“Down here we’re so off the grid that we heat our big, huge, 100-year-old dance hall with a wooden stove,” she said laughing. “So I put on some coffee, take the dogs out, and get a fire going. . .Pretty cool.”
For the majority of its 25-year existence, Wheeler said that Hedgebrook had been somewhat of a “best-kept secret” colony for women writers. Hedgebrook is a 48-acre piece of land on Whidbey Island that Nancy Nordhoff, a philanthropist from Seattle, founded in 1988 with the purpose of giving women writers a cottage of their own in which to do their work. To this day, Hedgebrook has served that fundamental purpose of taking a woman writer out of her individual climate and into one that is both solitary and communal.
The writers—six at a time for stays of two to six weeks—are given a cottage with a wood-burning stove and are tasked with two simple tasks: write and stay warm. When these women exit their cottages, they join each other at lunch and at dinner to share a meal and conversation.
In doing this, Wheeler said that Hedgebrook is providing women with “the time and space to wrestle with [their] demons.” Wheeler said that these things—solitude and community (plus commiseration)—work in tandem at Hedgebrook and, in a larger sense, serves a single purpose of encouraging the creative productivity of its writers-in-residence.
“The community piece of it is, I think, surprising for women,” Wheeler told me. “I think that everyone comes knowing that they’ll have the solitude in this cottage and this time to write. I think that the gift that they don’t know they’re going to receive is the opportunity at the end of the day to come together with other women and share a meal. All of us writers get used to spending time alone, but at the end of the day, to come together with other people who have also done the same thing that day. . .It bolsters you.”
While the fully funded residences at Hedgebrook are the result of a selective application process, this writers’ colony and nonprofit is decidedly egalitarian in its outreach to women writers. Wheeler is a playwright, and alum, who is thinking about how her nonprofit’s work can connect more women. The retreat element of Hedgebrook, Wheeler said, is the core of what their nonprofit does, but she wants to see more connections made between Hedgebrook alums and non-alums after women leave the retreat.
“You don’t have to pay to come to Hedgebrook so there’s this deep sense of having this gift,” Wheeler said. “[Many] can’t afford to give financial gifts so they’re looking for ways to give back.”
Outside of the retreat, Hedgebrook offers writers salons and professional development workshops in various cities where a larger community of women can gather. The Brooklyn loft space of Powderkeg, where I introduced myself to Wheeler, is one such venue where alums can meet each other, have their own desks to write, and make connections.
Making these connections will open up more opportunities for women writers to get their work published and produced, Wheeler said.
I asked her to tell me more about the thing she had alluded to when I met her at the Brooklyn-book launch of the Hedgebrook Cookbook. Would there someday be one overarching network to unite the many feminist writing organizations already in existence? Do so many separate groups serve a purpose, or are they merely duplicating each other’s work?
Wheeler told me: “There is a network forming among women writer’s organizations, so that no one organization has to carry the burden of being all things to all writers. There are things that She Writes and VIDA are doing that are very helpful to Hedgebrook and then there are things that we can offer to them. The next step is for us to all come together. . .to say: these are the things we can offer to a network [of women writers], these are the things that we need from it. You’ll be hearing more about this network as it takes shape this year.”
The idea for such a network happened organically, Wheeler said: In a conversation with Gloria Steinem in the Hedgebrook kitchen.
“We were just talking about what women need to be able to do their work. . .What is it that Hedgebrook is doing that’s unique that could be a different way that we could be living in the world? Gloria said that women writers really need an Old Boys’ Network. We need to be thinking about how to give each other a leg up and we need to have opportunities to build those connections. And we started talking about how it would be different if women would do it.”
With writers like Gloria Steinem, Dorothy Allison, Ruth Ozeki, and Karen Joy Fowler on the roster of Hedgebrook alums, an emerging writer might feel, well, a tad out of her element in applying to a cottage of her own. In response to this, Wheeler told me that writers who are emerging and unpublished are given the same attention as published authors. The selection process focuses on the quality of the work of the writer, and strength of her voice and project, and the goal is to give every applicant a fair chance. In the anonymous process, each application is read at least twice; last year, the selection committees narrowed the field of applicants from an initial 1,500 to the final 40. Applicants whose writing is strong and who make a strong case for “Why Hedgebrook? Why now?” are the most compelling candidates to judges.
Wheeler says that the dedication to a process which carefully considers each applicant is a part of the larger “Hedgebrookian” philosophy, one that Wheeler refers to as “radical hospitality.”
“Women take care of making other women writers feel seen,” she said.
Commenting on the annual VIDA Count, Wheeler said that while it’s true that there are external factors responsible for fewer women being published and produced than men, “I also think that we get in our own way. If you get a letter from any organization saying that you haven’t won this prize, or you haven’t gotten this opportunity, and you see that as a rejection, then you’ve become your own obstacle. No one has the ability to reject you as a writer, or to tell you who you are as a writer.”
I asked Wheeler what encouragement she might give emerging writers. She told me that writers need to get comfortable in their own skin and not feel like they should rush the process of submitting their work.
“When writers ask when they should apply to Hedgebrook, I say do it when you’re ready to take full advantage of the residency. And in the meantime, join us for salons and workshops around the country and become a member of Hedgebrook’s community.”
She also said that one of the things she heard most often from writers, no matter their experience level, was the great value in finding a community. “You need to have your people who you can share things with when you’re ready. That makes all the difference—to feel like you’re not doing it alone,” Wheeler said.
And with those words, I leave you, readers, with a closer look at Hedgebrook, a growing network of women writers that is no longer a best-kept secret.