Feminists We Love: Amy Wheeler – The Feminist Wire

Feminists We Love: Amy Wheeler

In 2000, I left my ex and a slew of memories in Santa Cruz and relocated to Whidbey Island, Washington, where I secured a sweet little yellow cottage with a view of Useless Bay, fruit trees in the yard, and half an acre of peace and solitude. Depending on which way I drove home from the ferry, I would occasionally pass the entry to a property called Hedgebrook, noted by a small sign out front. Eventually, I discovered that my neighbor down the hill was an internationally renowned organization for women writers.

Amy Wheeler, Hedgebrook, and feminism

Dorothy Allison, Karen Joy Fowler, and Ruth Ozeki at Vortext 2010 (Photo credit: Monica J. Casper)

I never actually visited Hedgebrook during my four-year habitation of the island, but happily, I returned to Whidbey in 2012 to participate in the first annual Vortext. My friend Dorothy Allison was teaching a workshop and I needed a jolt of something (critique, love, cedar-drenched air?) to kick-start a stalled short story. At Vortext, I met cool women and talked about writing and wrote and rewrote (but still haven’t published that short story). I also met Executive Director Amy Wheeler, a beautiful, bold force of nature and a  brilliant feminist and human being.

Vortext was fantastic–indeed, life-giving–and as always I enjoyed my time with Dorothy, who is spit-out-your-tea funny, but it was memories of Amy and her hospitality and leadership that lingered long after I had returned to the desert. Hedgebrook celebrates its 25th Anniversary this year—a remarkable achievement for any nonprofit, and especially one whose mission is to nurture women’s writing. For so many reasons, including her stewardship of the sacred space of Hedgebrook, Amy Wheeler is a Feminist We Love.

Amy Wheeler, Hedgebrook, and feminism

Amy Wheeler

About Amy: A nationally produced playwright, Amy’s work has been produced in New York (Intersection at The Greenwich Street Theatre, and Thingsezise’em, a special dance/theatre engagement at the Guggenheim Museum), Atlanta (Wizzer Pizzer at 7 Stages), Seattle (Two Birds & A Stone at Capitol Hill Arts Center) and Portland (Weeping Woman and Kiss It at Stark Raving Theatre). She was playwright-in-residence at Stark Raving Theatre from 2005-2007. Her work has been developed in the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Seattle’s FringeACT Festival at ACT Theatre, and Portland Center Stage’s JAW West Festival. Her works has been published in Rain City Project’s MANIFESTO series, Vol. 1 (Two Birds & A Stone) curated by Erik Ehn; and Vol. 3 (Wizzer Pizzer) curated by Naomi Iizuka. Recognitions include a New York Foundation for the Arts grant and an Artist Trust fellowship in Ireland. Amy has taught playwriting at the University of Iowa, in Seattle on faculty at Cornish College for the Arts, Freehold Studio Theatre Lab, Richard Hugo House, and in ACT Theatre’s Young Playwrights Program. An alumna of Hedgebrook and Yaddo, Amy holds an MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, where she had the good fortune to study with Erik Ehn, Nilo Cruz, Sherry Kramer, Ellen McLaughlin and Naomi Iizuka. She is also proud to count August Wilson among her mentors.

About Hedgebrook: Hedgebrook’s global community includes emerging and mid-career writers, working in all genres, as well as celebrated writers Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, Dorothy Allison, Alice Sebold, Ruth Ozeki, Karen Joy Fowler and Jane Hamilton, among others. Hedgebrook’s annual Women Playwrights Festival has supported the work of 50 of the most exciting voices writing for the American stage, such as Lynn Nottage, Theresa Rebeck, Sarah Ruhl, Tanya Barfield, Eisa Davis, Ellen McLaughlin, Dael Orlandersmith, Kimber Lee and Quiara Alegria Hudes. Partner theatres include Seattle’s ACT Theatre, Seattle Rep, Denver Theatre Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and The Lark Play Development Center.

