Thursday, October 24, 2013

On Finding My Words ... by Shelley Widhalm

I used to wonder where all the words came from when I read books, each title logged alphabetically into my secretly coded notebook.

How did words – from the thousands upon thousands of offerings – get selected, sorted and placed next to each other to describe an emotion, object or person to draw them in three dimensions?

How did the writer know which ones to line up side by side, so that removing one would catapult the sentence into meaninglessness?

Substitute one of the words and the sentence would fall apart or lose its cadence within the structure of the paragraph, one jarring rail-car in a train’s rhythmic booming.

Writing beautifully seemed like a secret, and I lacked the code.

Despite my search – majoring in English, taking creative writing classes and starting writing short stories and childish poems in the second grade, followed by more serious writing in college – I saw text as inflexible, and myself as trying, but not getting how to create my own magical version of the word dance.

Sure, I was writing sentences, paragraphs and stories and trying to be literary or serious, playing with voice, listening in on conversations and exploring character in the people around me.

But something just didn’t click.

In spring 2009, I adopted a nine-week-old miniature dachshund named Zoey and, in a first step in potty training, sat with her outside, waiting.

And waiting.

A bird trilled a high-pitched strain that dropped a few octaves, only to slide skyward.

Zoey tipped her head, eyes widened in wonder, slowing her curiosity into the one moment. “What was that?” I could practically hear her ask.

My heart jumped at observing the magic of a first discovery in the shiny shift of sounds from noise to music.

This shift happened to me when I discovered the skeleton key to opening up the seemingly impenetrable pattern of words.

Simple as it may sound, I started using my senses, feeling everything around me in intensity, absorbing smells, sounds, tastes and touches as I experienced work, play and everything in between.

I no longer was doing life. I was being in life (this isn’t a philosophical matter, but a matter of confidence rising out of the mental removal of accepting, even embracing life’s little slaps).

With my senses amped up on self-esteem, I turned my normal routines and boring moments into mystery. What will the air taste like when it rains? What does that birdsong make me think about? How can I describe the sunset? Or the building as it rises up next to my favorite coffee shop?

As I read, I absorb beautiful sentences, rereading them to figure out why I get chills in particular places. I analyze how the individual words fall together, noticing how they feel in my mouth through word choice, cadence and rhythm.

I play with language as I write, aware that I don’t have to get the words right the first time. I can observe them unfold, not worrying if the result is perfect – that’s what revision is for. I can use my thesaurus, letting one word lead to another if the first entry doesn’t launch the right one. I can compare things, trying to smash two unlikely things together, knowing that the result may surprise, happily or not so much.

Either way, I win.

This winning is my key. It’s the doing of writing that matters, the experimentation, the exploration, the wonder and the what if?

What if I never had tried? That would be like losing sound and taste and touch because they needed words in order to exist.


Shelley Widhalm, who lives in Northern Colorado, is a journalist by day who writes poetry, short stories and novels. She is at work on her literary novel with commercial appeal, The Fire Painter. To learn more about her writing life, visit her website. You can read her blog Shell's Ink and her dog Zoey’s blog at Zoey's Paw. You also can follow her on Twitter or find her on Facebook.


Dean K Miller said...

Shelley: Exactly! Allow your own senses to capture that which we cannot "think about" and then know.

Likewise, I would be lost on the page, wondering how all of those words fit.

Before we can paint the outside world for others with our words we must let the unfiltered outside world inside of us.

Thanks for giving me a better way of describing my writing process...(and for following my own pages.)

As always, Pat, you bring in (and out) the best in writers around you!

Patricia Stoltey said...

Thanks for the kind words, Dean. I found Shelley through one of our NCW members who guest posts here from time to time, Katherine Valdez. It's nice to change it up from time to time so we're not totally about fiction. We can learn a lot from essayists, journalists, and poets.

Unknown said...

I love language and the ability to paint pictures with words. When a writer can lead me by my senses and engage my sense of beauty with their choice of words, it slows me down in a lovely moment. I haven't quite mastered that yet with my writing, but it's a goal.

I love how you mentioned truly staying in the moment-- lovely.

Anonymous said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Shelley.

Shelley - Thanks for the reminder to use all of our senses and really experience life That's always a good way to get the words flowing.

Trai said...

I love your voice, Shelley, and you tell a lovely, sensual story here.

teresa funke said...

Well said, Shelley! For most writers, there's that breakthrough moment when we understand something about writing or finally decipher our own voice, and then a whole new world opens up. You describe beautifully how to move forward after that breakthrough moment. It's called the writing journey for a reason, and those of us who have chosen this path hope to continue that journey our whole lives!

Anonymous said...

You deliver your message so poetically, Shelley. Thanks for the inspiration and motivation! I wrote the rough draft of an essay today after taking a break from writing. Starting was difficult, but I'm glad I did. I experienced "flow" soon afterward. As you said, "It’s the doing of writing that matters, the experimentation, the exploration, the wonder and the what if?"

Patricia Stoltey said...

Thanks again for being my guest this week, Shelley. You inspire me.