Finding inspiration – The Open Road, a novel

I’m pleased to welcome M.M. Holaday to my blog today. You may remember Holaday (aka Nan Johnson) from the story she wrote about Perkins Corner, a post that struck a chord with many readers. Holaday has published her first novel – The Open Road – and it launches this month.

Set in the American West after the Civil War, as settlement hastens the close of the frontier, The Open Road tells the story of two adventurous young men, a horsewoman, and an Arapaho who discover the depths of their character as they tie their fates together in a heart-felt story of friendship. Click here to read my review.

In this post she answers a frequent reader question: ‘Where did you get your inspiration?’

Drawing from the inspiration well

By M.M. Holaday

Writers gather ideas from all sorts of places. For me, a lyric from a song on the radio or a tactile experience like weeding the garden will spark an idea. That random thought is filed for a time when I need to add texture to a story. But then there are other experiences that etch themselves deep into our hearts and minds. As I wrote The Open Road, a poem, a novel, and my grandmother inspired me.

The yearning for connection

I confess I do not understand nor appreciate every line of Song of the open road by Walt Whitman. He goes on and on for forty-plus stanzas; perhaps he is intentionally long-winded to show how journeys themselves are long, winding, sometimes arduous, sometimes delightful, and filled with an array of experiences, moods, and people.

His opening lines are exciting and the most quoted: Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road. Recent Volvo commercials have familiarized more great lines from the poem: The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine. All seems beautiful to me.

The very last lines of the poem, however, grip me and break my heart every time I read them. For all the bravado the traveler expresses about getting out of libraries and into living life, he ends the poem with: Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

In the end, the traveler in the poem wants connection; he wants companionship. The final lines speak volumes to me and inspired much of the plot and interplay between Win, Jeb, and Meg, the main characters in my story.

Importance of place

I read Willa Cather‘s My Antonia for the first time as an adult over 25 years ago. Cather beautifully captures the bittersweet attraction, platonic love, loyalty, caring, independence and interdependence, and ultimately shared memories, between Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerda. The connectedness they shared was similar to what I wanted for Win, Jeb and Meg.

In contrast to Whitman’s poem, Cather gives the reader a profound sense of place. Antonia represents home, as the narrator states in the Introduction before Jim takes over telling the story, More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.

Jim’s recollections of his Nebraska prairie farm and Antonia are tightly interwoven; it is impossible to think of one without the other. I wanted to examine the “connection to place” from the different perspectives of Meg, Jeb, Win, and Gray Wolf.

A lively grandmother

A third important influence that helped shape The Open Road was my grandmother. I only knew her as an old woman, but when she was young she taught school and spent her summers working in Yellowstone Park. Before she married, she and her girlfriend sailed for Europe, expanded her world view, and perhaps caught the travel bug that she and my grandfather later shared. In her senior years, she still had infectious energy; her conversations were always lively, but they had substance. She was grounded and steady; I could count on her.

While no character in the book is patterned after anyone I know in real life, Meg comes the closest to being modeled after my grandmother. She embodied the push-pull dynamic of home and adventure that tugged at Meg.

What ideas or inspirations can you trace to specific books, experiences, or people? What made a deep impression?

Author M.M. Holaday

A graduate of St. Olaf College and the University of Minnesota Graduate School of Library Science, Nan Johnson (who writes under the pen name M.M. Holaday) is a former reference and rare-book librarian. She lives in Missouri where she writes and where she and her husband maintain a tall grass prairie.

To learn more about Holaday, visit her website.

The Open Road is available on Amazon in hardcover and ebook formats.

Food will win the war – Campaign on the WWI home front

April 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the United States entry into the Great War later known as World War I. To mark the anniversary, I’m sharing some information I uncovered as I researched my novel Go Away Home.

When the U.S. entered the war, the country marshaled forces for both the battlefield and home front. One home front initiative was the U.S. Food Administration led by Iowa’s own Herbert Hoover.

Years of fighting in Europe devastated people and farms. The U.S. Food Administration set out to provide food for U.S. troops and our Allies, as well as to feed the people of both continents. Rather than use strict rationing as Europe had done, Hoover choose a food policy based on volunteerism spurred by patriotism. He said:

Our Conception of the problem in the United States is that we should assemble the voluntary effort of the people … We propose to mobilize the spirit of self-denial and self-sacrifice in this country.”

Indeed, self-denial and self-sacrifice became rules of the day as Hoover orchestrated a comprehensive campaign under the slogan “Food Will Win the War.” Posters, articles, workshops and educational materials blanketed the country, promoting such approaches as Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays.

