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By Judith Sornberger

Sacred Conversation

My friend Alison Townsend and I frequently evaluate how our days and weeks have gone based on whether we have “kept the appointment with the desk,” as she calls the time we spend writing. It’s not so much a measure of how much we have—or have not—accomplished that concerns us, but rather the quality of our lives that feel vastly diminished when we aren’t writing on a regular basis. It’s easy to discount the importance of our own writing in the lives of others. Yet, I don’t know how I would have survived as a writer—or, indeed, as a woman—without the essays, books, and poems written by Alison and other women writers whose work I love.

Alison and I met 28 years ago when we had residencies at Hedgebrook. Although we’d both had poems published in literary magazines and anthologies, neither of us had had a book published, so we could hardly believe our luck at landing residencies there.

I arrived at my Hedgebrook cottage just in time to walk down the hill to the farmhouse to meet the other writers for dinner. Alison, Joanne Mulcahy (the other resident), Dolores, the cook and manager, and I ate borscht followed by blueberries with cream for dessert. That night we three writers walked back to our cottages together, pausing to watch the lunar eclipse and, in the safety of darkness, speak more intimately of our lives. As soon as I returned to my cottage, I headed to my “desk” and began a poem for which Alison and Joanne were my muses.

During the long writing days, I sensed them writing away in their cottages, imagining us as religious sisters in a Medieval Abbey, each of us doing our work in our cells, each making our small contributions to communal life. Although the subjects on which we wrote and our writing styles were unique, our writing seemed a kind of collaboration, as though we were silently engaging in a sacred conversation.

In the evenings, we talked about how the day’s writing had gone and read to one another from the day’s harvest. Hearing that I’d never read Mary Oliver’s poetry, Alison lent me her copy of Oliver’s Twelve Moons. And we talked about our lives back home and the men we loved. The morning Joanne was to drive to the ferry, several days before Alison and I were leaving, we walked her to her car. Tears soft as the morning rain slid down my cheeks as I retraced my steps to my cottage. In just ten days, Alison and Joanne felt more like sisters than strangers—a bond formed by writing and the magic of the place.

A few days after returning home, I sent Alison a postcard of goats that reminded me of Ozzie and Harriet, the pygmy goats we helped feed while at Hedgebrook. In return, I received a six-page handwritten letter. I’d never had anything like it before—six pages of her thoughtful and lyrical prose just for me! Our long letters flew back and forth—often accompanied by poems or essays—for decades, sending encouragement, appreciation, and stories from our lives. We became close enough that those letters became crucial healing balm when we lost those we loved
When Alison’s father died in 1999, I wrote, “I wanted to send an image that would comfort you, knowing there is no comfort for such a loss, yet also knowing how much your morning glory card, your phone call, and the book you sent meant to me when my father died. The best image I could think of was a cottage from Hedgebrook. Those cottages seemed to me to be wombs, dens of renewal and comfort. I would wish these things for you, Alison.” Along with the card, I sent Mary Oliver’ newest poetry collection.

Eventually, our letters have turned into emails—less exciting than long letters in the mail, but far more frequent, and supplemented by phone calls during which we comment on each other’s recent poems and essays and comfort each other though calamities, great and small. Joanne and I continue to send letters and writing—less frequent, but still precious. The three of us also celebrate one another’s publications, all having published multiple books by now.

Bruce, my husband of 25, years died five years ago, and the things that kept me alive in the following months were talks with my sister and friends and writing poems. I was also sustained by the poems and essays Alison and Joanne sent, keeping hope alive in me if only the hope that the mail would bring more of their words. The poems I was writing were about Bruce and me—about our lives together, my loss and widowhood, and about reclaiming joy. Alison read each one, helping me develop and edit them, and sometimes crying with me on the phone as we discussed them. The book, those poems became, Practicing the World, will be published by CavanKerry Press in 2018.

When I arrived at Hedgebrook all those years ago, I knew that I had been given the amazing gift of time for writing in a gorgeous place and that this gift had boosted my confidence in my writing enormously. But I never expected that it would give me a sense of deep connection to the other two writers who shared that time with me, that they would become for me a community that would expand, in my heart, to all women who write, all those with whom I feel myself engaged in sacred conversation.

By Kathleen Alcalá

Kathleen Alcalá

In 1989, I was asked to interview Nancy Skinner Nordhoff about her new endeavor, a writing retreat for women. We spent part of a day talking. I think we drove from Seattle to Whidbey together, so she could show me what form her ideas were beginning to take, how her dreams were turning into something real. I had a lot of dreams too, so I was anxious to see what this looked like, given the resources.

Nancy described how her marriage had fallen apart, leaving her to reinvent herself from the good wife and good mother, roles she had filled to the best of her ability to – whatever she wanted or needed to be. She took a good hard look at what she saw for the future, and how to turn her considerable skills and assets into something practical and useful to those without such resources.

