Good art can change the way you view the world. Everyone who creates art: pictures, movies, comics, books, etc., would like to have their art affect people's world view, to create something that leaves an indelible impression.
I was thinking about that goal today because I saw a Beware of Dog sign. Many years ago, I saw a Gary Larson cartoon of a man standing in a yard behind a tree. A Beware of Doug sign hung on the fence. Ever since I saw that cartoon, when I see Beware of Dog, I think Beware of Doug. (To respect Larson's copyright, I'm not going to put the image here, though it's easy to find online.)
Gary Larson is a great artist because he looks at Beware of Dog and thinks of Beware of Doug. His skewed vision has changed the way I view the world. However, he not only had the idea of Beware of Doug, he fleshed it out with an image of an oversized man unconcealed by the tree trunk he's hiding behind, and a traveling salesman about to enter the yard. Doug's face is visible, but only his large eyes, not his mouth, so his expression is hard to read. He almost looks afraid, but maybe he's just watching, waiting to spring. The viewer's imagination writes the story from there. Does the salesman heed the warning? If not, what happens when he enters the yard and Doug attacks? How does Doug attack? What emotion drives Doug to attack? Who posted the sign? Great art also leaves you with questions, ongoing thoughts you have to decide for yourself.
Beware of Doug is what I aspire to. But all I can do is write the stories I have and hone my craft so that when I get an idea, I can try to flesh it out in a way that entices the reader to read, and hopefully to think about what happens to the characters after the story ends.
I'm not sure any artist knows when they succeed. Sometimes I know I have something, that my writing has spark. Other times I feel like I'm blowing on wet wood, trying to get my story to ignite. Last month I wrote a story too bad to send to my writer's group. I worked on it some more, and still feel it's pretty bad. Meanwhile, I wrote a different story that has a spark of something, even if I'm not sure how well I've executed on it. The new story will go to my writer's group. The old story? Maybe I'll work on it some more, or maybe I'll just let it go. But knowing if a story will change someone's world view? That's way above my pay grade.
Literary journals often post in their guidelines that they want beautifully written stories that move them, stories that change the way they see the world. I pay no attention to those lofty criteria, because if I did, I'd never send out anything. Who writes a story and thinks they've just written something beautiful, haunting, world-shaking? I just send stories in and see what happens. Sometimes the journal accepts a story. Who knows why? A story can be rejected fifty times before getting accepted and read with high praise.
So much of writing, of life, is just doing the work and seeing what happens. Opening the gate and seeing what Doug does.
Every year, I write a year in review post about my writing. It's my annual check-in. How's it going? What did I hope to accomplish? What did I accomplish? As usual, I didn't accomplish as much as I hoped, but I still had some good things happen.
First, I started my Hat Project blog. I really underestimated the time it would take to not only take pictures of the hats as I wore them, but write the little essays that go with them. I also underestimated my desire for new hats! When I started, I thought it would take a year, since I knew I had somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 hats. However, not only have I bought a few more since I started, people have given more to me, with the result that I'm going to be blogging about hats longer than I expected. However, unless I go crazy buying hats or get given a vast collection, I should be finished this year.
It's been a very interesting experience. I set out to write an autobiography in hats, and that has meant revisiting happy, funny, and painful episodes in my life. I've also worn many hats out and about, some I'd always meant to wear (my grandmother's hats, for example) and some that I never imagined wearing in public (hello, green feathered hat!). The blog has sapped some of my time and energy away from my fiction, but I have enjoyed the process (except for constantly looking at pictures of myself). And I really enjoy publishing the little essays myself, without having to submit them to journals. Instant gratification and hats! What could be more fun?
I did have some fiction published this year, including one story that was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and one that had a very long road to publication after the first journal that accepted it folded before publishing it:
I also had an essay that was very close to my heart published and read on the radio, "Tracking Every Spoonful," in The Dirty Spoon. As the essay was very close to my heart, hearing it read on the radio was a wrenching and wonderful experience, and I feel lucky that my work was chosen.
I didn't accomplish everything I set out to do this year. I revised the opening of my novel but have yet to start sending it out again. I made fewer short story and essay submissions than I usually do. However, I did write some stories, including a new project that may end up being a story chapbook or full collection. Time will tell!
Thanks for reading my work this year. I really appreciate your support!
Thank you to the folks at the Potomac Review for publishing my story "Let Your Light So Shine." I admire the journal and am very excited to appear in it!
This story has a bit of a history. A few years ago, my brother-in-law told a story about how his church was doing kindness ministries, such as handing out light bulbs. I was taken with the idea and decided to write a story about it, with all the characters and details made up, of course.
