A Seattle writer lives a fairy tale in the magical land of Hedgebrook
Special to The Seattle Times
Ready to retreat?
A writer's reading list
What books do writers read for that much-needed kick in the pants? Here are favorites of mine and my fellow Hedgebrook residents.
"A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf ($11, Harvest Books, reissue edition, 1989).
"Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" by Anne Lamott ($13.95, Anchor, 1995).
"On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" by Stephen King ($7.99, Pocket, 2002).
"The Writing Life" by Annie Dillard ($11, Harper Perennial, 1990).
"The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art" by Joyce Carol Oates ($11.95, Harper Perennial, 2004).
"Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity (Expanded Edition)" by Ray Bradbury ($14.95, Joshua Odell Editions, 1993).
"Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times" with introduction by John Darnton ($14, Times Books, 2002).
"Writing, Volume II: More Collected Essays from the New York Times" with introduction by Jane Smiley ($14, Times Books, 2004).
"The Modern Library Writer's Workshop" by Stephen Koch ($12.95, Modern Library, 2003).
Until this year, the only retreat I'd been to was some woo-woo enclave in upstate New York my mother once dragged me to. Much group chanting, drumming and the ever-dreaded handholding ensued. Thankfully we left after three days.
Recently, I tried my (happily unheld) hand at another kind of retreat, one where I was far less likely to hear anyone utter the word, "I really like your energy" — at Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island haven for women writers. Highlights from my stay:
I arrive at 3 in the afternoon, 30 minutes early for the first time in my life. The passenger seat of my rickety hatchback brims with hardcovers and file folders, research for the nonfiction book I'm writing. Supposedly the Internet connection is spotty here, and cell service nonexistent.
As I pull into the gravel driveway, my momentary panic at quitting e-mail cold turkey dissipates. Useless Bay shimmers in the distance. Goats trim the grass at a neighboring farm. It's unseasonably warm and bright. Everywhere I look, conifers sway, unhurried.
My cabin, named Willow, is the stuff fairy-tales are made of: wood-burning stove, sleeping loft, leaded-glass window seat, abundant bookshelves, gigantic desk ... I seem to have entered a parallel writer's universe, one devoid of bills, errands, cooking, telemarketers and all other nuisances of daily life. It is hard not to weep.
After a morning spent reading in my window seat, I visit the farmhouse (the communal dining and living room) and find Jess, the head chef, stirring a vat of brownie batter. On the counter, a tray of chocolate-chip cookies cools. Mason jars of nuts, chocolate and pretzels fill the snack pantry. I grab a container of today's fresh-made lunch (carrot-ginger soup) and put it in the Little Red Riding Hood basket I've been given to carry it back to my cabin. I wonder if there's any way I can move here.
I awaken so energized it startles me. Buzzing about my Hobbit house, I replay a chat I had with my book editor before leaving Seattle, something about how I'll undoubtedly get a ton of writing done in the woods. Subtext: I'd better see some chapters when you get home or the deal's off.
I'm dying to check my e-mail, an act that would require dressing and walking to the neighboring pump house, a loud utility room equipped with one phone and two temperamental old Macs with dial-up service. After an hour of rearranging my one clothing drawer, I plug in my laptop and write furiously until noon. I reward myself with lunch (an elaborate pasta salad with capers), but not before checking my e-mail.
Today I spend the morning at my keyboard, then take a long walk through woods. The plush, mossy trails on the property's 48 wooded acres make me feel like a Disney character, gleefully greeting deer, bunnies and banana slugs. At night, a hilarious army of frogs croaks so loudly they sound like they're under my bed. If I'm lucky, the owls and coyotes will chime in as the moon rises. I'm already better rested than I've been in weeks.
I've been getting to know the five other residents at our daily farmhouse dinners. Alia, Amy, Marian and Traci are writing books; Beena is working on several essays and short stories. I'm inspired by (and envious of) their commitment to their projects. Marian writes five pages of her historical novel a day. Traci cranks out 2,000 words of her travel memoir and squeezes in a bike ride before dinner. Not only that, she hasn't checked her e-mail in days.
I meticulously track how many words and hours I write daily, and it's never the same twice. More than anything, I hope to build an unwavering writing habit here, one where I start at the same time each morning and write until I meet some predetermined goal. If this Tech Elimination Diet can't whip an easily distracted procrastination queen like me into shape, I don't know what will.
