Alisa Valdes

Writer. Producer. Human.

An Open Letter to My Son’s Stepmom

Feb
17

url-8Dear Alana,

I admit, I used to hate you. With the heat of a million suns, I hated you. The first moment I saw your photo on your Facebook page, and figured out who that pretty girl with the big brown eyes was to him, the love of my life (or so I believed at the time), I hated you.

“Why?” I asked him. “Why her and not me?”

“She’s nice,” he said, simply. Most of the exes, upon finding the next woman to love, have sought the same thing. I wasn’t nice, then. No, I wasn’t. I can see that now. I couldn’t then, even with him being so clear. She’s nice. He wanted nice. And I hated you.

I hated losing him to you. But even more than that, at the start, I hated that you were going to meet my son. My son, who I never wanted to come from a broken home. I never wanted my son to have another mother. I hated you.

But life moved forward, unconcerned with my feelings. You moved in with him. You married him. You met my son. I cried myself to sleep alone. Then I picked not one bad man to fill that hole left in my life when my best friend chose you, but two, then three, sliding toward the center of my destruction, pulled along by the gravity of despair.

Slowly, slowly I got over him. But sending my son to you was still a knife to the gut. You were outgoing, fun, always happy, never took things personally, measured in the way you spoke, smarter than I’d realized, funny as hell, kind to others. You sang karaoke. I was never going to be the girl who did that. I was the one in the corner, drunk. You were the one onstage, who knew everyone’s name, who cared about everything and meant it.

My son, at first, said nothing. He did not want to give the appearance of liking you, because he knew I hated you. I never said it, but children can read the inner workings of their mothers’ minds from the slightest lift of an eyebrow, the tiniest tightening of the mouth. Over time, he’d come back from his weekends with you guys, and he’d be happier than when he’d left. You did normal things with him, barbecues with your large and loving family, whereas my family was tiny and not prone to interacting with one another. My son began to feel a pride in having stepsisters, as he’d always wanted siblings and was never going to get them from me. I met your daughters, and they were beautiful, kind, intelligent.

I saw from afar, at the basketball games and other events, that you made him happy, my ex. Happier than he’d ever been with me. I saw that you two loved each other as though you were born to be together. I was finally over the anger and I could genuinely be happy for him. And for you.

You were never anything but polite to me. You were kind to me, even when I was mean to you. He was right, of course. You were nice. You were organized. You always paid your bills on time. You were responsible, far more so than I. I began, to my surprise, to like you.

It began to be more comfortable to co-parent with you than it was with him, because, well, because you are nice to me and he isn’t. I realized, as I got to know you, just how admirable you were, taking care of your mother and grandmother, holding your family together, being a good friend to me and others, being gifted, brilliant really, in the realm of emotional intelligence, the one area in which I was not smart. I began to study you, to learn from you. I looked forward to sending my son to spend time with you, because I realized you genuinely, truly loved my child. You loved him, because you truly loved his father.

I realized, with a shock, that the more people in the world who loved my son as you did, like a mother, the better for my son. And that was all I wanted, in the universe. That my son be loved. I realized that sometimes those things that we think are the worst events in our lives, like a husband leaving you for someone nicer than you, are actually the best things to happen, in the long run. My son’s world got bigger, and warmer, when you came into it. His family grew. The circle of people who would be around to love my child once I was gone got larger, his safety net, bigger. I didn’t hate you at all, anymore. In fact, I didn’t just like you. I was starting to love you, like a sister.

What made me love you was that day at the baseball game. It was chilly out, and the game was long, too long for parents sitting towards the setting sun. I’d brought the coffee for us, from Starbucks, and you? You’d brought the kahlua minis, in your purse. We giggled as we poured them into our white cups, and giggled even more as they began to work their magic. I watched you, the patience with which you spoke to your daughters, and I felt nothing but a deep and radiant love for you. You were not my sister wife, but you were my SOULSISTER mom. Nowadays, we coparent so effectively and with such mutual respect that people at one parent meeting assumed my son came from one of those “two mommy” households.

