Minding the Sky || In the Vortext of Women’s Voices

Posted in Blogs, Literary

BY JUDITH WALCUTT
May 25, 2015

Vortext is a gathering for women writers held annually at Whidbey Institute, created and hosted by Hedgebrook. It took place May 19-22, 2016. The following are excerpts of this writer’s notes and reflections on the experience.

May 19, 2016 is the day that Vortext begins its process this year, unfurling and finding its way into being, like any piece of writing—there is a place where it must begin and this is it. I’m picking up writers from the shuttle, waiting with my friends Evie and Harolynne to see who the voices in the whirl will be this year. They come to the island from all over, from as near as Freeland and as far as New Zealand, South Africa, and even Miami! Literally, from the other side of the world and also right next-door, mutually drawn to the core, the white heat at the center of this vortex spiralling out from Hedgebrook, irrepressibly connecting the dots of women’s voices rising worldwide.

They came from all over—writing women walking the walk!   (photo by Catherine Willis Cleveland)

They came from all over—writing women walking the walk!   (photo by Catherine Willis Cleveland)

What is the purpose of such a convocation of women writers, young and old, new and seasoned, all hues and flavors, together alone with themselves and each other for three intense days of good words, good work, good food, and good walks?

Oh so many reasons to join the whirling mass!

It is not a competitive environment, I tell my van of writing women coming from afar. I explain that Vortext has proven to be an opportunity to refresh, to take refuge in, and remember the reasons—and the feelings­­––hard, hidden, hopeful––all which made us want to write in the first place.

This will be the fourth year for me, volunteering to help in whatever ways that I can—picking up and dropping off, shuttling from here to there, and all the while absorbing new information, new stories, new voices finding their way to the table. Also, after lunch and before the afternoon session, I set up mics and slip in a little voice coaching, for those who want to prep themselves to read at the open mics. It is my joy and privilege to do so—to help in anyway that I can this vibrant institution that has its local and global priorities clear.

By providing opportunity and encouragement for the voices of women to be heard, sometimes for the very first time, Hedgebrook nourishes the interconnection between all women’s voices. I am so pleased to be part of something as vital and important as the spiral that covers the points of infinity.

Vortext 2016: A convocation of women writers, talking the talk too!   (photo by Catherine Willis Cleveland)

Vortext 2016: A convocation of women writers, talking the talk too!   (photo by Catherine Willis Cleveland)

Each of the years that I have been here, I have heard stories that made me laugh so hard my stomach hurt. And stories that brought tears to the corners of my eyes and down my face, as when hearts crinkle up and burst their seams with something deeply sad, but true and so beautiful in its sadness.

To inspire, to open the place in the heart, in the mind, where we remember suddenly all at once like a flash of lighting, or gradually like the slow opening of a densely petaled rose, these are the purposes of the real vortex we swirl in. We collectively remember why we wanted to write, felt the urge to write, and even couldn’t help ourselves and so had to write—in the first place—for all the reasons you can imagine. We come here to this beautiful place on the Chinook lands, floating on the jewel that is Whidbey, and we rest our minds in this time and place—in that opening in the field where we can breathe in all that is sweet and sour and poignant and rich in our own fertile grounds, and remember: why we live to tell the story.

So today, I’ll be picking up the writers coming from all over, and tomorrow, we begin the practice!

Tools of the writing trade!   (photo and drawing by the author,  feather by Hannah)

Tools of the writing trade!   (photo and drawing by the author,  feather by Hannah)

The next day begins for me making a mad dash to get to the Chinook land early enough to shuttle writers from the bottom parking lot to Thomas Berry Hall at the top. A general buzz of interest, excitement, a wondering of what to expect, and perhaps a little nervousness pervades the short rides up and down the hill. Once there, the attendees get their bags and name tags which we are really glad to have—because there are just too many new names to remember them all—and who doesn’t want a nice bag?

With breakfast, the first wave of Hedgebrook’s now legendary radical hospitality awaits us–a gentle landing of homemade granola, fresh raspberries, locally sourced sheep’s yogurt, bagels as good as any found in Brooklyn, and plenty for all with and without gluten, dairy, or whatever the dietary need.