The campaign appealed primarily to women since they were responsible for raising food and buying and preparing meals. The campaign offered recipes instructing women on substitutions, e.g. corn syrup or honey for sugar, fish or cheese instead of meat. Instructions encouraged stretching critical resources, e.g. augmenting wheat flour with corn or oat flour.

Waste became a public enemy. Women were counseled to stop waste in connection with such food preparation efforts as peeling potatoes, cutting off bread crusts, throwing out sour milk, meat and chicken bones.

The campaign exhorted men and children to do their part, too, particularly when it came to cleaning their plates.

The effort was a success. Over the course of the campaign, domestic food consumption reduced 15% without rationing. Over a 12-month period from 1918-1919, the United States furnished 18,500,000 tons of food to the Allies.

The campaign continued after the 1918 armistice, sending 20 million tons of food to European allies.

I can’t help but wonder if such a campaign based on personal sacrifice would engage Americans today. What do you think?

 

What can we learn from annoying, repetitive TV ads?

Have you ever been watching your favorite show and wanted to throw a brick through the TV when the fifth Burger King commercial plays in the course of one hour? My husband changes the channel. I head for the kitchen.

As annoying as those repetitious ads are, I know the advertisers understand what I always told my clients when we discussed media strategy.

“You have to hear a message three times to remember you heard it at all. You have to hear it seven times to be willing to act on it.”

Repetition is key in advertising, memory, and art. This tulip is my second project at the shadow color stage.

This basic premise of communication – the importance of repetition – has come home to me in a real way during my pastel art class. I’m hearing everything in that class for the first time. Words I’ve never heard before, like “madder.” Theories for mixing color and building color. Even the names of colors mean nothing to me. Which is Burnt Umber? How does it compare to Raw Umber? Or Burnt Sienna?

Even though I listen attentively and take notes and try my level best to focus, it’s all new to me. Each time I step up to the easel, everything the instructor said disappears in the muddle of unfamiliar words and concepts and ideas. Hence the frustration I talked about last week.

At nine weeks into the class, however, a light switch flicked in my brain. I realized that one rule of pastels was firmly embedded. That rule is this: “The shadow colors are the complements of the local color.”

Those of you with an art background understand this. To those of you without an art background, the idea may be as Greek to you as it was to me. Don’t worry, it’s the point that matters.

Here’s the point. From the very first class, the instructor commented over and over about shadow colors. After he said it three times, I admit I remember hearing him say it. But it was only after he’d repeated the message several more times, after I’d tried it on my own (and erred), and done it again, only then could I say I owned that concept and could act on it in the future with reasonable confidence.

Last week I stepped away from my easel and joined the instructor where he sat keeping all of our easels in view. “I get it about the shadow colors,” I said. “You must have said it seven times.” He smiled.

As annoying as the Burger King ads are, I get it. I’ve heard them so often I’m ready to act. You notice that when they came on, I headed to the kitchen.

 

What’s your experience with repeating messages until they sink in? With your kids? Your spouse? Your writing? Yourself?

Who knew color would be such a challenge?

A box full of color with so much potential.

Anxiety. Hopelessness. Despair. These are the feelings I experienced a couple of months ago, not because of some major life crisis, as you might expect; instead because of the pastels art class I’m taking. This class is the first time in adult memory I’ve found myself in a situation where I have not the first clue what I’m doing.

In the first weeks, with my box of pastels so fresh and ready, I waited like a small child for the instructor to tell me every single step to take. Except I was completely unlike a child. A  child would have jumped into all those beautiful colors and done something.

I admit, as a writer with a lifetime of experience behind me, I’m used to being confident taking on a new project, even when it’s in a new genre. The underlying principles are there; I simply need to use them in a new way. With color, I recognized no underlying principles to rely upon.

The reasons I took the pastel class – to learn something new, to have some fun, to follow through on my life-long desire to ‘do art’ – were lost to me. No matter how often I sought to remind myself to relax, to be open to the experience, to let the learning process unfold as the instructor meant it to, I reached the end of class tired and unhappy.

Then I remembered the 10,000-Hour Rule. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in a field. How could I think I’d know anything, let alone be able to create a passable work of art, when I’d only just begun?

We were a couple of weeks into the course when I lamented to the instructor, “In the context of 10,000 hours, I feel like I’m on hour one. Still,” I added, “I can see I’ve learned a couple of things.”

