I'm pleased to have my story "Lifeboat Drill" appear in the summer issue of Gone Lawn.
I started writing this story on an airplane, listening to the safety briefing. The instructions about looking for the exit, inflating your life vest, and fastening your own oxygen mask first gave me the idea for the story.
Dime Show Review just published my flash fiction "Two Turtledoves." The inspiration for this story is obvious. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is the most annoying Christmas song ever. Kids like it because it repeats.
I think kids also like repetitive songs because they know they're annoying. I remember singing "Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall" on the bus during a grade school field trip. We got all the way through the ninety-nine verses to"No bottles of beer on the wall/No bottles of beer/Go to the store/Get some more/Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall" and were about to start all over when the teacher got up and told us that we had to stop. He looked exhausted. We felt triumphant, powerful.
I was going to link here to another story I wrote with a Christmas carol title, "Friendly Beasts." Unfortunately, though, the journal that published it online has apparently ceased publication, and their website is defunct. Instead, I'll link to a more positive essay on singing, "Wunnerful, Wunnerful, Fabulous" in r.kv.r.y.
When the Literary Orphans editor accepted my story "The Pines," the editor said it was "very unique." The piece was unusual for me, because my initial impulse was about form, not story or character. I thought about writing a story told both from the present and and past tense to express how difficult it can be to break free from a traumatic event. The past is still present, and you can get trapped in the past, especially if you are blaming yourself. You're caught in a loop.
I don't write a lot of pieces with experimental forms, but I have published a few before, such as "My Route" and "Dear Squirrel," which both appeared in Corium. Another example is "The Moon in Daytime," which appeared in Wilderness House Literary Review. "The Pines" is my second story to appear in Literary Orphans. The first, "Just So You Know," also had a slightly unusual form, as it was spoken directly to another character.
Recently I went up to San Francisco to look at some locations where I’m setting scenes in the novel I’m writing. I had been to most of the places before, though not recently. Others I had never visited. While I was writing the first draft, I used Google Images, Google Street View, pictures in Yelp, my own photos, and web searches to give me an idea of the locations. However, pictures can only show, at best, what a place looks like. They cannot tell what a place smells like, sounds like, feels like. Using memories and imagination, I populated the scenes with sights, smells, sounds, and temperatures to fit the scenes.
However, I was unwilling to rely only on images and imagination, so recently I went up to San Francisco on a whirlwind tour of locations for the book. Though sometimes my imagination hit a detail spot on (yes, it was very windy at Alta Plaza Park), mostly I was struck by all the things I saw that were more interesting and unique than I imagined. For example, the woman in Golden Gate Park wearing a ball cap with brown feathers on the sides, like a redneck Wagnerian helmet. The graffiti heart atop the staircase at Fort Mason. The man carrying a cymbal under his arm at the Ferry Building. The whales surfacing off Point Lobos.
The bride and groom taking wedding pictures in front of City Hall:
The pink ballet slipper tossed over the wall at the Sutro Baths overlook:
The woman sweeping the rocks in the Academy of Science’s penguin exhibit.
The homemade Batmobile parked at Land’s End.
I’m not sure which (or any) of these unexpected sights will make it into the book. But this trip reminded me of how strange and wonderful the world is—much more so than we imagine. We just have to look.
My Facebook feed is full of shots of beautiful food. Often the food displayed sits on restaurant tables: except for cooking bloggers, home cooks don’t routinely produce exquisite, perfectly garnished plates. Most nights, if they are anything like me, they just want to eat whatever it is they’ve cooked.
However, when home cooks make something especially beautiful and elaborate, they post pictures. I do this myself. After hours of work, who can resist posting their beautiful homemade sourdough or cherry tomato cobbler?
But like so much on Facebook, these pictures only show our good side. They don’t show our failures, or even our ordinariness. I didn’t post pictures of my pale and dense homemade rolls at Thanksgiving or the pasta I made with store-bought pesto.
Which brings me to my Easter pie. Because I had company coming for dinner, and because I had promised my husband I would make him a pie from a jar of huckleberry pie filling, I decided to bake a pie.