Amy Wheeler, Hedgebrook, and feminism

Hedgebrook (Photo credit: Monica J. Casper)

Monica: Let’s start with some basics:  How and when did you first know you were a feminist?

Amy: What a great question! I feel like I was never not a feminist, because from my earliest consciousness, my amazing Mom was fielding my questions about women’s lib and what bra burning was all about. Which is pretty remarkable, considering I grew up in Bible Belt Oklahoma, and my father and maternal grandfather were both Methodist ministers. My parents have managed to be progressive liberals their whole lives, despite the conservative climate of their home state. When I was a kid, my friend Robyn and I volunteered at the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) headquarters, handing out flyers. There was a movement to get the Amendment ratified before the 1982 deadline, and I remember feeling an urgency about playing a role in something I absolutely believed was going to happen. To be part of making history. It seemed like such a no-brainer to me that women should have equal rights under the law. So I was confident the Amendment would be adopted…and shocked and confused when it was not. It still hasn’t been! My first personal activism, and my first real taste of the bitter pill of inequality.

MJC: What does feminism mean to you?

Amy: It means that women are equal in the eyes of nature and nature’s creator (who I do not envision as a white grandpa in the sky), and should therefore be treated equally under human law. That women and girls are entitled to the same freedom and opportunity as men and boys to exercise their life and liberty, and pursue their happiness, and enjoy their rights as citizens of the world.

I’m interested in where we are with how we define “feminism,” and “what is a feminist?” And even how we define what a woman is. This next generation is opening an evolution in consciousness about how we construct gender identity. We need to listen to them, and they need our input and guidance. We need to learn from each other, across generation, as well as from indigenous cultures who I believe have a more complex understanding of identity. And we need to learn from history. I believe historical perspective is key to true evolution. If we decide the past is behind us and isn’t important, or that we aren’t responsible for past atrocities (because we weren’t alive then…it wasn’t us who did those terrible things), then we lose a context for the change we want to create. We lose the focus of our movement. Human beings don’t live long enough in the span of a life to see big change all the way through. But if we can pass what we’ve learned on to the ones who come next, and they can make it their own and continue the progress, we will do a better job of “occupying Earth” as her hospitable guests.

The transgender community is helping us redefine “what is a woman?” and “what is a man?” in fascinating ways. And I’m surprised by people who think that feminists are just women. I have some amazing men in my life who are feminists: my Dad, my brother who is doing an awesome job of raising daughters. It’s important that the men in our lives who support women, and treat them as equals, are perceived and appreciated as feminists, too.

Amy Wheeler, Hedgebrook, and feminism

Hedgebrook (Photo credit: Monica J. Casper

MJC: Who are some of your feminist heroines/heroes?

Amy: Gloria Steinem, who I am honored to say is also a friend and mentor through Hedgebrook. I have such love, respect and admiration for this woman who has been a lightning rod for the women’s movement her whole life. We don’t always realize or acknowledge the personal sacrifice our heroes make to be leaders of revolutions, so I’m deeply grateful for everything Gloria has done to move women’s equality forward, and to embody the movement. (And thrilled Obama is awarding her with the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom!)

Others include Matilda Jocelyn Gage, a first wave feminist who inspired her son-in-law Frank Baum to make the central character of his Wizard of Oz series a girl; Rosa Parks, who stood her ground; Sojourner Truth, whose “Ain’t I A Woman” speech rocks my world every time I hear it. My mother, who’s instilled in me a solid sense of my value as a person in the world. My father, who’s such a passionate advocate of me as a writer and spokeswoman. My sister, who navigates a demanding career in child advocacy and early childhood development, while raising two extraordinarily smart, talented, singular individuals who happen to be girls. (And of course my sister and brother-in-law both play their roles in raising my amazing nieces.)