Time moves slowly in the woods, except when I'm writing. Sometimes I grow restless at the endless expanse of it. Part of me feels like the Type-A Miranda on "Sex and the City," who, on her woodsy-cabin honeymoon, has a meltdown when her cellphone runs out of bars. The other part of me could spend hours listening to the rain and staring at the floral explosions of color outside my window seat.
My visits to the pump house are dwindling. I'm dangerously close to finishing the chapter I started on my first day.
Thumbing through the journal entries of writers who've occupied this cabin for the past decade-plus, I recognize many names, some from Seattle, some from the shelves at bookstores. A week ago this would have intimidated me.
A journal entry by Gloria Steinem — Gloria Steinem! — in Amy's cabin (Fir) advises me to trust my writing process no matter how harebrained it seems and to "stop weighing the baby." I quit recording in my journal how much I write each day and when. Instead, I write the acknowledgments page for my book. Suddenly the phrase "my book" is 100 times more real.
This night marks the halfway point of my residency. I know, sadly, time will race from here on out. What was I thinking, worrying I couldn't leave behind my supposed "crazy-busy life" for 16 days? It's hard to remember what was so pressing before.
It would be worth the trip to Hedgebrook for the dinners alone. A typical menu: Melt-in-your-mouth salmon nestled atop sautéed greens from the organic garden. Perfectly roasted new potatoes. Homemade berry pie. For someone who normally eats out of boxes and cans (that would be me), this is nine-star dining. Most nights here I stuff myself with seconds, sometimes thirds.
I savor the dinner conversations with the other writers as much as the cuisine. Lobotomies, televangelists and bad celebrity facelifts rank high on my list of favorite topics. Ditto for whether Sylvia Plath's suicide was more tragic than Virginia Woolf's.
Tonight we discuss our writing rituals. I let it slip that I dance around my cabin to the Allman Brothers before planting my rear in the chair. Happily I'm not the only one.
We usually take a group walk after dinner. Tonight we make the 90-minute round-trip jaunt to Double Bluff beach and catch the sunset. Other nights we just head down the road to talk to the llamas or coo at the precious baby sheep until their mean-looking mama glares at us to beat it. We talk shop incessantly. I keep a pen and paper handy to track everyone's book recommendations. It's like writing group 24-7.
Nancy Skinner, the philanthropist who co-founded Hedgebrook, joins us for Sunday brunch. What prompted her to start this place? "There were a lot of souls who needed to come here," she says with a grin. As she bids us good-bye, she rests a gentle hand on each of our backs.
After dinner, we hold an impromptu reading in the farmhouse living room. Everyone's writing is polished, impressive, what you'd expect to find on a bookstore shelf. By the time I walk back to my cabin, the full moon shines brightly. I beam back up at it. I am in love with this place.
I dreamed last night I was dying of some exotic (nonexistent) disease, maybe because we'd been talking at dinner about a passage in Annie Dillard's "The Writing Life" where she says to write as though you have six months to live.
Consequently I write like a banshee for seven straight hours today, taking the shortest breaks imaginable. By the time I'm done, I have half a new chapter down and am exhausted. I now understand what an illustrator friend meant when she said, "I don't know how writers do it. I just finished my grad school essays and feel like I need to check myself into the ER."
In the farmhouse writing-supply closet, I find a stack of postcards of my cabin surrounded by winter snow. I well up. I can't imagine leaving.
I get an e-mail from a concerned writer pal in Seattle. I usually check in with her every couple of days. "I haven't heard from you in a week," she says. "Have you gone totally native?"
I drink too much wine at the residents' "last supper." Afterward, I drunk-dial my Seattle writer pal from the pump house and wax poetic about smashing my modem and working by quill and candlelight from now on. Mercifully her voice mail cuts me off.
I'm determined to stave off life's usual frenetic pace when I return home. I can unplug the phone, I tell myself; check e-mail less, daydream more. I'll live more simply, less digitally. Put my writing first. Commune with the city crows and garden snails. But as I pull out of Hedgebrook's driveway, the farm animals lounging in the plush grass across the street seem to laugh at me all too knowingly.
Michelle Goodman: firstname.lastname@example.org; she is the author of "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" (Seal Press, December 2006). She and fellow Seattle Times contributor Diane Mapes will teach "Famous Freelance Foul-ups: How to Avoid Them, How to Undo Them" 7-10 p.m. July 27 at Seattle Central Community College. Information: www.mediabistro.com/courses/cache
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