I am so pleased to have my flash fiction "Bats" up at Anti-Heroin Chic.
A story I heard at church inspired this piece. I attend a historic church (built in 1891) with an old-fashioned bell tower. At one point (before I attended), the church had bats in the belfry. One day Valerie, a senior lady with a British accent, described the excitement of having a bat fly down into the church during the service. It perched near a petrified teenager. Valerie picked the bat up and carried it outside.
The church has re-homed the bats, but the story lives on.
I took that story and made the teenager the rescuer, because I wanted a character who felt as out of place as the bat was.
The art at the top of this page is an assemblage made by mystery writer John Billheimer, a member of my writers group. We have a tradition of giving holiday gifts based on the writing we've done during the year. He gave me this gift in 2019. Because of my pandemic submitting slump, the story did not find a home until this year.
I'm so happy that Ghost Parachute published my story "Gingerbread."
Like "Bears," this story is another story featuring what happens after fairy tales end, this time "Hansel and Gretel."
I wrote the very first of these stories, "After Waking," many years ago. That story was about Sleeping Beauty after she woke up. She became an insomniac because she was afraid to go to sleep. One day I was thinking about that story, and "Gingerbread" came to me.
I kept writing these fairy tale stories, so hopefully you will see more of them in the future.
I am very happy that my story "Bears" has been published in New World Writing.
In my last post, I wrote about how difficult I was finding writing and submitting work during the pandemic. I felt like I was confessing a huge weakness. Writers need to have thick skins in order to make it, and I was failing.
But the act of admitting my difficulties made me feel lighter somehow. More hopeful. I felt like it was OK if didn't submit work and OK if I did. Then I told myself that I could try doing five submissions. That was an old goal I used to have: five submissions a month. At my height of submitting I often exceeded it, but that was my baseline.
I sat down at my computer a week ago and submitted to six journals. I made my goal plus a bonus.
My first rejection came a few days later. I felt sad, but not depressed. And then the next notice I saw was that New World Writing had accepted and published my story. Talk about immediate gratification!
I am not sure how much I will submit for the rest of the year, but January is a win.
This story, "Bears," is the first new story published out of a whole collection about what happens after fairy tales end. Most of them are quite a bit longer and will be harder to publish, but this is a nice start.
The dry river is running again. The Salinas used to run more often, but as we pump more groundwater, as the climate warms, a moderate rain simply soaks into the thirsty soil. Even several moderate rains. Only sustained downpours bring the water to the surface. Last year we had very little rain. I am not sure the river flowed at all.
It rained over and over this December, more than seven inches when we typically average two and a half for the month. Even that is not enough to break the drought, but it is enough to make the Salinas flow in its shallow, sandy channel.
On New Year’s Day I went to the river park to watch the water flow where windblown sand usually awaits. Traditionally, I go to the coast on or around New Years. I like to stand on the shore and look at the ocean, feeling I’m at the end of one thing and the beginning of another as the year opens. I see a distant horizon full of possibilities.
This year, though, I went to see the dry river run.
In past years I have made a New Years post detailing my writing career for the year, listing the pieces I’ve had published. A year ago, I wrote quite a different post, about the pandemic, and how for a while I couldn’t write at all. How, swimming in the sea of grief and heartbreak that was 2020, I couldn’t bear to get rejections. Eventually, though, I went back to the writing itself, finishing a draft of a new story collection by the end of the year. I had high hopes of revising and submitting that book and querying agents again for my novel. But when I made a few submissions, getting the rejections put me in a funk for days. Pre-pandemic, I was pretty good at shrugging off rejections, making over 100 submissions a year. The pandemic changed me.
In 2021, I wrote very little aside from blog posts, short pieces that don't involve probable rejection. I have always considered writing a major purpose in my life. I have set aside time for it, gotten an MFA, etc. But last year, I didn't enjoy it. I dreaded it, especially revision and submission. In 2021, I asked myself: What if I spent that time doing activities I enjoyed—reading books, playing my ukulele, going to the beach, etc.? Maybe enjoying life should be my priority. The pandemic probably fueled my emphasis on enjoyment, since for so long I hadn’t been able to do so many of the activities I relished. I wanted to have fun, and writing had stopped being fun.