At 9:30 a.m. of Day 1, the group assembles in the Hall for the Keynote addresses. Amy Wheeler, Executive Director of Hedgebrook, opens the gathering with words which invite all to be fully present as the writers, the unique and singular voice which each woman in the room is, reminding us that by choosing to be here, at Vortext, we have already begun the important work of showing up for ourselves as writers.

2016 Mentoring authors (right to left)—Hannah Tinti, Kate Gray, Laurie Frankel, Dani Shapiro, Ruth Ozeki, Natalie Braszile  (photo by the author)

2016 Mentoring authors (right to left)—Hannah Tinti, Kate Gray, Laurie Frankel, Dani Shapiro, Ruth Ozeki, Natalie Braszile  (photo by the author)

The first day’s keynote presenter is Ruth Ozeki. I am a huge fan of her novel, “A Tale For the Time Being,” which tells a great story and bends the laws of physics. She speaks to many issues surrounding a woman writer’s life, including the ongoing predicament that pervades life for most women who write––that she is seldom ever just a writer and almost always that and something else (a mother, a teacher, a bookstore worker, house cleaner, a cook, a payer of bills, a million and one things!). Her words somehow set the stage for each one of us to come to terms with the struggles we each encounter to get there, to get to work, to stick to it, to evolve practicing the craft, wrestling angels and demons to the ground and even to the death!

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto came next and through the means of reading the ancient symbols embedded in a tarot deck, she gave the entire gathering at Vortext a reading. Tarot, she says, is simply a method of working with the images inherent in our unconscious mind which allow a person to discover what she already knows to be true. This is a paraphrase, but I knew what she meant.

Somehow, in the cards she laid out for all of us there, she did reveal to us what we all knew deeply to be true—we saw the process, the feminine hero’s journey, to move from the hidden side of the moon through that forest from the trees, driven on a chariot propelled by urgency, healing the wounds by transformation from lead to gold, and finally manifesting justice by simply standing in the sun, in the light of the sun, for all to see.

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto reads the signs and shares the vision. (photo by the author)

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto reads the signs and shares the vision. (photo by the author)

Again—these remarks are only paraphrases, my making of meaning from the words filling the room—and every morning, we had stories of writers, women writers, who have made it to the other side—they have done their work, held their ground—waited eleven or more years from manuscript to manifestation, staying true to the truth of their words or else leaving the necessarily unfinished one behind, in the car wreck she escaped from with her life. Wow! What stories! And what a lesson—when to leave it behind and move ahead with something new…

The writer’s life, riddled with obstacles and then the over-coming of obstacles—we heard about it every which way from Ruth and Reiko, but also Natalie Braszile, Kate Gray, Laurie Frankel, Dani Shapiro, and Hannah Tinti and each one of them had the heart and courage to tell us deep and important and painful and true and uplifting, and deeply personal confessions of their writing lives.

Natalie Braszile tells the harrowing tale of her novel’s 11 years at sea before landing on the shore of a major breakout, soon-to-be TV series, “Queen Sugar.” (photo by the author)

Natalie Braszile tells the harrowing tale of her novel’s 11 years at sea before landing on the shore of a major breakout, soon-to-be TV series, “Queen Sugar.” (photo by the author)

As a crowd we groaned and gasped out loud together! We felt hurt with them and also redeemed by their courage and jumped to our feet to applaud their fortitude in over-coming the “no’s” of interior and exterior voices, the trials of the cruel business of books, and the strength to just keep writing, no matter what.

Dani Shapiro stirs the cauldron with her lyric keynote. (photo by Catherine Willis Cleveland)

Dani Shapiro stirs the cauldron with her lyric keynote. (photo by Catherine Willis Cleveland)

After the keynotes did their jobs—of warming us up with stirred-up emotions and evocative imagery—the way a good book does—we, the writers in attendance, broke out into separate sessions with the mentors, the sensei of the words and actions, the ones who have crossed into the fabled lands of deckled edges and elegant frontispieces in print.

