Hedgebrook and Men

By Stuart Grover

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Categories: General,

I learned about Hedgebrook shortly after Nancy created it, an idyllic setting with an inspirational mission. Hedgebrook represented a writer’s retreat taken to the highest level, with breakfast left on the doorstep and all workaday concerns obviated. My significant other had written a book about Virginia Woolf that brought home the importance of “a room of one’s own.” Hedgebrook brought that to reality.

Over the following years, I followed Hedgebrook’s progress, the steady stream of superb writers who found new energy and new directions within its welcoming atmosphere. I never thought about it in relation to my own work, which was running a consulting firm that worked with non-profits.

Then my retirement set me on a new path. I became a writer, with the goal of completing four books over the next five years. I quickly published two non-fiction books about my work in the first three years, and then started on a much harder task—fiction.

Two novels occupied my head, trying to transfer themselves to paper. The first emerged quickly, but served only to get me accustomed to sitting in front of a computer hunting and pecking for the perfect word. It was self-indulgent, disjointed and of no interest to anyone.

The second one was the germination of a seed I’d carried around for more than 35 years, ever since I’d written my doctoral dissertation on a Russian railroad magnate and art patron. At the time, my adviser had said, “This would make a good novel.” Over the ensuing three decades, I kept returning to his offhand comment and came to agree with him. The dissertation described wealth, greed, art and love, all within a violent and pivotal moment in history. Russia at the end of the 19th century and into the Russian revolution and its aftermath offered the material for an epic work with broad appeal. The question was how to tell the story and whether I had the talent to make history interesting and vibrant. Boris Pasternak had covered similar ground in Dr. Zhivago, but I knew I was not Pasternak.

I wrote a first draft that was immense, convoluted and something, that as one friend said, “only your mother would read.” I cut it by 30% and it was still too long. I sent out query letters and samples to agents. Some were kind enough to respond to me, indicating that although the writing was serviceable, the story was not compelling and took too long to develop. While this was helpful, I knew that I should find the right person to read and critique it and offer substantive advice.

Hedgebrook helped change that. Through their good offices, a historical novelist and Hedgebrook alumna who worked as a senior member at a major publisher agreed to read the first 50 pages. Her response was kind and generous, two single-spaced pages that provided me with the direction I had sought. The work was too tied to history and not enough to its characters. The dialog tried too hard to sound 19th century and carried too much of the exposition. She indicated that somewhere in this mass of words a novel was trying to make its appearance, but it hadn’t succeeded. She suggested I work with an editor, and after rewriting and shortening the work, I sent it to a highly qualified editor she’d recommended.

The editor reviewed the entire work, which was now not too much longer than a normal historical novel and gave an even more detailed critique. She said many of the same things, but was more specific about character development, plot points and language. In the meantime, I had attended Equivox and talked with many of the writers there. In these conversations I learned that more than one writer used a therapist to overcome some of the same problems I faced.

My characters were historical figures, based on real people, and I had access to their diaries, letters, and other writing. I used these extensively in representing them. Their ideas and experiences told the story, but their personalities disappeared in the process. More importantly, their interactions weren’t realistic or interesting. They talked at each other and not to each other. I was afraid to let them speak for themselves.

Over half a dozen sessions, using a technique called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), usually used to treat post traumatic stress disorder, my therapist and I worked to help me give my characters freedom. She forced me to invent characters and allow them to react to each other, rather than to mouth words I supplied. I was asked to allow interactions to unfold rather than scripting them from the start. It was hard work, because I was so accustomed to using hard work and reason to shape dialog. Now I was being asked to allow it to emerge from the situation. I couldn’t rely on stereotypes or existing texts. Words had to flow from life and emotions. Some writers understand this instinctively. As a historian and non-fiction writer, this was contrary to everything I had done when writing for more than 50 years.

Over the next three months I rewrote the novel, word by word. I kept much the same structure, but eliminated characters, scenes, locations. The result was two-thirds the length of the last iteration, less than half the original. It was tighter, more believable, and had an actual focus rather than recounting everything that happened in Russia over a five-decade period. My editor was pleased with what I had done, but still had more suggestions. Now I felt equipped to implement them and to totally eliminate the vestiges of didacticism that clung to the characters.

I may or may not find a publisher for the novel, but I have learned a great deal about writing. Without the connections, advice and courage that Hedgebrook and its alumnae gave me, none of this would have happened. I’ll never stay in a cabin and enjoy the support of fellow writers at Hedgebrook, but its existence has changed my approach to my craft and given me tools I never imagined acquiring. Thank you.

 

Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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