Shelley Widhalm

Archive for January, 2014|Monthly archive page

My extra disappointing nano-dating experience (and how it relates to writing)

In Shelley Widhalm, Shyness, Writing on January 26, 2014 at 11:00 am

I don’t ask men out, because I hate the sick stomach and jittery voice I get when I eek out, “Do you want to …”

But I realized (and this took awhile apparently) that if I stay stuck on standby waiting for the galloping hooves indicating the arrival of my future boyfriend, I don’t get to choose.

I am chosen.

By saying “no” to those men I should have given a “yes” to, I ended up dating a type – the bad boys (most), the alcoholics (two) and the emotionally unavailable (all).

I acted insecurely, because I wasn’t confident enough to believe I could go for what I wanted.

I wanted looks and smarts and conversation, but because I kept putting myself on standby, I settled for hidden beer bottles, unreturned phone calls, late arrivals and shortened dates, and the long drawn-out fear of the letter “C,” or commitment.

In a complaint session about this unsettling assortment of men, I told a friend about my fantasy cute guy, a man I met once through work and for some reason found to be intriguing. She informed me that I shouldn’t wait around and let life (and opportunities) slip by, because I was afraid.

I agreed (given that it was approaching the New Year and a perfect time for new goals) and promised her I would call Mr. Fantasy. She said to do it by the end of the weekend. It took me a month.

When I finally called Mr. Fantasy (let’s call him Flint) to ask him out to coffee, he thought I wanted an interview (given that I’m a reporter). “Is this social?” he kept asking. Yes! (Duh!) After 15 minutes of figuring out the logistics of our nano-non-date, Flint said he could give me a half-hour.

The day of the nano matter, I assembled the perfect outfit in my imperfect state of fear and nervousness. Upon our meeting, Flint again asked if this was social, and within five minutes, I learned he had a girlfriend, meaning I had gotten all jittery over something I could have been told on the phone. (I’m not being bitter, just factual.)

After my date, I went home and cried (seriously).

And now with my fabulous ability at hindsight, I believe that the reason for my crying had nothing to do with Mr. Fantasy (because that’s all he was) but more to do with my putting too much hope on my single brave phone call.

I wanted my first try at asking a man out to result in instant success.

The same thing goes with my writing life.

My attempts at getting published should have been successful, because I have talent, right? I cried and worried over my rejections from contests, journals and literary agents, waiting in standby for someone somewhere to pick my writing as the winner. Again, I was giving them the power to choose, so that each time they stamped “No!” I took a jab to my confidence.

But that’s not the way to approach men or writing, waiting in the sidelines (with hand raised, saying, “Yes, please put me on your waiting list!”), letting what they say and do dent your armor.

Make the call, send out the submission, email the query letter.

Keep trying.

You’ll eventually find him or her and you (with your name in print).


On How to Write Memoir

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Processes on January 19, 2014 at 11:00 am

Writing a memoir can be a tough assignment, because it takes digging into the self while also telling the truth of memory as accurately as possible.

The result is self-awareness, instead of wondering how the past did its damage or had its impact.

Memoirs typically follow a particular theme or main subject, but can have a couple of subplots, while also offering good storytelling.

Finding this theme may take hard work of remembering, researching and writing, because a person’s life doesn’t normally have a theme song or a statement. The events of life don’t line up nicely on index cards.

To find a theme or focus, identify the patterns of your experience and select what is relevant from your life story. Commit to telling the truth and to give full disclosure, because readers notice when something is missing. From this truth, develop an honest and complete story with a beginning, middle and end, not a string of “and then this happened.”

I find memoirs that are episodic to be frustrating, unless they are told in short story format. The episodes, when they are unlinked, take the reader on a bumpy roller coaster ride of meaninglessness without overall tension or conflict in the story’s unfolding. It’s back to the series of events and happenings.

Truth telling in memoir requires being authentic to what you remember and felt at the time. Let the reader know how you’ve changed and grown from your experiences, how you were affected physically and emotionally by those experiences and how you found meaning and insight from them.

When telling your story, start with a hook that compels the reader to want to read more and show them that you are taking them through a story with a clear direction. You’re not going to give them a random memory dump of incidences that have no connection.

