Applying for writing residencies is not for sissies. Hedgebrook, I love you dearly but I bear your scars. Every year, since 2005, I applied for a Hedgebrook residency. I was rejected each year, so I would work even harder the following year to make my essays shine and to choose a stronger writing sample. (This time an excerpt about the darkness of the human heart! This time a story that tackles a complex political subject! This time a humorous social commentary!) My file of Hedgebrook rejection letters grew and grew.
I never gave up. Somehow Hedgebrook had become the Holy Grail of residencies for me. I’ve been to many residencies, almost all of them wonderful. But my friends who had gone to Hedgebrook (lucky bitches) told stories that elevated the Whidbey Island retreat to some kind of Eden. Those cottages! That food! The lifelong friendships! The beach walks! Those journals filled with the names of famous writers! So every September I would roll up my writerly sleeves and fill out the damn application.
This year I said NO. I wasn’t going to put myself through the disappointment again. And then I ran into a friend who was at Hedgebrook a few months earlier. Yes, she raved about it. (Grrr.) But she also encouraged me to try again. Just keep trying, she said. One more time, I told myself.
And this year I got in.
It is an extraordinary place in so many ways. And yes, it’s even better than all those other fabulous residencies. My friends weren’t lying.
I met Amy Wheeler, the wonderful director of Hedgebrook, during my stay. I told her my rejection story and she said she firmly believes that we writers get accepted and come to Hedgebrook at exactly the right time in our lives. So maybe I wasn’t ready in 2005 (or 6 or 7 or 8…) – I’m not sure. But she was absolutely right about 2014 being the perfect time for me to spend my two weeks in writers’ heaven.
And yet, I don’t think my take-away from this experience is a newfound belief in fate. Instead, I think we writers face a lifetime of rejection letters – from residencies and literary magazines and agents and editors. I have a folder of rejection letters that’s a mile high. (or at least it seems that way.) When I teach writing classes, I bring it out and show it off to my students. My message: you keep writing. Despite the rejection, despite the despair. You write and write and write. And you send it out. If you don’t apply, you don’t get in. You don’t submit, you don’t find a publisher.
I published my first novel ten years ago at the age of 49. My fourth novel comes out in four weeks. I never let the rejection letters stop me, though they hurt like hell. Somehow we writers have to muster up the self-confidence, the stubbornness, and the courage to keep on writing.
It’s not that rejection is good for you. But the understanding that successful writing comes from hard work and persistence and daily practice is what gets us to the acceptance letters.
And to the blissful stay at Hedgebrook.
Ellen Sussman is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels, A Wedding in Provence, The Paradise Guest House, French Lessons, and On a Night Like This. She is the editor of two critically acclaimed anthologies, Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave and Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex. She teaches through Stanford Continuing Studies and in private classes. www.ellensussman.com
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.