Knocking at Hedgebrook’s Door

Posted on June 19th, 2014 by Ellen Sussman

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.


author photo 2010 hi resEllen 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.



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. 

26 Responses to “Knocking at Hedgebrook’s Door”

  1. Heidi Stahl says:

    Thank you for a great, encouraging, inspiring essay. When I applied for a residency last year, I told myself it didn’t matter if I got in. It was the process of applying that mattered, and I would apply for the next 20 years if I had to. (1 down, 19 to go.) That sturdy, hearty self was nowhere to be found this morning when I saw the message from Hedgebrook. “Oh sure. You broke my heart last year. Fat chance.” But then I saw the link to Eileen’s essay, and remembered my oath. So, here’s to application #2, and maybe to 18 more.

  2. Annie Stenzel says:

    OH GOLLY!!! thank you so much for this post. I too am a semi-despondent, several-times rejected applicant to Hedgebrook. Not one but two other members of my tiny, longtime writing group HAVE been Hedgebrookers. and I have been saying to myself, “nope! guess this is just not for me” for a while. But thanks to this (timely!) message — and perhaps also thanks to the fact that I have recently had some poems accepted in Very Nice journals — I think I WILL try again!

  3. Deborah Frutkin says:

    I LOVE this letter from Ellen. These are exactly the words I need to read at this particular moment. I just returned from an amazing master class at Hedgebrook with Karen Joy Fowler. I feel different. More serious, more confident, more determined. And every time I hear how another writer has dealt with rejection and persevered, I feel that I can do it too.

  4. Say no to no? Ai, once again, but this time it’s easier. Should be easier, I’m an old hand at applying as well. The first time I heard about Hedgebrook was in 1999, at the Curbstone Press in Willimantic, CT. Poet Naomi Ayala raved about this heavenly place in the Pacific Northwest, and insisted I could, no, should apply. I did. Back in 2000 and on, through 2009 or ’10, ’11 (?) I was one of a few hundred eager women writers who prepared their packages, actual printed pages we stuffed in manilla envelopes with SASE, and sent by snail mail. No, thanks to e-submission, over 1,000 apply yearly. And still and yet, this year may be our lucky year, the year that we’re truly ready. No, to no. Once more.

  5. As someone who got in to Hedgebrook on her first try I have to believe it has to do with being at the right time in your life–I turned 67 at Hedgebrook and came home renewed, having been in dire need of what I could not put into words. Courage, perhaps. Faith in the unseen.

  6. Lynn Perry says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Ellen Sussman! I almost deleted the announcement email, but decided to click on the link to your blog.

    Now I _know_ I’m going to apply again. And again. And again. My first submissions were paper as well, and occurred during the Pleistocene era before dirt. I was devastated when I didn’t get accepted, so I hid in my mope for many years. Then last year, I gumptioned up and applied again. And was rejected. I didn’t realize how much I was counting on being accepted until I felt the pain of not being.

    And, like Heidi, when I looked at this email, I said to myself, “No way. It’s like going back to the abuser! I never want to feel like that again!” and the concomitant self-doubt: “Guess I’m not good enough. Might as well eat worms.”

    But, now, I’m gonna strap on my typing fingers and sculpt something into a shape that there’s no way they could say no to. And if they do, then I’ll just have to do it again. And believe that they’re just not looking from the right angle, so I have to keep turning the piece till they see it.

    Hope to meet all of you there soon!

  7. Ellen, thank you for this lovely encouragement. I, also, have applied numerous times to Hedgebrook and been rejected. I have begun to think of my application as a time to personally reflect on my writing practice for the past year, and my application fee, a donation to the program which is so worthy and changes so many women’s lives. Perhaps some year it will indeed be my turn, but for now, I am so very glad that other women are creating such important and beautiful work.

    • Thank you, Erin. Wonderful way to look at the annual application, as an annual review. Bravo. I am trying for the first time and appreciate your attitude.

      • I agree. what a gracious way to see the process!

        • catharine lucas says:

          Erin Hollowell speaks my mind! Thinking of the fee as a contribution to H’brook, and the application as a chance to reflect deeply on where I am at this point keeps me from dropping out to suck my thumb. I’m also a great believer in having things happen at the “right” time — it’s called Grace. These wonderful attitudes of course will not protect me from plummeting spirits when my next rejection arrives — they only help me send in another application next time!

