By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
The moment has come…something I have been dreading all month. Can’t you hear the menacing ‘dum-dum-dum’ playing in the background? That’s right; it’s time for me to tell you about myself. You might think it an easy task for a writer but it isn’t. You see, although it may come as a surprise to many, I’m shy…and it is something I've struggled with all my life.
Most people would be surprised to know that ‘shyness’ is a personality trait very often shared by artists, actors, and authors. It is a characteristic that, particularly in childhood, caused them to be quiet, and often overwhelmed – especially in public. And it could be painful, especially when targeted for teasing and taunts by mean-spirited kids (who shall remain nameless). Because of this, shyness often steers children toward the world of imagination where nothing is impossible; where books took you on unforgettable journeys, and watching movies brought new meaning to daydreams or playing ‘make-believe”.
From an early age, I was a voracious reader and often imagined myself as a character in a book. I also loved dressing up and pretending to be someone else, usually in a little play with my siblings, staged in the living room of our home for relatives. Some were our rendition of fairy tales, and others were penciled by yours truly. What I didn’t realize at the time was play-acting became not just a creative outlet for me, but a way of self-expression—although I hid behind a character to do so. It’s no surprise that a symbol for theatre is a pair of masks representing comedy and tragedy.
We are what we live…
Without going into detail, my childhood was at times both idyllic and turbulent—which pretty much describes my parents. My mother was a proud Texan, whose family came to Texas in covered wagons. She was soft-spoken, sweet, funny, and beautiful…very much like a fairy princess in my eyes. My father was a Yankee and, for lack of a better word, "complicated". He had very Victorian aspects to his personality, and no patience (or tolerance) of children—rather unfortunate since he had six of them. For him, being a father meant being a provider and strict disciplinarian. He had a stormy, often volatile temperament, depending on which way the wind was blowing. His mood was unpredictable and often frightening. Let's just say I avoided him...so did my siblings. I don't think it came as a surprise to any of us that our parents eventually divorced.
Despite the fact I was supposed to be born in Texas, (I got there as soon as I could years later) I was born in a small town named Troy, located in Upstate New York on the Hudson River. Troy was also the home of Uncle Sam, and where I spent my early childhood. Even now in memory, Troy seemed like a town that time forgot—filled with interesting characters. At the very least, it was in no hurry to embrace progress, and seemed to prefer an old-fashioned way of life. There were no supermarkets; instead, we had Borden milk delivered to our doorstep in real glass bottles, as well as other dairy products. Freihofer Bakery also delivered bread and other baked goods by a horse-drawn wagon. I’m serious! I still think they made the best Oatmeal Raisin cookies I’ve ever had. My favorite, however, was their Black-eyed Susan cookies—this big sugar cookie with a dollop of raspberry jelly in the center. But I digress…
Carrier Brothers was a farming family who had this big truck, the back of which resembled a colorful gypsy wagon. They would come to our street, and people would go inside to shop for produce. I remember being very little and walking up the steps with my mother. Wooden crates of fresh farm produce and fruits were tilted at an angle so customers could view the merchandise and serve themselves. The farmer would then weigh it on a hanging scale.
As you can tell, I was an observant child—especially about people and details—and I can attribute that quality to being shy. Even as an adult, especially at large social events where I don’t know anyone, I hang back to quietly listen and observe. Get a feel for the room, so to speak—and the true nature of people. I now realize that what may have started as a defense mechanism has helped make me a more visual writer.
Imagination takes root…
I am a firm believer that one must nurture imagination in children. How many of us built forts using blankets over tables and chairs on a rainy day? Or jumped all over the furniture pretending the floor was lava? (Okay, the lava game may just be me and my quirky family.) We lived in a white, turn-of-the-century wooden house that was narrow but tall, and had lots of Victorian features like this beautiful straight staircase with a mahogany banister and thick newel post. What better place to crawl down on my stomach with my siblings, pretending we were alligators of all things. The living room was also long and narrow, and had doors which pulled out to turn it into two rooms. We used one as a formal living room (for company) and the other was for the family’s use. Originally, this layout came from an age when men would talk amongst themselves over brandy after dinner, and the ladies had to go to a separate room. But what I remember most about this room is the carpet burns on my knees from walking around holding my ankles and quacking like a duck. (I never said I wasn’t weird.) I definitely had a vivid imagination, which often led to mischief. Take for example the time I pretended to be a spy looking for microfilm in the greenhouse of the corner florist. My mother had given me this silver pen she’d gotten as a welcome gift from our local bank. Let’s just say the florist did not appreciate a 7-year old practically ransacking his fragile merchandise. Police were summoned. I escaped by diving into a hydrangea bush until the coast was clear.
Two life-changing events occured when I was a teenager. First, I was seriously injured in a car accident. Among other injuries, I lost feeling in both my legs, and was told that without surgery I would never walk again. With surgery I had a 50/50 chance of walking, but likely with a permanent limp. Blessedly, I had a brilliant neurosurgeon that repaired my spine, a few guardian angels watching over me, and a wonderful mother who taught me to walk all over again.
The second life-changing event was that my parents divorced. I moved with my mother and younger siblings to Texas…finally. My shyness went into overdrive in a new place. My mother enrolled me in a Dallas modeling school, feeling it would help my self-confidence. I was too short for runway modeling; besides which, although I did not limp, maintaining balance was an issue. I did learn how to apply makeup and did some print fashion photography. It did help my self-esteem, or maybe it was the effect from dying my hair chestnut brown for a more dramatic photographic effect.
It should come as no surprise that I eventually ended up a theatre major at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. There I learned an actor should embrace their life experiences, (good and bad) and use them to connect emotionally with characters as well as bring reality and power to their performance. Much as I loved acting, I realized I wasn't cut out for the lifestyle. My observation of people in the business frightened me. I was quiet, didn't drink, didn't smoke, and seriously considered being a cloistered nun as an alternative. I also had a habit of changing dialogue and even certain aspects of characters I was playing. This was when one of my instructors suggested I take a new master class called Actor-Writer-Director.
The result was I wrote a 3-act dramatic play that was so well received at school, it was later staged at Actors Studio-West. The experience was so empowering and I loved the creative freedom I had as a writer. After all, there is no limit to the imagination. I also realized that the same life experiences that I had been taught to use in acting, now became an archive of resources that I could incorporate into my work, helping not only with plotting but development of characters that will, hopefully, resonate emotionally with the reader.
Long Story Short...
Sometimes life does throw curve balls at your dreams. You find yourself at a fork in the road and unsure what path to follow. One road may be faster, a more direct route to your goal, but the other represents the unknown. And if I see an interesting town or beautiful country road, I follow it. I know in my heart I may not pass that way again. I don’t want to miss something wonderful. And it was on one of these side trips, I met the love of my life…my future husband. I never gave up on my dream of writing, but also didn't want to miss a moment of the magic happening in my life at the moment. I don't regret a minute of it.
Today, with the support of my husband and three sons, I am an award-winning published author of historical romance with mystery, suspense, and/or paranormal elements. As a writer of historical fiction, my books are set in Regency England, Scotland, and the American West. At present I am completing the first in a Historical Parnaormal series set in Regency era England and Scotland, and a Historical Western Time Travel set in TEXAS!
My debut novel, The Sense of Honor, winner of the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery and Suspense, is now available in print and e-book format.
And since you have taken the time to read the saga of my life, I am going to give a copy of the print book to one lucky reader who posts a comment. I will put everyone's name in the proverbial hat and post the name of the winner on the 31st of August with instructions on where to send me your mailing information.
Thanks for stopping by, and best of luck! ~ AKB