With more of my life behind than ahead of me, who would think I’d be having an identity crisis? It’s not that I don’t know who I am, but some people who know me don’t recognize me! No, I haven’t had plastic surgery. It’s my name that gives them pause.
“You are Shirley Melis?” they ask. “We thought you were Shirley Nagelschmidt Bessey Hirsch!”
“I am, but before I became Nagelschmidt Bessey Hirsch I was known as Shirley Melis.”
I was born Shirley (Ann) Melis and that’s how people knew me through college and as a young newspaper columnist before I married Joe Nagelschmidt. In common with many women my age, I happily took – without a moment’s hesitation – my husband’s name as mine. Nagelschmidt wasn’t pretty but it was memorable.
For some thirty years, while forging a career in public relations in Washington, D.C., and later working in community relations for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, I was Shirley Nagelschmidt with Melis relegated to a silent “M” between first and last names.
After Joe’s death, I married John Bessey, and for a brief time I was known as Shirley Bessey. Now, married to Frank Hirsch, I go by Shirley Hirsch. Had I been more of a feminist at the outset, I might have always been known as Shirley Melis. And yet, in retrospect, each of my last names – Nagelschmidt, Bessey and Hirsch – defines a significant phase of my life. So, what’s in a name, or several names? The short answer: my life. Banged-Up Heart is a slice of my life’s journey and in telling my story, I’m giving voice to my long silent “M” by reclaiming Shirley Melis.
“You should start a blog, Shirley,” my friend Art said.
“Why?” I asked. “Haven’t I said everything I wanted to say in my memoir?”
“Yes, by writing Banged-Up Heart, you shared an intimate and clear-eyed account of finding love late and losing it early – and the strength it takes to love again. Now that you’ve done that, some people will want to know how you did it -- how were you able to write a book like this and how did you become an author?” “That’s a whole other story,” I said.
“Yes, and it’s one you should tell.”
“But who would care?” I asked.
“Aspiring authors,” Art answered.
He convinced me – sort of, halfway, a little.
But on the off-chance that he’s right, that my experience writing Banged-Up Heart and then pulling off that other huge job of taking it to publication might help an aspirant or two, I’ve decided to plunge in.
I wrote my story not to sell it but purely because of compulsion. I had been widowed twice in four years. The second time, I was totally blindsided, needing desperately to figure out what had happened. So I followed a path that had led to answers before. All through my career, writing had helped me see more clearly. Hoping to do that again, I began what became Banged-Up Heart.
At first, I just wanted to relive the wonderful relationship John and I had had. But once I got started, I became wiser, I think – more curious, more demanding. I was determined to face the questions I had never asked him. In the end, celebrating the relationship was not nearly so important as getting as close to the truth as I could.
Only when a close friend said after an early draft, “Others will want to read your story” did I first think about publication. The trek those words led me to was a long way from straight, filled instead with unexpected twists and turns.
Hoping for more than pointers, I attended a writers’ workshop in New York City. The allure was not tips on the craft of writing (which I thought I knew) but the possibility of a publishing house editor asking for a chapter or two, maybe more, of my still-in-progress memoir. Emboldened by this chance to be taken seriously by industry professionals, I prepared my pitch. Editors from Random House, Penguin, Harper Collins, and other major publishers listened. While other aspiring authors at the workshop seemed mesmerized, not one editor asked to see more.
Undaunted, I kept writing. A couple of years later, I engaged an editor whose knowledge steered me to essential recasting and rewriting, which brings me to my first posting, On Working with an Editor. Future postings will cover choosing a title, finding an agent and a publisher. I’ll be talking about things like this as part of my Trek to Publication, and also will be blogging about Travel as well as Life in the High Desert of New Mexico.
I'm Shirley Melis. You may know me as Shirley M. Nagelschmidt, Shirley M. Bessey and now, Shirley M. Hirsch. Each reflects a particular phase of my life. Banged-Up Heart is a slice of my life's journey and in telling my story, I'm giving voice to my long silent "M" by reclaiming my maiden name, Shirley Melis.