NEW ULM - A rural Sleepy Eye native, now a North Mankato writer, teacher and mother of six who has won a number of writing awards lately, humbly accepted the Woman of the Year Award Saturday at the 26th Annual Women's History Luncheon at the New Ulm Country Club.
"I'm not sure if I deserve this award," Nicole Helget said, smiling. She thanked a number of teachers she had at Sleepy Eye St. Mary's High School and those, including a nun, she later taught with at Cathedral High School, and educators who she said spurred her writing on at Minnesota State University (MSU), Mankato.
Helget said belonging to 4-H as a youth helped validate some of her values and upbringing that included cooking hamburgers at the ballpark concession stand at softball and baseball games. "Softball, baseball and other sports helped me learn how to win and lose gracefully," Helget said.
Staff photo by Fritz Busch
North Mankato author, teacher and mother and Sleepy Eye native Nicole Helget speaks at the 26th Annual Women’s History Luncheon Saturday at the New Ulm Country Club. Helget was honored as the Women’s History Woman of the Year for her contributions to literature, historical fiction and the understanding of Minnesota history.
"I grew up around great storytellers with character and personalities that gave me ideas to write about. I'm glad you're laughing, Mandy (Helget)," she said. "You may have noticed some of the characters in my books are much like the Helget boys."
"I'd like to thank my children too, who are light years beyond what I was thinking at their ages."
Helget talked about the challenges of writing, a career she began to pursue after earning a literature degree, teaching, then going to graduate school to earn a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She had told her childhood stories to an MSU professor in such detail, it spurred him to tell her to write everything down, work that later led to her memoir, the award-winning "The Summer of Ordinary Ways."
"Learning to write takes ages and a lot of work. You have to be patient," Helget said. "I began writing essays about birds, butterflies and studying Minnesota River history. I realized I was a life-long learner," she said. "Growing up here, I knew I had to write about real Minnesota people who push strollers through a slushy parking lot and live with frozen pipes. We move on, stoic, bull-headed, even though the weather here makes our backs ache, feet feel heavy and even destroy us. Our ancestors had to be adaptable, acceptable and tolerant, just to survive. Staring out windows in the winter, thinking big thoughts."
Helget said when she felt bogged down in her writing, she relied on a Mankato writing group of writers and editors for feedback. "They're some of my best friends," she said. "Being a smart-aleck of words, sometimes you need encouragement to go on when you're stuck."
She talked about being a female writer. "There's an expectation in the writing world that women can't write humor, give criticism or take it. Witty, creative women are often called witchy or something that rhymes with it," Helget said. "If you try to please everyone, you won't make significant advancements. You've got to say and write things that ruffle feathers. Sometimes, it better for the world to make people squirm."
She talked about the need to separate valid criticism from non-sense.
Helget's most recent book "Stillwater," a novel released in February, centers on Beaver Jean, a fur trapper and trader in the community as it changed from a wilderness post to a lumber center and the sociological changes that were part of it.
She is working on another novel, "Wonder at the Edge of the World," about a 12-year-old girl in Lawrence, Kansas; who runs away with a friend and winds up on a whaling boat.