Whidbey Island seems rife with secret gardens whose long winding driveways meander into thickets of wooded groves. That day, a woman directed me to a parking lot – a gravel shoulder bordered by nothing but trees. I got out of the car, bewildered, not sure where to go to reach VORTEXT, the weekend-long writing conference hosted by Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island writer's retreat for women, whose board I recently joined.
Another woman parked as I was returning to the car, certain I had messed up. She got out and seemed to know where to go. We walked together, learning that we were both from Seattle, here to write, excited. I was already disappointed that I would only be attending for the morning, teenaged birthdays and events filling this particular weekend, preventing a longer stay.
We arrived at what I can only describe as a lodge-like building – a great room with soaring ceilings, a hallway lined with Hedgebrook's resident gourmand, Denise's delicious homemade organic food, an intimate windowed dining area filled with groups of women chatting. I ate breakfast enjoying the meadow and garden view, made enchanting by the misty rain. I recognized Elizabeth George, the Whidbey Island celebrity crime writer, but was less familiar with the other five writers who would be our workshop leaders.
A familiar woman approached me as I finished by breakfast. I realized she was Debi Goodwin, the woman who had produced the CBC television piece about the kids and I for the 5th anniversary of 9/11, the piece that ultimately led to my book being published. I owed so much to this woman, including my presence at this conference, and there she was, no longer a TV documentarian, but a published author as well. She had written a book about the year she spent recording the journey of eleven Kenyan students on their journey to Canada after they received scholarships to Canadian Universities. Meeting Debi again, something came full circle somehow, as if I was in the very place I was meant to be.
After breakfast, we gathered in the great room, where I inadvertently sat next to Jane Hamilton, an Oprah lauded author, sporting, what we soon learned was a new short hairdo – a writerly makeover of sorts, instigated by Elizabeth George and her band of merry writers/make-over artists. I had been hoping to take her workshop on plot, hoping it might help to beef up my own novel's plot, but since I was only going for the first morning, her workshop was full. I wished I'd had time to chat with her.
Our first keynote was Ruth Ozeki, a film maker, writer and Zen Buddhist who spoke about coming to Hedgebrook and her disorientation at having to write "unplugged," with no access to Internet, which coming from a Zen Buddhist seemed both funny and reassuring. Who knew that even Zen Buddhists were hooked on Facebook?! Her voice was lyrical and soothing and we were lulled into the realization that as writers we were all grappling with similar issues of distractedness.
In contrast, Dorothy Allison has us laughing and mesmerized, and sad and laughing again. She was a master story-teller and her childhood spent eschewing the Baptist church was ingrained in her speech patterns. She slammed her fist down on the lectern to "give us permission!" to write our stories. In writing our stories, she extolled, we gave voice to others. We were implored to look around us and "borrow" the people we met to use as characters in our stories, that it was OK to use other people's stories within our own since each of our voices is unique. You could almost hear the shackles of excuses for not writing clatter to the floor. Heads bobbed with understanding and relief. We had permission to write our stories! A revelation!
My first and only workshop for the weekend was with Gail Tsukiyama who spoke about finding voice. The other women in the workshop seemed quiet, reverent. We went around the room and introduced ourselves. A woman from Hawaii hoped to write of her recent divorce; a stuntwoman from Vancouver was brand new to writing; another wrote from her grandfather's journals. The room and the people in it was, in itself a short story. In first impressions, Gail seemed quiet and demure so she surprised us with her gregariousness, her laughter. Her voice was clear as she told us how the voices in her stories came to be. Each different – a young girl, and old woman, and old man that took over her entire book.
She spoke of writing as being like a Japanese garden: never a straight line from the garden gate to the front door. There must be winding paths, places to stop and contemplate, diversions to discover before finally finding your destination. You must allow the reader to linger in these places, allow them to take refuge in the beauty. In that one analogy, I had a clearer picture of where the first draft of my novel needed to go. I'm determined to linger in places that I've raced over in my effort to reach the destination of an ending.
On a 4 x 6 card, we wrote imagined postcards from an imagined place from an imagined character to an imagined recipient. The words were limited in space, but each postcard said so much. Voices clear.
Lunch was impassioned, rushed conversation, as I tried to cram an entire afternoon of new acquaintances into an hour. I longed to linger, to savor, to walk those magical Japanese garden paths for an entire weekend, to be among those with whom I felt certain I belonged.