Tomorrow evening, we are hanging out together, just me and you, for the first time outside of my son’s sporting events. Like real friends. Real friends. Yes, we are. You are my dear friend now, Alana. I am sorry for ever being mean to you at the start. You are, more than anything, living proof that sometimes the most painful things become the most obviously good things, with enough time. It’s all about patience.

Thank you, Alana, for loving my son. I love you.

In Writing Fiction, How Your Characters Talk is Just as Important as What They’re Saying

Dec
01

url-31In literature, as in life, the way people talk to one another can tell you more about their psychological issues than the content of what they’re saying. This is also true of fictional characters. The best writers create satisfyingly realistic characters by consciously and carefully choosing psychologically accurate unconscious word choices for them. These characters don’t just further the narrative with their dialogue; they inadvertently (to themselves, deliberately to the writer) reveal their psychological and emotional shortcomings and/or sophistication through the words they use.

Nowhere is this more true than in the use of “I” statements versus “you” statements in emotionally charged dialogue between fictional lovers, friends or family members.

A character who says “I feel hurt when you don’t return my phone calls” is revealing information on two levels – one, the other person didn’t call them and they were hurt by this; and two, they take responsibility for their own emotional state and are careful about other people’s feelings.

Conversely, a character who says, “You never call me when you’re supposed to, what is your problem? You make me feel so worried, obviously you don’t care about me at all,” is furthering the narrative in the same way as the first (the other didn’t call, the speaker was upset) but they are also telling the reader that they are emotionally unskilled and immature, likely to blame others for their problems and to create needless drama in their lives.

This difference in communication styles is one example of what is meant by “show, don’t tell,” in character development. You could write something like She was clueless about his feelings and always sounded like she was accusing him of a crime when she was upset, telling your reader about the character, or you could write dialogue that shows her doing this.

The reason showing rather than telling is more effective is that your readers will come to your story with their own psychological deficits and strengths, and each will relate to your individual characters in their own unique way. I have been amazed to hear from readers who related most to characters I’d created to whom I’d related the least, or even hated.

In the fiction-writing workshops I give, I often come across writers who, while technically proficient, create characters who feel flat or underdeveloped. These writers could greatly benefit from studying people – whether in a psychology text or in real life, and preferably both.

 

 

Top 3 Reasons Writers Should Work Out

Nov
30

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People are often surprised when they ask me how I go about writing a novel and I answer that my first step is taking a really long run, bike ride, or inline skating jaunt along the beautiful bosque trail in my hometown of Albuquerque. “What?” their eyes seem to ask. “You mean you don’t, like, write endless outlines, or drink copious amounts of wine, like other writers?”

Of course I do those things, too. But I start with a good, hard workout. Some people say they get their best ideas while driving, or in the shower. I get mine while exercising.

It has been this way for me as long as I can remember. When I was in high school, I rode my bike to school – a round trip of about 15 miles each day – and listened to lots of music on headphones as I did it. That’s when I first began writing stories, poems, books. The long rides – and on weekends I’d go 50, 60 miles at a pop – were magical, connecting me to what felt like something much bigger than myself, a place where stories lived. I’d come back physically exhausted, but mentally primed to write.

Recent research into how the brain works has verified this instinctual knowing. Contrary to popular stereotypes, being a “jock” doesn’t make you dumb; it makes you smarter. Here are the top three reasons science is proving that exercise builds better brains, and by doing so we can extrapolate that it also makes us better writers.

1. Voluntary Exercise Will Make Your More Creative

Research out of UCLA clearly shows that working out not only increases the strength of your body, but also “primes adult dorsal root ganglion neurons for increased axonal regeneration through a neurotrophin-dependent mechanism.” That’s a fancy way of saying your brain builds more, better and stronger connections if you work out. Unusual, new (or novel, parum-pum) neural connections are the basis of creativity. Having writer’s block? Go for a writer’s walk.