Unfortunately, my crust was a little dry, so rolling it out was a challenge. It cracked, and though I tried to repair the fissures, the dough always cracked again on the same spot. When I put the top crust on over the filling, the cracks opened again. Arrg! I decided that I would make little flowers out of extra pie crust to cover those spots. I envisioned a pie so whimsically cute, it would surely be worth a Facebook post.
Well. Making those little flowers turned out to be harder than I thought it would be. I rolled out my cracking crust and tried to cut out the flowers with a knife. “You’re making little stars!” my husband exclaimed as I was trying to freehand flowers. I managed to make two and put them over the ugly parts of the upper crust. But then, having just two flowers looked stupid. I decided I would have to make a few more. The longer I worked with the crust, the warmer the pastry got, and the more difficult forming the flowers became. Finally, I decided I was done and put the pie in the oven.
When I looked in on the pie a few minutes later, my crust's crimped edges had totally drooped. I think it took me so long to get those flowers on that the crust’s butter had softened too much. I opened the oven and frantically tried to push the flattened edges up again, though it was a failing effort. When the pie came out, it was not the whimsical, flower-scattered beauty I imagined. Instead, it looked like this:
Not picture-perfect by any means! It was more comical than beautiful. Certainly not worth a social media post.
But then I remembered something I tell my memoir writing students: no one wants to read about someone perfect. If you’re not willing to expose your faults, you won’t write an interesting essay. People want to read about people as flawed as they are. The advice is true for fictional characters as well.
So I went ahead and posted the pie to my feed, figuring everyone could get a good laugh at my pie fail. Of course, since my Facebook readers are all my friends, they said it actually looked like a wonderful pie. But I hope some of them laughed too.
And though it didn’t look so wonderful, the pie tasted good!
This photo is proof that I could have selectively posted a more beautiful, but incomplete picture. I chose not to.
A few years after my grandmother died, my mom brought out Grandma’s jewelry box while my two sisters and I were visiting. Mom laid her mother's jewelry out on the dining room table in a river of rhinestones so my sisters and I could take turns choosing what we liked. Sometimes Mom examined a piece before putting it down, smiling slightly as she remembered a particular pin.
I love old-fashioned jewelry, especially rhinestone broaches. I chose many pieces I frequently wear, including a set of autumn-colored rhinestones. I also chose a pair of white mice pins because I remembered Grandma wearing them on her red wool coat.
After several turns choosing, my sisters and I were down to the odd bits, the little trinkets many of us keep in our jewelry boxes for one reason or another. We examined them curiously. Among them was a metal medallion painted sky blue, with a raised silver gilt accordion on it.
I found this medallion so intriguing. How had Grandma come by it? Why did she keep it? As far as I knew, she had never played the accordion. Did it symbolize music? Dancing the polka? Had she won it? Had it been a gift from someone, perhaps a student? Her mother (my great-grandmother) had been a musician. Had it been hers?
Neither of my sisters wanted the accordion medallion, so I took it. I also found, jumbled in the bottom of the jewelry box with sections of broken chain, a gold metal clamp (bail?) that I tightened onto the medallion so that I could use it as a pendant.
Mystery is all around us, even mysteries about those closest to us. I wonder about the story behind the accordion medallion, but I will never know. Since I’m a writer, maybe someday I’ll make up a story about it. For now, I wear the mystery accordion occasionally as a pendant strung on a white ribbon. Wearing it reminds me of all the stories I don’t know, and how intriguing they all are.
I’ve been worried by the news lately. As someone who cares about the environment, women’s rights, and social justice, I see the policies coming out of Washington and become both alarmed and angry. I’m taking action: calling my representatives, marching in the Women’s March, speaking out. It often feels like a futile effort. Many of my friends are concerned too. Several of them, after sharing a news story on Facebook, have said, “It’s hard not to lose hope.”
I feel that way, too. But, as I responded to a friend on Facebook, I’m a writer, a calling that is full of disappointment and rejection. I’ve learned that sometimes all that keeps you going is habit, not hope.
