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by Shannon Hopkins

One hundred words a day — a promise I made to myself. They are born by forceps, or by Caesarian section. They arrive after hours of labor, slippery with blood and vernix and shit. They come out blue and still, and the doctor turns away from me. They come out screaming, with an APGAR score of nine, and the doctor tells me to be patient as he cuts the cord. They present as breech, or get stuck and won’t budge, or slide out so fast the doctor doesn’t need to turn the shoulders and almost drops them. Sometimes labor is short; breathing controls the pain. Sometimes it is induced, after pre-eclampsia sets in, and the pain is indescribable; I tear the sheets with my teeth and beg for comfort. After the birth, after the cord is cut and the fingers and toes are counted and the weight and length recorded, after that… after that… there is the flood of something joyful and welcoming and strange.

I am writing again. 100 words a day – and sometimes more. And I attribute those words to Hedgebrook. In brief, in 1998, my best friend died of breast cancer at the age of 42. The following year, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Five weeks later, so was I. I was 34 years old, and the fourth generation woman in my family to get breast cancer (the first not to die from it). My mother and I were determined to survive and thrive, and to write about our experiences fighting the cancer together. And we did fight it together, and we did write about it together, including getting to spend a wonderful couple of weeks together at Hedgebrook in 2001 where we worked on writing and organizing our book. Later we found an agent and many interested editors, and then Mum’s cancer metastasized and she died in 2003. “Her death complicates things,” our agent said. Interest in the book about a mother-daughter team NOT triumphing over breast cancer waned.

For almost a decade I didn’t write again, but always I remembered Hedgebrook and the time I spent there, and how I felt nurtured and loved and valued not only as a person, but as a writer. Then two years ago, my cancer came back, despite the fact I had had a bilateral mastectomy in 1999. It was caught early again, and I am in remission again, but the experience broke me free of the malaise that had prevented me from writing. Now I write at least 100 words a day, without fail, and I’ve finished a novel manuscript, read my work locally, and written a poem for Light-Write, an arts event in my home community of Yakima, Washington.

Part of what stopped me writing was that I ended up in a controlling relationship with a man who didn’t value women’s voices. But even as his words tore down my confidence in what I had to say, I remembered those nights at Hedgebrook, listening to the coyotes sing, and those days walking about the grounds, reading in the loft bedroom of Fir Cottage, and writing in the full belief that my words mattered. And thanks to those memories, last week, I finished the novel I started at the time my mother died. It’s written from the perspective of a 60-year-old woman who is dying of breast cancer. She lived in Nashville during the Civil Rights Era, and as I wrote her story, another voice rose, insisting on being heard. That character came from the shadows, from riots at lunch counters in Nashville, and burning buses in Anniston, Alabama. She did not start out as part of the novel. In fact the book I intended had nothing to do with Civil Rights or race relations in Nashville – or anywhere else, for that matter. But Evie wanted to be heard, and when I listened, she spoke.

I know that my capacity to listen to the voices of women – including women characters – was born at Hedgebrook and was nurtured by memories of Hedgebrook during those 10 years of silence. My mother’s ashes are buried on the grounds, and a red maple tree grows in her memory at the Y in the path to the cottages, and when I started writing again, I did so by wrapping myself in the memory of the maple, and in the remembered feel of Fir Cottage, with its barn painting on the wall and the “ghost dog” on the road in the painting; he spoke to me as I worked all those years ago, and he spoke to me as I forced those first hundred words onto the page. Some 90,000+ words later, Fir Cottage assembles itself about me whenever I write, and from the safe haven it provides, Evie and Orleanna and Viola speak. In their stories, I sense my mother’s spirit behind me, a ghostly doula helping birth the words of the women from my past – my ancestors, their friends, those whose voices have not survived history, but who rise again through the act of imagination and listening.

Now, with the courage Hedgebrook gave me 15 years ago, and gives me still, their voices may be heard one day – not just in my head as I write, but through the next step, pursuing publication. Thank you, Hedgebrook, for sustaining me all these years.

 

Shannon HopkinsShannon Hopkins grew up in Ireland and moved to Washington State about 30 years ago. She teaches English at Yakima Valley Community College, and began writing again recently after a decade of silence. Two weeks ago she finished a novel manuscript about family, cancer, Civil Rights and dying – you know, the big things in life. She currently is working on a memoir about surviving loss. Having lost a best friend, her mother, five pregnancies, two marriages, two breasts, her innocence and her mind in the last 20 years, she is well qualified to write on the topic. Luckily she found her mind recently, and that is helping her get back into writing – 100 words at a time. Cheers.

 

 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.

 

Shannon Hopkins
About Shannon Hopkins

1 Comment

  • Barbara Joy Laffey
    2:47 PM - 24 July, 2014

    Hi Shannon,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience. I believe your mother was at Hedgebrook while I was there, August/Sept 2001. We were both writing about our experiences with cancer and I recall she planned to do some writing together with you as well. We had some lovely times together there. Thank you for the memories!
    Sending you blessings for good health and good writing!
    Barbara Joy Laffey – Owl Cottage 2001

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