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by Rachel Gallaher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hedgebrook changed my life. I know that may sound hyperbolic, but it’s true. Two months ago I had never heard of Hedgebrook. Started in 1985, the organization supports women writers by providing them with residencies on Whidbey Island, allowing them the time and space to work on their novels, their poetry, and their craft in distraction-free cabins on acres of gorgeous wooded land. A writer’s dream transformed into exquisite reality.

In May, due to the perfect mix of luck, opportunity and a generous offer, I received a full scholarship to attend Hedgebrook’s first annual VORTEXT conference—a weekend on Whidbey with a few dozen women writers, organic catered meals and heavy-hitting authors giving lectures and leading workshops. Jane Hamilton, Elizabeth George, Dorothy Allison. I was excited but nervous. Who else was attending? Would the other women look down at me as being too young, too naive? Was I a real writer? I had been writing since I was seven years old. I loved writing deeply. Passionately. But was that enough? Was I enough?

I timidly packed up my notebooks, boarded the ferry and watched the wind-washed sound envelop the boat as we crossed. Upon arrival it appeared that I was the youngest woman in attendance. However, from the start that didn’t matter—age differences rapidly dissolved as I got to know my cabinmates and the other women at the retreat. Not once did they patronize me or treat me as a child—they accepted me as an equal, as part of their community. They saw me as a writer. But did I see that for myself? My insecurities remained just beneath the surface.

As the conference began and we all sat listening to lectures from keynote authors, the theme of self-doubt cropped up again and again. During the first lecture a light went off in my head. That word, that single hyphenated word, was a sudden conduit between these authors and me. It was an instant connection between all the women in the room. I could feel it. Some of us nodded in agreement; others wept silently. It wasn’t just me. It was award-winners, PhD-holders, mothers, feminists. It was women.

On the second night, after the lecture and wine reception, a group of us gathered in one of the cabins to read our work. Inevitably, the reading led to discussion. I wanted to talk more about self-doubt. With embarrassment I admitted that I often downplay my writing. When people asked me what I do for a living, (especially men) I answer timidly that I am a journalist, and that I write for several magazines, but then I often qualify it with a small laugh—I do a lot of arts and “lifestyle” writing, as if it didn’t count. Forget the fiction. That hardly ever came up. With each repetition of the rote answer I began to believe what I was saying: that what I did was insignificant and I wasn’t in fact a real writer. The strong, intelligent women around me protested, but I could see the understanding in their eyes.

We discussed the fact that men never qualified their work in the same way I felt I had to. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that we shouldn’t have to explain ourselves just because we are women. We shouldn’t even feel like we have to explain ourselves. I don’t know if it is years in a patriarchal society or a job field dominated by a male presence, but women writers and artists are often underestimated, underrepresented, or praised just because they are women. Which is fine, but I don’t think we need a gender tag. It’s almost as though it is supposed to make us appear more impressive; ‘oh look, she’s a woman, she wrote this book, how amazing.’ No. We are writers, plain and simple. Those women in that room had me say it. They had me say it again. And again. At first I laughed, but really it was an amazing release.

I walked away from Hedgebrook with a community. It was the writing community I had been searching for since I graduated college. From the second night on, the attending ladies would call to me from across the dining room, the yard, the lecture hall, asking me what I did for a living. Amid the laughter I would robustly respond, and each time it felt a little more real. And by the end of the weekend it was real. Over those three days I gained the confidence to not only say, but truly believe that I am a writer and I am worthy of acknowledging that…no justifications, no downplay, no holding back.

The most poignant compliment I received at VORTEXT was not when Ruth Ozeki came up to me after a terrifying public reading of my in-progress novel and said, “You are an amazingly beautiful writer…to be so young and have such a deep sense of voice is a gift.” (Although it surely was a highlight). It was when she grasped my arm, looked into my eyes and said, “You must never stop writing.” And I won’t. My name is Rachel Gallaher, and I am a writer.

 

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.

 

Rachel Gallaher
About Rachel Gallaher

2 Comments

  • Stacy
    10:03 PM - 10 August, 2012

    Dearest Rachel… you are indeed a lovely writer with a strong clear voice with no need to fear calling out that you are a writer. I am glad that you are part of the tribe of women writers…. part of the new girls network.

  • eleanoremacdonald
    8:13 PM - 11 August, 2012

    Thank you! There’s nothing like finding one’s tribe!

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