Women Authoring Change

Tonight my home was filled with good food, creativity, and twenty amazing women. It was an alumnae potluck for a place that those who have been there know simply as “heaven.”  

Imagine a little cottage made just for you.  Upstairs is a cozy sleeping loft.  Downstairs is a wood-burning stove, a desk configured with plenty of space (and plugs) for writing, a big loungey chair with a hand-knit blanket to match, bookshelves with a few inspirational titles as well as space for your own stuff, a floor area with pillows for sprawling, and a window-seat looking out onto acres of woods and meadows and ponds.  
Now imagine that at lunchtime, someone brings a basket of delicious food to your doorstep.  And at dinner, you walk down to the farmhouse and dine with other women writers on fresh, organic meals made with produce from the gardens.  And all the rest of the time is yours — to walk, write, daydream, nap, wander down to the beach, go for a bike ride, or just do whatever you need to do.  
And it’s completely free.
That’s Hedgebrook, a writer’s colony for women on Whidbey Island in Washington state.  Since its founding, 1,050 women writers — known and unknown, young and old, from all over the world — have found refuge there to create in peace and community.  Getting together with other alumnae gave me a chance to remember what it was like for me.
I don’t remember who first told me about Hedgebrook, but I remember that when I heard about it, I knew that I needed to go.  I was in my mid-twenties and working 40+ hours a week as a newspaper editor, trying to carve out time to write poetry as well.  I applied for and received a five-week summer stay, took a leave of absence from work, packed up my Macintosh SE (yes, this WAS a long time ago, grasshopper! it had a 40MB hard drive!), and drove three days up the coast to Washington.  
Six writers stay at Hedgebrook at a time (there are six cottages).  On the first evening, we all introduced ourselves by our first names.  On the third evening, I was listening to one of the women talk and suddenly I realized who she must be.  “Gloria?”  I said.  “Are you Gloria… Anzaldua?”   
“Yes,” she said, with a slight wry smile.
“Wow,” I said.  And for the next five minutes or so, that was all I could say: “Wow. Wow. Wow.”  
It’s not often that I’m at a total loss for words; in fact, this is the only time in my life I can really remember behaving this way. But Gloria Anzaldua was one of my heros:  not just a writing hero, not just a woman of color hero, but a Hero, period.  Her work was so brave and beautiful and revolutionary, it made me want to write; it made me believe I could write; it gave me writing to aspire toward. It was so huge and amazing, it didn’t seem possible she was actually a person, a smallish one (about my height), sitting across from me at dinner, doing normal person things like chewing and talking and smiling.
Gloria was gracious and sweet, and after giving me a decent amount of time to come up with something else to say, she simply replied, “Wow.”  
As the days passed, I was able to actually have cogent conversations with her.  Though she was struggling with health issues and was deep in her own work, she kindly agreed to read and critique a short story I was writing.  Her handwritten comments on it are more precious to me, now, after her passing, than the story itself.
I did more writing in those five, concentrated weeks than I was normally able to do in a year. I made a talented writer friend I’m still in touch with, met the fabulous Hattie Gossett (who arrived the day I was leaving), and felt a bit of borrowed glory from the fact that Gloria Steinem would be there later in the session, after I left. And I felt, for the first time, like a Real Writer.
Hedgebrook also started a chain reaction of events that led me directly to my life as a writer now.  At the time it seemed like just a few random strokes of luck, but really I think it was something else:  not anything as grand as destiny, but just the experience of door after door opening up, and walking through, and finding something wonderful on the other side.
A year or two after my stay, someone on the Hedgebrook staff called me.  An alumna, Gabrielle Idlet, was launching a new writing fellowship at the Sundance Institute and was looking for California writers of nonfiction.  Would I be interested in applying?
I was, and flew down to the Sundance offices in Santa Monica for the interviews. I and three other writers, one of whom is now a dear friend, became Sundance “fellows.”  We got to go to the film festival, summer and international workshops, and a weekend writing workshop for just the four of us with Lawrence Weschler, a writer for the New Yorker and McSweeneys.  Weschler read my work, noted that I was a journalist, and suggested I apply for a mid-career arts fellowship at Columbia University‘s Graduate School of Journalism, where he was a senior fellow.
So I became a “fellow” again (there has to be a better word for these things!).  The Columbia fellowship (which no longer exists; it was the National Arts Journalism Program, funded by the Pew foundation) meant I could take or audit classes throughout the university.  I took a nonfiction book writing seminar with Sam Freedman, whose class has become semi-famous for producing dozens of published authors. With Sam’s incisive guidance and feedback, I wrote the proposal for the book that eventually became Leaving India.
I include all of these details because I think the path of becoming a published writer is often unnecessarily mysterious.  I know it was to me.  Certainly, plenty of hard work and strokes of universal grace were involved.  But there’s also a much more nitty-gritty element, and it is one that women, especially women of color, have often not had access to.  It has to do with connections, networks, information, and knowing the right doors to knock on at the right times.  The Old Boys Network is alive and well, so it is good to know that we can create our own pathways — boys and girls — to share vital tips and resources, and get our voices heard.
Hedgebrook helped me at one other crucial juncture:  As I was writing Leaving India, I was often very severely blocked.  During one of these difficult periods, I was fortunate to have a short, ten-day alumna stay at Hedgebrook.  I did not write much there, yet it was deeply productive, and helped me turn a corner with the writing in a way that even now, I’m not sure I can entirely explain.
I remember that it was about this time
of year, Diwali — the Hindu new year and festival of lights.  I was feeling a bit out of sorts because I had no community or family to celebrate with, and although the cook (ahhh, the lovely Hedgebrook cooks! a whole other essay!) did her best to create an Indian meal and we lit candles at the farmhouse, it didn’t feel the same.  
Back at my own cottage, I lit small lights and settled in for the evening.  I am nocturnal by nature, so I was in the habit of working in the afternoon and then again late at night after dinner, then sleeping till noon.  So that evening, I made some small drawings, with flour I think, on the hearth to welcome the goddess.  I created a temporary altar, with huge fallen maple leaves I’d collected that afternoon from the grounds, and photos of my ancestors that I had brought along for inspiration, and the Black Angel cards I had been using as aids in my writing process.  Then I sat, and I listened.  
What I heard is a story for another time and place.  Here I want to just say how right it felt:  to commune in my own particular quirky way on that semi-wild land on the night of the new year:  a Real Writer, in the woods, in the dark, inventing a ritual, making up a new story.
Thanks, Hedgebrook.
EDITED TO ADD:   Click here to see photos of the event (pics by Patty Tumang).

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