I can’t and won’t tell you what happened in each session, because truth be told, I don’t know how to describe it. Each session was unlike any other, made up of the one-time only combinations of women in the room and the skillful means by which the teachers freed us to speak, write, remember, imagine.

The days which followed the first, repeated this schedule—breakfasts of splendid foods followed by the morning keynotes, presented by the visiting authors who lead the sessions with the attendees. A splendid lunch with much writerly chatter transitions into quiet time for private thinking, or walkabouts, or rehearsing for the scheduled open mic times.

Later, the sages return for questions and answers among writers and every day ends with more rigorously radical hospitality—more good food, good wine, good suss, before breaking for the day.

Questions and answers in the afternoon with (left to right) Ruth Ozeki, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, Dani Shapiro, and Hannah Tinti   (photo by Catherine Willis Cleveland)

Questions and answers in the afternoon with (left to right) Ruth Ozeki, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, Dani Shapiro, and Hannah Tinti   (photo by Catherine Willis Cleveland)

I could tell you a list of exercises the teachers taught or a certain way of working they encouraged, to evoke writing from the compost heap of a writer’s mind as well as drill into the forgotten diamond mines found deep in buried, long-forgotten feelings. I could try to tell you how Hannah Tinti showed me how to free myself up mentally by using a hand-cut, quill pen—or how Ruth Ozeki unlocked the old oak bureau hidden in the attic of my unconscious Victorian brownstone and released the scent of burnt sugar, or how Dani Shapiro made me remember the tip of the ice pond of things I had forgotten to remember before—vanilla ice cream cones with sprinkles, the smell of the smoking car on the Erie Lackawanna train from Short Hills to Hoboken, the glistening frozen trees of fairyland winters. I could try to tell you—but the words could never cover the mojo—the magic—that made things happen in my mind, in my journal, with my words, and among my secret voices, when I became a dot on the spiral unwinding from Vortext.

Hannah Tinti sings a song ‘bout a’ trying and a’trying…to write!   (photo by the author)

Hannah Tinti sings a song ‘bout a’ trying and a’trying…to write!   (photo by the author)

I cannot tell you it all, because like the sweet dream that vanishes with the twittering noisy dawn, I can’t bring it all back to the speakable, effable world. Some things must remain hidden, for future excavations of time and place­­—but I hope you have had a glimmer of it, from what I’ve written here, have tempted you to come out, come out from wherever you are, and join the outward-blossoming beauty of Hedgebrook’s offerings.

Vortext 2016 writing women, fortified by radical hospitality and each other, come together in the Long House on the Hedgebrook land for final words and dedication renewed. (photo by the author)

Vortext 2016 writing women, fortified by radical hospitality and each other, come together in the Long House on the Hedgebrook land for final words and dedication renewed. (photo by the author)

On the final day, the convocation of women writers returned to the land where Hedgebrook lives and breathes, and fosters the voices that already have and will continue to birth the change we want to hear and speak–locally, globally, voice by voice, women’s voices rising!

And my-oh-my! How that garden grows to the sky!

Hedgebrook garden at work—growing sustainable opportunities for women writers…   (photo by the author)

Hedgebrook garden at work—growing sustainable opportunities for women writers…   (photo by the author)

There are many ways to join the community that Hedgebrook holds in its conception and manifestation. Schedules for future master classes, salons, and residency programs can be discovered by exploring the website: http://www.hedgebrook.org. The next event on the Hedgebrook land is the Summer Salon on June 18. To find out more about it all, how you can join in, how you can help—email hedgebrook@hedgebrook.org or subscribe to the Hedgebrook email newsletter here http://eepurl.com/bceX7T.

…and armfuls of beauty over time   (photo by the author)

…and armfuls of beauty over time   (photo by the author)

Judith Walcutt, a grateful Hedgebrook alum, is a writer in her 28th year on Whidbey Island. Recently, she was named the 2016 winner of the Norman Corwin Award for Lifetime Achievement in Audio Theatre by the National Audio Theatre Festivals. Her novel, “Memoirs of a Modern She-noodle,” is forthcoming SOON from NeoPoiesis Press.

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