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.
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.
Ann Hillesland writes fiction and essays. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Bayou, The Laurel Review, and Sou’wester.
© Ann Hillesland 2015-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ann Hillesland with specific direction to the original content.