In a deadpan serious way, he responded. “Just wait till you get to hour two.”

Indeed. I’ve grown up knowing the rules and following them. This art class could be no different. But the 10,000-hour perspective, along with my instructor’s humorous response, helped me relax. I could go easier on myself. I could take some time. I could be in the moment.

Since then, I’ve opened up to the experience as I hadn’t before. Two months into the class, I’ve internalized some of the rules. I make a conscious point after each class to take a step back, breathe, and consider what I’ve learned. I’ve made mistakes and learned more. I’m also having some fun.

Have you tackled an unexpectedly difficult new task? How do you gain perspective in the face of a challenge?

Haiku to the arrival of spring

Spring inspires poetic thoughts and emotions. Here’s a Haiku tribute to the migrating birds I saw during a recent walk.

 

Cedar waxwings come.
Aristocratic bandits,
Harbingers of spring

 

A flock of Cedar waxwings let me get reasonably close for this picture. Several more flitted in nearby crab apple trees.

This photo is courtesy of Morguefile.com

The Cedar Waxwing is a social bird almost always seen in flocks. They particularly enjoy berries, according to the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds. Though I have seen them almost exclusively in the spring, apparently they are around most of the year.

What says spring to you?

 

Ten million years – Sandhill cranes awe and inspire

Ten million years

The Platte River is wide and shallow. The perfect overnight spot for Sandhill cranes.

Sun shimmers on a river
one mile wide, three inches deep.
The Platte River stretches wide beneath the skies,
offering refuge to weary travelers,
as it’s done for 10 million years.

And the Sandhill cranes come.

From the broad expanses of Mexico and Texas
before there was a Mexico or Texas.
Choosing Nebraska before there was a Nebraska.
To rest and feed and dance and chatter.
Before searching out even broader expanses
in Canada and Siberia.

As they’ve done for ten million years.

Earlier we watched them in fields,
their feathers the gray of winter clouds,
eating to store power for the long flight north.

Sandhill cranes settle in after dark on the Platte River. Photo courtesy of Mary C. Gottschalk

The cranes dance with wings spread,
leaping in the air. Why?
For mating, for territory, for joy.
All the time chattering
to each other day and night,
their call the hoarse, throaty sound of frogs in a marsh.

Twilight beckons, and we line a bridge across the river,
searching the horizon, waiting, hoping.
Will they come here, tonight, to this stretch of river?
Will they bless us this one year out of ten million?

Smudges become faint lines in the sky.
Cranes leaving the fields where they spent the day,
to seek the shelter of the river,
safe from predators.

Cranes by the hundreds fly weave across the Nebraska skies.

Drifts of cranes, forming and re-forming
With all the permanence of smoke.
Line after line.
Groups of three, ten, a hundred, ten thousand.

The sunset so beautiful.
The river so perfect.
We will them to land.
But they do not.
This is not Disneyland, we say,
laughing to hide our disappointment.

Still the Sandhill cranes bless us
as they pass through this
narrow bit of the Heartland.
Fulfilling their life cycle.
Including us.
Migrating as they have
For 10 million years.

 

**The fossil record indicates Sandhill cranes have been migrating through Nebraska for 10 million years. This year, an estimated 500,000 cranes will make the trip. Modern farming has reduced wetland along the Platte River by 90 percent. We wondered how long abundant corn will be an adequate tradeoff for the wetlands.

Writing fields lie fallow – Where will this lead?

When I sent my manuscript off to find an agent, I looked forward to taking a breather from the intense writing regimen I’d maintained for the last several years. In the past, each time I finished a book project, I knew what I’d write next. This time I didn’t.

Who knew taking a break could be so hard?
Photo courtesy of Morguefile.com

Memoir, fiction, children’s books, essays. All have popped into my mind. None of them ignite passion. I know myself well enough; if passion isn’t there, it won’t be long before I lose interest. Perhaps I’m not meant to write another book? The idea alternately exhilarates and frightens me.

Knowing I’m happier with a project, I signed up for two art courses so I’d have a creative outlet during this break. By stretching my mind in new ways, I anticipated I’d fill the time and achieve the sense of fulfillment I experience through writing.

Yet, the sense of calm I sought didn’t come. My reminders to myself to be patient; my self-assurances that my purpose would present itself; my intent to relax and enjoy this unscheduled time worked only intermittently.

When my husband asked me recently how it felt to not write after spending the past many years doing mostly that, I blurted out the truth: “I feel lost. Completely lost.”

