At Hedgebrook, Peace and Quiet, At Last…

I went to Hedgebrook full of apprehension-the brochure said that the retreat was quite rural, that residents had to use a wood stove, that bats sometimes snuck into the cottages at night. I’m a big city kind of girl–Portland’s the smallest town I’ve ever lived in. Before I left, I made Alex promise that he would come get me if it proved to be too much. He had a mocking half-smile on his face. He’s a devoted backpacker; he thinks everyone feels at home in the woods. “Whatever you say. But I think you’ll love it.”

Hedgebrook Farm sits on 48 acres of land, on the south side of Whidbey Island, in Washington. Six writers are housed at a time, each in a post-and-beam, shingle-roofed cottage with a loft, a desk, and a comfortable chair. I could tell right away that great care had been put into every detail of the cottage–the L-shaped desk provided the right amount of workspace; the French press doubled as a thermos; the water filter provided just enough liquid for a day; the wood stove was the ideal size for a small place; the bookcase had a dictionary and a thesaurus. It was a place of work, and of love.

I spent the first three days of my retreat struggling to cut off the umbilical cord of my regular life. There was an Internet connection in the pump house, down the road from my cottage, and I’d go there every few hours to check my email and deal with bits of unfinished business. I was still copy-editing the manuscript for my collection, and it wasn’t until I shipped it off that I was finally able to focus on my second book, the novel I went to Hedgebrook to work on.

I started writing A Place To Call Home in November 2003. Set in Casablanca and Los Angeles, it’s the tale of two very different and yet very similar lives, tangled by issues of race, class, and politics. When I arrived at the retreat, I had just a little over 58,000 words of it written. I started to reorganize my chapters, shuffled scenes around, and, after staring at the stuff for a couple of days, I realized I had to cut the first part of the book out–nearly 20,000 words. It was painful. I couldn’t turn around and start writing again right away; I went for a walk, took a long bath, and spent the day reading a book.

My novel is told in alternating points of view, and so I decided to devote myself first to my character Amal. I ended up cutting even more of her story out, rewriting a lot of old scenes, and developing some of the people in her life. I was able to do character bios, historical research, and figure out a whole bunch of other details that I’d never had the time to just sit and think about. Then I switched to Yacoub and went through the whole process again with him, although with him I had a slightly easier time because I have a better handle on his voice. Some nights I stayed up until 2 in the morning, only to go to bed and dream about my work.

I spent twenty-five days in almost complete solitude; it was the longest time I’d had to myself since college, and I relished every minute of it. I hadn’t had the pleasure to think about my work, or indeed about anything else, without interruption, for many, many years so it was a deeply emotional time as well, with a lot of exhilarating highs (when I wrote something I was pleased with) and a few lows (when I realized I’d disobeyed the dictatorship of truth, whether in my work or in my life.) I tried to think of a word that would sum up my experience at Hedgebrook, but the best I could come up with isn’t even a word-it’s a morpheme, a prefix: re, as in renew, reconnect, reconsider. And what a gift that was.

Before Hedgebrook, I would blame the glacial pace of my writing on my hectic schedule. But I learned there that my muse is a hermit. I had to coax her out every day. I’d feed her, make her good coffee, read to her (only the best, too-lots of Rushdie and Greene and Benjelloun, some Kureishi.) I played rai music to her, over and over, to get her into the mood. And then, at around 1 p.m., after I’d despaired that the little fucker would show up, she came, dragging her feet, and did her work. Maybe it’s a question of habit; I usually write in the afternoon, when I’m home. But at least at Hedgebrook the muse stuck around until very late at night.

The dinners, the writers’ only communal time, were quite simply amazing. I was fortunate to have ended up with a great group of writers. Most nights, we sat at the table for well over three hours, talking about art and literature and politics and life. And what of the meals? They were all healthfully prepared, with whole foods, olive oil, and real butter. I stuffed myself shamelessly. Sometimes I sat in the library, reading the work of alumnae-women like Ursula LeGuin, Suheir Hammad, Gloria Steinem, Ayelet Waldman, Monique Truong, Peggy Munson, and others. I nearly jumped for joy when I found out that Alison Baker, who’s done work on the role of Moroccan women in the resistance movement against French occupation, had been at Hedgebrook in the 1990s, while she was working on her book.

At night, I’d walk through the woods to my cottage, holding a flashlight, still exhilarated by the conversation and also a tad worried that the barred owl who’d scared one of the residents when he swooped down near her would be tempted to do the same with me.

I don’t know if I’ve managed to conquer my fear of the woods. But I did learn to make a rip-roaring good fire. I watched rabbits and deer. I found out how to tell a cedar from a douglas fir. I listened to the winter wren in the morning and to the bullfrogs at night. Maybe Alex was right. I did enjoy being in the woods. In fact, if the cottage had wi-fi, I might not have come back home at all.

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