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.

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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