Hedgebrook LogoHedgebrook Logo

by Hedgebrook Guest

In this post, Hannah Lee Jones captures her experience from VORTEXT in 2015, describing the rich details she took with her and emphasizing the broad “genre, geography, life experiences, [and] thematic passions” of the workshop teachers who will return once again for a reinvigorating weekend of VORTEXT this spring.

For four years the forested lands of the Whidbey Institute at Chinook have been host in May to a conference of women writers from all over the country. The term I prefer over “conference” is convergence, and the convergence is VORTEXT, a three-day writing conference hosted by Hedgebrook which ended last weekend. And I remember each spring how lucky I am that the non-profit retreat for women writers and venue for women’s voices exists just down the road from where I live, here on gorgeous Whidbey Island. 

I’ve applied to Hedgebrook’s annual writing residency program for five years in a row now (rejected all times, but like a puppy, I persist on), and was honored several years ago when their staff Julie O’Brien and Vito Zingarelli recruited me as a volunteer participant due to my years of working as a greeter and communications manager at the Institute. The assignment: drive people in vans and show them where the Farmhouse is. Compensation: soak in as much of the experience as possible while not in van-driving mode, halting for the occasional nibble of a hard-boiled egg or blueberry muffin from the slice of heaven that is the Hedgebrook table, run by chef Denise Barr and her huge-hearted and impossibly limber and lithe kitchen staff (I’m smiling now at the echo of cook Heather Klein’s words to me throughout the weekend: “have you eaten yet?”)

Such is the beating heart of Hedgebrook’s vision of “radical hospitality” for women writers, birthed in 1985 when area philanthropist Nancy Nordhoff purchased a woodsy swath of land near Useless Bay and dreamed of turning it into a haven for women to pause from the breakneck paces of their lives to create, dream, and write. Much has happened since the early days of building the cottages that would become visionary waypoints and dens of solace to hundreds of women, including this still-young annual conference, which keeps growing in exciting new directions with each year.

By its small size, VORTEXT to any newcomer seems at first a simple event: eighty or so women in a large hall, listening with every cell to keynote addresses by authors of national and international renown; workshops in the Farmhouse living room or in the Institute’s echoey Sanctuary, scored with the music of scratching pens or the clicking of laptop keyboards against a background of “aha” moments. But as a returning Vortexter I became aware this year of Hedgebrook’s real essence, which was the aliveness that happens—true to writerly form, I lack a better expression for it—when women come together to share their lives and stories in a beautiful setting that pulls them out of time and into a fullness where, at least for the blur of a few short days, nothing else matters.

This year’s featured authors were all over the map in terms of genre, geography, life experiences, thematic passions. And what a map: Dani Shapiro was every bit as present and uplifting as I’d imagined her, and a quote-filled portal to the wisdom of our literary ancestors; Hannah Tinti was stitch-inducingly funny and out-of-this world imaginative in her sensory and nature-based approach to writing and teaching, and Carole DeSanti brought a grounding and yet supportive editorial and publications perspective on the writing life, topped with Jungian soul wisdom and killer metaphors, comparing popular publication to building a home in Venice. Vortext lifer Ruth Ozeki was still Ruth Ozeki, with her self-deprecating humor, Zen-Buddhist lens and approachable genius that by now should be conference trademark. Victoria Redel, the lone poet in this year’s array of prose writers, turned worlds on their heads by getting everyone in her workshop to throw sequences of thought into illuminating disarray. And though I wasn’t able to join her memoir-writing workshop, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto offered her thoughts to me over lunch on the “MFA or not to MFA” question, which I’ve been asking myself for a long time, in addition to the unusual recommendation that writers tap the mystery and allure of those things they can’t seem to let go. Each experience built upon the last, so that by the end of the weekend I was brimming over, wishing that every woman writer I knew could have been there to share in the experience.

Of course, VORTEXT as an experience is a function of what each woman brings to it—in my case, heaps of excitement mixed with fear and trembling. Sensitive to social stimulation, I was already fraying around the edges after the first day. The open mic on the second night, one of two, was an opportunity to showcase my latest writing efforts in a safe environment, though I had to hold onto the lectern to keep from shaking (and was high afterwards from all the words of support from the women who were there—truly one one of the best things about being at an open mic is hearing someone say to you, “your piece resonated with me. Thank you for reading it.”)

So all the rich conversations about the pros and cons of MFAs, what purpose fiction or memoir serves, the mechanics of poetry, were well worth a case of nerves, I think. That and the many souls who attended who were whip-smart, insightful, generous, and fiercely wise. A young woman from Chicago, here on a grant, chose to camp in Salmonberry meadow (the sole camper in the group—I promised I would join her next year if she returns so that we can do cartwheels together in the grass), and turned out to be a rare voice for the marginalized in literature. At lunch or following a class, out she’d flare with her racial or queer perspectives, and then immediately apologize, asking, “is this too much? Sorry, I should shut up,” to which I had to repeatedly interject that no, it wasn’t too much, and that she absolutely should not shut up. I’d later promise her also that I would add Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior to my reading list. A serendipitous connection formed in the Farmhouse on Saturday night when I encountered another MFA-questioner from Miami who had begun an online project as a self-constructed alternative to the creative writing MFA. A group of us was still swimming in conversation towards midnight when two more women shuffled in wearing their headlamps saying, “we got lost in the woods…”

And lost is the state in which many women found themselves over the weekend, often astonishingly so, putting me in mind of Jared Carter’s brilliant poem about improvisation in writing: “Each time you start, expect to lose your way.” Here was this community of women of all ages and backgrounds, connected by their mutual lostness and finding their voices in the process. Writing being such an isolating pursuit, I am seeing for the first time how this conference could easily become my MFA substitute from year to year, a kind of food for my occasionally famished creative soul.

Until next year, I’m going to be pulling nutrients from all the memories of this time: driving that white van to and from the Institute, the sword ferns choking in the hot May dust; the tear-jerking readings that socked me in the gut; executive director Amy Wheeler smiling and whispering to someone after their open-mic reading, “that was so good!”; the teacher’s faces; the faces of my new friends, laughing over slices of post-open-mic pizza in a restaurant by the sea; conversations in a dusty parking lot with Hedgebrook librarian Evie Wilson-Lingbloom about why I shouldn’t fear my family’s history; someone piling up their plate with grapes and cheese long after the end of a reception, bellowing, “how the hell am I still eating?”; the whirlwind of hugs at the end of the conference; cartwheels in Salmonberry meadow…

…okay, so those cartwheels didn’t happen—I’m saving them for next year and hoping others will join me—but they might as well have happened; such is my exuberance on the heels of VORTEXT. And it was all so good. So, so, good.

Registration for VORTEXT 2016 is now open! Save the date for May 20-22 and register here.


About the Author:

IHannah_Lee_Jones‘m Hannah and I’m a perpetually beginning student of poetry and fiction, a writer, director of a nonprofit, and a book addict. I live with my husband, a big orange cat, and a marginally productive year-round garden in the woods of Whidbey Island, WA.

Read more from Hannah Lee Jones on her blog.



Support Equal Voice and Women Authoring Change by donating to Hedgebrook today!

Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.


Subscribe to the Farmhouse Table Blog
Hedgebrook Guest
About Hedgebrook Guest

No Comments

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.