I'm so happy that Gravel published my short essay "What's He Doing in My World." The year my father died, I wrote a handful of essays about him and nothing else. Under ordinary circumstances I often wait quite a while before editing or sometimes even completing a piece. However, the essays I wrote after my father's death sat for longer than usual before I could bring myself to complete them. Some of them I still haven't edited, and it's been three years since his death.
I can't remember what inspired me to write about my Dad's music preferences. I was just thinking of him one night, and this essay came out.
I'm always on the lookout for great settings. Sometimes I go to a location and instantly realize I want to set a story there. A visit to the San Francisco wave organ became "Secret San Francisco." Other times, my fiction is inspired by an object, such as a hidden avocado in "Dear Squirrel."
My new story, "I Used To," published in Gravel, was a combination of the two. I instantly liked the retro Shell Shop I visited in Morro Bay. What a marvelous location! And they had such interesting little knickknacks made from shells. I was captivated especially by the ships made from shells. I knew I also wanted to include one in the story, so I bought one.
I set my characters loose in the shop, looking at the shells and tchotchkes, and "I Used To" came out.
This fall I went on my first-ever writing residency. I didn’t know what to expect. I packed up my laptop and filled my backpack with books that might have some bearing on the novel I was revising. I took Highway 101 north, and around Salinas I turned toward the coast until I reached Highway 1.
I was heading towards Soquel, which is east of the beach town Capitola. As I drove up Highway 1, I felt like I was moving into my past. I lived in the Bay Area my whole life until about two years ago, and the smell of the air, the sight of the exit signs--to the town where I used to stay in a friend’s beach house, to the Sunset and Seacliff beaches where I used to go as a kid—all brought memories.
The Wellstone Center is up a steep, crooked road with a redwood grove behind it. The smell of the air took me back to childhood camping trips. It’s a smell of heat hitting trees, of the sagey wild bushes, of the nearby ocean sending salt air up. September is one of the most beautiful months on the coast; summer is often foggy but fall tends to be clear. The Alaska ocean current is warmest in the fall, though the surfers still wear wetsuits.
The Wellstone Center’s main house is a whimsical, half-hippie, half Victorian affair, wood-shake sided and set with stones. Sarah Ringler and Steve Kettmann are the proprietors. I was there with two amazing writers, Karen Smyte and Erica Buist. On open mic night, their work blew me away.
I stayed in the Pool House. It was small for two people, but fortunately Karen, who shared it with me, was a great roommate.
I worked at the Pool House’s kitchen table, looking out at the water. It was an amazing luxury to be able to spend all my time on my writing. I had some comments from my novel's beta readers, and I was able to mull them over at my leisure. I read chapters out loud as I revised; there was no one to hear me (Karen was working in a different cabin). I gave myself permission to avoid all social media for the time I was there. I told myself not to worry about the latest political outrage, and the silence was lovely. I didn’t realize how much the continual noise of social media expanded into my life until I stopped it.
At Wellstone, the emerging writers all have jobs around the place. I was assigned watering the garden. My mother has always been an organic gardener, so watering the garden, picking zucchini, smelling the acrid tomato plants, listening to the splatter of water spray on giant pumpkin leaves, connected me with her. I found myself thinking about her, and my dad, a lot as I watered. The sense of endless time also contributed. Not having my usual responsibilities and distractions, I could spend time watch the hummingbirds lighting on the tree over the Pool House, or study the ant trails across the concrete. I had the strange feeling that time had moved backwards, and that I was still a girl.
However, time had clearly passed. The beach my family used to go to has a concrete ship at the end of the pier. When I was a girl, you could go out on it partway. Later, you could go to the end of the pier and look down on the orange starfish clinging to the ship’s remains. After I moved away, the boat broke apart during heavy winter storms. The pier is damaged too, so now you can only stand behind a fence and look at an empty pier and the remains of the boat. Birds have taken over that area, noisy seagulls and slow pelicans.
One day it rained at Wellstone, the first rain I’d seen in months of hot summer days. I danced in it, then stood watching the way the drops hit the pool, the way the ripples intersected, far from the original drop’s location.
Yes, in my time there, I got a lot of work done on my novel. I had great dinners and conversations with Karen and Erica, about writing and about life. But the biggest benefit was reconnecting with my past, with childhood’s sense of spacious time, where past and present meet and creativity begins.