Still, I can’t stop thinking like a writer. I spin stories or construct characters in my head. And I think in metaphors.
So I went to look at the water running where during this last, drought-stricken year nothing flowed. Perhaps it’s a metaphor, I think. Perhaps this year the river will run again and the desire to write will rise and the words will flow. Writing will be fun again, sparkling in the light, reflecting the world around in surprising and beautiful ways.
It started with charity. A local art patron’s estate contents were listed for online auction, with the proceeds benefitting a couple of arts groups, including the local opera company. I registered at the auction site. It’s for charity, I told myself as I bid on several lots of vintage rhinestone jewelry.
Those of you who have followed my Hat Project blog have seen me wear many vintage rhinestone pieces. They are a weakness (I have many vintage weaknesses). So I bid. And, as I was outbid, bid again.
When the cost grew beyond what I wanted to pay, I let those rhinestones go to another arts lover. But I was hooked on the online auctions.
Every time I get an auction email, I look it over for interesting items. I often have to talk myself down from bidding on items I have no purpose or room for, like this ornate epergne featuring merpeople.
With every estate sale, I marvel at how much you learn and don’t learn from the objects people keep. One estate sale had lot after lot of watches, making me wonder about the person who amassed the collection. Why did watches interest her? Were they decorative, or was she simply interested in time itself? Another sale had two or three sets of china, plus two sets of Christmas china. The family must have entertained a lot—or maybe the owner hoped they would. What about the person with the racist figurines of black cooks? Did the person display them, or keep them hidden in a box?
I’m consumed with curiosity about the people, trying to suss out their lives the way I try to deduce what people are making for dinner by examining the cart contents of my neighbors in the grocery store.
For my writing students, I created an exercise on defining characters through habitat and possessions using The Three Musketeers. Athos keeps mementoes of his aristocratic past. Porthos has a grand apartment (from its outside appearance) but no one has every been inside. Aramis has a house filled with religious texts, but with a courtyard garden that no one can see from the street. I point out how each fits its owner's character. And as a writer, I use a person’s home and possessions to define who they are, such as in my story "Pique Assiette."
I love the estate sales because they tell stories that are maddeningly (suggestively) incomplete, as well as because I like vintage stuff.
Since I can’t actually see the auction items in person, when I bid, I tend to be cautious. I have only bid on a handful of items, and lost out on all of them.
Until this week.
This estate sale was the estate of a collector. Some beautiful jewelry, both real and costume. Hummel figures, still in boxes. Fenton glassware. Pictures of thatched-roofed cottages at twilight. Plates with pictures of spaniels.
And some limited edition Lennox collector's plates with birds on them. They just appealed to me. I thought they would be fun to use to serve cookies to guests, or asparagus or rolls at a holiday dinner. So I bid, and though I was almost outbid by someone swooping in at the last minute, I got the plates.
They were in heavy frames built like tanks. The plates themselves, having spent their lives framed under glass, were nearly pristine.
So now I am the kind of person who owns collectible bird plates, along with three full sets of dishes (one inherited from my grandmother). A closet full of vintage hats. Far too many clothes, shoes, earrings, scarfs. Shelves of books. A beautiful decoupage cabinet designed to hold compact disks. A manual typewriter. A small box of Mercury dimes from the 1940s. A teapot that plays “Tea for Two” when you wind it up. A Nigerian beaded armchair. A vase shaped like a woman in an evening gown. Two ukuleles.
Who am I?