2. Exercise Makes Your Plots Better and Lessens Your Mistakes

Research published by the United States National Institutes of Health shows that regular aerobic exercise increases the brain’s ability to process information and remember things. That means you’ll devise better plots, and you won’t forget your protagonist’s aunt’s hair color in chapter 13 if you work out. If you get dehydrated, though, that benefit is lost. So get up and sweat, writers, but drink lots of water, too.

3. Exercise Will Create Space in Your Mind For New Ideas

Research out of Stockholm shows that running has the unexpected side effect of growing new brain cells in the hippocampus, which is not a university for hippos but rather a place where your brain learns new stuff. Want more ideas? Go jogging.

Fit writers are better writers.

Truth.

Top Five Reasons Writers Love Rainy Days

Oct
21

Rain

It’s raining here in Albuquerque today, and I’m hard at work writing a new book – which is to say, I’m drinking coffee and texting my other writer friends and wondering if it’s too early for vodka. We writers LOVE rainy days. Here’s why.

THE WHOLE WORLD SUDDENLY SEEMS AS TRAGIC AND MELANCHOLY AS WE ARE

Let’s face it. Writers are a moody, broody bunch. Even those among us who show up clean and cheerful at RWA conventions can tend, in our own homes and lives, to be wistful, mopey creatures who scowl at screens most of the time. Usually, our temperament inspires normal people to yell “Smile!” at us on sunny days. On rainy days those aggressively cheerful souls crumple up beneath their Spongebob umbrellas, and they mutter and shuffle – just like us! Hurrah!

THE CAT IS FORCED TO STAY INSIDE

Writers love cats. Just ask Ernest Hemingway, who lived with dozens of them in a tower, where he wrote, standing up and naked. Poor cats. Anyway, writers love cats because cats don’t give a fuck. Writers want to be liked, but they also want to be left alone, meaning we have a predictably codependent and unsatisfying relationship with most of the cats in our lives most of the time. Writer craves cat love, cat insists on killing things outside instead. Rainy days force the cat to come inside. Cold rainy days drive the cat to seek warmth on writer’s lap. Writer knows this is not genuine love, but does what writers do best and lies to self about the cat’s true intentions. For this brief moment, in this ephemeral gloom, the cat seems to love. Us.

COFFEE TASTES BETTER AND WE DON’T FEEL AS GUILTY ABOUT THAT SEVENTH CUP

After booze and weed, nothing inspires writers to new heights of creativity more than caffeine, except perhaps oxycontin. And we’re not talking about the passive, patient caffeine one finds in green goddamed tea, either. We are talking the dark brown, almost black, bitter brain blast that comes only from coffee. The more, the better. On sunny days, there is something shameful and decadent about the writer slinking back to the kitchen for cup after cup, as she tries to piece together a meaningful narrative about imaginary people doing unthinkable things. On a rainy day, the slink feels imperative and the mug in the hand carries the ponderous weight of The Thinker’s fist below his chin.

COZINESS BREEDS IMAGINATION

The sound of drops falling from the eaves. The seductive susurration of tires on slick streets. The mind wanders. Homicidal clowns. Socipathic lovers. Affordable housing in New York City. This is where outrageous ideas are born, in these cozy corners of rainswept scribbling. There is nowhere to go on these days except inward, where literary lunacy resides.

WE’RE REMINDED OF WHEN WE LOVED HAVING AN EXCUSE TO READ ALL DAY AS KIDS

Writers were the kids picked last for the team, and this was our own choice. We preferred to stay indoors reading about lions, witches, wardrobes, Hogworts, that sort of thing. If we were lucky enough to have equally bookish parents, this was never an issue. But if we were, say, born to a parent who thought we ought to be outside enjoying the fresh air instead of huddled in the corner with a dog-eared tome, then rainy days became bodyguards for our brains. Back off, let the kid read, ma’am, can’t you see it’s raining outside? Delicious.