Eve Ensler is another of my feminist heroines (also on Hegebrook’s Creative Advisory Council), for so many reasons! She unleashed a tsunami wave of love on February 14, 2013 (VDay’s anniversary), with her One Billion Rising global action. We’re still feeling the ripple effect!

MJC: You’re also an accomplished playwright. Can you talk about the ways your creative work intersects with feminism?

Amy Wheeler, Hedgebrook, and feminism

Amy Wheeler (left) and participant at Vortext 2012 (Photo credit: Monica J. Casper)

Amy: Consciously or not, I am always writing from a feminist perspective. Because I’m a woman, because I’m a political animal, that’s who I am. So it’s a prism for how I see the world and relationships, and how I tell stories. And the stories that compel me most are the ones that are driven by strong female characters on epic hero’s journeys. My work is often inspired by myth, and the mythic, iconic female characters are such fantastic reference points! They’re fearless and bold and have this kickass take-no-prisoners attitude that propels them to take action, like Antigone who faces off with her uncle, King Creon, at great personal cost. And so many women who’ve made a profound impact on our movement for equality have been lost to history. Their stories have become footnotes to men’s stories. So there’s rich fodder to be mined in bringing them to life on stage.

MJC: Who are some of your creative heroines/heroes?  Do you have a favorite playwright, author, poet, essayist?

Amy: There are so many, so I’ll just talk about one. British playwright Caryl Churchill is one of my inspirations and mentors-from-afar. I saw a production of her mind-blowing Cloud Nine years ago, when I was an undergrad at University of Kansas, and for two days, I skipped class, holed up in my little apartment, wept and journaled—about being a woman, being in theatre, being queer (though I wasn’t yet sure I was.) The play, in its genderbending-political-feminist perspective, rocked my world every-which-way, and has shaped who I am as a woman, a theatre artist and a writer—what I write about, and even why I write. She’s wildly prolific and revolutionary in her vision and scope: writing something like 40 plays over the course of her career, continuing to produce a play a year in her mid-70’s. And each of her plays is profoundly groundbreaking in style and message.

MJC: Talk to us about some of the most pressing issues of our time and the ways that creative work and/or politics can help us address these.

Amy: Wow. What isn’t pressing right now? I believe we’ve living in a “fulcrum moment” – a pivotal time in history when so many big shifts are happening simultaneously, in the environment, in politics, in the spheres of culture, spirituality, science, and philosophy. Movements are coalescing and converging, paradigms are shifting, systems are breaking down, and we have crucial decisions to make about how to be in “right relation” with each other and the planet. Women—as nurturers, connectors, partners—have a vital role to play in these shifts. We need to take our rightful place as a matriarchy, and make space for men to take their place as nurturers.

I believe creative work is the way. Stories connect us and cause us to experience empathy, to imagine what it feels like to see the world through someone else’s eyes, or walk in their shoes. And this is key: we have to understand and believe that we are deeply, irrevocably connected; that we are more alike than we are different from each other, and that our interconnectedness is our strongest asset as animals on the planet.

MJC: Have you always lived in Washington State?  If not, where did you start, and what sorts of jobs/experiences did you have along the way?

Amy Wheeler, Hedgebrook, and feminism

Hedgebrook (Photo credit: Monica J. Casper)

Amy: I moved to Seattle in 2000, and to Whidbey in 2007. My trajectory starts in the middle of the country (born and raised in Oklahoma, undergrad in Kansas), then goes East (lived in New York for nearly a decade), then middle (earned my MFA in the University of Iowa Playwrights workshop), then I headed to the great Pacific NW. I’ve done lots of things to support myself over the years, including teaching (middle school, college, adults), raising money at The NY Philharmonic and The Paul Taylor Dance Company, and more recently, owning a pub and live music venue in a historic old general store on Whidbey with my wife!

MJC: Creative people often face professional roadblocks, especially if they’re women, people of color, and/or otherwise marginalized. Have you faced such roadblocks? If so, of what nature and degree?