Recently, many media outlets (see, for example, Slate) have been opining about a subreddit that "awards" anti-vaxxers who die of COVID. Reddit users post screenshots from other people’s online accounts in which the people deny that COVID is a problem, fight mask mandates, declare that the vaccine is dangerous—followed by screenshots of them posting about catching COVID and going to the hospital—followed by their loved ones posting ever-worsening health updates—culminating in a death announcement and sometimes a Go Fund Me for medical/funeral expenses.
Morally, this subreddit is not attractive. Despite professed hopes that they are convincing the unvaccinated (and the posts of new vaccine cards), the subreddit carries a strong odor of I told you so. Also of ghoulishness, as some Redditers are apparently trolling Facebook for keywords to find fodder among the pages of people who had their privacy set to “everyone.” In the way of the internet, posts may even be fabrications.
Though I felt a bit ghoulish myself, when I checked it out, I found myself riveted, not by the Redditers’ often hostile comments, but by the successions of screenshots themselves.
Many of the pre-COVID posts were hateful, especially towards Fauci. So much fear and anger masquerading as fact or humor. Declarations of the importance of freedom, even if meant the freedom to harm others. False equivalencies between vaccines and guns as means of protection, between requiring vaccines and the holocaust. Rants blaming COVID on the Chinese and immigrants.
I wondered who made all those memes in the first place. I also wondered what kind of media the posters consumed to give them this worldview. Why they (and many others regardless of political identity) would enjoy posting hate. What in their own experiences brought them to this place—closed businesses, extreme loneliness, a fear of their country changing into something unlike the country they grew up in? I couldn’t know.
Once the individuals fell sick with COVID, the posts became just heartbreaking, as each poster described the terrible symptoms, and the relatives posted in agony about the suffering and dying person they loved. Often the death posts cited how big-hearted the person was, how he or she would do anything to help another person. Describing a person seemingly totally different from the person who would share mean-spirited memes.
Bryan Stephenson, the author of Just Mercy, writes: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” In the same way, each of these people are more than the memes they posted, than their stance on masks and vaccinations. I’m sure in addition to the memes they shared photos of their dogs and grandkids and spouses. But we don’t see those posts in this subreddit.
Recently I heard the advice: “How you do one thing is how you do everything.” Writers use this idea often. I once introduced a character by having him throw his lit cigarette on the ground and step on it. That character liked to sleep with lonely tourists in his city, one night stands that required little of him, before he moved on. So, how he did one thing (carelessly casting away a cigarette) was how he did everything.
And yet, it’s reductive to look at people that way. I admire writers who let their characters be messy, be a lot of things simultaneously.
I think of Raymond Carver’s chronical of redemption in “A Small, Good Thing.” (This paragraph contains spoilers, so if you haven’t read the story, go read it immediately.) In the story, a woman orders a birthday cake for her son Scotty with his name on it. On his birthday, the boy is hit by a car and hospitalized. Needless to say, the parents don’t pick up the cake. The baker starts calling the mother, harassing her anonymously, saying things like “Have you forgotten Scotty?” She calls the baker “evil.” After Scotty dies, when the baker calls, the mother figures out who the caller is, and she and her husband drive to the bakery and confront him.
When they say their son is dead, the baker apologizes. He asks forgiveness. He gives them cinnamon rolls and bread and they eat and talk. The parents listen to him describe his hard life and loneliness.
The story in itself is astonishing, but it is famous among writers for another reason: Carver published a minimalist version of the same story years previously, called “The Bath.” The earlier version of the story ends with the baker calling. The son hasn’t died and the mother thinks the call might be news of her son’s condition. She never discovers the identity of the caller, never confronts him, never gives him a chance to redeem himself.
In “The Bath,” the way the baker does one thing is the way he does everything. In “A Small, Good Thing,” the baker is not defined by the worst thing he’s done. He recognizes he has caused harm and tries to repair it. The mother realizes he is not really evil.
Though I’m not against minimalism ("The Bath" is harrowing and haunting in its own way), I prefer the largeness of heart in the later version. The ability to let the readers see characters are complex.