I finished the story and started sending it out. To my delight, after sending it about a dozen places, I got an acceptance, from a well-regarded journal. I excitedly told my husband and a few friends. I followed the journal on Facebook so I could see when the issue came out.
And then after a few months, via Facebook, I saw the announcement that the journal was folding. They had just published their last issue. I checked the table of contents, and my story wasn't there. Usually when a journal folds, they make an effort to publish every story they accepted. Not this journal.
So I started sending the story out again. One positive from the whole situation was that, knowing one journal had accepted it, I had a lot of confidence in the story. Still, I had to send it forty-five more places before it was accepted.
However, I've noticed before that the stories that take the longest road to publication are often the stories that I think are the strongest, and often end up in the journals I like the most. So it is with this story. I think it's one of my best, and I'm very proud and excited to have it in the Potmac Review.
I'm absolutely thrilled that The New Southern Fugitives has published my story "Aces" and nominated it for the Pushcart Prize.
A story inspired this story. (Note, there are spoilers ahead, so read the story in the journal before continuing). My husband and I belonged to a group for newcomers to the area, in which we took turns hosting get-togethers. At ours, I asked a couple of icebreaker questions so that we could get to know each other better. One was the classic writing prompt: tell about the best gift you ever got.
One man told the story of how he and his brother were given a single bicycle for Christmas one year. When asked whose bicycle it was, their parents told them to work it out for themselves. So they decided to play poker for it.
That's the basic setup I took for this story, though of course the details and the outcome (and how the narrator brother won) are all mine.
You might remember the pack of playing cards that was a writer gift last year. Every year, my writer's group gives holiday gifts referencing the recipient's work. The Bicycle playing cards referenced this story.
The day before Thanksgiving, I was walking through Trader Joe's, my coat over my arm, when I heard something clatter on the floor.
"I think it went under there." The woman behind me pointed to the tall nearby shelves.
"Maybe it was a button?" I asked, looking at my coat.
While I was looking, the woman, who was probably older than me, bent down and reached under the shelf. "Got it!" she said, getting up. And she held out a black rock to me.
"My rock!" It didn't look like much, so I explained.
Years ago, wearing my green winter coat, I went to the beach in Mendocino with my husband. As we walked, I spotted this black rock. It's not perfect, but to me it looked like a heart. I put it in my pocket. I have carried it in the pocket of my winter coat ever since. I can reach down anytime, feel the smooth rock in my hand, and be reminded of our love. Sometimes I remember to take the rock out before traveling so I don't lose it in an airplane overhead bin, but sometimes I forget. It's a miracle I've managed to keep it so long.
I would have hated to lose it in the Trader Joe's canned goods aisle.
"Thank you so much for finding it!" I told the woman, after explaining the rock to her. She could tell how happy and grateful I was.
"Happy Thanksgiving!" she answered, obviously pleased.
I was reminded again of how important kindness is. She was probably trying to finish up her Thanksgiving shopping. The store was buzzing, carts four deep at every register, large empty shelf spaces where packages of dinner rolls used to be. Yet she had taken to the time to stop and help me.
And I was also reminded of how important gratitude is. I was so sincerely grateful for her help that I could tell it made her feel good to have stepped in. Honestly, I wanted to hug her.
In writing, I try to practice both kindness and gratitude towards my characters. Kindness, by trying to understand the battles they are fighting. Some of my craziest characters are my favorites, because I know what is making them crazy. Considering their lives, narrators of "Just in Case" and "Dear Squirrel" are doing the best they can. And gratitude that the characters have come to me in fiction. I'm grateful for whatever inspiration sent them my way.
So today on Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for kindness, and gratitude, and that I can still reach into my coat pocket and touch love.
Many of my friends love Halloween more than any other holiday. What's not to like? Lots of candy, scary (or not-so-scary) movies, and costumes. Who doesn't like costumes, the chance to be a different person, or maybe not a person at all. How about a gorilla? A slice of pizza? A BART train? Yes, to all of it.
Yet this idea that you can only wear a costume on Halloween ignores the fact that we all put on a costume every day: our clothes. Sometimes it's a formal uniform, like the company polo I wore when I worked at a pizza restaurant, or the nostalgic outfit I wore when I worked at the amusement park. Sometimes it's an informal uniform. I spent my early 20s, when I was the youngest person in my department, dressing in tailored jackets and skirts. I decided I would feel less inexperienced if I looked like a professional woman.
Every day, we choose a version of ourselves to present to the world, even if the image we want to project is "someone who doesn't care about clothes." I usually don't want to project that image, but if you could see me as I write this, in a mauve t-shirt, red hooded sweatshirt, jeans, teal slippers, and stained ballcap, I would seem like that person. I would also seem color blind.
