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.

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?

 

With a little help from my friends – NaNoWriMo 2015

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) sent hundreds of thousands of writers to their keyboards in November to write the novels they know they have in them. Historically, 17% of those who start succeed.Dream Big Dreams I was one of those writers.

Writing 50,000 words in a month is no easy task, especially for someone with my perfectionist tendencies. The Nano concept is that I must securely lock my perfectionist self in the closet at the beginning of the month and not let her out until I’ve written those words. No re-reading, no re-writing, no editing. Only more words. Everyday, more words.

It makes me anxious just to think about it.

Yet, I did succeed, writing 50,406 words by November 24. (Sound the trumpets!). I was helped along by the wisdom of writers I admire. With a tip of the hat to John Lennon for the blog title, I offer the following:

“Every morning I tell myself: Write recklessly. You can play it safe tomorrow.” – Sue Monk Kidd

Kidd’s prose is beautiful, thoughtful, every word perfectly chosen. Yet she gets there by first writing recklessly. The crafting of each perfect word comes later. November was for reckless.

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.” – Peter DeVries

I have always taken DeVries’ workman-like words to heart. Some mornings, I had a scene in mind to write; on other days, my mind was a blank. Yet, I committed to write. And I did. My mind always sent something to my fingers.

“I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I’m capable of writing.” – Ann Patchett

The whispers of doubt grew loud throughout the month. What right do I have to write this story? How can it be any good? Will anyone care to read it? Patchett reminded me of the mantra I’ve repeated with my previous books: Write the best story I can, as well as I can. It’s all I can do. That will be enough.

“Shitty first drafts … All good writers write them.” – Anne Lamott

Lamott is never far away during NaNoWriMo. Many of the words I wrote (while individually perfectly good words) came together as such cliched-ridden drivel that I was too embarrassed to let them go. So I highlighted them in yellow or wrote CLICHE!!! after them just so I could move on. Wow, that was some really bad writing. But every word, no matter how bad, moved me toward the goal. I trust Lamott and will fix it in the second and third and fourth drafts.

These writers were my spirit guides. They encouraged me to keep writing no matter what. I arrived at the end of November with characters I understand better, scenes I had not previously envisioned, new plot lines I may (or may not) keep, and holes yet to be filled. I discovered things about myself and the story.

And there was one more spirit guide.

“It’s not our abilities that show what we really are. It’s our choices.” – Albus Dumbledore

Albus Dumbledore wasn’t a writer, but his advice to Harry Potter applies just as well. Writing is a choice, and success requires that I show up. In November, thanks to NaNoWriMo, I showed up.

Whether you’re a writer or not, whose words of wisdom inspire you?

*Photo courtesy of morguefile.com

Jackasses & Monkeys – Inner demons of writing

I’m in Iowa City this week, sequestered at a bed & breakfast, doing a deep dive into writing my next novel. I write, I think, I walk, I write some more. All the while, I struggle with monkey brain. Monkey brain is the form my inner editor takes as it hoots and scratches and leaps around, yammering that the writing is No Good. Uninspired. Not Interesting.

I fight monkey brain all the time. Mostly by putting my head down, setting fingers on the keyboard, and reminding myself that it’s okay to just write. For today, just write one thing.

Today I received some unexpected help from author Kimberly Brock. For her, it’s not monkey brain. For her  the inner editors are jackasses. She wrote an inspired post on the topic of jackasses, posted on Writers In The Storm, and I share it for your enjoyment.

The Jackass in My Head: Barnyard Lessons From a Rustic Writer’s Retreat

by Kimberly Brock

A few weeks ago I was heading to Cashiers, North Carolina for what was heralded as the answer to my recent writer’s weariness. I’d been driving for several hours, twisting up winding roads where the earth falls away into deep gullies and the air grows thin and the mountain walls weep.

I was dizzy with anticipation, and probably the higher altitude. For months, I’d been waiting and worrying about this retreat. I’d been invited to attend as a speaker, and I’d become convinced I was secretly meant to be the comic relief. The other authors on the panel were big names with long, illustrious careers. I had no idea how I’d gotten so lucky to be included amongst them, but I was already sweating through my new jacket.

photo credit: Donkeys via photopin (license)

Upon arrival, I dumped my luggage in a pile in my room and texted the event coordinator to let her know I’d found the joint, mostly so I couldn’t back out of the whole thing and hit the road with some sort of excuse – got kidnapped, bubonic plague.

I’d been battling my inner running dialogue all day, the one that reminds me of all my shortcomings, all the bad decisions, the bad grammar, the bad breath.

