The Radical Wonder of Hedgebrook

This year Hedgebrook, the writing retreat for women on Whidbey Island, celebrates 25 years of nurturing women writers. It’s the year of the alumnae, with former residents returning for one or two-week stays to reconnect with the place, the staff, and each other. And they come to write. Because that’s what happens at Hedgebrook. The farmhouse library is filled with the published works of Hedgebrook writers with room on the shelves for the books yet to come.

Last month, I attended two days of the three-day reunion weekend, which brought alums from across the country together for talks, workshops, informal gatherings and, of course, the delicious Hedgebrook food. The conversation unfurled and flourished, much like the plants in the Hedgebrook garden, the source of a good portion of those freshly prepared and beautifully presented Hedgebrook meals. By the way, many of those favorite meals can be yours by ordering the Hedgebrook Cookbook (She Writes Press, September 2013).

Women Founding Things

Part of the magic of Hedgebrook is the story of its founding by Nancy Nordhoff. When asked how the idea for Hedgebrook arose, Nancy said the land suggested it. While walking the land she had recently purchased, it told her to build a place to nurture women and their voices. That place consists of six gracefully crafted cottages mindfully situated amid forest, meadow and ponds. Nancy has often been asked how she knew what a writer wanted in a cottage. Her reply: “You just needed to be a woman to know.” She said there was a selfish aspect to creating Hedgebrook. By nurturing others, she says, she has nurtured herself.

Kamy Wicoff, founder of She Writes, started a salon with mentor Diane Middlebrook to give women a place to share and promote their writing. She Writes is the online version of that salon and is based on the values of generosity, abundance and opportunities to give.

Alumnae Relations Director, Liz Engleman was inspired by Hedgebrook to found the Tofte Lake Center at Norm’s Fish Camp, a creative retreat center for artists in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. Her number one piece of advice is “go in blindly, otherwise you won’t do it.” She also advises women to embrace their successes.

Their stories encouraged alums to share projects they founded as a result of their Hedgebrook residency. Among them are writers conferences, reading series, poetry presses, and a playwrights group. Nancy Nordhoff called these accomplishments the Hedgebrook ripple effect. Women who have experienced the gift of Hedgebrook carry the spirit of nurturing women’s voices into their communities.

Being Radical

Executive Director Amy Wheeler uses the term radical hospitality to describe what Hedgebrook offers to women writers. Nurturing is a radical and healing act. Where there is nurturing there must be receptivity, she says. Women have to learn to receive the gift of Hedgebrook where residents are not expected to carry their plates to the sink after dinner. All that is asked of them is that they be the best writers they can be and that they honor the cottage that houses them and the land it sits on.

Brooke Warner of She Writes Press talked about the worthiness crisis that many women experience. She urged us to walk on the radical edge, that is to say, even when the conditions (right time, right place, right financial situation, right frame of mind, etc.) we have set for success are not met, we must nevertheless enter that space and still believe that we can succeed.

Listening to the Land

The Hedgebrook staff—the directors and managers, the gardener, the chef, the housekeeper—spoke of their ties to the place. They each have a connection to the writers, whether it’s coordinating the logistics of their arrival and departure, orienting them to their surroundings, tending the garden and the grounds, preparing the delectable meals, or cleaning the cottages in preparation for each new resident. All of the work they do facilitates the writer’s integration with the land. At Hedgebrook, we all end up listening to the land.

Curating Our Own Museums

Hannah Tinti gave a lively and enthralling presentation on “cabinets of wonder,” little containers of objects—a rock, a ribbon, a leaf—that we randomly collect and put in a box. She says we are unconsciously drawn to the keys that will unlock our own stories. We need to be open to coming across those keys. We can do this by grounding ourselves in the natural world. Put stuff in your container, she told us. “We are the curators of our own museums.”

Shaping the conversation during the reunion weekend were the themes of nurture, empower, and advocate. One leads to the next which leads to the next, so that, infused with the radical wonder of Hedgebrook, we are all advocates of women’s voices out in the world.