Nancy described a cross-country car trip and how she was drawn to rural spaces, found herself wanting to press her nose to the windows of farmhouses, yearning to join the circle of family she imagined inside. Her friend, a midwife, helped Nancy focus her yearning into a specific goal, a creative space where women could feel safe, didn’t need to do domestic work, and could support and encourage each other. It was a space in which their creative work could take precedence, and be their major focus, if only for a few short weeks. I could not help but wonder what was in this for Nancy. I have worked for non-profits most of my life, but understanding the motivations of people who, to me, seem to have so much more agency than the rest of us remains mysterious.

I remember feeling intense waves coming off Nancy. How I suddenly became a sounding board, and felt the need to be very careful not to say anything that would limit her exploration. I am generally tone deaf when it comes to other’s emotions. In addition, I was a bit overwhelmed with my own emotions that day. I admitted my recent failure at retaining a leadership position at a difficult organization. It had happened so recently, that I was still in shock at how badly things had gone.

Nancy suggested that I spend some time myself at the residency, a chance at some stolen time in paradise.

So I had to share another secret with Nancy. There was a limited amount of time I could spend, even at a dream residency. What had started out as a general interview for publication was turning into a series of big reveals. Nancy offered me a residency at Hedgebrook for two weeks in the fall, when the first four cottages would be ready, and I agreed. This was probably late spring or early summer at the time.

In late September, my belly swelled out to there, I moved into one of the cottages. I know other Hedgebrook residents form deep attachments to their particular cottage. I have since stayed for short visits in two or three of them, and always loved all of them the way one loves her aunties. They have collectively nurtured me with their benign, nonjudgmental spaces. The murmuring trees, the talkative owls, the path through the cedar deep, all have combined to supply that “Yes, and…” that allows a writer to fill that blank space with her own words.

What I do remember are the other three women who stayed at the same time. Dana Stabenow, upon meeting me, promptly offered to deliver my baby if I went into labor early. She had EMT training! I demurred, politely I think, holding out for full term. Amy Pence was a poet, and the fourth, Susan Brown, was working on children’s books. All have produced several or many books since then, raised families of either books or children, and effected positive change in the world not only as writers, but as teachers, parents, philanthropists, and general wise women.

I had already written my first collection of stories by the time I got to Hedgebrook, but managed to produce the first forty pages of what would become Spirits of the Ordinary, my first novel, in the two weeks I spent on that magic isle. Oh yes: On October 19 of that year, my son Benjamin was born, the first “Hedgebrook baby,” and certainly the first male to spend the night in a Hedgebrook cottage. I had an easy pregnancy and birth, and I attribute much of it to the affirmation I received at Hedgebrook. Looking back, I see how much more of the world Nancy understood than I did at that time, that giving women time and creative space might be one of the greatest ways to heal the earth, and oneself. I have tried to give back in my own way, mostly through teaching, but also by trying to be present when someone needs an ear, and answer the inevitable questions about the writing and publishing process. I will never forget what Nancy taught me, and what she offered me during my time of greatest joy out of her great need to heal.

 

 

By Suzanne Ushie

Suzanne Ushie

After I applied for a Hedgebrook residency, I dreamed of walking on a beach with a small group of strangers. Acres of water on the left, sleek boats bobbing on the blue; a place without a name. But I could tell, in that unshowy way dreams have of making things known, that I was somewhere in the United States. I am prone to the most bizarre dreams, so I put this tame one down to submission fatigue, then dismissed it as fluff.

And yet I walked on that beach with my fellow residents a day after I arrived in Hedgebrook. I walked barefoot on ivory sand covered with thick logs and purple seashells. I laughed at the name—Double Bluff Beach?—and the curved shoreline—Useless Bay?—as the heat strained into my feet. Here, on this lush island blooming with heart, I would do little more than write for a month. To be given such a gift.

Every morning, I awoke to the shrieking of owls and sat at my desk. I bent to the page and struggled with my sentences. When my writing took its time, often the case, I stared out the window and into the woods, hoping to spot a deer. I had since made peace with being a slow writer. Without the usual distractions though, my process soon became suspect.

I mourned in the library, slouched in my favourite couch, a book on my lap. Surrounded by silence and stone, I read women who were in Hedgebrook before me, and rapture came over me. I again believed that I would write as well as I could whenever I could. Above all else, the incredible women in residence with me made me feel once more like myself.

We often lingered at the table after dinner, sated by the spectacular meal, bonding over everything from writing to midnight baths. They taught me to trust my process, to make room for magic. They teased me, too, about my refusal to discuss my ongoing project. Someone called me “No-nonsense,” which filled me with wicked glee.

One night we sat around a bonfire, wrote down our fears, and flung them into the flames. High on warm company, an improbable plan emerged: we’d hide in the garlic storeroom so we’d never have to leave. Weeks into our stay, we fed apples to the two llamas and agreed on names: Thelma for the brown, Louise for the white. I remember wishing it were that easy to come up with a book title.

Mornings turned into a truce of sorts. Sometimes my writing went well. Other times, not so much. On “good writing days,” as I began to call them, I would work far into afternoon, neglecting tea and food, until I looked up to see the sun lowering behind the trees. On less productive days, I curled up on the window seat and read. Or wandered through the woods. Once, I walked to a nearby lavender farm, struck by the stillness of the sprawling homes—a rarity in Lagos where I live.

