Interview with Holly Helscher: Fall 2008 Personal Essay Runner Up
A college creative writing course sparked Holly's love for writing. Since then, she has taken additional writing courses to learn more about how to perfect the craft, including the Antioch Writers Workshop and Women Writing for (a) Change.
If you haven't had the opportunity to read Holly's essay, The Desert Was in My Closet, which focuses on colors in the closet, head over to WOW! and check it out. Your closet, as well as your wardrobe, will thank you.
WOW!: Congratulations on writing an award-winning essay, Holly! And thanks for sharing your time and talents with us today. Sometimes writers have a difficult time fine tuning an idea. Once you saw the contest prompt, did you have several ideas in mind or did this story stand out?
Holly: This story was screaming to be written. When I saw the prompt, I immediately thought of those white walls and my struggle to not only adjust to them, but to an entirely new geographic region. The desert can be void of color which drove me nuts. The adjustment was much harder than I thought it would be. As that part of my life unfolded, I never dreamed it would change my wardrobe.
WOW!: Moving must have been a huge adjustment. It's interesting how something most people take for granted, like a wardrobe, can control a person's preconceived notion. Do you think many people fall into a "color trap" where they tend to wear or like certain colors because it is expected of them or because the color relates to a person's work?
Holly: I actually do believe people fall into a “color trap”. Big business, corporate America or whatever you want to call it does have an expectation of dark suits. I remember being told that in order to dress for success, you must never wear a color that BMW wouldn’t make a car for. At that time BMW only made cars in blues, blacks and grays. It’s funny how things stick with you. But to give you an example of how ingrained conformity can be. When I first walked onto the campus of Brown Mackie College ten years ago, I was able to immediately classify employees by how they dressed. Very casual dress with all kinds of colored shirts and blouses marked instructors. Business casual or slacks and shirt and tie, mostly blue and white, indicated middle managers. A dark suit and white shirt with a conservative tie indicated upper management. When I interviewed and met people, I was exactly right. Wardrobe expectations are everywhere, but women are particularly prone to this because we’ve learned in order to get ahead in a “man’s” world, we have to dress like a man. And we conformed. In looking back over my career, 25 years ago (e gads!) that was true. But times have changed and women can dress more femininely if we want to. I still think mini skirts and cleavage in the workplace are unacceptable, but that may just show I’m a little on the conservative side.
WOW!: Yes, you are right. Times have certainly changed, and so have fashions! It's interesting how the counselor pinpointed your closet. Your frustration with the counselor was humorous yet heartfelt. If a counselor told me to look in my closet, I'd tell her it is overstuffed and color-coded. As a counselor, how do you get others to achieve awareness of a situation on their own? Do you find writing a way to achieve that same goal?
Holly: Unlike television, personal insight is not quick. We all have areas in ourselves that we can’t see, particularly when a storm is raging inside. It’s far easier for a counselor to identify where we might be stuck. But really good counselors avoid giving direct ideas because personal growth works best if the client does the exploration. Besides that, if a client isn’t ready to hear it, nothing happens except defensiveness. Ideas such as looking in a closet for wardrobe ruts are non-threatening in nature and can shift a person’s thoughts just enough to look at a problem from a different perspective. In practice I have to listen to a person to know what ideas might work. Someone who is psychologically savvy is not going to gain a lot of insight from using words because words can be used to avoid issues. So suggesting that the person draw pictures using her left hand, or even writing a letter using the left hand bypasses that brain function and gets more to the heart of the matter. Other ideas work for other types of people. The whole idea is to find something that allows the person to see something differently. In that way growth and insight occur. Writing helps me a lot because I love to write. It works best if I don’t pay attention to editing, punctuation, spelling, and wordsmithing. Those tasks are too cerebral. Fast writes where I just type and don’t look at the screen are much more helpful when something is bothering me. That’s the point of fast writing for me. But I keep them because some of them can be polished up and used in a more professional way. Others, however, are just for me.
WOW!: Wonderful! I find writing without editing helps me work through problems, too, and I've polished a few pieces of publication. Your education background is so varied. Have your education experiences led to other writing opportunities?
