Writing is my passion.
It challenges me, it invigorates me, and it excites me. Celebrating and crafting words fuels the fibers of my being and exercises my soul’s muscle memory. And even on those can’t-write-a-single-sentence, crippling-writer’s-block days, I still cherish the magic of the craft because of the legacy and work of the writers who inspire me on this path.
Discovering the work of Ashley Mae Hoiland was a pivotal moment in my writing journey, and reading her work and learning from her continues to light a fire in my heart for storycrafting.
As an artist and writer of some of my favorite work, Ashmae powerfully uses words and artwork to connect, make sense of, learn, take hold of her own story, and give language to the experiences of life. 100 Birds Taught Me to Fly and her recent memoir A New Constellation convey sacred vulnerability and insightful strength, representing a body of immensely impactful work.
Not only is her writing and art deeply resonant, but her ardor for championing others in the telling of their own stories inspires me to do the same. We all have a story worth telling — Ashmae inspires us in her work and gives us all permission to create through her writing courses. Talking with Ashmae for this week’s Talking Shop was a humbling and beautiful experience, where for once, words didn’t seem like enough to convey how much her writing and spirit mean to me.
In our conversation, Ashmae shares her insight about the complexities of faith and spirituality, her desire to connect with the world around her, and how creation brings her joy. Everyone, meet Ashmae!
In One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly, you talk about complexities and explorations of faith and spirituality. What role has spirituality played in your journey?
Yes, complex is a good word for faith and spirituality. My understanding of spirituality has continued to evolve, fall apart, rebuild, renew and change even since writing the book. Spirituality will always play a leading role in my life, but that isn’t just within a Mormon context anymore. Looking beyond the walls of Mormonism, while still loving what Mormonism has given me has been an expansive and useful direction in my life. The more I look at what the world is, both as a physical being and the people, animals, plants, elements that inhabit it, the more I am in awe at just how small we are and how lucky we are to get to participate in any way.
What inspired you to start teaching writing courses? What have been some of the rewarding — and unexpected — experiences in teaching?
Teaching writing courses felt both like a natural and a very big step in my life. I was informally holding writing groups in my home and had been writing for a long time about the act of writing, and realized that I was good at it, but more importantly, really, really loved the process of teaching and seeing people come to the act of writing. At the end of each session, we hold an online reading for all of the participants and I am so moved each time to see people, mostly women, sharing their stories first and foremost for themselves, for perhaps the first time ever.
I love that writing done for ourselves, and not to please or hold up anyone else, is both empowering and incredibly insightful. I love teaching women that writing can be a subversive act, and doing the work to do it well is worth the effort.
Your memoir A New Constellation details some of your experiences as you received an MS diagnosis. What lessons have you been learning along that journey?
I think more than anything the act of writing that book in the three weeks following my diagnosis was a lesson to me in taking a hold of my own story through writing. It was so useful for me to be able to give language, experience, and detail to what it felt like in real-time. There were so many external sources ready and willing to tell me what my experience was and would be in the future, but pushing against that by creating my own language and world in this space has made the diagnosis not a sad thing for me, but something I am curious about. I am curious about what else I will learn and what else will be opened up to me because of it. Of course, there is some sadness at loss, but writing has been a true balm.
How has writing been a tool for you?
I guess I spoke to some of this in the question above, but above all, writing is a lens through which I can experience the world. I love that I am able to be surprised by my writing and that it is a medium for learning both about myself and about the world. It teaches me empathy, to pay attention, to not assume what I think I know, and it has allowed me to connect with others in a way that I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
How have you learned to connect with others around you?
I think for me, teaching has been an incredible opportunity to see the most vulnerable and good parts of people. I cry all the time when I’m teaching because I am so moved by the work the people I am teaching are attempting and working through. I think that writing has taught me to ask questions and to observe first before assuming things about people. Sometimes i still struggle to remember that I do need connection with people on a daily basis, as a writer and an artist, so much of my work is done in solitude. Sometimes I put together groups where we just draw or write in the same space and that seems to be an important aspect of coming together and supporting one another in our craft.
Who are some of the most impactful writers you’ve read?
I have always been moved by the work of Marilynne Robinson, Annie Dillard, Eduardo Galeano, Brian Doyle. More recently I have made an effort to read books by black women and again, my world has been opened up, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Roxane Gay, Jesmyn Ward. I’ve also been reading John O’Donohue and Ocean Vuong more recently and love their work.
You are also an artist. What inspires your paintings and illustrations?
Right now I am working on creating art without expectation of what it needs to be or mean. I’ve been filling a sketchbook with funny little drawings of animals that bring me a lot of joy. It feels important right now to simply create because I can do it alongside my children and it makes me happy. I am always drawn to joy in art, and I love color so dearly. Getting to play with and use color feels like a gift every time.
What advice would you give for aspiring writers? How can writers better translate their story onto the page?
I think above all, taking the emotional time and space to write for yourself, not for an audience of critics and not for an audience that loves your work, but simply for yourself. I am always trying to give people permission to think of their writing as a medium that doesn’t have to adhere to real-time, chronology, details, characters. A piece of writing is your own thing, just as a painting is, you do not owe anyone anything when you write. Of course, at some point, you’ll have to be aware of how your work might affect others, but initially, the canvas of the page is yours to create whatever you would like to on. Let yourself be surprised by what comes up.
You believe everyone has their own story to tell. Why is telling important?
Again, I think we need to claim language and story for ourselves, let it come internally first. There will always be a hundred external sources willing to tell you what your story is and what it means, so reclamation is vital if we are to stand our ground.
As a mother, how do you find balance (or peace) in the wrestle of caregiving and pursuing your own dreams and goals?
Daycare! Preschool! I am a much better person, and I think my kids are too, when I relinquish all control and am willing to believe in my own work enough to spend some alone time with it. It took me a long time to come around to the idea of not having to do everything myself, and when I did, I realized that I had not given my work much credence because I was simply doing it as a side thing and halfway.
Allow yourself to see what happens when you work alone for an hour or two. Daycare might not always be an option, but babysitting swaps, telling a partner that they need to help in finding childcare or do it themselves, and sometimes working like crazy during naps, but I do believe in the power of spending some time each day with our work. And for sure, even with that, there isn’t always balance, or peace, haha. But finding ways to pay attention to and store up the details and stories you want to use when you do get that time can help me too. But I guess, also, just sometimes recognizing that there are days when work won’t get to be turned on and that you will be full-time something else, and that’s okay too.
How do you find joy in your journey?
In my experience, creation gives me joy. I love the tangible process of making things, both writing and art. I feel joy when I get to do that, when I get to do that with my kids, and when I get to participate in creating with other people.
The Fun Qs:
The best book you’ve read recently?
The Joyous Body by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Your favorite treat?
I have been perfecting my chocolate chip cookies for years and think I’ve finally got it down.
Your favorite way to reconnect with yourself?
Yoga, writing, drawing, going into nature, reading with my kids.
The funniest thing one of your children has said lately?
My two-year-old was mad about going to preschool and she told me, “Every day?! Every single day?! I go to school!?” (she doesn’t go every day)
Your dream vacation?
Somewhere surrounded by nature. I lived in Scandanavia for a while, but never made it to Iceland and really want to.
Visit Ashmae’s website here, and sign up for her Mine to Tell writing courses here. Follow her on Instagram @birdsofashmae. Click here to buy One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly and here to buy A New Constellation.
*Note: some of my ALL-TIME favorite podcasts episodes have been with Ashmae. Check out her interviews on Awesome with Alison and About Progress.