Amy: When I was in grad school, I was working on a play with a non-linear structure and poetic language. It was a complex, kind of amorphous play that took me years to figure out. After a reading of an early draft, a male member of the faculty offered to give me feedback. He was floundering with what to say—like he didn’t have a language for talking about my play—so he resorted to comparing my work to a male colleague in my program. He basically said, “Write more like him.” I don’t blame this guy for his naïveté. I think he truly wanted to be helpful. But instead of helping me discover my unique voice and storytelling structure, he fell back on a comparison that took the wind out of my sails. But only briefly!

And there are the daunting obstacles to having your work produced as a woman playwright. Currently, the 50/50 in 2010 movement is calling attention to the fact that less than 20% of the plays being produced around the country each year are by women. These statistics have barely changed over nearly two decades, and that’s not okay. Because if you believe that storytellers shape us, as individuals and a people, then “who are our storytellers?” becomes a pivotal question.

But I have to say: I welcome the obstacles and challenges. They sharpen our wits and hone our intention. They make us better writers and stronger voices. So while I want those stats to change, I also say: bring it on!

MJC: You’ve been Executive Director of Hedgebrook since 2006. Tell us why you wanted this job and what it means to your professional trajectory.

Amy Wheeler, Hedgebrook, and feminism

Hedgebrook labyrinth (Photo credit: Monica J. Casper)

Amy: In many ways, Hedgebrook has been my trajectory since 2002. I applied and was awarded a residency in 2002, then joined the Board of Hedgebrook in 2003 because changes were afoot and the writers I was in residence with encouraged me to get involved. (I was the only “local” in the bunch.) The organization was moving from being a private foundation to a 501(c)(3) public charity, which means transitioning into a fundraising organization, new systems, new Board and staff roles. In 2006, I was supporting myself as a freelance playwright. I’d just come off of a string of productions in Atlanta, Portland, and Seattle, and was teaching playwriting in all of these different Seattle venues (on Cornish College of the Arts faculty, Freehold Theatre Lab/Studio, Richard Hugo House, in ACT Theatre’s Young Playwrights Program, and I even started my own workshop called Kickass Women Playwrights). The Board was in the process of hiring a new Executive Director, I was President of the Board, and the interim ED working with us, this fabulous man Ted Lord, pointed out that I was being a good spokeswoman, and had a passion for the organization, and had some fundraising skills—so I should toss my hat in the ring. At first, I thought he was crazy! Like all of us when we’re on a hero’s journey, I initially resisted “the call”—it felt like such a big leap to make.

So I talked with my family and trusted peeps, went to a psychic, wrote “pros” and “cons” lists. One day, I walked up to Cedar Deep, a stand of old growth cedars up in the woods on the property, and sat still and listened. I could say I meditated, though truthfully, I was overtaken by monkey-mind and all of the anxiety that comes with making a big life decision. But I looked up into those tall, old, beautiful grandmother cedars and asked, “What should I do? I’m wholly unprepared for this…I’m sure I don’t have all of the skills I need…there’s got to be someone better for this job than me out there…” and in the midst of my spinning thoughts, a calm washed over me. And this thought came into my head, “Who do you want to be? What do you want to do with your life?” And instantly, I felt completely at ease and centered, and I knew I had to take the job. My entire life path changed with that decision. My career trajectory, but also: I met, fell in love with, and married the love of my life, Kate; moved to Whidbey; became the mom of an amazing boy, Jacob. I love my work and Hedgebrook and feel incredibly blessed to be helming this place at a time of such growth and expanded vision.

MJC: What does Hedgebrook do? What happens there?

Amy: Our mission is: Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. We nurture women writers with what we call our “radical hospitality.” I started using that phrase when I came on as ED because nurturing women—who are so used to nurturing others, taking care of them, making meals, enabling their work and vision—is a radical act.