I was fortunate to have my story "Safety and Well-Being" read by actress Emily Serdahl at Stories on Stage, Davis. The experience was wonderful. Emily did a great job bringing my story to life. The Pence Gallery, where the event was held, was a great venue. In the background you can see a beautiful painting by the artist SHIMO, whose paintings and porcelain surrounded us in the space. i am so grateful to Naomi Williams and all the Stories on Stage staff.
I said a few words before the reading.
Then Emily read the story. She read the story so naturally I felt like she was channeling the character! I was blown away.
If you'd like to watch a video of Emily reading the story (or just put it on and listen), here it is:
In conjunction with my story being produced by Stories on Stage, Davis, I was interviewed by Dr. Andy Jones on Dr. Andy's Poetry and Technology Hour. KDVS, Davis. I was a little (OK, a lot) nervous, because I've never been on the radio before. Also, I hate the way my voice sounds when I hear a recording of myself talking. But Dr. Andy made it very easy. I called in and he asked me interesting questions about my writing process, my material, and so forth.
If you'd like to listen, the link is here. My part starts at around the 30 minute mark.
I live on a former almond orchard, and when the developers built the house, they left a few of the old almond trees lining the driveway. Most don't produce much, but the one nearest the house usually has a good crop. So when fall rolls around, I find myself gathering almonds most days. Some days I find only a handful. On windy days I find more.
Almonds grow with a husk around them, and when they are ripe the husk splits, making the almond easy to get to. Often the almonds just pop out of the husks when they fall, so I have to keep my eyes open for nuts in and out of the husks. Also, I try to avoid empty husks, or I bend down a lot for nothing.
The husks have a furry texture, like peach fuzz, and usually I can peel the husk from the almond shell easily.
Since I've been collecting almonds, a few things have struck me:
I have to look daily, not knowing if I'll get a lot or a few. If I wait, deer or birds will eat the almonds. Also, since my tree is over the driveway, if I don't pick up the nuts, I'll drive over them and crush them.
Sometimes I'll waste my time. I've developed the habit of stepping lightly on husks to feel if they have a nut in them before bending down, and I still get fooled. Also, I'll see a nut that looks whole, turn it over and find that some critter has eaten the nut and left just the shell.
There's always more almonds than I first see. Almonds are well-camouflaged to blend in with the ground. We have bark under part of the tree, and almonds look an awful lot like wood chips too. I usually move over the ground, then retrace my steps. I always find almonds on my trip back that I overlooked the first time. In fact, I always find more almonds even when I'm rechecking the driveway, where they don't blend in at all. I simply miss them, mistaking them for empty husks or not even seeing them.
My almond hunting technique is a metaphor for pursuing any creative endeavor: painting, knitting, cake decorating, photographing, or in my case, writing.
You have to work at it daily (or close to daily) if you want to accomplish a lot. You have to keep at it, or your ideas will vanish before you can use them.
You have to be willing to waste your time, or you wont risk anything in your work. Sometimes your brilliant idea will be not so brilliant. Sometimes I come back to yesterday's writing and realize I have to cut a whole day's work. Knitters I know sometimes have to unravel. Photographers find their shots less inspired than they'd hoped.
Finally, I like the notion that if you keep looking, you'll find more material, just as there are more almonds than first visible. Ideas for creative work are all around; you just have to look. I think a lot of writers have only a few great subjects they explore. For example, Jane Austen often wrote about the foibles and trials of the English gentry. going over that ground again and again, always finding more ideas to shed light on her main subject. According to Wikipedia, Monet painted over 250 pictures of water lilies, spending much of the last 30 years of his life on them. Going to the same part of his garden over and over, he found inspiration.
It's work to gather and prepare almonds. But when you peel off the husks, crack the shells, and eat the fresh nut inside, it's so worth it.
Recently, my husband and I got a new kitchen table. We moved almost two years ago into a house where everything was neutral--brown carpet, beige walls, brown and grey flooring, grey kitchen cabinets. I love color, so it's been hard for me to adjust, although I must admit that that neutral walls make a good backdrop for paintings. Still, I miss the pop of color.
When we went looking for a new table, I wanted something bright to liven up the place. We settled on a tile table full of greens and blues and yellows. Though we had set out to get a small rectangular table, I loved the contrast of square tiles with the round shape, so we ordered a round table.
When it was delivered and sitting in our dining nook, I thought: "That reminds me of Grandma's table."