One approach to drafting the story is making a timeline outlining the big events and any turning points in your life, avoiding tangents that go nowhere.

Identify who you are as a character, fleshing out your identity beyond the “I” who does this and that. Get beyond what happened to the inner life of “who am I?” Show your personality and establish a strong writer’s voice.

Finally, ask what you wanted and what prevented you from getting that. What were your setbacks and obstacles? How did you try to get what you wanted? And then write and rewrite until you have a story that no one else could write because it’s all you.

Writing about the “Me”

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Processes on January 12, 2014 at 11:00 am

The easiest and most difficult subject I’ve written about is me.

This “me” shows up in many of my characters, so that several of my female protagonists have long, reddish-brown hair, are tall and thin, and, of course, possess the nerdy love of reading, writing and all things relating to books. They have jobs I’ve had or jobs that I can imagine liking. And they think about some of the things I like to ponder.

Yet, they aren’t me, because over time I’ve learned to become less autobiographical with my characters, essential for a writer who wants to write more than one or two stories.

I find writing about the “me” difficult anytime I think about or begin planning my memoir about growing up with learning disabilities.

A few years ago, I tried writing my memoir, but the result was terribly boring. There were a few interesting and lyrical parts, but the overall story proved repetitive and fell flat. There was no arc to the telling with only a scattering of memories alternated with a story about my difficult relationship with a Mama’s boy.

In my redo, I’ll have to relive things I’d rather forget. Unlike my last attempt, I won’t be able to gloss over the tough, painful stuff. That’s because readers notice the omissions, even if they are a matter of repressed, hard-to-reach memories.

My first memoir attempt had a huge gap, as does my memory of my childhood and adolescence and what really happened to make me socially awkward and afraid. My second attempt will tell a full story with character and plot arcs with a hook and all the elements of fiction in play.

It just will take discipline, courage and hope to get there.

See next week’s blog on how to write a memoir.

Writing Resolutions

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on January 5, 2014 at 11:00 am

I love the hoopla surrounding New Year’s Eve, the countdown to midnight, the noisemakers and the playing of Auld Lang Syne – all of it a boisterous farewell to a year, whether a personal success or not.

New Year’s Day is a more serious day, at least for those of us who feel obligated to make those annual resolutions.

It took me four tries to go to the gym, but in the middle of 2012 (not on Jan. 2), I started going twice a week, and by early 2013 amped my effort to every other day of weight lifting. I was motivated because I started seeing results – fewer body inches and smaller clothing sizes.

It took me three tries to do NaNoWriMo. I said I’d do it, but then came up with avoidance excuses until 2013, when I wrote 51,000 words in November. I told enough writer friends, posted it on Facebook and blogged about it that I felt obligated. Once I started, I was motivated because my daily efforts resulted in the words I needed to reach my goal.

And it took my two tries – it would be convenient if I could think of something – but I have to diverge.

I found I was never good at following through on New Year’s resolutions, at least those that required me to change a behavior immediately on Jan. 1. Change takes time and adjustment, motivation and discipline.

This year, I’m taking a new approach to annual goal setting, thanks to advice I got from an interview I conducted last month with Joan C. King, a writer, coach and speaker who works in the field of neuroscience.

King recommends coming up with a theme or idea for the year, such as finding ways to make things easier, doing things to be more expansive or choosing a state of mind of joy, calm or curiosity.

In 2012, I wrote out a writing contract outlining my year-end goals with smaller monthly/weekly progress goals. I asked two questions for my check-in progress report: Are my weekly and monthly goals being met? And do any adjustments need to be made?

The problem was I filed away the contract and didn’t look at it all year. I should have printed it out, laminated it and put it in my laptop sleeve.

That’s what I’ll be doing for my 2014 contract. Taking King’s advice, I will carry out my writing goals around the theme of joy. That way when I sit down to write, edit or do the other work of the writing life, I won’t think of it as work. I will look for ways to make writing joyful, changing how I approach writing to keep it fun, interesting and challenging.

Thinking of joy, not goals, makes me want to start in on my list of five: writing another novel, editing my current novels, conducting research for my memoir, writing and publishing my short stories, and finding a literary agent all seem exciting to me now.