Women Writers Still Need a Room of Their Own

I had been longing to go back to Abiquiu, New Mexico, where I had the remarkable experience of visiting the artist Georgia O’Keeffe in 1973. I finally got my chance this past month through the generosity of A Room Of Her Own Foundation, which awarded me an artist-in-residence grant (I create “artist’s books”). AROHO, as it is known, hosts a bi-annual retreat for women writers at Ghost Ranch–15 miles down the road from O’Keeffe’s winter home in Abiquiu, and another place where she famously lived and painted.

Early in the retreat I met Mary Johnson, who was the inspiration for creating the foundation. Johnson had gone to India in the 1970s as a very young nun to join the order of Mother Theresa. After leaving the order years later, she was still working for the Catholic church but wanted to go to college. In 2000 she met Darlene Chandler Bassett, a newly retired corporate executive, at another Ghost Ranch women’s retreat. Both were at pivotal points in their lives. Johnson’s desire for “a room of her own, and a chance to write” inspired Bassett to help her–and others. Bassett told Johnson she would pay her college tuition if Johnson would help her create a foundation for women writers. AROHO, their creative partnership, is now responsible for 10 years of programs that support writers by providing publishing opportunities, Gift of Freedom Awards and bi-annual retreats like the one I attended. (Mary now has that room of her own, and given the chance to write she’s come up with the book An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life, which will be published in September by Spiegel & Grau.)

At the retreat, keynote speaker Marilynne Robinson spoke eloquently about writing: “You are your primary resource … Find your deepest access to your own testimony,” she advised. Barb Johnson, an AROHO award winner, encouraged us to know what we want, not what we can eke out or patch together, but what big thing we really want. That idea, knowing what you want, became a major theme of the retreat.

As part of the program, I showed a video by filmmaker Susan Mogul, in which I appear, about the Woman’s Building; it’s a trailer for the upcoming Doin’ It in Public exhibition at Otis College of Art and Design’s Matz Gallery (October 1, 2011 through January 28, 2012). Michele Kort’s article “When Feminist Art Went Public,” in the new issue of Ms. magazine, recounts the exhilarating time in the 1970s when women artists were claiming lots of rooms as their own. Michele should know: She was there and so was I. We spent part of our 20s running the galleries, paying the bills and getting a lot of flushed-with-freedom feminists to work together at the pioneering feminist art center.

Mogul’s video was followed by a video interview with Mary Johnson, and I woke up early the next morning thinking about how she and I both followed charismatic women to work in communities of women. I had followed Judy Chicago to California to be part of the Feminist Studio Workshop (the women’s art school that was central to the Woman’s Building), and Mary had gone to India as an aspirant to the Missionaries of Charity. Very different life paths, but much in common.

Since I now live in rural Kentucky, it is rare for me to get the opportunity to talk to other women writers and artists in such an informal setting. Our week together allowed time for intimate conversations, connections to be made and friendships to begin–all under the immense blue New Mexico sky that so inspired O’Keeffe.

I left with a number of new books on my reading list, including these by writers I met at the retreat: Breena Clarks’ Stand the Storm, Lucia Orth’s Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, Marilynne Robinson’s Home: a Novel, Ghost Ranch librarian C. S. Merrill’s Weekends with O’Keeffe, Summer Wood’s Wrecker, and many others.

The last session I attended was about blogging, led by Tania Pryputniewicz. Along with providing feedback on one another’s blogs, we held intense conversations about being called “selfish” just because we want to create our own work or have time for ourselves. Now, along with my book-reading list, I’ll be following Tania’s blog.

I left inspired to start writing my own blog again. Writing again and again and again is what this retreat was all about.

Photo of women writers on retreat under the New Mexico sky, courtesy of Susan E. King

Comments

  1. Like Susan King at the Women’s Building, I also spent my younger decades pioneering feminist structures for our lives, founding the Wisconsin chapter of the Feminist Writers Guild, helping start Wisconsin Womyn’s Land Cooperative, a Children’s Coop, etc in the 1970’s. So I was thrilled to find myself once again in the company of creative, dynamic women, the women of AROHO who are making a difference with their work and their lives.

    The A Room of Her Own Foundation (Aroho.org) empowers women writers on an ongoing basis by awarding cash and publication prizes, but every second year, it flowers into the AROHO Writers Retreat on Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, where for years Georgia O’Keefe lived and painted. Each day at the AROHO Writing Retreat, I awoke to the sight of Kitchen Mesa through my open casita door.

    Guardian!

    The same starstuff made us.

    You lean against the blue

    teaching me

    my true dimensions,

    to be more

    than I had imagined.

    The mesa’s banded wall stood each morning as strength and sustenance, the same sense of primordial support I felt from the eighty-some sister participants with whom I shared the Retreat experience. The jackrabbit was there every morning too, motionless for a moment and then flashjumping, just like the insights and ideas that all week kept leaping.

    Imagine master craftswomen, passionate artists come together in a landscape of power. Imagine your metaphorical hands being full, not just with generous permission, but with the fierce expectation that you will burst into creative bloom. I attended Mindstretch sessions each day, and in the late afternoon I met in a small group to mine the day’s treasures. Everything was optional, so some women I saw only at meals because they used the precious week to focus on their own projects. Each evening I attended participant readings that tumbled my preconceptions and blew my horizons wide.

    Like many herstories of creative endeavors — Silk for Life and Kigali Crafts come to mind –AROHO springs from the energy generated when two women commit on behalf of many. Darlene Chandler Basset is President and Founder of the non-profit AROHO; Mary Johnson, the AROHO Retreat’s Creative Director, authored a book called Unquenchable Thirst that is poised to challenge the Catholic Church when it comes out in September 2011. Mary and Darlene told us the story of AROHO’s genesis. The seed germinated when Mary voiced her need for a room of her own to write her personal story and when Darlene responded with an offer of support and a call for an organization to extend that support to other women artists. These two call AROHO “a transformational collective that changes the lives of creative women by honoring our artistic excellence and moving us out of isolation to a rich and whole community.” The story of AROHO continues to broaden and now includes the story of each AROHO beneficiary/participant.

    We were warned that being in the vortex of eighty women engaged in creation among the red rocks of the high desert could be unsettling. Oh yes, we were advised that we might be knocked onto a whole different path by the experience of the AROHO Retreat. When keynote author Marilynne Robinson challenged us to respect the quantum level of the unknown mind, to consult deeply with the profound self, and thus to put more of ourselves in the writing, I moved to a new perspective. I journaled, “I feel like myself, like I’m flying.”

    Curl me up to the high blue

    Twirl me in bleached bone, so

    perspective tricks me sweetly

    into flying higher than Pedernal.

    In those skyhook spaces

    of O’Keefe’s Deer Skull,

    I shall float like a high note

    lifted and carried in the desert air.

    With millennia of red rock

    I shall sing out my life,

    before I vanish

    as music must, and bone.

    AROHO Board Member Kate Gale told us that a love affair with our writing requires our willingness to meet ourselves over and over and over. The AROHO Retreat challenged each of us with a new threshold to cross in order to meet ourselves, to find that story in the center of our story. When the shuttle pulled out of Ghost Ranch on the last day, a lone coyote loped across the land alongside the bus, and the sharp cries of raven blessed us on our way back out into the world. To that world, thirsty for beauty and meaning and justice, my story (susasilvermarie.com) and each AROHO Retreat participant’s story will contribute its lifegiving stream.

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