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  • You must include at least one positive keyword with 3 characters or more.
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Cary Holladay's Reluctant Art Form

In the eighth in a series of posts on 2013 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Cary Holladay, author of two collections published this year, Horse People (Louisiana State University Press) and The Deer in the Mirror (Ohio State University Press), relates a failed attempt at nest building.

In what other forms of artistic expression do you find inspiration?

The Orvis catalogue offers a winsome item for birdlovers, a circlet of raffia, ribbons, and twine to serve as nesting materials. Inspired, I vow to make one myself and include strands of my own hair. I want a part of myself woven into backyard nests. For months, I save hair from the brush. Come springtime, I gather twigs and twist them into a loop. The unwieldy result is nothing like the prototype, but threaded throughout is my trump card: Orvis doesn’t have my hair. 

My husband guffaws. “It looks like a condors’ nest.”

“It’s not a nest, John,” I explain. “Just stuff birds can use.”

I hang the avian Home Depot from a cherry tree. Birds avoid it. Why? The ugliness, the human scent? Weeks pass, and it collapses. Rain pummels the wreckage. The hair spreads out on the grass, ghastly, as if I’ve been scalped. Finally, John helps me throw it away. 

Spring wraps us in sweet, raucous tumult. My disappointment lifts with the breeze. Pink azaleas remind me of the birthday cakes my mother’s mother, Julia Carlton Mitchell, used to make. On the June day when I turned five, she gave me the best cake of my life. It was decorated with tiny toy birds, its frosting tinted pale green. Ever since, I have remembered that enthralling cake. 

Her creativity, and that of other family members, shaped my writing. Like them, my protagonists are productive and resourceful. My father, George Holladay, constructed magnificent Christmas wreaths out of evergreen boughs. From scraps of wood, he built a doll’s house. My mother, Catharine “Tas” Holladay, wrote stories and articles. She played the piano; her beautiful rendition of “Blue Moon” is still with me. 

My two new books, Horse People and The Deer in the Mirror, are stories of Virginia, its people—my people—and their history, culture, folklore, and, ingenuity.

The chief protagonist in Horse People, Nelle Scott Fenton, is based on my father’s mother, Helen Warren Holladay. Her chief creation was a family of seven sons, and her own life, lived large, with foxhunts, a farm that she ran with her husband, and flower gardens of her own design.

The Deer in the Mirror includes a novella about a young woman who goes to Alaska during the 1898 Gold Rush and bewitches a notorious gangster. Her closest friend is a pet monkey. For its amusement, she mimics her lover’s posturing, his scowl. Mimicry is an art form I reluctantly admit to. As a child, I could adjust my voice and facial expression to copy classmates, neighbors, church people. My family rocked with laughter and begged for more, but I felt spooked by a knack that came out of nowhere. I can still do it, and it still creeps me out.

My artistic endeavors are generally things a 10-year-old could do: crocheted snowflakes dusted with silver glitter; sachets stuffed with pine needles. But I have a birthday coming, and it’s time for something big. I’ll try and re-create the marvelous, pale green, topped-with-birds cake that my grandmother made for me.

"Sleep on your writing; take a walk over it; scrutinize it of a morning; review it of an afternoon; digest it after a meal; let it sleep in your drawer a twelvemonth; never venture a whisper about it to your friend, if he be an author especially. You may read selections to sensible women, -- if young the better."
A. Bronson Alcott

Random picks

  • Alright - we have dispensed (almost) with the crap, but I had this need (actually a deep, intense, undeniable compulsion) to write something, and will do so in the method of the old editorial dream-man who subscribed (really he was the inventor of this style of writing) to the "write it once, and write it right" maxim, Walt Novak. Having finished my recent book, I find myself restless and full of ideas for a second book.
  • Inspired by April’s National Poetry Month and thanks to the StoryADay in May writing challenge, May has started to become identified with the short story. This is now the second year of an organized International Short Story Month. Visit Short Story Month website for ideas on how to celebrate this month as a writer, publisher, teacher, librarian, bookseller; resources for finding short stories
  • In the 51st in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Helen Marshall, author of Hair Side, Flesh Side (ChiZine Publications), discusses the powerful, age-old urge for self-expression. The difference between essay writing and short story writing, I recently had explained to me, is that there really is no market for short stories—you write them because you have to, because you can’t stop doing it. There’s something about that I find amusing: short story writing as a kind of Tourette syndrome. You might be sitting alone at a restaurant,...
  • Journal writing could be a very therapeutic endeavor. Anybody who's going by means of private stress or anxiety, and that features most of us, can benefit from writing.
  • In the past 34 years I've seen Lou Reed in concert nine times. The last show was in 2011. The first was on July 10, 1979 at a nightclub called My Father's Place in Roslyn, Long Island. I was 17 years old. Why did I spend 34 years of my life going to Lou Reed concerts? I suppose I was searching for Lou -- not as a father figure (who would want Lou Reed as a father?) nor as a guru (he really didn't seem to have his shit together at times). I was searching for him as a magus, a creator of Dionysian musical experiences, a demonic master of...

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Fast fact about writing

It has been said that a monkey, randomly typing away on a typewriter (in the days when typewriters replaced the pen or plume as the preferred instrument of writing) could re-create Shakespeare-- but only if it lived long enough (this is known as the infinite monkey theorem).