Grandma Hillesland was a folk artist who painted wild flowers on her furniture. It probably came out of the tradition of Scandinavian rosemaling, though Grandma's style was unique. Here's a rocking chair she painted:
Perhaps her greatest achievement, though, was her kitchen. I'm sorry I don't have any pictures of it. She painted flowers on the doors of all her cabinets, with little added flower frills on the edges between cupboards. The big round table had a sunflower in the middle and a border of flowers around the edge. I remember the table itself as a grayish white, a nice neutral background for all the colored flowers. To walk into her kitchen was to enter a cheerful imaginary garden, an especially welcome sight on a gray day in Washington state.
I think the image of a colorful round table stayed with me subconsciously as I shopped, connected to childhood vacations and the special comfort of being at Grandma's house.
As a writer, I believe in the subconscious. I write stories or images and think "Where did that come from?" Often I have no idea.
I've written several blog posts about the inspirations for stories. For example, I blogged about how seeing an ineptly hidden avocado led to my story "Dear Squirrel, and reading about someone knitting stars led to my story "Casting Off." But of course, that's only the genesis of the story, what poet Richard Hugo calls the "triggering subject." It's a mystery, even to me, how I get from seeing an avocado on my porch to writing a story about a woman who reveals her plans to burn down her ex's house in messages to a squirrel. It's the subconscious, putting disparate things together without my conscious mind. Part of a writer's job is to let the subconscious mind work.
Sometimes I get a good story out my subconscious. Other times I get a colorful table.
I was very pleased to be selected again to read at the Flash Fiction Forum in San Jose. It was a delightful evening. I read an older piece, About My Mother, which I had not performed before. It originally appeared in Prick of the Spindle. I really enjoyed the pieces read by my fellow flashers!
The reading was held at Works San Jose. Last night's reading was my second time reading at the Flash Fiction Forum, and it seems I have an uncanny ability to match their art. Here I am reading last night:
Obviously I got the memo about wearing yellow. And here I am reading last time:
Notice how the red dots on my pin match the red dots on the art behind me.
I had a fabulous time. If you live in the San Jose area and like Flash Fiction, you should check out this series.
I have a pretty common first name, which has two common spellings: Ann and Anne. According to the site Nameberry, the two spellings trade popularity, with Ann more common in the past and Anne edging it out more recently. By the year 2000, Anne was more popular than Ann by almost 200 spots on the most common names list. Still, they were both in the top 500 US baby names. Because both spellings are so ubiquitous, people often use the wrong spelling for my name.
I once wrote an essay about my name, "They Call Me Lucky," in which I made fun of the Anne spelling, describing it as a "superfluous affectation, like “Ye Olde” in a shop name." Similarly, the most famous fictional Anne, Anne of Green Gables, says, "A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished."
The truth is, its not that big of a difference. When I was younger, it used to bother me when people misspelled my name, especially the childhood Christmas that a relative's handwriting of "Anne" was mistake for "Arne," my brother's name, and he got to open my gift. (One year the reverse happened and I opened a package of boys' underwear.) However, now I know it's an easy mistake, and I expect it. When I was planning my website, I purchased both annhilllesland.com and annehillesland.com, knowing that that half of the people looking me up would spell my name Anne.
Still, I do find the number of people who misspell my name curious. The other day I received an email which started "Dear Ann" but referred to me as "Anne" in the body. In many cases, the misspelling occurs in a reply to a Facebook post or email of mine, where the correct spelling was right in front of the writer. So what gives?
After thinking it over, I've decided that people misspell my name because they think they already know how to spell it. Very few people misspell my last name, which is much more complicated.
When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that good writers are observant. I often give them the homework assignment to keep a journal of things they've noticed that sparked their interest. Of course, as soon as I assign them the task, I go off and try it myself, and instantly realize how unobservant I am. I'm always amazed at the things I notice, even in familiar locations. A spider has built a web in the corner. The nightlight in the bathroom is shaped like a miniature blender:
OK, maybe I'm the only one who thinks that.
I don't usually notice these things because I think I already know what my familiar surroundings look like. It's easy to go on vacation to a foreign country and be amazed at the decorative manhole covers. But have I ever looked at the manhole covers in my own neighborhood?
Prague's cover is spectacular, of course, but even my local one is surprisingly beautiful, and nothing like the mental image I would have supplied, thinking I already knew what it looked like.
I have a boundless ability to overlook things that are right in front of me. I need to keep learning that fact, and keep fighting against that tendancy. Because in the end, I'm as likely as anyone to mistakenly think I already know how to spell a name, or describe the world.
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.
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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