When minds took flight
Last updated 7/26/2022 at Noon
Writing workshops are an important phenomenon to writers and culture nerds. We hear about how [insert name of writer here] got their start at [insert name of workshop here]. It’s like reading about Paris in the 1920s. We go: Dang, why couldn’t I have been there?
Well, it turns out an amazing workshop did indeed happen near here, from 1984 to 2000 — as a new book explains. I was too young for those early years, but maybe I could’ve joined in a later workshop. It was just down the road apiece, in McKenzie Bridge — about halfway between Sisters (where I’ve lived a while now) and Eugene (near where I grew up). Dang!
The Flight of the Mind writing workshops for women were held at St. Benedict’s, a retreat center on the McKenzie River. I have recently been clued in to its existence by two founders, Ruth Gundle and Judith Barrington, who’ve written a short history of what sounds like an incredible project.
Back then, writing workshops tended to be led by men, who favored male perspectives. Barrington heard from women writers who had been “stopped in their tracks by workshop leaders, usually men, who were dismissive of women’s subject matter” and seemed to expect the women to either sleep with them or “massage their egos.”
Thus, they founded the Flight, a unique gathering for women writers. They emphasized quality, diversity, fun, good food, and hard work, taking place in a gorgeous natural setting, with scholarships available.
If you’re interested in writing, feminism, and/or creative community in the Pacific Northwest, definitely give this digital book a go. Anyone curious about community-building, fomenting creativity, or efforts to foster diversity and inclusion will also find much to ponder.
Name-dropping is essential before we continue. Ursula K. LeGuin, people! Ursula K. LeGuin! Naomi Shihab Nye. Molly Gloss. Valerie Miner. Grace Paley. Dorianne Laux. Not to mention Gundle and Barrington themselves, life partners and significant figures in law, publishing, feminism, and literature.
Also Barbara Wilson (later Sjoholm), founder of feminist publisher Seal Press in Seattle. Evelyn C. White, newspaper reporter and author of the bestseller “Chain Chain Change: For Black Women Dealing with Physical and Emotional Abuse.” Betty Roberts, Oregon Supreme Court.
The book includes scans of letters from LeGuin to her students, and a poem she wrote for reading aloud at the opening of each workshop session. Pages from participants’ poetry collections are reproduced, along with other fascinating glimpses into the Flight experience.
Daily life was important to the workshop. Hands-on realities like showers and food are brought up often. “We cooked nearly everything from scratch, using fresh produce and high-quality ingredients, baking our own bread... Culturing our own yogurt by the gallon,” as cook Anndee Hochman writes. Feeding 90 women in the woods was challenging and sometimes humorous.
Virginia Woolf inspired the workshop’s name. Enormously impactful as a writer and critic, Woolf once lived at the foot of the Sussex Downs in England, where Barrington grew up. Woolf wrote, “I wish I could invent a new critical method...more fluid and following the flight... The old problem: how to keep the flight of the mind, yet be exact.”
The book chronicling The Flight of the Mind workshops is available only as a digital document. Plentiful photos give a strong feel of the experience, alongside testimonials, anecdotes, historical notes, and logistical tales.
Shallow side note: If you’ve been watching “Stranger Things” on Netflix and are therefore re-obsessed with ’80s culture, you gotta download this just for the hair and clothes! Find out what real women writers, some of them actual (gasp!) lesbians, looked like when they could chill out in a safe-space atmosphere.
Was it always easy to provide a safe space alongside our beautiful McKenzie River? No. One man who organizers met with to purchase services didn’t take kindly to so many “women from San Francisco.” (That’s old-school Oregonspeak for “lesbian” or “not sure about that haircut.”)
Up at Clear Lake, another man refused to rent a boat to a handful of Flight women. Later they discussed why. Between them, were they too old? Too Black? Too lesbian-looking? Or just too female? They wrote about the experience. LeGuin entitled a chapbook “No Boats.”
As the Supreme Court and state legislators hack away at women’s rights today, it’s important to be reminded that this is no isolated moment. Writes Barrington, “In 1984, when we hatched the idea, the formidable backlash against feminism was well underway.”
I may have missed The Flight of the Mind (dang!) but I did take part in the project that followed it. Called Soapstone, it offered residencies at an extraordinary property in the Coast Range. When I got my acceptance letter to Soapstone, I was awed to see LeGuin’s name on the letterhead.
Soapstone still exists as an organization, hosting study groups online and other activities. My heartfelt thanks to Ruth and Judith for creating such meaningful opportunities for women writers in Oregon over the years.