Lying Fallow – Time to Rejuvenate

When I connected this past week with Shirley Showalter, a wise woman who also grew up on a farm, she likened my current state to ‘lying fallow.” Lying fallow is the agricultural practice of letting the ground rest for a season or more by not planting it to a new crop.

Lying fallow is a metaphor I understand. It’s one that makes sense. By allowing time for rest and space for energy to regenerate, many new things are possible – in the land and in myself. Thinking about this time in a new way helped.

I recognize this time of lying fallow for what it is and what it isn’t. This time IS an opportunity to take a break, to try new things, to spend more time with my son and granddaughters, without the pressure of a writing deadline. It ISN’T a guaranteed next book idea; it isn’t productivity in the same way I’ve been accustomed to; it isn’t even a defined period.

Returning to writing

What seems clear after three months is that I miss writing. By stepping away from writing entirely, I let go of a tool that’s helped me through tough times in the past. I may not have a big project to work on, but even small writing projects can be useful. Writing this blog post helped clarify where I am, reassuring me with a sense of the familiar.

Whether it’s journaling or returning to more regular blogging or through essays, I’m going to capitalize on the comfort zone of writing often enough to let the writing help me think through this time of lying fallow.

For this season of lying fallow to work, I have to be patient. To curb my expectations. To rest. So here I am, doing my best to let this time be what it is, not to force it, to accept whatever happens.

Have you experienced a season of lying fallow? Or by other names, a sabbatical, a break, a breather? How has it been productive for you? I’d like to hear your experience as well as any advice you’d offer me.

What are you afraid of? How do you move past fear?

I’ve never thought of myself as a fearful person. Sure, butterflies are normal before I speak, and alone on a dark street at night, adrenaline races and I’m particularly watchful. But I’m not afraid as a general rule. Yet, when I joined an estimated 25,000 women and men at the Des Moines Women’s March, I found myself face-to-face with my own fear.

In marching, I came face-to-face with my own fear.

One of the speakers – a 65-year-old lesbian – recalled life for gays and lesbians in the early 70s. “There was a time,” she said. Then she shared the reality of life for homosexuals at that time. A time when homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. A time when gays could be forced to undergo shock or conversion therapy to “cure” them. A time when you could lose your job, or be kicked out – possibly even killed – for being who you were.

The description of the reality of that time hit me like a wrecking ball to the chest. Because I knew it personally.

Facing my own fear

I married for the first time in 1968. Four years later, I learned that my husband was gay. For a variety of reasons, we elected to remain married. To remain married and to present ourselves as a “normal” couple. At least part of my personal decision was influenced by my upbringing when I learned that how things looked to others was a most important consideration.

In choosing to keep quiet, we also chose to don the cloak of secrecy and fear. At any time someone might discover our secret. The ramifications could be many, and none of them looked good. Would he lose his job? Would I lose mine? What would happen to our families? Would we and they be shamed in public, ostracized in church, lose our friends?

Meanwhile, others – mostly on the coasts – were coming out of the closet and out of the shadows. They were marching. Demonstrating. Speaking up and out. They were brave. Maybe they felt fear, but they didn’t let it stop them. Because they stood up, they effected change. Not right away. Not all at once. Not even yet. But bit by bit.

Divorce did not remove the fear

When my husband and I divorced – almost 36 years ago – I thought I’d left that time and that fear behind. Listening to the Women’s March speaker, I realized how grateful I am for the people who marched for change. We’re all better off for people who march.

We’re better because of the suffragettes. We’re better because of the Freedom Riders. We’re better because of LGBTQ activists. We’re better because of activists who believe women should have control of their own bodies. We’re better because of people who will not accept being demeaned, downtrodden, or beaten any more. We’re better for those who put their fear aside and act.

Another woman faces down fear – Mesothelioma

Coincidentally, shortly before I faced down my own fear at the Women’s March, I received an email from Heather Von St. James. Heather is a 10-year survivor of mesothelioma, a cancer that took one of her lungs. Talk about fear. Instead of being ruled by the fear, Heather started “Lung Leavin’ Day.” Every February 2, Lung Leavin’ Day not only marks another year of survival for Heather, but also an opportunity to educate people on mesothelioma – and the value of overcoming fear. Follow any of the marked lengths to read more about Heather’s story.

At the March, I realized I still hold some fear in my core. The March helped solidify my sense that I was done with hiding. It’s time to face fear rather than let fear own me. Everyone had their own reasons for marching. I didn’t realize moving beyond fear was one of mine. Now I know.