Some writers call this voice the Inner Editor. I call it my Inner Jackass. In my mind’s eye, this voice looks a lot like the Hee Haw logo, sporting goofy teeth, ready to take a bite out of me any chance he gets.

Read on for the rest of Kimberly’s essay.

* * *

Now I’m going back to my novel, encouraged to know I’m not alone with my monkey brain. We all have the inner editor – whether it takes the form of a jackass or a monkey. And sometimes they’re useful.

If you battle an inner demon on your writing, please share. And then go write something to put that jackass in its place.

What did rural life look like in 1910?

Early 20th century photos inspire writing.

Whether writing memoir or novel, I’ve found photos a great source of inspiration. Today, almost everyone has the ability to take photos. Digital cameras allow us to take pictures with abandon, of subjects important and mundane. It’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t so.

Yet 50 years ago – at the time covered by my memoir – Mom used a box camera with rolls of film that only had twelve exposures. She brought the camera out on special occasions. One hundred years ago, during the time in which my WWI-era novel Go Away Home is set, though Kodak was working hard to bring it to the masses, photography was most often the purview of professionals.

Because photography was relatively rare, I consider myself lucky to have an album of photos my grandmother took between 1905 and 1915.  I grew up looking at these photos and they’ve been a constant reference point as I’ve written. Many of the photos have inspired scenes in my novel.

A good day hunting.

A good day hunting.

My grandmother was not constrained by the thought that everyone had to be dressed up to have their picture taken. This picture of two men just back from hunting made me think about clothes and dogs and rabbit stew.

GAH - Model T

One of the first cars in the neighborhood.

This picture of my grandfather and his car made me wonder how you drive a Model T and how anyone learned. I studied YouTube videos. My mother told me she and her sister taught themselves. Once they wound up in a ditch and a group of men simply picked up the car and set it back on the road.

GAH - Picking Corn

Taking a break.

 

Taking her camera to the field, Grandma captured this happy moment between father and daughter on a corn wagon. My father told me he could pick 100 bushel of corn a day. In case you wonder, that’s a lot when you’re picking by hand.

This picture of a log house in South Dakota was in my mind as I wrote about one of my characters who went to Wyoming to homestead. They lived a year in such a log home.

Do you wonder how they kept whites white?

Do you wonder how they kept whites white?

Accurately portraying life in the early 1900s has taken me lots of places to do research. I count myself lucky to find details and whole scenes springing from our family album of old photos.

 

What challenges would you like to tackle?

Inspiration to take big steps often comes from others.

When I was 51 years old, I screwed up my courage and left behind the title, the pay check, and the prestige of the corporate world to become a writer. Many things contributed to my ability to make this huge move, but among them was seeing others who’d been brave enough to take a chance and pursue their dreams. My experience is true for many. We take courage from – we’re inspired by – those who’ve gone before.

Today, I’m sharing books that  include the inspiring and encouraging stories of many writers. I’m honored to be among the writers included in these anthologies.

TYIG_Four_covers_11-25The Tending Your Inner Garden series includes four books of essays and poems contributed by many women writers.

According to editors Diane Glass and Deb Engle, “The voices of women across the country and globe speak of the joys and sorrows of everyday life, as well as those pivotal moments when life surprises us and prompts us to rethink our values and priorities.”

The writings in these books explore what women have learned from the four seasons:

  • Fall – The Season of Wisdom and Gratitude
  • Summer – The Season of Beauty and Resilience
  • Spring – The Season of Hope and New Beginnings
  • Winter – The Season of Rest and Renewal

The Tending Your Inner Garden books are available as a set or individually at the TYIG Book Store. and individually on Amazon.

My Gutsy Story AnthologyInspiration also comes from around the world through the My Gutsy Story Anthology. Editor Sonia Marsh told the story of her family’s gutsy adventure in a memoir Freeways to Flip-Flops. Since then she’s encouraged others to share their own gutsy stories. She’s collected the stories of 65 writers in the anthology she published this year. It’s available on Amazon.

According to Marsh, “What makes these stories unique is the authors’ willingness to openly share the obstacles they surmounted, and the strength they developed to overcome doubt, fear, rejection, and grief. These stories of love, courage, and adventure will inspire you to follow their lead and experience your own gutsy adventure.”

The approaching new year prompts many of us to consider where we are in our lives and what might be next. Those resolutions may go by the wayside because we think the task is too big or we can’t see how to do it.

If you or someone on your gift list could use inspiration to take that next big step, you just might find that encouragement in these books.

How do you write words that sing?