We need to do that more in life too. To forgive, to extend understanding. To both admit our own mistakes and refuse to reduce ourselves and others to our worst moments. In a time of so much worry and grief, we need compassion. Though I doubt fostering compassion was the original aim of the subreddit, by giving me a window into the lives of those suffering from this disease, that's exactly what it did.
After I “finished” The Hat Project, I realized I no longer knew where most of my hats were. I’d added hats during the project and acquired even more since the project “ended.” I’d moved hats around to accommodate the new arrivals. Assuming I had anywhere to go (not a given in COVID times) I wouldn’t be able to find my desired hat without taking down several boxes.
I had to get organized.
I created a table listing all the hats in The Hat Project’s Hat Gallery, sortable by color. Then I started opening boxes, inventorying the contents, and tagging each box with a sticky that listed the hats inside.
In the middle of this effort, a friend called. When I told her what I was doing, she mentioned how great it was to “KonMarie” one’s surroundings.
“I don’t know about that,” I said. “I’m a maximalist.”
Some people are taking the shutdown as an opportunity to clean out their houses. Not me. To me, now is when you want your nest extra feathery. Forget cleaning out the closet. Yesterday I bought a fifties vintage coat AND a sixties vintage suit. Plus, I find minimalist interiors depressing. All that white and beige and gray brings me down. Where's the color, where's the fun?
I’ve read many articles that advocated turning all your hangers around and only turning them to the right side again when you’ve worn a garment. At the end of the year, you discard anything unworn. I know myself. I’d be searching through those hangers for unworn clothes so that I could wear them before the year was up. I don’t want to get rid of them.
Yes, I could definitely tidy up my office (papers seem to explode there) and my bedside table, where old New Yorker magazines go to die. But my clothes? My books? A purge every few years does fine for me.
Even the short stories I write have been getting longer. I've switched from 1000-word flash fictions to thirty-page opuses.
COVID has forced austerity on all of us, and I’m sick of it. When this is over, I’m going to dress up for everything. I’m going to wear my vintage beaded yellow blouse and my gold lamé coat and a velvet evening hat to the local bistro. I’m going to travel to New Zealand and everywhere else I’ve dreamed of visiting. I’m going to throw a big party with great food and music. I’m going full maximalist on life.
Nothing creative ever happens in a tidy way. Every first draft I write (even of this blog) is a mess. I don’t want to live in a white and beige tidy world. I want to live with a lime green sofa and a colorful Mexican tile kitchen table, and a stack of books that don’t fit on the nightstand next to the bed, and ideas for abandoned stories littering my computer, and too many beautiful vases crammed into my cupboards.
Yes, I do want my hats to be organized. But right now I’m keeping all eighty of them. And I’ll always find room for another fabulous find.
Every year I write a post about how my writing year went, highlighting how many pieces I had published. But this year is different.
I had zero pieces published, for the simple reason that once the pandemic hit, I pretty much stopped submitting work to journals. I made a total of four submissions for the year, when I often make over one hundred. I was already so stressed and depressed, I decided to give myself the gift of a year without rejection.
For the first few months of the pandemic, I found it impossible to write at all. Instead, I kept a pandemic diary, thinking that someday I would set a piece of literature in 2020 and would need to remember the odd details. Here’s an excerpt from April:
Went to the grocery store for the first time yesterday. Terrible, tense feeling, especially from the employees. Almost everyone wore masks (the one woman I saw without one came in with no cart, obviously to pick up something small. Then she stood too near me.)
Aisles set for one-way traffic. I went down the wrong way once, trying to speed through to the other side of the store and avoid a crowded aisle. Of course, then someone turned into the aisle and I had to apologize. Ended up passing a woman dithering over packages of chocolate chips—I think she picked up every kind. Then she had to pass me as I tried to find dried chipotle flakes in the spice rack.
I saw two different people wearing special Cleaning Crew smocks and roaming the aisles with wheeled canisters of disinfectant.
Met a woman in the toilet paper aisle who complained that last time she came, the store only had some expensive, fancy kind. Now that she tried it, she likes it better, but now they didn’t have it.
