Art Works Blog

A Cottage of One's Own

A wood stove is the only source of heating in the cottages at Hedgebrook, a women’s writing residency on Whidbey Island, 35 miles off Seattle. The fire is laid the first night for writers, but after that, they are on their own. While the stoves are a practical necessity to keep out the chill, they have also come to symbolize something greater for many women who have written here: they are a symbol of independence, of resiliency, and of the writing process itself. Without constant tending and kindling, we are left “shivering in the cold and the silence of ideas unrealized, a soul unvoiced,” as playwright and Hedgebrook alumna Ellen McLaughlin wrote in her essay “My Woodstove.”

The stoves are one of many details at Hedgebrook designed to stoke the fire within writers, who spend two to six weeks here in groups of six women. There are private, hand-built cabins, home-cooked meals, 48 acres of forested beauty, and stunning views of Mount Rainier and Puget Sound. Together, this has rendered Hedgebrook—a frequent NEA grantee—a special place to write and grow. “There are so few places in the world and in our lives where women feel safe; where they feel like they have sanctuary; where they feel like all of the other things that are asked of them and demanded of them are taken care of so that they can just be a writer and do their work,” said playwright and Hedgebrook Executive Director Amy Wheeler.

Indeed, between family care, day jobs, and the ever-present smartphone, Wheeler noted that it’s perhaps more difficult than ever “to be somewhere where you can be alone in your own space with your own thoughts, and be in that space long enough to actually figure out a storyline or a piece of something that you’ve been working on.” Hedgebrook balances this solitude with a sense of community by requiring that all women come together for dinner every night during their residency. This community component is as important as a writer’s solitude, said Wheeler, as dinnertime conversations about writing, relationships, and global events can nourish a writer in a different but equally meaningful way. “There is a different kind of space and experience that’s created when women come together,” said Wheeler when asked about the importance of having an all-female residency. “Women around a table listen in a different way.” 

This time together also fosters a network of support. Wheeler recounted a time when Shobha Rao, then unpublished, had finished a short story collection during her Hedgebrook residency. Her fellow residents were so impressed with one story in particular that they encouraged her to submit it to an upcoming contest. Rao, however, demurred. In her stead, a fellow Hedgebrooker rode to the post office and mailed the story herself. The story won that particular contest, was included in the 2015 volume of The Best American Short Stories, and helped land Rao an agent. Her collection, An Unrestored Women, was published last year.

It is an apt example of Hedgebrook’s motto: “Women authoring change”—for themselves, for each other, and for the wider, global community. The organization estimates that work published by alumnae has reached millions of people across the world, and authors have made their mark across all manner of domains. For example, Hedgerbook alumna Jacqueline Woodson went on to win the 2014 National Book Award; Natalie Baszile had her book Queen Sugar adapted into a television series on the Oprah Winfrey Network; and Pramila Jayapal recently became the first Indian-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hopefully, by picking up the pen, women will also be authoring changes within the artistic landscape itself. Wheeler noted that women are still vastly underrepresented in the writing world: In 2015-16, only 24 percent of television writers were women; women made up 14 percent of writers for the 500 highest-grossing films of 2016; only 21 percent of plays produced last year were written by women; and the vast majority of books reviewed are written by men. If we are talking about women of color, the numbers are even grimmer.

But Hedgebrook is actively working to change these statistics. Wheeler estimates that between 60 and 70 percent of Hedgebrook’s nearly 2,000 alumnae are women of color, and the organization has various programs for writers, playwrights, songwriters, and screenwriters that help connect women with the people and resources needed to get their work out into the world, from agents and editors to dramaturgs and producers. Hedgebrook also has a growing number of programs for women who do not participate in residencies, including online master classes, creative workshops, and weekend salons.

It is all part of Hedgebrook’s commitment to give women the space, time, support, and resources needed to stoke that fire, empower their writing, and see themselves as serious writers. “It’s kind of intangible what happens to a woman’s inner landscape when she has this kind of experience to be taken care of and seen in this way, and recognized that her voice matters,” said Wheeler. “We need your story. Find the words.”


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