Action, Not Results
I sometimes hear of writers setting goals to publish a book with a major publisher or to be featured in a high-profile literary magazine. I never set goals like that because they are beyond my control. Instead, I give myself actions: I will edit a chapter, write four pages, send out five submissions. I can’t control whether the magazines accept my work. All I can control is my part of it—sending my work to the journals. But sending work to journals means persisting despite rejections. Keep sending. Maintain the habit. Some of my most high-profile publications came after stories were rejected 50 times.
I’ve learned to commit myself to action and divorce myself as much as possible from results. Do rejections disappoint me? Of course. However, my most inspirational writing quote is not from a famous writer, but from hockey player Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take.” Even rejection may not be the end: an editor might remember you and publish the next story you submit.
When it comes to social activism, I’m aiming for the same method, the idea that habit will see me through when hope will not. Can I control how Congress votes? No. But I can let my representatives in Congress know my position on issues. I can set a goal for how often to contact them and follow through. I can attend town halls. I can send emails. Can I control what the president does? No. But I can show up at protests. I can send postcards. I can voice my concerns in person and on social media and perhaps sway someone to reconsider his or her position.
Given the current political climate, I’m sure I’ll see many failures. In fact, I may not see any successes. I will say this, though: it’s hard to gauge the impact of even a failed effort. Even if DAPL is built, the Standing Rock protesters have raised awareness of the dangers of oil transportation. They’ve set an inspiring example for activism. I think of them camping out in the Dakota snow and realize that if they can do that, I should be able to speak at a county Board of Supervisors meeting to support a marine sanctuary to protect against offshore oil drilling.
And despite what I’ve said about habit being more important than hope, I still have hope. As long as you are trying, as long as you are fighting, hope exists. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, but as long as you are still shooting, a puck may yet go in the net.
I'm honored and thrilled that the folks at NANO Fiction have nominated my story "Gravity and Wind" for the Best Small Fictions for 2017, edited by Amy Hempel. The Best Small Fictions is an anthology that honors the best short fiction under 1000 words published in a calendar year. Journal editors nominate up to five stories they published in the previous year; then the judges at Best Small Fiction make the decisions from among the nominated stories. I'm so pleased that the editors of NANO Fiction thought my story was worthy.
That story is not available on the web; however you can read some of my stories that have been award winners and nominees for other honors in the past: "About My Mother" was named on the top 50 very short fictions by Wigleaf. "My Route" was longlisted for the same award a couple of years later. "They Call Me Lucky," an essay, was nominated for the Best of the Net anthology by the editors of Toasted Cheese.
I'm grateful to the editors of NANO Fiction and to all the editors who have supported my work over the years.
I'm putting an image of skydiving here because "Gravity and Wind" takes place while skydiving!
Though I've published many stories and essays, I don't often get an opportunity to read my work for an audience. So I was very pleased when the folks at San Jose's Flash Fiction Forum included me in their January 11 lineup. When I asked one of the organizers why she had started the reading series, she mentioned that though poets have several reading opportunities in San Jose, fiction writers had fewer. I think that's true in general: unless you have a book that you are reading to support, it's harder to find outlets for reading fiction. I'm grateful that I was able to participate in this fun reading series.
I read my story "Circle, Circle," which was published in Monkeybicycle. It includes an HO railroad, and I had several people come up to me after I read to reminisce about model trains from their childhood. You never know how your work will connect with readers and what it will bring up for them. Reading in public gives you the opportunity to find out.
NANO Fiction has published my story "Gravity and Wind" in its current issue. They were kind enough to interview me for the issue as well.
I'm especially honored to be included, because this is their last issue. I will miss such a classy print journal for flash.
I had a story, "Balloons" published by them in 2010 as well. Thinking back on that story and the more recent one, I can say that I considered both of these stories tough sells for a literary magazine. They are both reflective stories, the kind that critique groups sometimes label "quiet," though one takes place while skydiving and the other involves a dead body. Despite the external action, these stories mostly move forward in the characters' thoughts and reactions. "Quiet" in critique-group speak is not usually a complement. It's code for "not enough happens." But I enjoy writing and reading stories where small shifts resonate with large consequences. I'll miss reading a journal that recognizes and publishes those stories too.
Ann Hillesland writes fiction and essays. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Bayou, The Laurel Review, and Sou’wester.
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