In the hallowed tradition of residences, writers come and go. On the eve of the first departure, I gathered with the others in a cottage, where we read our work and got a mostly accurate Tarot reading. While we mused over the journal entries, I recalled women whose conversations swung between men and marriage alone, women who I’d cut out of my life for my well-being. And then this unexpected sisterhood. This glorious tribe.

On my last day in Hedgebrook, only two of us from the original cohort remained. I got through the breathless goodbyes and settled in for the drive to the port, trying not to sulk. As I boarded the ferry, I thought of a longing I’d shared in my Artist Statement: Hedgebrook as my very own backbone, guiding me across the murky waters of writing safely. And it did.

 

By Hedgebrook Guest

In Willow Cottage at Hedgebrook

The past few weeks have been by turns exciting, sorrowful, grief-filled, stressful and exhilarating. From flying to Paris for a two-week holiday, only to find out my younger sister had Hedgebrook, it has been a tumultuous time.

Today is my fourth day among the quiet cedars and oaks of Hedgebrook, a retreat center for women writers on Whidbey Island in the Pacific Northwest. In January, I was accepted into a Master Class with poet Carolyn Forché, and so far it has gone beyond my every expectation.   Read more

By Hedgebrook Guest

Reflection…

It is truly amazing how much your life can change in one year.

This March was the one year anniversary of my debut novel, The Truth About Awiti. Since its publication I have resigned from my job as a Policy Advisor for the US Department of Energy to pursue writing full-time. I have discussed The Truth About Awiti at colleges, universities, and high schools, and recently the novel was selected as a Foreward Reviews’ Book of the Year Awards’ finalist. Pinch me!   Read more

By Hedgebrook Guest

Hedgebrook Vortext: An Uncommon Convergence

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.    Read more

By Dara Marks and Deb Norton

Before Scaling the Heights of your Rewrite…

So, after weeks, months, or even years, you have finally completed your first draft. Congratulations! Crack open the champagne, throw a party, fly to Paris! However you choose to celebrate, I’m sure you deserve it. Writing is hard work; you are literally blazing a trail into the uncharted wilds of the human imagination. This is why getting to “The End” can feel like you’ve just clawed your way to the top of Mt. Everest.

Of course, this isn’t the case, and in the back of your mind you know the terrible truth—you’ve only just made it to the first base camp. But celebrate anyway because the really arduous, death-defying work of the rewrite still lies ahead and it will most assuredly leave you too pooped to party by the time you reach the summit.

To help chart the course for your rewrite, here are a few navigational tools that will help you negotiate the rugged terrain that lies ahead:   Read more

By Courtney Meaker

Walking While Fat and Female – Or, Why I Don’t Care Not All Men are Like That

I started walking between 5 and 12 miles a day about year after I moved to Seattle. The main motivator was a crippling anxiety about being late coupled with an inconsistent public transportation system (that will now become less consistent, yippee). Additionally, working in an industry with late nights (I house manage for various theaters) means that if you’re reliant on public transit, you will be waiting for an hour at a scary bus stop with Mr. and Mrs. Meth Addict at 1:30 in the morning. Walking became a way for me to take control of my commute. It was my time. Four mile walk to work. Four mile walk back. In the rain. In the dark. In the cold. Every season. Sometimes with tunes. Sometimes with “Stuff You Missed in History Class.” Sometimes talking to myself. And sometimes with silence.   Read more

By Hedgebrook Staff

Questions for our Winter Salon Teachers

Our Winter Salon teachers share what they are reading, writing and what excites them about teaching for our Winter Salon.

Anna Bálint

 What are you reading?

I always seem to have several books on the go at once. I’ve just finished “Nervous Conditions” a wonderful coming of age novel by Zimbabwe’s Tsitsi Dandarembga, and have started on “Bloodroot” by Amy Greene, another novel, this time an intergenerational family story set in Appalachia and told in multiple voices, (something I love…) I’ve also been dipping into “One World: a global anthology of short stories” which I was happy to come across and is introducing me to some fantastic writers I’ve never heard of before from various parts of the world. Lastly, but no means least I’m reading “Making Peace With the Earth” by environmental activist and feminist Vandana Shiva.   Read more

By Anne Liu Kellor

Growth, Stubbornness, and Working on a Memoir for (something like) Ten Years

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes I feel ashamed when people ask if I’m still working on the same book. Yes, for almost a decade now I’ve been working on a memoir, SEARCHING FOR THE HEART RADICAL, with some periods away from it in between. Most of the chapters originated during my time in grad school from 2004-2006, although many of the seeds of those pieces had already been planted during the years I lived and wrote in China from 1999-2002. And in some respects, you might say I’ve been working on this book since the day I was born.

This book has taught me a ton—about the process of writing and about myself. I have grown so much as a writer over these years that I have felt compelled to go back and rewrite most of the pieces, again and again and again. And because it’s a book about discovering myself during my twenties—and I started writing it while still in my twenties—it’s also a book whose deeper meaning has been elusive and unfolding as I’ve grown as a person.   Read more

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Sacred Conversation
Kathleen Alcalá
Suzanne Ushie