When I go shopping, I turn away from both sober navy dresses and neon orange shirts, because they're "not me." But of course, I'm still me, whatever I wear. By "not me," I mean those outfits don't project my image of myself, or of the self I want to show the world.
I started my hat blog because I had so many hats I never wore--I worried they would project an eccentric image. Yet I had bought them thinking they expressed a fantasy version of myself, one that lived the glamorous life seen in mid-century movies, or a modern me that was more confident and stylish. The first hat I ever bought was for a Halloween costume, but most of them I got because I liked to imagine myself wearing them, whether I actually wore them or not.
In the end, our Halloween costumes are an expression of our image of ourselves, just as our regular clothes are. In the picture above, part of me wanted to BE Carmen Miranda, wear an outrageous hat and gobs of jewelry. When I wore this costume to a party, someone asked me where I had gotten the "perfect" dress. I had to confess I'd gotten it from my closet--I'd worn it to a company party a few months earlier.
You'd think, as a writer, I could inhabit any character I want to, and in a way, that's true. I've written stories in the points of view of women and girls, boys and men. Also a parrot and a hive of bees. But all these characters are from my imagination, from me. Like my Halloween costumes, and my hats, they contain some essential part of me, no matter how far from my daily reality they are. Writing fiction, I get to wear a costume every day, pretend I'm someone I'm not. But somewhere deep inside each character, some tiny part of me is hiding behind the mask.
I'm very pleased to have my story "Two Sticks" published in Ellipsis Zine.
One day when I was at water aerobics, an older woman told me that her husband had been very involved in the Boy Scouts his whole life. She mentioned that when they had parties, he'd demonstrate how to start a fire without matches. I thought that was a great scene for a story, and went home to work on one, keeping the idea of a man starting a fire as a party trick, but making up everything else about the couple.
Of course, in order to write the story, I had to find out how exactly one starts a fire without matches. Fortunately for writers, this kind of research is made much easier by google and YouTube. As I got into the details of fire starting, I learned that the two sticks method, which I'd assumed was the only method, was in fact only one of many ways to start a fire. Looking up the others, I was instantly intrigued by the fire plow. I started watching videos, and after the first couple of minutes of the following video, writing about the fire plow became irresistible.
The fire plow is still two sticks, just two very special sticks of disparate sizes, so I felt justified in keeping the title I'd originally written.
By the way, "Two Sticks" wasn't the first story inspired by water aerobics conversations; an different exchange with a different woman in a different class led to the genesis and title of "The Moon in Daytime."
The year my father died, all I wrote was three essays about his death. And then they sat--I couldn't bear to revise any of them for a long time.
Finally, after years passed, I took out two of them and worked on them. The third I still can't face.
The Dirty Spoon, a radio show about food, has published one of those essays, "Tracking Every Spoonful," and aired it on their August 2 broadcast. They've also posted the audio of the professional reader in their Episode 13 podcast (my essay starts just before the 47-minute mark). The essay describes the time near my father's death when we were trying to get him to eat.
As it happened, the day it was first broadcast, I was on the road to Southern California. We stopped for sandwiches in the high desert. While waiting, I checked my email, which contained a message about the essay going live. I clicked the link to the essay text. As soon as I saw the illustration, I started to cry, right there in the Subway.
We got to my in-law's house about the time the broadcast started. I sat on the bed, listening it stream on my computer. My essay was last. This time, I was prepared for the tears. The reader read my words beautifully.
When we visit my husband's parents, we always bring food so that they don't have to cook for us. That morning, I'd woken up early to make a nectarine crisp from nectarines off our tree. I also brought some homemade black bean soup from our freezer So for dinner that night, I made a salad and heated up the soup while my husband warmed some jalapeno cheese bread.
At dinner, I watched my husband, mother-in-law, and father-in-law enjoy the food I'd made. I reheated the crisp; the scent of cinnamon and nutmeg filled the kitchen. As we ate it, a feeling of great contentment came over me. It was a blessing, on a day when I relived the struggle to feed my father, for me to feed my family.
My family missed watching the moon landing.
On that July day in 1969, we weren’t home, in front of our television set. Instead, my father had borrowed a cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains from a friend and packed the family off for the weekend. We’d loaded up our board games and Tonka trucks and Herb Albert records, including the album with his big hit “This Guy’s in Love with You,” which one brother jokingly sang as “The sky’s in love with you.” We thought we had everything we needed.
We didn’t discover until we arrived that the cabin had no television set.
Missing the moon landing shocks me especially because my father worked on the space program. The company he worked at contracted with NASA to build communications equipment. During my childhood, Dad’s lab built antennas that sent pictures from space of weather and planets, even the surface of Mars. My family always told me the Hillesland name was on the moon. I only found out later that, instead of the commemorative plaque I envisioned, my father and uncle, along with the rest of the team, had graffitied their names on a piece of equipment destined for the lunar surface. Growing up, stories about and images of space surrounded me.
