Welcome back to another post in the Monday Inspirations series, where guest bloggers write about the books and authors that have inspired them. Today’s post is by Diane Holcomb. You can check out OTHER Monday Inspirations posts here.
Many years ago, a writing instructor advised me to “read like a writer.”
“But that takes the joy out of it,” I said.
“Ah, but great writers make you forget.”
Forget what, that you’re scrutinizing every word? That you’re ripping the text apart to discover the hidden structure of the story—the plot points, the inciting incident, the character arc and every nuance of craft: description and narrative and dialogue and pacing and voice and style—forget that you’re doing all that?
When I open a book, I want to be transported. And at the age of twelve, I discovered a book that held me so completely captive, I couldn’t let it go.
Delilah’s Mountain, by Gloria Jahoda.
Now, I’ll wager you’ve never heard of the book. Sadly, it’s out of print, so don’t rush down to your nearest bookstore to buy it. But some libraries own a copy.
One less than some, because back when I first devoured the book, I stole…er, permanently borrowed the copy from my junior high school library. Hey, I was doing the librarian a favor! I had checked it out so many times it was making the old gal dizzy. So I just took it.
And read it.
Over and over again.
I read it in the library, sitting in a slant of sunlight at a wide wooden table. I read it nestled in the thick branches of an oak tree, and again by flashlight as I camped in the backyard. I read it in various nooks at various times, the last while I waited in the dressing room to go onstage at a dinner theater.
What was it about this book that held me captive through the years?
First, it’s an historical novel, set in the 1700s in western Virginia, at a time when settlers crossed the Proclamation Line into Cherokee territory to, well, settle, a move prohibited by a treaty. A time when the Indians fought to protect their land, and those uprisings grew into a war. I was fascinated by the history of Native Americans.
Second, it’s a love story and coming-of-age novel. Twelve year-old Delilah becomes enamored of the local miller, a man in his early twenties who is blind to her love. As she blossoms into adulthood, he returns her affections, but weds another. Marie. Oh, the heartache. I’m a sucker for love stories.
Third, it’s an adventure. Indians capture Delilah and Marie, forcing them to walk for days to their village. But Delilah escapes, dragging Marie with her, and the two barely survive the journey back through the wilderness on foot to their settlement.
And then Marie dies.
And Delilah marries the miller.
Eager to recapture that feeling that stole over me every time I revisited Delilah’s Mountain, I unearthed it recently from storage and stretched out on my bed and opened it to the first chapter.
But nothing happened.
I expected to be transported as a reader, but instead, I was reading as a writer. I analyzed the way Jahoda wove character description into the action instead of stopping to list a character’s attributes. I zeroed in on how she threaded backstory into the narrative instead of delivering it in chunks. I noted how she started with a pivotal incident using active, vivid verbs, and fed the reader information as needed. I gobbled the pages up as a writer, sadly aware that I couldn’t recapture that old feeling as a reader.
It was like expecting fireworks to explode when reuniting with your first love, but instead…they sizzle.
I was no longer that twelve year-old hunched at the library table. I was no longer that adolescent perched in a tree. I was no longer that young thespian awaiting my call. I was older and more persnickety and my dreams were punched through with holes.
But I kept coming back to the book. And somewhere in the thick of the novel, I threw away my writer’s spectacles and dove in as a reader. And it happened. Jahoda transported me once again to eighteenth-century Virginia. I knew the wilderness. I had grown up in the mountains. I knew what it felt like to fall for a man eight years my senior, and grow up fast and hard. Jahoda pegged her reader well, putting into words the stuff of my life and dreams.
I was Delilah. Or I was myself again, outgrowing adolescence.
Great writers make you forget you’re reading.
And great books make you feel like you’re falling in love for the first time. Over and over again.