Hedgebrook: Where Women Writers are Made Central

“You should apply for Hedgebrook!!” were the first words to fly out of writer/director Tamar Halpern’s mouth when I told her that I was also a writer. “It’s run by women for women, and it’s my favorite place on the planet!” With such a five star review, naturally I was intrigued. Hedgebrook, a women’s writer’s retreat on Whidbey Island just outside of Seattle, does indeed appear to be as idyllic as Halpern suggests. While Hedgebrook offers certain paid writers workshops, the crème de la crème of the Hedgebrook experience is their Writers in Residence program—an all-expenses-paid (aka free) residency offered to women writers “based on the quality of their writing and strength of their proposals—not whether they have been published.” Hedegebrook, founded by Seattle philanthropist Nancy Nordhoff, prides itself on its 27-year commitment to supporting women writers ranging from their 20s to their 70s, more than 50% of which are women of color.

That there is no fee attached to the Hedgebrook residency is truly remarkable. This may be the first distinguished program for women writers that not only eliminates the governance of men, but that also takes financial advantage (or disadvantage) out of the equation. Your only responsibility is to get yourself to Seattle, the rest is taken care of!

The sense of sisterhood amongst Hedgebrook alumna, repeatedly reinforced in my conversations with Halpern, is what appears to be the ultimate heartbeat of the place. With the 2016 Writers in Residence application deadline approaching, I decided to sit Halpern down and finally consolidate her Hedgebrook experiences in an interview for SheRa Mag. In the spirit of ‘giving back,’ an ethos that holds meaning to the Hedgebrook community, writer and director of Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life and more recently co-director of the prolific documentary film Llyn Foulkes One Man Band (premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival), Halpern jumped at the opportunity.

Viva: When did you first go to Hedgebrook?

Tamar Halpern: In 1997, a friend in Seattle said, “There’s this magical, beautiful place on Whidbey Island for women writers. You HAVE to apply.” I did and was promptly waitlisted. Hedgebrook was that competitive, even then! When the phone call came that they were awarding me a month-long residency, I was beyond thrilled. As a screenwriter, I knew I was a long shot, as Hedgebrook supported novelists, essayists, poets, and playwrights, with the rare screenwriter thrown in for good measure. At that time, one well-known screenwriter had attended–Randy Sue Coburn who wrote Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle–so I think she had much to do with paving the way for future screenwriters.

At the time I applied, my son was 10 and I didn’t feel comfortable leaving him with his dad for a month. I asked the woman on the phone, “Do I have to take the entire month?,” to which she replied, “It’s your residency. You can do whatever you wish. Just know you can only come once.” I worked it out to go for two and half weeks, the absolute longest period of time I felt comfortable being away from my son.

I arrived at dusk in the February chill and the chef showed me my cottage, named Owl, positioned at the top of the property where six cottages sit in a clearing of woods. She tutored me on the art of lighting the fire, which at that time was the only source of heat in the cottages. She pointed out the bath house, down the path from the cottages, as well as the shed with extra wood. When she left, I took in the perfection of my two-story cottage, the fire roaring in the stove, the armchair and window seat, the wood floors and peaked roofline, and burst into tears. I had no idea what it would mean to have my own, beautiful space in the middle of the woods where I could write in peace.

What was the application process like? 

The application process was, and continues to be, beautifully simple. The one stumper question had to do with community—specifically what I would do to contribute to the community of women writers and what I hoped to glean from them. I remember making up my answer, thinking it’s what they wanted to hear, something about giving back and finding my place within the group of women writers (who I of course had not met). I kind of bullshitted because I didn’t know what to say except for what I thought they’d want to hear. The irony is this: everything I wrote became true. I bonded deeply with the women I met there, started the Southern California Hedgebrook Alumnae Association, and have met hundreds of Hedgebrook sisters since, many of whom I now consider friends and mentors. I always smile when I’m at an event, watching the women interact and share their stories and experiences, that my application back in 97 was so incredibly prescient.

Do you remember the piece of writing you submitted? And what eventuated from it after the residency?

I submitted the first 10 pages of my script about Nellie Bly, the 1880s daredevil journalist who feigned insanity and was committed to an insane asylum so she could report on the conditions firsthand. Nellie’s work was an extreme act of feminist revolution as she was forced to circumvent the standard path afforded to men to become a bonafide journalist. I wrote the script while in graduate school through a Paramount Fellowship and it has been under option ever since. I felt confident the material would get the attention of Hedgebrook, where women author change. Nellie Bly authored change and her story was my passion.

While there, I outlined and wrote the first draft of a script—a Planes, Trains, and Automobiles road trip with a reverse Roman Holiday aspect about a woman traveling across the country to reunite with her teenage son who has chosen to live with his dad after their divorce. I couldn’t believe how much I accomplished in two and a half weeks. The quiet of the woods made time work differently than it does in the city.

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Tell me about a day in the life at Hedgebrook in residency.