Holly: My experiences in education have given me tons of opportunities to write. Writing isn’t just poetry or short stories or novels. Writing is communication and good writing is always in style. My writing skills have gotten lots of funding for programs. I’ve also been able to set up training programs which requires a different style of writing. Research papers, of course, are things that are common in education. Journal articles also abound in the educational field and I’ve done some of those as well. One time I was even paid to write a technical manual on how a distributor cap worked. Imagine that!
WOW!: (Chuckles) You never know what experiences will bring in the writing dollar! Your work schedule must be busy. How do you balance your administration position with writing?
Holly: Good question. I’m a morning person. And when I say “morning” I’m talking 3-4 a.m. That’s when I do a lot of my writing. Some people wonder how I can get up that early. I just can. It’s always been that way. But I think the real draw for me is that everything is quiet and there are absolutely no obligations pulling at me at that time of day. That is so important to me. Women are obligated to many people all the time. Kids need to eat, dogs need to be walked, work has a start time. And once the obligations start tugging, personal time evaporates. I really think writing is like exercise – I have to do it at the same time everyday. Then it’s a habit and since those early morning hours contain no interruptions, the only resistance to writing is my own. I also carry around a set of index cards. I get the ones that have a spiral binder. When I hear a funny line, or perhaps see a funny situation, I jot it down for use as a prompt later. There’s nothing worse for me than looking at that computer screen and having absolutely nothing to write. That’s where the index cards are valuable. I flip one open and then I take off writing. That allows me to have a cache of writing. When I have that, I’m ready for opportunity.
WOW!: What a great idea! I may borrow the flip index card idea! You never know when inspiration will hit. What projects are you currently working on?
Holly: I’m working on an ebook about the blended family. I talk to women all the time who struggle with step children and former spouses. They realize at some point in the first year of marriage that things are not as easy as who disciplines the kids. I have yet to find anything out there that genuinely speaks to challenge, which could be one reason why divorce rates in blended families are through the roof. There is so much at stake in these complex situations and I’d like to give women some practical ideas on how to manage. I have a lot of personal experience in this area and am one of the lucky ones who made it through to when all the kids were emancipated. But it was touch and go in some of the early years. Getting through is not impossible, but it’s tough and women need help because quite frankly, most of them end up being scared to death.
WOW!: As a step-parent, I understand that delicate balance. This sounds like such an interesting project. The contest experience seems to have paid off for you. Have you entered other contests? Any advice to writers considering entering?
Holly: The Fall Personal Essay Contest from WOW was the first contest I ever entered. I was energized by it. That caused me to start looking for other contests and I was amazed at how many are out there. So I entered more. I’ve discovered I love the challenge of the contest. What I like best about contest writing is that I can pick contests that have topics I enjoy writing about. In freelance work there isn’t always that choice. I think I could become a contest junkie. LOL I think contest writing is a lot like writing grants. You have to pay attention to the criteria. In this contest there was a suggestion to look at the book written by the judge. I spent three hours driving all over Tucson to find one and I ultimately did. It was by looking at the book that I discovered writing about my closet would be acceptable. What if I had written it about my closet and her book was just about living rooms? I would have lost because it would not have technically met the criteria. I do know contest entries have to be exact from font to word count to topic. There was another contest I entered recently where the topic seemed straightforward. But I reviewed some of the archived magazines from this organization. What I found was that the articles are distinctively spiritual in nature. The topic didn’t tell me that. But because I took the time to research, I knew it had to have a spiritual slant to even be considered. See what I mean? And of course nothing, but nothing, replaces editing and presentation. Good content can be completely overshadowed by poor presentation. I tell students this all the time. If you have a good paper but a reader has to struggle through poor grammar and punctuation to grasp the content, you’ve lost the battle. Writing for contests, actually writing for anything, is much the same.
WOW!: That's great advice, Holly. Thank you for taking time to talk with us about your writing journey. You find time and offer practical advice. Best of luck to you with your writing career and book.
Interview by LuAnn Schindler