After thinking vaguely for years that I’d like to play the ukulele, this year I actually started, signing up for Ukulele Boot Camp. By the end, I could play “Melt with You,” which only has two chords. The class played other songs, but I couldn’t manage three chords. That’s right—I couldn’t even keep up with “The Pina Colada Song.”
Even though I’m clearly not a natural, I’ve kept at it. I’ve never played a stringed instrument and haven’t played any instrument since I gave up the trombone in high school. Even though the ukulele is an easy instrument, it’s hard for me. I cannot strum a pattern and sing and change chords concurrently. At most, I can do two out of three, and even then my chord changes come with long pauses while I reset my fingers. E minor takes me so long I often skip it. I can’t play a regular E chord at all—I’ve tried a few fingerings and cannot contort my hand to the correct position.
For me, playing the ukulele is an exercise in humility. I have no cause for pride or arrogance when I play. And yet, I’m learning constantly. “Let It Be” is now my favorite song. It has four simple chords and I can play it credibly, but I also enjoy fumbling through Carole King’s “So Far Away,” which has a chord called Gbm7, which seems like the name of an obscure vitamin and has a fingering so awkward I have yet to execute it.
Church has also given me a recent dose of humility. After years as a Christmas and Easter churchgoer, I’ve started going regularly again. The last time I did any Bible study was during junior high Confirmation, which I viewed as something to endure. While in a study session recently, I asked for a definition of “justification,” a term so central to my church’s theology that, after explaining, the pastor gently suggested I might want to review basic church teachings. I am now surrounded by people who have for years sought religious enlightenment and a more just world, while I am a novice. I’m grateful and humbled.
However, approaching a task with humility gives the greatest opportunity for discovery. I am learning a lot from my fellow ukulele players and church colleagues, just as I became a better singer by joining a chorus whose members were better musicians than me. Humility is good because it opens you up to listening to others. It makes you recognize that you don’t have the answers. Humility is underrated.
Pride, humility’s opposite, is overrated, especially in our culture. I’ve squandered opportunities because I thought that I already knew what someone was trying to teach me, or that I was too advanced to need instruction. I once attended a writing lecture by a famous author (I’m too embarrassed to give you her name). Her opening remarks seemed absurdly elementary to me. Later, when a classmate discussed the lecture, I realized I didn’t remember any of the information my classmate had gleaned. Thinking I was too advanced for the lesson, I didn’t listen closely, and so missed a learning opportunity.
For a writer, pride is useless. Every time I sit down to write and think “I know how to write this story,” the story feels lifeless, if I even finish it. My best work has occurred when I felt overwhelmed and panicked because I had no idea how to accomplish what I set out to write. It’s humiliating to have been publishing stories and essays for 15 years and still be thinking “I’m not sure I can do this.” But humility means I’m open and learning, alive to the possibilities of creating something better than I’ve ever written before.
A few months ago, I lost my watch. I habitually take it off and leave it wherever I am: on my desk, on the kitchen table, on the bedside table. Sometimes I use it as a bookmark.
So, losing my watch is not uncommon. I lose it for a day or two and it turns up under some papers or on under the bed. But this time, it didn't turn up. After a week, I resigned myself and got a new watch.
I've been buying the exact same watch for decades: a Timex easy reader in black and gold, with a light-up dial so I can read it in movie theaters. Because these watches are inexpensive and available in many drugstores, I easily replaced my watch and wore it about a week before my husband found the old watch in the sofa cushions. So now I have two watches.
At first I was miffed at myself. What a waste! But soon, I found I loved having two watches. I no longer run around the house trying to find my watch--one of them is always sitting on the bedside table or desk. What a time-saver! I now have a watch close at hand when I need one.
In my writing life, I always have ideas close at hand when I need them. On my desk sits a small whiteboard where I list story and essay ideas. Sometimes I write down references to anecdotes people tell me--for example, a couple of years ago, a friend told me about finding a bag of books on her doorstep with a note in a language she didn't recognize. Clearly, someone had put the bag on the wrong doorstep. I thought that might make a good start to a story, though I haven't used it yet. Other ideas are headlines I've read in the newspaper or online. I just had a flash fiction accepted that was based on one of those headlines: "Car Fire at Car Wash." Sometimes the list includes a place, or something odd I've seen, like the ballet slipper at the Sutro Baths I talked about in my post about location visits in San Francisco.
So, if I sit down in the morning, ready to write but with no ideas, I look over at the whiteboard and find an idea on the board that appeals to me. What a time-saver! In fact, that's what I did this morning, and now I can erase "Two watches (blog)" from the whiteboard. Fortunately, I have this morning's headline to replace it with: "Couple caught on camera helping child steal giant unicorn."
As is my custom, I'm taking a few moments to look back at my year of writing. This year my main area of concentration was revising the novel I wrote last year. I also was fortunate enough to have some short pieces published, and to participate in some other writing-related events. I'm thankful for the editors that published me and for all the people in the literary community who read my work and invited me to participate in writing gatherings. I know that most of them are writers themselves, often volunteering their time to give back to the literary community.
I'm also very grateful to everyone who read my stories, essays, and blog this year. I really appreciate your support!
Some of the non-publication highlights of my writing year included:
Online Short Fiction Publications
I was also extremely pleased to have short fiction published online in the following journals:
Print Short Fiction Publications
Two print journals published my stories this year, giving me the special satisfaction of having a journal I could hold in my hands:
In addition, I had an essay published. I write less nonfiction than fiction, so I'm always particularly pleased when an essay gets picked up:
Thanks for reading, and I wish you all a very happy and prosperous 2018!
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.
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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