This summer I had an opportunity to do something really special: I spent a night at Hedgebrook, the legendary writer’s retreat on Whidbey Island, near Seattle.
Hedgebrook provides women writers a beautiful refuge in which to work. Nestled on acres of forest, there are lovely individual cabins that house six writers-in-residence at a time.
The retreat just celebrated its 25th anniversary and has Gloria Steinem as one of its long-time residents and teachers. Among some of the well-known women who’ve spent time there: Monique Truong, Claire Dederer, Karen Joy Fowler, Ruth Ozeki, Dorothy Allison and so many more.
The beauty of Hedgebrook – besides the towering cedars, the bountiful garden, the views of Mount Rainier – is its unique philosophy, what they call “Radical Hospitality.”
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Radical Hospitality is the notion that women turn the thousands of years of nurturing they’ve done for others onto themselves. To that end, Hedgebrook sets out to give women a quiet, beautiful setting where they need not worry about making dinner, cleaning, or the usual pursuits that come with tending to a family.
It’s why each cabin with its tiny wood stove and sleeping loft has only one fork, one knife, one spoon, one cup. It is for you alone, and the cooks provide nurturing communal dinners with ingredients from the garden, as well as prepared baskets for lunch that you pick up out of the kitchen’s refrigerator each night. When I was there, my basket had a jar of carrot ginger soup and a delicious piece of bread with a hunk of good cheese.
As Steinem says: “I’ve experienced the truth of the Hedgebrook phrase ‘radical hospitality.’ It’s an umbrella of care that covers such things as fruits, vegetables and flowers straight from the garden, and the attention given to preserving the long stretches of undisturbed hours that writers crave.”
The night of my stay, I was in a cottage named ‘Owl’ and after dinner and a long soak in the tub, I began pouring through the many journals on the book shelf. These journals document decades of writings from other women who’ve stayed in this particular cottage—wise, painful, funny words about the time they spent there, the demons they were battling, overcoming writer’s block, figuring out the rhythm of their days. Sitting on my window seat, looking out at the woods, I quickly became engrossed.
Many of the entries were advice to the other writers who would come after them: how to let yourself give in to being cared for, how to release the guilt and accept the gift of the time and space in which to create. There were funny stories about raucous dinners, conversations with other writers.
There were also lots of reflections on the nature surrounding them, and how to best make use of it. Since my cottage was ‘Owl,’ descriptions of the owls and their comings and goings were abundant. Pages were often punctuated with illustrations of the cabin, of the scenery.
There were heartbreaking confessions of eating disorders and abuse. In the journals dating back to the 1980s, there were many feminist-focused passages, women expressing their feelings of being marginalized.
While the more recent entries were typed on a computer, printed out and attached, far more of them were hand-written, the scripts varied and so personal; some of them precious testaments to penmanship, others barely legible scrawl.
It had been so long since I’d read anything handwritten. That, alone, was powerful in its own way.
In short, these journals were a gallimaufry of wisdom, emotional outpouring and veritable soul-searching. I was moved by the palpable connection to these writers that I was now linked to – a living document of female voices in the pursuit of their craft, with all of its joys and tribulations.
Away from my own family, at work on my own writing, the pieces spoke forcefully to me about the challenges that lay in any writer’s path – but particularly that of a woman’s.
I left my magical stay invigorated and thankful – not only for the generosity of the staff, the care of the gorgeous grounds and the opportunity to spend time with talented writers – but for the unspoken camaraderie I’d found in those journals.
When I left my entry, I imagined the next lucky soul who’d be staying in ‘Owl’ and, in my mind, wished her well on her journey.
Writers out there! Have you enjoyed time at a writer’s retreat? Tell us about it in a comment?