Thursday, March 29, 2012

Heaven for Women Writers

As posted today by the good folks at Open Road Media Group, publisher of Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voices, a collaborative novel by the members of Seattle7Writers (my peeps).

 Hedgebrook, a Women’s Writing 

Community—Advantage, Female

Editor’s Note: Author Jennie Shortridge (When She Flew and other novels) speaks out on behalf of Women’s History Month. Jennie is a co-curator and contributor behind the epic, inventive novel Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voicesand a co-founder of the Seattle7Writers.

The conversation over wine in our seriously awesome (and mixed gender) Seattle7Writers group might go like this:
Female writer: “I just got back from Hedgebrook and it was incredible.”
Male writer: “Oh god, here we go . . .”
Another female writer: “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go! I need to apply next year.”

A third female writer: “It was the best writing experience of my life!” Male writer: “Why do women get a whole writers’ retreat to themselves? It’s 2012, for crying out loud.”

Yes, he’s jealous. Hedgebrook on nearby Whidbey Island is indeed a writing retreat and community for women only. It opened in 1987 under the direction and vision of Nancy Nordhoff and Sheryl Feldman. Hedgebrook provides six sweet, small, well-appointed cabins; forty acres of forest and farmland to wander; a rugged beach nearby; and a farmhouse kitchen for delectable family-style suppers using local Northwest ingredients. Each participant shares all this with five other women and can talk about writing together. In a word? It’s heaven. And to those female residents from around the world who are chosen from the ever-growing pool of applicants, it’s free.

Why women only? While the founders and staff feel a personal passion for supporting women writers in this very generous way, I know that others think our society should be beyond that by now. Women in 2012, after all, have taken their place alongside men in the working world (um, still for less pay), in the political world (in numbers still slim), and in the arts (again, still for less pay in most cases, and in terms of reviews and attention, nowhere near equal).

But that’s only part of the conundrum facing women in the creative arts. Forget that we don’t get the reviews and attention, the larger advances. We’re used to all that, as much as we continue to work to change it. What we don’t get in life (as many women will agree) is a wife! What we don’t get is someone who anticipates our needs well enough to leave our minds open to creative pursuit (though well-meaning partners often try). We still nurture and nourish our loved ones, fitting in our writing around them, and often a job to boot. It’s not in our biological makeup to ignore the needs of others, thus making it only our fault that we put our creative endeavors aside to help.

And that, Virginia, is why I believe in Hedgebrook.

HedgebrookAt Hedgebrook, your small cabin has just enough of everything to maximize comfort and minimize housework: one plate, one bowl, one coffee mug, one wine glass, one pan . . . and yet the resident writers are also challenged to use a small wood stove for heat (with supplemental heat available), to visit a bathhouse for bathing (heated tile floors, two roomy showers, a clawfoot tub—it’s hardly a challenge), and to integrate with the natural world in so doing, walking from cabin through thick forest along old animal trails, often in complete darkness. And when it gets dark on Whidbey Island, it can feel like being in the center of a black hole for city slickers. (Yes, flashlights are provided, as are toilets and sinks in each cabin.) In the journals that record each resident’s experience, found in each cabin, the stories are rife with newbie anxieties and missteps, but more so, the final reflective thoughts on these writers’ last days at Hedgebrook. Even experienced and famous writers discover what it was they came for, whether they knew they were looking for it or not. In real life, women rarely get the time and space to even think in those  terms.

For me, the thing I didn’t know I went looking for was myself—my own authentic voice in my work, after nearly seventeen years of working in the world of “what it takes to get published.” It wasn’t that it wasn’t there, but my trust in it had grown shaky. The publishing world is a tough place to maintain your own creative vision, but if you don’t, why write? It came to me in so many small details at Hedgebrook: the way light broke through tall trees to spill across my desk, a cold wind-snapping walk on the beach in search of sand dollars, the laughter and wisdom of the other women in the room at supper. And finally, the two does who stood outside my cabin on the snowy morning I had to leave, just watching me with big deer eyes, saying, “Pay attention. Take this with you.”

It’s a gift everyone should receive, regardless of gender, of course. But I’ll revel in the fact that because I’m a woman who takes my writing seriously, Hedgebrook gave it to me.

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