But we missed those first moon landing pictures.
Mind you, my recollections might not be the most reliable, because I was four in 1969. I might be conflating visits to the cabin, or imagining details. But here’s what I remember: we sat in the cabin’s living room, listening to a static-filled radio broadcast and trying to imagine what was happening. We concentrated so hard, as if we could will the pictures from the sound. But we couldn’t.
Some writers' experiences give them great stories to tell. Authors might witness pivotal moments in history, or perform amazing feats, or endure great hardships. Those lives might not be comfortable to live, but they can make for great writing.
Those of us who have not have those kinds of lives, though, if we write nonfiction, end up telling an alternative version, where we miss the biggest bit of televised history in the 20th century. We have to work with what we’re given. Without the big moments, we have to find the charm, humor, and meaning in what we're given instead. Fortunately, many other readers live without those big moments and can relate to the more ordinary stories.
Here’s my story of the moon landing: In my memory, moving tree shadows pattern the cabin floor. I’m fascinated with the wood paneled walls—possibly the first I've seen. The cabin feels much closer to nature, much more of the earth than our house with its mown lawn and waxed linoleum floor. I can feel the weight of our listening to the broadcast, like a thick blanket thrown over the room. I don’t really understand what’s going on. In later years, I’ll watch other space missions, liftoffs moonwalks and splashdowns, but now I only know something important is happening, something I can't picture, because I've never seen it before. No one has.
On the radio, Neil Armstrong is taking one giant step for mankind. But I’m distracted. I’m watching the shadows on the floor, while inside my head I’m singing “the sky’s in love with you.” I'm with the wood paneling and trees and blue sky, down on earth while big, unseen events are happening out beyond my understanding.
A year or so ago, browsing in an antique store in the town my in-laws live in, I came across a decorative mirror. It was wildly embellished. Over-the-top, some would consider. But I liked it—it was unusual and beautiful. However, it was a bit pricey. And, perhaps not to everyone’s taste. To be honest, seeing it in the shop, I wasn’t sure it was even to my taste.
The next time I came to town, I looked for the mirror where it had been hanging on a back wall. Perhaps, seeing it again, I would decide if I wanted it.
It wasn’t there. Someone bought it, I thought. I imagined the purchaser—a man with an apartment full of beaux arts and art deco furniture. At night he’d make cocktails in a silver shaker. When he had a party, he’d play jazz standards on a baby grand piano.
However, since I visit that town several times a year, I kept an eye out for the mirror. The stock in antique stores does get moved around. Over repeated trips I’ve bought many things at this antique store: jewelry, an embellished coat, an old typewriter. I like dropping in when I visit. On my latest trip, I spent a happy hour trying on vintage hats and examining rhinestone broaches. And then, tucked in a back corner, partially hidden by an armoire, I saw it: the embellished mirror.
At least I thought it was the same one: it had the etched daisies and raised flower details I remembered. And what were the chances that there were two similar mirrors in the same antique shop?
I said goodbye to my mental picture of the natty man in the golden-brown cardigan and his silver cocktail shaker.
Looking at the mirror again, I decided I liked it for sure. More than that, I knew I wanted it because it had lived on in my mind for so long.
Some objects remain in our thoughts, even when we don’t see them. The harvest gold round pitcher my mom used to have. My grandmother’s low rocking chair with its flattened green pillow in the seat. The metal bird masks displayed in a Venetian shop window.
Details live on in our thoughts too: the half-full pool at my apartment complex after a major earthquake sloshed water out, the sludgy brown of a glacier-fed stream, the heat wafting up from the pavement in front of the old Frye’s grocery store on a summer’s day. And incidents too: slipping and falling in my first pair of high heels in front of a boy I had a crush on, catching a lift back to my hotel in the back of a Bahamian road-worker’s van, watching my grandmother grabbing blueberries with her arthritic hands.
All of these objects, details, incidents that linger—they are the secret engine that drives fiction. My stories are stuffed with the details that live on, the incidents I can’t shake. Sometimes I massage them beyond recognition, sometimes they’re nearly verbatim, sometimes they're merely the set decoration for an unrelated story. When I wrote a story that featured some old jewelry, my brother said he recognized some of the jewelry I wrote about, even though the elderly grandmother in the story resembled neither of our grandmothers.
Whatever we write becomes a mirror reflecting the things that live on in us.
And for the actual mirror? I bought it. The story I told about the jazz-playing, art deco loving man was just fiction. I may yet write it—or some other story featuring an elaborate mirror, reflecting my life.
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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