Segullah is delighted introduce our newest Featured Writer and Artist, Ashley Mae Hoiland. This month we’re asking her about her writing life beginnings, inspirations and plans beyond her first, and just released book.
Ashley Mae Hoiland received a BFA in studio arts and an MFA in poetry, both from Brigham Young University. She published her first book, One Hundred Birds Taught Me To Fly, through the Maxwell Institute in November 2016. She is also the founder of the We Brave Women project, an initiative to help people connect to and know brave women around the world. She created a pack of 60 flashcards that feature a hand-painted portrait of a brave woman on one side and a bio and quote about the woman on the other side. She served a mission in Uruguay. She now lives in Palo Alto, California with her husband, Carl, and two children, Remy and Thea. She has written and illustrated several children’s books and once headed a project that printed poetry on billboards. More of her writing and projects can be found at www.ashmae.com. She is also a contributor at bycommonconsent.com
Tell us about your writing and what lead you to it?
I remember in 5th grade as an awkward, gangly kid, my teacher told me after I had finished a writing project that one day she was going to be asking for an autograph for my books. When my first book, One Hundred Birds Taught Me To Fly, came out I searched around and found that teacher and related to her how the words she had given me over 20 years previous had fueled my confidence for so long. She had no recollection of saying that, but was so generous in saying that she remembered me well, even though I’m not sure that could be true. For me, even as a young kid, writing has felt like a safe and dear friend. Writing feels like going home. I was never very good at articulating myself with spoken word, in part because I don’t like being in the spotlight and often my voice shakes or I get emotional, but writing feels so kind in that way—it allows me to speak bravely and with emotion and gives me the space I need to let the thoughts unfold.
What writing advice do you give yourself?
When I think about writing this most recent book, I am always surprised when I read back over the pieces and realize how little control I had over what each piece would be. I thought I had a handle on certain memories, concepts or people, but turns out that there was not a single piece where I knew what the ending line would be when I started at the beginning. In fact, many pieces completely took me by surprise and memories I thought I knew for sure what they meant, were not that thing at all. So I guess my advice to myself would be to trust the process of writing itself. Trust that it will surprise me and in that surprise there will be far greater truth and courage than I could have planned for.
What writers inspire you?
Oh! So so many. I saw Marilynne Robinson speak not to long ago and while I have long loved and admired her writing, seeing her speak was transformational. She was just so smart and confident in what she was saying. I love Annie Dillard. Reading her was the first time I realized that there may be a place for me as a writer. And Mary Oliver, of course, who doesn’t love her devotional poetry. Li-Young Lee has long been influential. Maggie Nelson, Amy Leach, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jack Gilbert, Wendell Berry, Mark Strand, Kim Johnson. Many of the writers I read and love are poets. I do also love essayists—Pat Madden, Brian Doyle, Eduardo Galeano, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Lamott. I do read novels, but turns out that plot is not what brings me to a piece of work. I love experimentation and intellectual rigor within a piece of writing. I devour good articulation, imagery, writing that doesn’t retreat from speaking about the tender and ephemeral, and writing that also does not shy away from the difficult and the ugly. In short, it is incredible that we live at a time where we have access to countless incredible writing. Writers that ask something of me because they are asking something of themselves in the writing of it.
Tell me about your writing process. Is there a ritual, place or time that helps you write regularly and at your best?
I wish I could say that I have a regular routine and place, but because I am a mom of two young children and my husband is in a demanding PhD program, I would say that my routine looks pretty scrappy. As in, I take what I can get, when I can get it. Often it looks like writing with a houseful of children, or writing after kids are in bed. My husband is as supportive as possible so that I can get the time to work, but it’s a juggle for both of us. Maybe the one thing I do regularly is I put a timer on my phone, usually for just a half hour at a time and tell myself that I can’t look at anything else, do anything else, but write until that timer goes off. It doesn’t matter what is written during that time, but I have to work.
Do you bribe yourself to meet a deadline? If so, how so?
Hmmmm…Maybe I should! Might be a good excuse to get some things I’ve been wanting. To be honest, I actually do love the process and challenge of writing. The hardest part is thinking about doing it beforehand, but once I get going, there are not many other things I’d rather be doing.
What is the easiest thing to write?
For me, the easiest thing to write is the thing that is present and waiting to be written at that moment. The hardest thing to write is the expectation of something or the pre-planned specifics of how I think something should be said. I find the easiest writing to be when I let the process of writing do the work. When I start from exactly who and where I am in that moment and don’t try to write as someone I think I’m supposed to be, or someone I was at one point in time.
You have a way with tricky topics: womanhood, motherhood, marriage, belonging, and faith. Is there anything you won’t write about?
Also a very good question. I don’t know that there is necessarily. I won’t write about things just to get a rise, to simply be controversial or if I don’t feel honest or sincere about the thing I am writing. I wouldn’t write to call people out or expose things they wouldn’t want exposed. I guess only time will tell, but I feel that as long as I am being totally honest with myself and about myself, anything is game. That’s life, right? It’s messy and complicated and beautiful all at the same time.
How do you balance writing so much about your personal life and safe guarding it?