When Nancy Nordhoff founded Hedgebrook in 1988 with her friend Sheryl Feldman, their vision was to support the individual writer through simple acts of generosity: providing her with a beautiful cottage in which to live and work in solitude, connecting her to the land, teaching her to build a fire in her woodstove, feeding her from the organic garden, inviting her to the Farmhouse table each evening to share a home-cooked meal and her stories with other women writers from around the world.

As women, we are used to being the nurturers. We make sure others are fed, clothed and taken care of. We enable their work and visions, sometimes at the expense of our own. When we turn the tables and nurture a woman writer—we send a powerful message: you are here to be a writer. Not a mother or wife or partner or daughter. Not even a woman writer. A writer.

In many ways, I think the most important thing we do is the simplest: we recognize the importance of women telling their stories and raising their voices—to the women themselves, and to the culture at large. I believe that the health and well-being of the planet depends on us hearing more from women, and from more women, at this critical moment in evolution.

Amy Wheeler, Hedgebrook, and feminism


MJC: Talk about some of the most inspirational creatives to come through the Hedgebrook doors.  Do any in particular stand out for you, and if so, why?

Amy: It’s such an extraordinary community of women writers—a global community, and incredibly diverse, from all over the world, all walks of life, 18-85 years old, writing in all genres, from unpublished to emerging to established. Our founder Nancy Nordhoff’s commitment to diversity has been adhered to for 25 years, so that more than 50% of our alumnae are women of color.

Singling writers out of this community is almost counter to community, but I can say that getting to know Dorothy Allison over the past couple of years has been such a pleasure. Her novel Bastard Out of Carolina is one of those books that got me at my core, and I love hearing her speak when she’s at Hedgebrook (during our Vortext weekend salon), with such passion and intensity and love about writing and being a writer. I call it the “Church of Dorothy,” because she righteously moves and inspires a crowd the way evangelical preachers do, with the fire and brimstone of a woman who’s walked through it and lived to tell the tale. Love that woman.

MJC: Walk us through a day in the life of Amy Wheeler.  For example, how do you balance your writing with your job? 

Amy: Finding balance is always challenging, especially for a Libra! Currently, I’m carving out time to write in the early mornings and over weekends. I’m on a deadline this summer, determined to finish ATOMIC AGAPE, the play I’m currently writing about gender, sexuality, the environment—you know, the pressing issues of our time! It’s never easy to hold space to be creative. I want to say I’m disciplined, but mostly, I’m determined. Writing, creating, painting – whatever it is you do as an artist – has to be a priority, a sacred commitment to yourself and the world. And that commitment is made daily.

MJC: What’s on your nightstand right now, waiting to be read?

Amy Wheeler, Hedgebrook, and feminism

Hedgebrook garden

Amy: Karen Joy Fowler’s beautiful novel WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES, Ruth Ozeki’s stunning A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING – two books released earlier this year, both worked on at Hedgebrook. And an advance copy of our debut HEDGEBROOK COOKBOOK: CELEBRATING RADICAL HOSPITALITY, which will be released on September 10. It’s chockfull of delicious recipes from our chefs, beautiful writing by some of our illustrious alumnae, gorgeous photos of Hedgebrook – and a way for people to experience our radical hospitality around their own tables!

MJC: If you could give our youngest readers—high school and college students—any advice, what would it be? 

Amy: Listen to the voice inside you. Everybody has a calling. Our choice is: will you answer that call, go on that journey, learn whatever you have to learn to fulfill your promise? Or will you refuse that call? There are likely all kinds of people telling you who to be and what choices to make on your life path. But it’s your life, it’s your path. I believe we know, in a very deep way, what our calling is. We know it before we’re born. Our capitalist culture is so money-focused that when someone asks a young person, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” the subtext is: “How will you make living?” But it should be: “How will you make a life?” Explore how what you want to do synchs up with what the world needs from you. Follow your bliss, actively and with passion.