A Vortext of Words during a Weekend on Whidbey

Impatience, hope, despair, rage, fear, acceptance. Path to self-destruction? Guests at a pity party? No. They are states of mind of the writer and they were lived and witnessed during the course of an uplifting, inspirational three-day writing salon for women called Vortext, held May 31-June 2. Created by Hedgebrook, the writing retreat for women on Whidbey Island, Vortext featured the talent, generosity, and wit of Ruth Ozeki, Dorothy Allison, Jane Hamilton, Elizabeth George, Gail Tsukiyama and Karen Joy Fowler.

Vortext offered keynote talks, craft workshops and panel discussions punctuated by delicious meals, time for writing or reflection, and late afternoon wine and cheese receptions. The setting was the Whidbey Institute at Chinook, located on 70 acres of forest and offering the same sense of tranquility and connection to the natural world that is the hallmark of Hedgebrook. It was in this wooded seclusion that the richly talented faculty offered up succulent morsels for the mind and heart.

“We write out of hope that maybe the world is knowable,” Ruth Ozeki told us on Friday, the opening day of the conference. “Yet, we despair when we feel that we may not after all be capable of knowing it,” she added. We become impatient, she explained. The gentle-voiced Ozeki argued with grace and serenity that impatience is necessary to writing a novel. We want to know the end and impatience drives us there.

Despair is the natural state of the writer, but more so of the woman writer, Dorothy Allison said, lamenting that of all the students over the years that she has nominated for awards, 90 percent of those who won were males.

“Rage is useful when harnessed,” she said in her inimitable way, a raspy elegance to her voice packed with passion and made musical by her southern accent. It’s a voice that can bring you to tears, especially when she ends her talk with words as commanding and inspiring as these: “All of us, alone and together, fighting despair one word, one paragraph, one page at a time.”

On Saturday, Jane Hamilton started off by having us sing in rounds. Because I’m not a singer and am exceedingly self-conscious about participating in impromptu group activities, I sat mute, smiling like an idiot, while those around me made quite a lovely chorus.

The point of the exercise was to simulate what happens when we write. We stick our necks out, we raise our voices. Though I had declined to raise my tuneless voice in song, I did take Jane Hamilton’s point. She also said that writing is “doing our best to see.” I’ve long been a fan of how Jane Hamilton sees. I’ve read all of her books and one of the things I admire about her intelligent novels is the humor lurking in unexpected places. During the weekend, as I listened to her at the podium, in workshop and at meals, the source of that humor became clear: she is delightfully wacky. I’m happy to say I fulfilled one of my goals of that weekend, which was to have my picture taken with Jane Hamilton.

Elizabeth George, the admitted queen of time management, lives by a rigid schedule. A fixed, nearly unyielding routine does not mean she is without humor. In fact, Elizabeth George is very funny. She noted that she sometimes schedules an hour in for spontaneity. Her adherence to a daily timetable is the reason for her prodigious output. It also allows her to overcome the fear we all feel in our daily lives, a fear that she says keeps us from being present. Creativity—even if it springs from a well-regulated schedule—is the willingness to be present.

On Sunday Gail Tsukiyama spoke about the tendency to place writers in a box due to their particular identity, whether race, gender or other aspect of self. She advised us to write what we want, not what our readers want, unless, of course, the reader is a nun such as the one who sent Tsukiyama a gently chiding letter, citing the page and paragraph of one of her novels where she wrongly used who instead of whom.

A common trait among the Vortext faculty was a sense of humor. The wryest of the voices belonged to Karen Joy Fowler. Whatever the topic or situation, there would issue from her a sharply observant, epigrammatic, unfailingly funny remark. In her keynote, she instructed us to create a persuasive lie in our writing. While the ways she enumerated to do this were familiar (e.g., establish your authority, keep your stories internally consistent), it was her delivery that charmed and tickled us.

There were a lot of things that made this three-day salon so special—the beautiful venue, the delicious food, the structure of the day that was the perfect mix of group and alone time. But it was the quality of the faculty and their particular bond with one another that infused the weekend with energy, inspiration and a sense of togetherness. The salon ended with the six of them leading us all in singing and dancing to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” I sang along a little, danced a little, sort of, but mostly I watched, took it all in – the exuberant end of a weekend of writing, friendship, and wise words about impatience, hope, despair, rage, and fear. And acceptance. A message we heard over and over that weekend from each of the speakers was that we must accept the writer we are and write the book we must write.

Vortext is one of several ways women writers can experience the radical hospitality of Hedgebrook, which is how executive director Amy Wheeler likes to describe the nurturing support of this unique writing retreat. Check the Hedgebrook website for upcoming master classes with Dani Shapiro and Rahna Reiko Rizzuto.