Really good authors make me see the places, feel the emotions, understand and relate to the challenges the characters face. Good authors make me care, whether the time is 300 years ago or 3,000 years in the future. Or today. I remember the writing of the best authors, and I keep their books on my shelves because they inspire me to be a better writer myself.

When I went in a new direction with my life, turning away from the familiar world of business writing and venturing into uncharted territory of creative writing, I needed new guides, experienced trekkers who knew the tools and how to use them to reach the desired destination. I couldn’t have been luckier than to have one of my first guides be Mary Ylvisaker Nilsen, a skilled writer in her own right and a wise teacher willing to share all she knew about the art and craft of writing.

I participated in many of Nilsen’s workshops, soaking up as much as I could, amazed that as an English major myself, I knew so little about how to use language to create the prose I loved so much in other writers. Nilsen’s workshops improved my writing immeasurably. My problem was that even though I listened as attentively in class as I could, even though I applied myself to every assignment, even though I put what I learned into practice, even then – even then – I’m sure I forgot more than half of what she taught me. I always wished I could take all the classes again.

Imagine my delight when Nilsen brought many of the elements of her workshops together in a book, Words that Sing – Composing Lyrical Prose. In this book, Nilsen explains the various types of sentence structures, including balanced, series, cumulative, and suspensions, offering numerous examples of each form and then challenging readers to try their hand at writing in these styles. She works through various forms of metaphors, demonstrating how a well chosen metaphor can strengthen writing, again providing examples and encouraging readers to write their own.

Words that Sing as a personal tutorial or a reference volume. It could also be used as a workshop by groups of writers.  Nilsen wrote the book for religious professionals, based on courses she’s taught for years, but the principles and strategies she shares are relevant to any writer who values and wants to improve the quality of her/his writing. In writing this book, Nilsen practices what she preaches. Her writing is lyrical, her book an inspiration. This is a book for any writer who wants the words they write to sing.

If you want to give yourself or someone else who loves to write a gift, you couldn’t do better than Mary Ylvisaker Nilsen’s Words that Sing.

Words that Sing is available from Amazon or from Zion Publishing.

The best writing advice ever

When people ask me about writing – what they should do and how – I often find myself sharing the advice others have given me.

I’ve been fortunate to attend writing workshops led by amazing writers and writing mentors. In the ways of the universe, each of these leaders has given me the perfect bit of guidance I needed at just the moment I needed it. I received most of this advice as I was writing memoirs, so their advice was given in the memoir context, but I find that it applies equally well now that I’m writing fiction.

In homage to all of these amazing writing spirit guides, here’s their advice.

  1. Give yourself permission to write. New to the memoir writing experience, I found myself agonizing about what shape my final manuscript would take. The sequence of chapters. The number of chapters. Marc Niesen, told me there was a time to worry about that but not while I wrote my first draft. He said, “Put your editor hat in the closet and put on your writer hat. For six months, just give yourself permission to write.”  I did. I even put a sticky note with this directive on my computer, “Today I’m writing about growing up on the farm.” Six months later I had my book.
  2. Tell the truth. If you don’t, the reader will know. Mary Kay Shanley explained that memoir writers may be afraid to go deep into the facts, situations, emotions of what happened to them. When the writer skims over the truth, readers can sense it and the writer loses credibility. It was amazing to me that time and again as my writing buddies read my drafts, they invariably zeroed in the places where I’d hoped not to have to go. Mary Kay also said that a writer may not be ready to go deep and that’s okay, but that means it may not be time to write that book.
  3. When something needs to be written, it will be. Just keep writing. I’ve heard this from many of my guides, but I’ll credit it to Mary Nilsen who led a personal essay workshop. I’d come to her workshop with ideas in mind about what I wanted to write. I wound up writing about something far different, something I’d kept to myself for more than 30 years. Obviously this needed to be written. That’s the only way I can explain writing a 14-page essay overnight.
  4. Write the shitty first draft. One of the biggest barriers to writing is perfection. So in one way or another every workshop leader advises giving yourself permission to write the bad first draft. Get it all down and then worry later about adding polish. NANOWRIMO is one of the best experiences for pushing on. Write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days? Sure! Just write 1,666 new words a day, every day, and never look back.
  5. Apply butt glue. I don’t remember the writer who shared this bit of advice at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, but I remembered it because it was funny and I use it because it works. American editor and novelist Peter DeVries spoke to the same concept when he said, “I only write when I’m inspired and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.” If I sit down to write, and commit to staying there until I do, I will write. No writer’s block allowed.

These are bits of wisdom I live my writing life by. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?