Sheltering the Storytellers | Hedgebrook

Posted in Feature, Literary, More Stories

Whidbey Life Magazine contributor
July 9, 2014

They come from all over the world, authoring change. Over the past 26 years, 1,500 women writers from 40 countries have traveled to Whidbey Island to experience Hedgebrook’s radical hospitality.

Founded by Nancy Nordhoff, the retreat offers fully-funded residencies of two to six weeks to women writers at all levels working in a variety of genres. While in residence, each writer lives in a hand-crafted cottage of her own.

Nancy Nordhoff (photo by MJ Alexander)

Nancy Nordhoff (photo by MJ Alexander)

It’s Thursday afternoon, and our newest resident, B, is arriving. She is originally from Zimbabwe and has flown into Seattle from Ann Arbor. As she gets out of the car, she is beaming. She is wearing a “One Billion Rising” t-shirt—a nod to her mentor, Eve Ensler. Her four daughters insisted she wear it.

“They wouldn’t let me leave the house without it,” she explains.

I follow Julie O’Brien, our Program Associate, as she orients B. We start at the Farmhouse and Julie gives a brief tour of the kitchen and the library that holds hundreds of books written by our alumnae.

Anne, one of our guest chefs, offers advice: “A lot of writers think they need to get to work right away. But I encourage you to listen to your body’s rhythms. If you need to sleep, sleep. Go for a walk in the woods. That is just as important to the creative process.”

We walk through the garden, sampling snap peas and raspberries. B tells us that growing up, she refused to do the chores traditionally assigned to girls.

“It was the duty of the boys to herd the goats and so that is where you found me.”

We all laugh, walking through the woods to bring B to the place she’ll be staying for her residency. Meadow House was originally the caretaker’s residence. It has been renovated to be an additional space to house writers. Gloria Steinem has stayed here, as has Alice Sebold, Carolyn Forché and Dorothy Allison. We encourage B to read the journal entries of past residents.

Julie points to the space between two trees where Mount Rainier becomes visible when the sky isn’t overcast. B jumps up and down, rejoicing in her good fortune, celebrating her new home for the next two weeks. This is easily the best part of the job: seeing the writer’s reaction to her new sanctuary.

Nancy Nordhoff has witnessed many tears of joy when showing writers to their cottages in the early days of the retreat. “There was always that moment,” she says. “They would say ‘You mean I can stay here?’ or ‘This is for me?’”


One never knows what local color may make its way into literature around the world!


A non-profit, Hedgebrook holds the following as our mission statement: Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come.

Hedgebrook is helmed by Executive Director and alumna, Amy Wheeler. She first experienced Hedgebrook as a resident in 2002, while working on one of her plays.

She has this to say about the power of the residencies that Hedgebrook provides: “Women are used to nurturing others and supporting their visions, often at the expense of our own. When you turn the tables and give a woman writer space and time to work, and the opportunity to focus on her vision, you send a powerful message: what you have to say matters. The evidence of Hedgebrook’s impact is seen in the ripple effect generated by our 1,500 alumnae, whose work is now reaching millions of people around the world.”

The writers that come to Hedgebrook go through a rigorous application process. Last year, 1,500 writers applied for 40 residencies.

Authors Denise Barr, Rebekah Anne Bloyd, Vito Zingarelli, Carolyn Forche, Monique Truong, Dael Orlandersmith with Program Director Vito Zingarelli (photo courtesy of Hedgebrook)

(Clockwise from left) Authors Denise Barr, Rebekah Anne Bloyd, Carolyn Forche, Monique Truong and Dael Orlandersmith with Program Director Vito Zingarelli  in the center (photo courtesy of Hedgebrook)

The selection process is organized by Program Director, Vito Zingarelli. “Adjudication is done without knowledge of the writer’s identity.…The final selection committee is comprised of writers, educators, agents, literary managers and editors who read the applications and rank each writer according to the following criteria: quality of writing, originality of voice and strength of proposal, with an eye toward diversity in all areas.”

The work of the writers who come to Hedgebrook becomes infused with the culture of South Whidbey.

Zingarelli illustrates: “There is a play that just opened off-Broadway—‘When We Were Young and Unafraid’ by Sarah Treem—that began such a journey four years ago in the Hedgebrook Women Playwrights Festival. The working title at that time was ‘Useless Bay.’ It’s set on Whidbey Island and the kernels of that piece were directly derived from our community and the surroundings. One never knows what local color may make its way into literature around the world!”

While it’s always bittersweet when residents leave the retreat, it is offset by the promise of the new words that they’ll be putting into the world to shape our culture.

In the words of Gloria Steinem: “Hedgebrook isn’t a retreat…it’s an advance.”


To learn more about Hedgebrook, you can watch the recent KCTS documentary. (

If you or someone you know would like to apply for the Writers in Residence program, please visit

Join us at the Hedgebrook Open House from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, September 13!

Image at top: Cottage blue door (photo by Tom Marks)

Katie Woodzick works at Hedgebrook as an External Relations Manager. She is also an actor and director who can be seen on local stages. Her newest production, “Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them,” runs at OutCast Productions July 11-26.

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