There is still quite a bit of space between my quotidian daily endeavors and my writing, even though it maybe doesn’t seem that way. I don’t fabricate anything that I write about and I always try to be true to events and people, but also, once my writing is on the page, my devotion is to that piece of writing and no longer to the exact history or reality. I’m not in the business of recounting exact and perfect history, but rather in the business of extracting glimpses of my everyday life and asking them what they can do for me creatively. It may be different as my kids get older and don’t want me writing about them, but I’ll just have to adjust to that as it comes. As far as me personally though, I’m alright with some extreme candidness and honesty, and I try to be that both in real life and in my writing. People are kind and understanding and often grateful for someone who will first say some of the things they feel they cannot. I think it makes us all closer to recognize the vast array of imperfections in our lives and still love those lives.
How has your faith shaped your writing or vice versa?
I would say that there are few ways in which my faith has not shaped my writing, and not even intentionally. I have grown into feeling that my writing is a sort of partnership with a divine much wiser and larger than myself. Whether this is actually true, or something I tell myself to help me write, I don’t really care because that belief brings meaning into my life and the things I write. I think as Mormons in particular we are asked to grapple with really large ideas and concepts from a young age. There is tension within the space of belief and disbelief and that ground is ripe for collecting. Sometimes it is complete awe and peace within my faith that allows me to write, and sometimes it is frustration and confusion that brings me to the words, both spaces are useful to me. I think that consistent awareness that we are imperfect beings who believe in eventual perfection, both of ourselves and the world we will inhabit draws out a great harvest if we let it just be what it is and don’t force it into the mold of perfection just yet.
What piece of writing has gotten you the most attention?
I’m not totally sure because I’m not that good at following social media and being in the know about what is happening where. I do remember when I first started writing for By Common Consent I wrote a piece about Heavenly Mother and as I unexpectedly saw the count of facebook shares rise from 100 to 200 to finally about 600, I had a weekend of total panic and wanting to take it down. A similar thing happened for a piece that I wrote right after the excommunication of Kate Kelly. I was in Sweden at the time and devastated that I was part of an organization that would ask someone to leave in such a way. I wrote a piece in the middle of the night in about a half hour and published it to my blog. I don’t know where or how it was picked up, but a lot of people read it and wrote me about it. I was surprised as I truly believed I was writing a blog into the void, (and I was for many years). I think it was the first time that I realized that my words might have power, either to heal, empathize, articulate or help. That was both exhilarating and truly terrifying.
What piece do you wish had more?
I’ve learned in writing at By Common Consent that if I want a piece to get a lot of attention there are certain things I can do or say. There are times when I’ve been disappointed at the lack of readership on pieces that are just thoughtful, theological or philosophical (both of my own writing and of others), while there is a clear and quick readership when the people reading already believe they are right or that they need to make sure everyone else hears their answer first. I think we witnessed the destructiveness of click-bait headlines and sensational news with this last election cycle where so many people jumped to conclusions on both sides. I don’t think BCC ever uses click-bait headlines or sensation as a motivation for writing, but in general, it seems that writing about Mormonism can easily fall into those traps because that’s where the attention goes. I wish that we could all slow down, myself included, to really consider both the things we read and write, even if they are quiet and without proclamation.
What advice can you offer others for marketing themselves and their writing?
I would say to first of all take yourself seriously, which also and perhaps more importantly means taking your craft very seriously. It means doing the homework to read, read, read. It means writing like crazy, connecting with other writers and getting feedback on what you are doing. It often means being brave and accepting that criticism with come, but that is not a reason to stop writing, or to stop putting your writing out there. For me, my MFA opened so many doors and was an incredible experience. In particular, I would say for women, and Mormon women at that, to truly take both your experience—whether that be a stay-at-home-mom, a single working woman, a believer, a doubter, a scholar, a non-scholar, a grandma, a young person—and validate that experience. Allow it to be your starting place and do it with confidence. Connect with others and let them know you want to talk about writing, that you want to share your writing and perhaps hear theirs. Submit to journals and contests, blogs. Don’t let time be your validating marker, writing takes time, a lot of it.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve got a few projects simmering at the moment. I’m starting work on another book, but unsure of what shape it will take. I’ve got ideas for some more children’s books and above all, I am spending some time purging and re-organizing my house. I’m excited about what is ahead because although I don’t know what it will look like, I know there’s likely to be something, there always is.
Looking forward, what would you like to do creatively that you haven’t yet?
I’ve looked at more schooling option, like a PhD possibly, but in part, there are things like really getting to know my own body and what it is really capable of seems like an important and creative endeavor. I want to study things that I never thought I could or was good out. I want to spend a summer outside camping. I want to paint big giant paintings like I used to make in college. The exciting thing about creativity is that there is truly no limit or rules on what you make or do and the way in which you decide to do it.
Anything else you’d like to share with our audience of writers and readers?
Just thank you for the support and opportunity to be here. My community has been vital to my writing, both in the actual writing, but also in the reading, promoting, and supporting. Whatever it is you are unsure of whether you are allowed to do or make, or whether you are good enough to do it, I hope you know and believe that you are. Any creative endeavor is a long, hard road, but so necessary because it gives vibrance and pause to a world that is often moving to fast to stop and ask the questions that will change us for the better.