  8. Veronica Dionisio says:

    I got rejected once a few years ago. And I never ventured again even if Hedgebrook kept on sending emails year after year.

    This is an encouraging piece to those who have been disheartened with just one rejection.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. It would definitely make “rejectees” like me to reconsider and rethink.

  9. […] Ellen Sussman: […]

  10. Rita Anderson says:

    I enjoyed the sassy tenacity of this essay–although I’m sure it’s not the one you wrote to get in, as it discusses the way this experience has affected you, your work. I applied last year for the first time, but I am not sure I have it in me to “go through that again” this year. –As someone above wrote, there are “thousands” of us now applying for this (and every other worthwhile opportunity), and I am not well-connected, as so many respondents seem to be. My family is poor and uneducated, overall. Too often, I feel the invisible but concrete reality of “nothing succeeds like success” syndrome where ivy-league educations seem “predestined” to garner top-tier opportunities. Best of luck to all who do apply!

    • Hi, Rita. I’m not involved with the application process at Hedgebrook but I truly don’t believe that it’s about connections at this residency. I think they care most about the writing itself. and the dream.

  11. catharine lucas says:

    Rita! Don’t forget that this is one place that “connections” don’t matter! I have to keep reminding myself that the judges are ‘blind’ while reading my work itself, and that evaluations of my non-publishing record do not determine the outcome. In fact, it strikes me sometimes that those who, in writing, are going beyond what their backgrounds would predict, are given careful attention — Success mostly succeeds in keeping us going, so do keep trying EVERYWHERE, not just H’brook. And let in the signals and reinforcement that help overcome self-defeating inner talk!

  12. Lynn Willeford says:

    Yup, rejected once, but in my case for good reason–my work really wasn’t good enough yet. I’ve been creative in ways other than writing for the past few years, but I feel a novel coming on, and if I think what emerges meets my now higher standards, I may just apply again. But no one rejected should feel disheartened–there are so very many good writers and good stories out there in the world–they just don’t all fit into Hedgebrook.

  13. Becca Lawton says:

    Feel ya, Ellen! Recently came across my first application acknowledgment postcard from Hedgebrook, dating back to 1990. Had I written much at that point? No–but I had kept journals since high school, and I had the river as my muse, as well as a vision of what my voice might become. I applied many times over the years, finally earning an acceptance in 2009. That stay was critical to my finishing my first novel, a work I had abandoned and sworn never to finish. And yet, due to the dreams and possibility that awoke on Whidbey, I felt the spark reignite and the the writing get done! I remain tethered to the Hedgebrook lifeline, and somehow Vito knew to call me for a return stay last year during one of my darkest hours. What emerged from that second stay was another book-length work of fiction, which had also come to the verge of being abandoned. Hedgebrook pulled me back from the brink both times–the society, sanctuary, support were all critical to those works being birthed into the world. Our beautiful Hedgebrook is a place, a community, a dream come true–and I’m grateful for it every day. Congratulations on being there, experiencing the power, and lending your own amazing presence to the cause!

  14. M says:

    Oh wow, I feel somehow equally encouraged and discouraged! It’ll be my first time applying this year and it sounds pretty certain that no one gets in first time. But I have to start somewhere?!

    Has anyone got in on their first application?



  15. I was accepted the first time I applied. It can happen. I went for three glorious weeks. I wrote on 18 of my 21 days, and I wrote 200 pages during those 18 days, completing a 300-page first draft of what would become my third novel. It was an amazing gift, those three weeks: all that lovely support that allowed me to surrender to my drive to write, to tell a story that had been seeking expression for some time, with almost no interruptions. For three weeks I didn’t have to be a wife, mother, teacher, or editor. Just a writer! By the third week I was writing long, long hours, sometimes ignoring mealtimes until I felt hungry. One three-day period I didn’t shower–just woke and wrote and wrote, stopping only when hungry, or to add wood to the fire, or to join the other writers for dinner. Though I have never written that much again in such a short time, I know now what I am capable of, and I do what I can to surround myself with nurturing support for my writer self. And to support others when I can.

    Apply! Apply over and over if you have to. You have nothing to lose, and a lot to gain.

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