialize, do your homework, or read the note book and find out what’s going on the next day.

The wise person doesn’t do everything. I usually do everything. There are poetry readings. We had Frank Paretti come, and he brought his guitar and they did a jam session downstairs. So there’s all sorts of breakout points. I think Thomas Umstattd is doing podcasting.

Erin: Nice.

Marilyn: There’ll be a critique group one night. All sorts of things. And then we have the big Cascade Contest awards. That’s done by James Rubart and Susan May Warren. They’re awesome, and it’s very, very funny. Susan May Warren wrote the script last year, and my name is Marilyn, so they did the James Bond thing and they called me M and my partner Q. So they’re very funny. They’re hysterical when they get wound up together. That’s a very fun night with dessert afterwards.

We close the conference on Thursday morning with the half a day. We go to our coaching classes, then we come in and take communion together, which is a very sweet, touching, moving time. We’re bonding together. Some of us won’t see each other for a whole year because I believe we have people coming from twenty-four states and two countries.

Erin: Wow.

Karen: That’s great.

Erin: I love the way you describe this, Marilyn, because it’s so clear that it’s a joy and it’s a passion of your heart. That’s one of the reasons Karen and I have been wanting to talk about writing conferences—to help people know what a beautiful thing these are and how beneficial they are. I love the way you’ve described it. It’s like a big party where you get to learn stuff and praise God.

Karen: That’s right.

Marilyn: That’s exactly what it is. We try not to tell our husbands that, but that’s what it is! And we get more and more men, by the way, every year, which is great. For many years that wasn’t the case, but now we’re getting more and more men interested, and lots of pastors are in that audience.

And we have Aaron Doerr from Rolling Hills Church, who is their music director, and he comes and directs our Music for the evening sessions. It is over the moon, I’m telling you. It is fantastic. The spiritual depth and quality is something that many people don’t have at home. We always get people remarking on that and the evaluations.

Erin: Right, and I think for people who don’t have the support at home, necessarily, this is also a good shot in the arm. Not everybody feels like they’re getting support and understanding from their friends and neighbors and all that.

I want to go back to the Cascade Writing Contest that you mentioned. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Marilyn: That’s something that happens every year. It opens on Valentine’s Day and closes on March 31. People can enter in whatever category they choose. I think we have 22 or 23 categories. If the category is thin, sometimes we’ll put middle grade books in with young adult or something else suitable.

I do published and my partner, Julie Zander, does unpublished. So we have something for everyone. Then we ask our members to put their hand to the plow and do some heavy sacrificing to judge all these things. We have preliminary rounds. I go to a midsized church, and they’re getting to the point where they call it Marilyn’s book club. Because if you’re there and you’re breathing and you’re a competent human being, you are automatically judging. We get some wonderful reactions.

In the final round, we have professionals do the judging. They judge three finalists. Jane Kirkpatrick was a judge this year, and Jim Hill. We have a number of notable people judging.

Karen: That’s terrific.

Marilyn: Then we do two trophies beyond that. Generally two. We do a Writer of Promise, where we’re looking around to find somebody who we think has a wonderful future ahead of them. Karen Barnett was one, and Camille Eide, and April McGowan. Then we do the Trailblazer Award for people who have been there and who’ve given and given from their heart to help empower other writers. One of them has been Leslie Gould. Melody Dobson. Judy Gann. So we have people who are powerhouses. Sally Stewart who did the Christian Writers Market Guide for twenty-seven years.

Karen: Sally is wonderful.

Marilyn: OCW has birthed some powerful people in the past. I’ve heard Lorraine Snelling say that more than one time. She came out of OCW.

Erin: Wonderful.

Karen: Well, Marilyn, thank you so much for sharing your excitement and enthusiasm. It’s so clear that Oregon Christian Writers and their conferences are all focused on serving God and helping writers do that same thing. I’m just so grateful for the conference and for all that you’ve done for them and for sharing about them with our listeners today.

For those of you who are listening, you can learn more about both the organization and the conference at oregonchristianwriters.org. You can find out more about Marilyn on her website at marilynrhoads.com. So, Marilyn, again, thank you so much for coming. Here’s to another great conference this year.

Marilyn: Thanks, ladies!

Erin: Yes, thank you!

Oregon Christian Writers Conference

We want to hear from you!

Do you have a writing group? Have you met writers at conferences who’ve become close friends?


Guest @MarilynRhoads shares what makes the OCW conference such a joyous event!


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Special thank you to Wendy L. Macdonald, our July sponsor of the month! You can learn more about her at her website wendylmacdonald.com. Aside from being a writer, she produces a short, weekly, inspirational podcast called Walking with Hope for HopeStreamRadio.com.

Many thanks also to the folks at Podcast Production Services for their fabulous editing!


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    • Erin Taylor Young says:

      Thank YOU, Marilyn! We had a great time with you, and I’m delighted that people get to learn about OCW!

  1. Carol Wilson says:

    A geyser of pride shot up within me as I read this. OCW has given gift upon gift to me for a number of years–gifts of encouragement & inspiration, gifts of friendship, gifts of laughter, gifts of applicable teaching.

    Marilyn, you always provide a kind, comforting presence. I appreciate your devotion and sacrifice–along with all the other volunteers–of time to OCW for the writing community. Karen, I am grateful I got to attend when you keynoted and taught fun workshops.

    • Karen Ball says:

      Thanks, Carol. So grateful for all that OCW gave you—and continues to give to so many.


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