Almost all of us have been inspired by someone who strode the world stage, by larger-than-life personalities who took a stand at a crossroads of history, made supreme sacrifices, championed lost causes, created great art, or struck off into the wilderness marching to the beat of a different drummer. As was said of Lincoln, those people belong to the ages.
But there are other inspirational characters that play their parts on smaller stages—in the community, in the school system, in families, and in friendships. The impressions they make often don’t seem huge. They seldom result in sudden and dramatic realizations. Their impact is incremental. And the lessons we learn from them can seem miniscule—until those lessons become ingrained and sustaining.
My parents, getting up every day and getting on with their jobs (carpenter and nurse) and the work of raising a family in the years following World War II, demonstrated determination, perseverance, and creativity. I never thought “I want to be like them.” In fact, sometimes—when they were exhausted or short-tempered and not giving me the attention I craved—I was certain I wanted to be nothing like them.
But their traits took hold. The work ethic instilled in me remains so strong that it’s difficult to enjoy a vacation, laze away an afternoon, or relax enough to appreciate a massage.
My maternal grandparents, teachers both, taught me to read before I was old enough to go to school. There were few books for children back in that day, so my grandmother read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories before our afternoon naps beneath the chenille spread on the guest room double bed. She explained words I’d never heard before and challenged me to try to understand the characters and plots.
My grandfather, who napped in a chair in front of the TV early in the evening and refused to admit he was “really” asleep, often inspired me to choose adventure over a rest period. When my brother and grandmother dozed off, he’d appear in the doorway or at the window and take me to the garden, to a stream, or to the edge of the woods to tap maple trees for sap to boil down into syrup.
Then there was Miriam Smith, my high school English teacher. She had tremendous energy and force of personality and she pushed us to think—an experience I often dreaded. “What’s the theme of this poem?” she’d ask. I’d cringe and slump in my chair, hoping for invisibility, but knowing she’d spot me and challenge me.
In that age before classroom tech tools, she drew Picasso’s Guernica on the blackboard with white chalk to prepare us for a trip to the Museum of Modern Art to experience artistic focus and perspectives. When we arrived at MOMA, we each drew a slip of paper with the title of a painting. Our objective was to study the painting and write about it. I drew Evening, Honfleur. I remember thinking it was a bunch of dots, not a painting, at least not a painting as I thought one should be.
As I was scheming ways to sweeten the pot and swap with a friend for the title of an artwork that “made sense,” Miriam Smith arrived at my side. She had me step back, then move in close, then step back again. Long after she went off to help the next student, I studied that painting, moving clear across the room, peering at it from the far right and left, even taking off my glasses and squinting.
I can’t remember what I wrote and handed in for that assignment, but I do know I’d like to have a chance to do it over. Nearly fifty years later, the memory of Seurat’s tiny dots and Miriam Smith’s efforts to make me see the big picture—as well as its many elements—inspires me.
When I’m 25,000 words into a novel and overwhelmed by all the words still to be written, I think of those tiny dots of color. Then I think of my parents’ determination to see a job through—one day and one chore at a time. Then I focus on the sentence in front of me.
And, on those days when the revision on my latest project (the sequel to No Substitute for Murder) isn’t getting done because I’m tired or distracted or stuck or every new phrase I write seems as crappy as the one I’m revising, I reach back for inspiration from my grandparents. Then I crawl under the bedspread for a rest, or go out and stalk an adventure.
Who inspires you?
Drop by and leave a comment. If the Dames draw your name, I’ll send you a copy of my most recent release, Sea of Regret, or one of my other titles.
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of several novels, including Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and No Substitute for Murder. She penned two humorous cozy mysteries, The Big Grabowski and Sometimes a Great Commotion, with her husband, Mike Nettleton.
She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers and is an active supporter of her local bookstore, Cover to Cover. Her interests are reading, gardening, and not cooking. Website www.deadlyduomysteries.com