To write memoir, Steinem and Sarvate Return to peace of Whidbey

The contract was signed nine years ago, the book due in 2000, but never has Gloria Steinem stopped to sit down and write it.

So many other things needed her attention. Elections. Organizing. And, sadly, the illness and death in December 2003 of her husband, David Bale. They had been married just three years. A few months ago, though, the 72-year-old feminist icon noticed that her friends had given up on what they had been telling her for years: Start writing. Get away from New York City, the phone and the frenzy, and write.

So Steinem called Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island, and asked if there was room this summer. She had been there nine years before, as a guest of founder Nancy Skinner Nordhoff, and knew that the peace that blooms there like hollyhocks would settle her thoughts. Best, she would be able to do little more than crack open her laptop and get to it.

“I knew I had to do something drastic,” Steinem said last week.

So the co-founder of Ms. Magazine and the National Women’s Political Caucus — and former Playboy bunny — has spent the past month ensconced in a cottage that overlooks Useless Bay and, beyond that, Mount Rainier.

By day, Steinem writes, reads and takes breaks walking through the forest and neighboring lavender farm. At 5:30 p.m., she ambles down the gravel path and past the organic garden to the Hedgebrook kitchen, where she sits at a long walnut table with the chef and six other resident writers to share a meal, their lives and, once a week, their words.

“These are smart, thoughtful women who are themselves writers,” Steinem said. “We don’t suggest a solution to each other’s writing, only that there needs to be one.”

And being at Hedgebrook seems to be Steinem’s solution. The warrior is finally at rest.

The other day, Steinem looked positively serene as she sat on a couch in a black top and slacks. The smiles came easily, the cellphone purring in her purse went unanswered.

This is “something drastic,” indeed, for a woman who was raised in a house trailer, describes her father as “a gypsy,” and knows flight attendants by name.

“It was a little odd in the beginning,” Steinem said of the quiet of the cottage. “But once I got under way, then at last I had something to balance my other world.”

The book will chronicle Steinem’s 35 years of travels to battlegrounds all over the country, and into fights for candidates, women’s rights, equality and choice.

She was motivated by other “on-the-road” books by people such as Jack Kerouac, Charles Kuralt and Alexis de Tocqueville — and not only for their content.

“Almost none were written by women,” Steinem said. “The road was not a safe or moral place for them.”

It has been great for her, though.

“The road and these kinds of organizing experiences force you to live in the present,” she said, “which is a gift.”

So, too, is time at Hedgebrook.

“Gloria came back because she knew she could get something out of it that she’s not able to get anywhere else,” said Amy Wheeler, Hedgebrook’s new executive director. “Quiet, protected time to clear her thoughts and write, and to be in the company of other women writers as a sounding board, a community.”

That community includes a federal public defender from Chicago working on essays on race and justice; a freelance writer from Sebastopol, Calif., completing a novel based on her experience in a World War II internment camp; a writer from San Francisco working on experimental prose; a graduate student from Oakland working on a novel set in Iran; a writer from New Delhi working on her second novel; and a journalist from Albany, Calif., completing a draft of her memoirs of growing up in India and being traded as a dowry bride.

That woman, Sarita Sarvate, was shocked to arrive at Hedgebrook and find Steinem sitting in the office.

“I have always wanted to meet her,” said Sarvate. “But I was so taken aback … I blundered through the conversation.”

Later, as she shared meals and worked with Steinem, she was struck by how down-to-earth and supportive she was.

“It’s just a treat to have her,” Sarvate said. “But I have to say, this place would be great no matter what.”

Steinem thinks there is something to a place that is for women only.

“I’m not knocking all the great places that have helped writers,” she said. “But it seemed the atmosphere was much more competitive. … People having affairs, you kick the bushes and they kick back.”

Hedgebrook, she said, is not only nurturing, but a great opportunity for women from other countries who could only dream of time and space to create. “It’s not a retreat,” Steinem said. “It’s an advance.”

Steinem wants her relationship with Hedgebrook to continue, so she has agreed to be the first member of Hedgebrook’s new creative advisory council. She will help recruit other high-profile women who understand the importance of a retreat — and speak from experience.

“Gloria has a history here,” Wheeler said, “but she is also connecting us to our future.”

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