Hedgebrook celebrates 35th anniversary

A South Whidbey nonprofit organization continues to elevate the voices of women writers.

Long after its founding, a South Whidbey nonprofit organization continues to elevate the voices of women writers by offering them a sanctuary to unwind in and hone their craft.

Since 1988, when Hedgebrook was founded by philanthropist Nancy Nordhoff and co-founder Sheryl Feldman, thousands of writers have spent time at the secluded 48-acre retreat. With its wooded trails, burbling streams and cozy cottages, walking the grounds feels like something out of a fairytale storybook.

“I’m not a woo-woo person … but there is something special about this land,” Executive Director Kimberly A.C. Wilson said. “And whatever its purposes were before it became a women’s writing retreat, it is powerful and it is calming and beautiful.”

Around the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hedgebrook entered a new chapter in its 35-year saga. During this period, in-person residencies were suspended and programming moved online, which helped grow a global community of not just writers, but also readers. At the same time, the organization welcomed new staff members.

Another shift has been ensuring that alumnae of Hedgebrook residencies can return and be celebrated for their work. A Hedgebrook Filmmakers Showcase, which began this month, culminates in a closing reception and screening at 6 p.m. on Saturday, June 3 at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley. Tickets for the showcase are available by visiting the website, wicaonline.org.

Three short films, as well as a feature-length documentary, will be shown to audience members ages 13 and up. All four filmmakers have been to Hedgebrook, including Meg LeFauve, writer of the Pixar film “Inside Out.”

The films can also be viewed virtually until June 2 by visiting the homepage of Hedgebrook’s website, hedgebrook.org.

Hedgebrook is one of a handful of retreats for women-identified writers in the U.S. The residency program offers two-, three- or four-week stays at no cost for those who make it through a competitive application process. For every writer who is selected for a residency, 32 others have applied and are not selected.

Applicants are evaluated through an anonymous judging process. Hedgebrook alumnae evaluate the applicants by genre. Another focus is ensuring that the voices of women of color, which have historically been underrepresented, are heard. For every cycle of the residency program, about 40 to 75% of writers are women of color.

Writers, both emerging and established, come from all over the world to enjoy the serenity of rural Whidbey Island. Many have not been published, and may never be.

“People who come here are not aspiring writers, they’re writers who perhaps have not yet fully explored what that means in their lives,” Development Director Roxanne Kröon Shepherd said.

Wilson said the goal is to bring a broader section of writers to Hedgebrook, such as songwriters and journalists.

While at Hedgebrook, writers stay in their own cozy cottage, which is equipped with a large desk, a thesaurus, an ample supply of favorite snacks, a wood-burning stove and plenty of nooks to curl up in. Writers meet for dinner around an antique farmhouse table, sharing a meal cooked by Whidbey chefs.

“I always say that when the trees really get to talking that those are the voices of the women, and I can hear them chattering with the trees,” said Program Director Amber Flame, who also happens to be an alumna of the residency program.

From its inception, Hedgebrook has been intentional about providing a place for women – who often find themselves in caregiving roles – to write, free of any distractions. Wifi on the premises is limited.

“One of the things that I just still get such a kick out of is that the cottages have one of everything: one cup, one plate, because you’re not to entertain, that puts you then into ‘serving others’ mode,” Kröon Shepherd said. “And it’s just for you.”

The resident writers agree that there’s something spellbinding about Hedgebrook, and by extension, Whidbey Island.

Kröon Shepherd and Flame both said they have heard of writers trying to rekindle that magic, whether it’s with an L-shaped desk, a similar-looking mug or a photograph of the forested view outside of the cottage window.

Recently, a small fire prompted Hedgebrook staff to begin digitizing the journals kept inside each cottage, which are another unique experience of the residency program. Throughout the years, writers have filled over 100 journals with cartoons, drawings, clippings and messages to each other.

Wilson recalled one particularly memorable entry, which was scrawled by a woman who lamented that she hadn’t written anything and all she had done was eat and sleep. At the end of the dirge, she concluded that she wasn’t a real writer and was taking up a space at Hedgebrook that should be filled by somebody else.

For decades after she wrote this, other writers in the journal, and in other journals, responded to her, assuring her that she was, in fact, a real writer who simply needed the time and space to relax.

“It just made me cry to see this happening in time,” Wilson said.

Some familiar names of Hedgebrook alumnae include feminist icon and journalist Gloria Steinem, singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, children’s book author Jacqueline Woodson and writer Cheryl Strayed, whose book “Wild” was turned into a Hollywood film starring Reese Witherspoon.

Though Hedgebrook may not be as well known to the general population of Whidbey, several alumnae call the island home.

“I’d like to imagine that 35 years from now, we’re known as a treasure here, not just to people who come from afar,” Wilson said.