Into the Woods with Melissa Ostrom, Author of The Beloved WildBy Melissa Ostrom
I blog for writers, and the other day, I was sitting at my computer, mulling over an idea for a post, when it struck me that of all the facets of a creative endeavor (research, plotting, style, pacing, voice, revising, etc.), inspiration can feel mostly, even entirely, beyond the writer’s control. How does inspiration happen? How can it be made to happen? When inspiration does strike, it’s like magic. This fact, along with inspiration’s elusiveness, probably accounts for the way people think of it, as something personified—no, deified—as the Muse. A goddess who bestows a gift. Or doesn’t. You can’t bully the Muse into handing over the goods. She reminds me of the “glimmering girl/ with apple blossom in her hair” in Yeats’s “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” You’re lucky if she calls you by your name, but don’t expect her to talk to you twice. She’s fleeting, mercurial, quick to take off “through the brightening air”—and super tough to catch. That being said, there are places where you might look for her. My website’s January post touches on a few, if you’re interested. Yeats, in this particular poem, also hints at one: young Aengus (as soon as he feels the “fire” in his head, a desire that burns) heads into the woods. The woods…where mysteries lurk and wildness thrives. Like Aengus, I was outside when the inspiration for The Beloved Wild, my historical YA debut, came to me. I can even describe the spot where the idea for the book took hold… Lake Ontario begins at the north end of my road. Between my house and that vast body of water sprawl fruit orchards, youngish woods, and cultivated fields. Cobblestone and Greek Revival farmhouses stand along the way. A winding alley intersects my road. I’ve walked its compacted dirt length many times. It runs perpendicular to a woodland stream, and the damp bank above the rushing water hosts cardinal flowers, violets, mayapples, and wild roses. On the other side of the lane is an old cemetery, the prettiest kind, rolling and nestled, in some places bright with pooling sunshine and wildflowers, in others, dappled with the shadows of trees’ quivering leaves. Wandering through this quiet place one morning in May, searching for a bed of trilliums that I remembered from a previous year, I noticed something peculiar about the antique headstones in a plot. Above the epitaphs and decorative motifs, the carved names and dates suggested that one man must have had a few different wives—not concurrently, of course, but consecutively. The nearby infant burials explained why. And I began to think about what it would have been like for a girl, growing up centuries ago, to know that marriage (the only socially condoned future for a young woman, the single option available to her) carried real risks and frequent tragedies: maternal death, infant mortality. Talk about a daunting destiny! I wondered how a young woman would feel confronting this fate, especially if her own mother had died giving birth to her, and how this girl might wish she were a boy, so as to escape it—and might even decide to run away disguised as one. Maybe it’s weird that the idea for The Beloved Wild was born among the crooked markers of graves. But that old cemetery, where bees buzzed in the long grass and trilliums bloomed and Lake Ontario unfurled its wind through the trees, made me feel wistful, curious, tender. More than bones were buried there. Stories, too. All I had to do was imagine one.