Where Freedom Grows

Carrie Neill
From the May/June 2013 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In 1928 Virginia Woolf gave a series of lectures at Cambridge University on the subject of women and fiction and the many challenges that women writers faced—and, as it turns out, continue to face. The series would eventually become Woolf’s eleventh book and the seminal feminist text, A Room of One’s Own, in which she surmises that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.”

The Placitas, New Mexico–based A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO), a nonprofit organization that serves women writers and artists nationwide, was born of the very dilemma that Woolf recognized. In the thirteen years since its founding, AROHO has hosted numerous retreats and workshops at Ghost Ranch, a national retreat center in Abiquiu, New Mexico, and has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding to women writers across the country, including two annual publication prizes and the biennial Gift of Freedom Award, which bestows fifty thousand dollars upon one poet, fiction writer, or creative nonfiction writer. The Gift of Freedom is one of the heftiest grants available to writers anywhere, and is the largest open solely to women in the United States.

On March 20, at an awards ceremony in New York City, the sixth Gift of Freedom Award was given to poet Diane Gilliam of Akron, Ohio. For the first time, AROHO also awarded a five-thousand-dollar cash prize to each of the two finalists, who this year were fiction writer ire’ne lara silva of Austin, Texas, and nonfiction writer Florencia Ramirez of Oxnard, California. The winner and finalists are also invited to attend AROHO’s annual Retreat for Women Writers at the Ghost Ranch this fall. In addition, the foundation plans to use its extended network of agents, publishers, and media professionals to help advise the finalists on their creative projects, a benefit that was previously afforded only to the winner. The expanded involvement with finalists, says AROHO founder and president Darlene Chandler Bassett, speaks to the foundation’s mission to build a community of support and practical resources for women writers.

“We’re not just a competition, we’re an advocacy group,” Bassett says. “We see the Gift of Freedom as a distinctive and powerful agent for change, as a critical expression of the value that our culture places on women’s achievements as reflected in their stories and their art.”

AROHO’s connection to the Ghost Ranch runs deep. In the summer of 2000, future AROHO director Mary Johnson arrived at the ranch with a copy of A Room of One’s Own under her arm. Johnson was looking for a new path. She had recently left the Sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, which she’d joined twenty years earlier at age nineteen, and wanted to tell her story. She had applied to several MFA programs, but since leaving the convent she’d worked a series of odd jobs, and the five-thousand-dollar tuition payment would have constituted a third of her salary. She’d come to Ghost Ranch for a break, wanting to take a class in pottery or the art of Navajo weaving, but ended up in a workshop called Circle of Women. It was there that she met Bassett, a recently retired corporate executive, who, as it turned out, had also come to Ghost Ranch with a copy of A Room of One’s Own. After hearing Johnson share her story on the last night of the workshop, Bassett approached her with a proposition: She would pay for Johnson to go to grad school and write her story if Johnson would agree to help her start a foundation so that other women could do the same. 

“I felt like I was throwing a party and I wasn’t sure if anyone would show up,” Bassett says, recalling AROHO’s first announcement of the Gift of Freedom in 2002. That year, the foundation received seven hundred applications. Past recipients have included emerging writers Meredith Hall, Barb Johnson, Jennifer Tseng, and Summer Wood, and recent finalists have included Mira Bartók and Rebecca Skloot. The foundation receives funding for the award from both individual donors and organizations such as the Los Angeles–based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

In keeping with the size of the funding, the Gift of Freedom application itself is an involved and lengthy process. Applicants are asked to provide not only a writing sample and detailed financial information, but also a comprehensive outline for a specific project they’ll take on during the two years of funding, a description of how their project will benefit the community at large, and, as a nod to AROHO’s origins, a response to several passages from A Room of One’s Own. The next Gift of Freedom deadline will be in 2014. The 2013 Retreat for Women Writers at the Ghost Ranch will take place from August 12 through August 18; the deadline for applications is May 15.

This spring, the organization also self-published a collection called AROHO Stories, a thirteen-year retrospective of writing from the AROHO community, an extended network that Bassett says includes not only Gift of Freedom winners and finalists, but also unselected applicants and previous Ghost Ranch attendees. The collection features an index of books that were either written by previous grant recipients, or that members of the AROHO community have indicated would not have been possible without the support of the organization.

Gilliam, who will use the Gift of Freedom grant money to complete her fourth book, tentatively titled “The Blackbirds Too,” recalls Bassett quoting a piece of one of her poems—titled “Girl,” which appears in AROHO Stories—during her grant interview: “We would give her / another story if we could, now we are grown women in a car / on our way to somewhere else.” The lines, Gilliam says, have an even deeper meaning now that she has been awarded the grant. 

“The women of AROHO and each and every donor to the Gift of Freedom have given me that different story,” Gilliam says, adding that, in addition to the freedom to write, she’ll have something Virginia Woolf may not even have imagined: “a community of sisters helping and cheering me on.”

As for Mary Johnson, the original AROHO grant recipient, the support of Bassett and the AROHO network made it possible for her to finally tell her story. Her memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst, about her life working with Mother Teresa, was published in 2011 by Spiegel & Grau, and was released in paperback this past February. It took her ten years to write. 

“I needed time to learn how to tell my story, and to gain perspective on my life,” Johnson says. “Whenever I wanted to give up, when I thought telling my story was too hard, too risky, AROHO women reminded me how much they wanted to hear my story. I drew on their strength and courage to find my own.”

Carrie Neill is a writer living in Chicago.