Glorious! A writer is not required to do anything other than what she wants. So there’s that. Dinner is at five in the farmhouse—six writers sitting around a table filled with food cooked by the chefs, often complete with items grown in the Hedgebrook garden. Generally, this is the first time a writer has contact with others, though outings and bike rides and readings can be planned. Many of the women who were there when I was had one to three month residencies, so they could afford breaks to walk the beaches of Puget Sound and stare out at Mt. Rainier. Due to my shorter residency, bathing, keeping the fire stoked, and eating took up enough of my day and the rest was strictly for writing only.

After dinner, we writers packed up anything we wanted to eat for breakfast (homemade granola, fresh eggs from the neighboring farm, coffee, tea, etc) to be prepared in our cottages the next day. Lunch would magically arrive on our doorsteps in baskets worthy of Little Red Riding Hood, the fresh soup and breads still warm from the farmhouse kitchen.

Things have changed slightly due to budget as Hedgebrook is a non-profit, so lunch is now prepared and sent back with the writers after dinner. (Hedgebrook now has a cookbook of writer-voted favorite recipes made by head chefs Denise and Julie with commentary from known authors who have passed through Hedgebrook like Gloria Steinem and Ruth Ozeki!)

The bathhouse has a claw foot tub and private showers, as well as radiant heat, so it was like a little spa break from writing. The owls watch you as you walk along the paths. Antlers may be found, discarded by the bucks, if a walk is taken through the property through meandering lush forest and black ponds with ducks and geese. It’s weirdly perfect. Very fairy tale-esque. Downright surreal, actually. The closest thing to paradise found.

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Have you kept in touch with any of the women you met there?

Absolutely. The first writer I met on the path down to dinner was Dr. Nassim Assefi, a Harvard trained doctor and published novelist, then in her 20s. My second writer was the poet and playwright Sandy Diamond, then in her 60s and old enough to tell stories about her times with Allen Ginsberg. We are all in touch to this day. I remember at one point the six of us sitting around the farm table and laughing, as we all confessed we had reservations about who we might meet at Hedgebrook. Everyone assumed it would be an army of militant lesbian writers. I’ve since met many women here in Los Angeles since who are an important part of my community.

During your residency, did you work on one piece of writing, or many?

When I was awarded a return stay in 2010, I wrote short stories, one of which was picked up by resident Kara Levy and published in Joyland Magazine, going on to win awards. I also edited a short film I was working on and wrote significantly on a feature length script about a woman who rides her bicycle away from her Milwaukee life. The return stay was a three-week residency and I left wishing, yearning, hoping for some possibility of extension. I couldn’t get enough! Peeking out the cottage window and seeing the puffs of white smoke snaking out of the next writer’s chimney, knowing we are all hard at work doing what we love most, that is the source of energy that makes Hedgebrook a miraculously prolific experience.

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Halpern doing a headstand while novelist Ruth Ozeki reads to playwright Amalia Ortiz (photo courtesy of Halpern)

Were there days when you didn’t feel like writing at all? What did you do instead?

I took a couple bike rides not because I didn’t feel like writing, but because I was aware of my surroundings and wanted to take it all in. All that sitting and writing needs balance, so Hedgebrook has bicycles and helmets ready for anyone who wants to take a spin.

I love Gloria Steinam’s quote in the Hedgebrook video, “It’s the community that makes Hedgebrook unique. Especially for any group that’s been marginalized, you need a time of being central.” Can you relate to this sentiment? As a woman, what did it feel like being at the focus, being central?

Privileged. Fortunate. Loved. I have spent years telling other women about Hedgebrook, encouraging them to apply even if they think they “won’t have time” or “this isn’t the right year.” Applying opens the door to the possibility of radical hospitality, which is Hedgebrook’s credo. There is always time if we make the time.

What do you think you gained most from the residency?

Hedgebrook was the first time out of graduate school that an entity said, “We believe in you. We want to invest in you. You are worth it as a writer, regardless of gender.” It was powerful and uplifting to be given such a strong vote of confidence. Hedgebrook’s belief in me has fueled me to continue my path for almost 20 years now.

Had you ever had the time to focus solely on your writing before?

I have tried a few times to create ‘my own Hedgebrook’ with various degrees of success. Hedgebrook has inspired me to carve out that time—be it a weekend of quiet somewhere remote or simply a phones off, internet off (internet is spotty at best at Hedgebrook, another plus) hour or two, which I deem an instant Hedgebrook residency, minus the incredible food and company of others around the farm table.

And finally, aside from the glorious screenplay you and I are co-writing, what are you currently working on writing-wise? 

Following up the adaptation of Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life which I directed, I’ve adapted another favorite Wendy Mass book, A Mango-Shaped Space, about a 13-year-old girl with Synesthesia, a neurological condition where senses cross. In her case, she SEES music and sound. I’m directing several all-women comedy series as well as finishing up marketing on my documentary Llyn Foulkes One Man Band. I also have a small suitcase packed and waiting by the door in case Hedgebrook suddenly has a cancellation. I am here for you, Hedgebrook, as you have always been for me.

Hedgebrook Writers in Residency program applications are open until 28 July.

Unless otherwise specified, all photos courtesy of Hedgebrook. 

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