To get past fear? Get up and get marching.

So, dear readers, how has fear been a factor in your life? What fears to have? How do you set fear aside?

This is what democracy looks like – Women’s March

Marching to support a cause is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. The suffragettes marched more than 100 years ago to secure the vote for women. Civil rights activists marched in the 1960s to raise awareness of the inequities suffered by African Americans. The LGBT community rose up in the 1970s.

This marcher got to the core of a problem we have in Iowa and nationally – one group trying to force their idea of rights on others.

Achieving human rights is not a one-and-done deal. Each right is fought for. And once achieved, there’s no guarantee you’ll keep those rights. If it were not so, we would not be here in 2017 still marching for those same rights. 

On Saturday, I joined more than 20,000 women, men, and children for the Women’s March in Des Moines. We united in spirit with the millions who marched worldwide in support of a full range of human rights.

It took a while for my friend and I to find each other in the crowd.

The reasons why people marched varied. The messages they carried, equally so.

I’ve been on the political sidelines my whole life. I’ve let others carry the load. This past year, though, I’ve seen how easily rights can be trampled on. How people are marginalized and dismissed. I’ve seen us going back – and not in a good way.

A young boy carried his hope for the march.

I elected to get up off the couch and engage. I didn’t realize what an empowering experience the march would be. Speakers roared into microphones, got us chanting, shared their stories, inspired.

When we finally marched around the Capitol grounds, I was reminded of being the slowest person in a marathon, the one who waits a half hour to even start running. In our case, there were so many people, the first people were back at the starting point before the last people began. 

Marchers wrap the entire Iowa State Capitol grounds.

Participating in one of the fundamental rights of our democracy – the first amendment rights to assembly and free speech – was a powerful rush. Where will this all lead? Time will tell.

When I woke up a couple of days after the march with the words of the State of Iowa motto running through my brain, I knew I was in the right place, doing the right thing.

“Our liberties we prize. Our rights we must maintain.”

Ah, democracy. Did you march? What was your experience? If you didn’t march, what was your reaction?

Word of the year for 2017? – Wonder

Choosing a word of the year is popular. The Oxford Dictionaries chose ‘post-truth’ as their word in 2016, while Merriam-Webster settled on ‘surreal,’ and Dictionary.com tapped ‘xenophobia.’ All  good choices given the year’s events.

A number of my friends choose a word that focuses them for the coming year. Serenity and Mindfulness are some examples. As friends shared their words for the 2017, I wondered how they do it. There are so many words that might apply.

I am frequently in awe of nature. This full rainbow caused me to stand in wonder.

Immediately, I recognized ‘wonder’ as a good word of the year for me. Wonder has many meanings so I am not trapped in one idea for the entire year. And my life circumstances already tell me this year will be full of moments that will cause me to pause.

Wonder encompasses curiosity, amazement, awe.

  • I am in wonder at our granddaughters who bring such joy to our lives.
  • I wonder if our neighbors who raise Percheron horses will let us ride them sometime?
  • I wonder what it will be like to tour the ancient Greek monasteries, to stand in the middle of the 2500-year-old Parthenon, to ask the Oracle at Delphi my own questions?
  • When I travel to Greece, I imagine I’ll be in wonder at finally fulfilling the very first travel desire I ever articulated, in eighth grade when we studied the Greek gods and goddesses, and again in college when I studied Greek theatre.

Wonder leaves room for doubt and uncertainty.

  • I wonder what our country will be like under President Donald Trump?
  • I wonder if any of the agents I pitch my novel to will like it enough to represent me?
  • I wonder what I’ll do if they don’t?
  • Now that I’ve finished the manuscript that occupied my time for two years, I wonder what will rise up as my next project? A question for the Oracle, no?

Wonder encourages emotion excited by what is strange and surprising.

  • Standing in the midst of my prairie, I feel wonder that pioneers could actually cross through miles of tall grass.
  • It is a wonder that I like ouzo. (If I actually said this, it truly would be a wonder. But who knows? I’m open to the possibility.)

Having latched onto Wonder, I imagine I’ll find even more reasons to experience all facets of the word. Having chosen the word, I’ll be reminded to appreciate more deeply each of these moments. An added value to choosing a word.

Do you chose a word of the year? If you have, please share. If you don’t have one but find that Wonder resonates for you, be my guest. I’m sure there’s plenty of wonder around for all of us.