Aside from the journal and finishing The Hat Project (which I did despite having nowhere to wear hats), I did no writing for months.
One day in my journal I put in this cartoon from the New Yorker that said what I was feeling about writing.
Referring to my writing, I wrote:
“Hopeless, hopeless, hopeless.”
So, I wasn’t in a good place for a few months. I started the discipline of going for a daily walk, posting my photos on Instagram. Getting out helped. I also started feeling better once more places opened up.
Gradually, I was able to write again, and, in fact, I finished the first draft of the story collection I had started the year before. It was freeing to just write without worrying about publication. “Maybe I should just write for myself and quit trying to get published,” I thought.
Of course, there's little point in writing if no one reads your work, so I've started to think about submitting again. Maybe in the new year.
So many other important events happened in 2020. The Black Lives Matter protests made me think again about how to be more inclusive in my writing and my reading, and how to better stand up for others and live what I believe.
The election season brought additional distractions with its intense dose of hostility and craziness, but also brought tears of joy when Kamala Harris stood up as Vice President Elect.
2020 was historic in so many ways, I'm giving myself a pass on not accomplishing everything I'd hoped a year ago. It certainly would be a good setting for a novel, but it's not a novel I feel like writing now. Maybe never.
After a quiet, slightly sad holiday separated from many loved ones, I hope we can get through this latest virus surge. Surly, with a vaccine starting to be available, life will be better in 2021. I hope a year from now I'm writing my usual post about publications and writing successes.
Four years ago, on election night, I looked for a nice bottle of wine to open while watching the returns. I reached for a bottle of local wine from a vineyard I knew had a female winemaker. I was about to open it when I noticed the wine’s name: “The Don.” Can’t drink that tonight, I thought, and chose another bottle.
I am not really superstitious. You won’t find me worrying about black cats or tossing spilled salt over my shoulder or refraining from flying on Friday the 13th. However, as a writer, I do believe in symbols. Gatsby’s sumptuous car, Ahab’s white whale, the bridge that Ruth crosses at the end of Housekeeping—all of these symbolically mean more than just a car, a whale, or a bridge. I, of course, employ symbols in my own work: the bicycle in “Aces”, the fire plow in “Two Sticks,” the blue suede jacket in “Angry Money.”
So, I couldn’t toast what I hoped would be a Clinton victory with a wine named “The Don.” It wouldn’t be right symbolically.
And, OK, maybe I felt I might jinx the election. Because I had been so worried in the election runup. Politically, I’m liberal, but to me, Donald Trump represented the triumph of all that was worst about my country. The sexism, racism, arrogance, and selfish disregard for others he showed were revolting. Beyond policy (did he have any?) his character disgusted me and raised the greatest fears—fears I would not have felt had any other Republican been in contention.
Well, we all remember how that night ended. When Florida went for Trump, I felt physically ill, and got sicker as the night went on. I cried, feeling as if someone I loved had died. Perhaps something had: a naïve belief in the judgement of my fellow Americans. That many would choose a person of such bad character to lead our country saddened me greatly.
After that, The Don wine seemed cursed. I’d see it on the rack as I dusted, or as I chose a bottle to open, and look away. The bottle had taken on symbolic meaning. I couldn’t drink it until Donald Trump was defeated.
This year, on election night, though I hoped to see a landslide Biden victory, I didn't expect it. Also, I knew tabulating results might take a long time. I didn’t sit in front of the TV, but instead read a mystery novel and had a zoom call with the Fabulous JewelTones. When I did peek at the results and saw Florida trending towards Trump again, I panicked. I was only comforted a little when some networks called Arizona for Biden.
As the count dragged on, I felt more confident day after day. Yet my anxiety persisted until all networks called the race for Biden today.
Tonight, my husband and I opened The Don wine. I thought of waiting for the inauguration, but it seemed more symbolically right to open it today, the day the results were final, declaring that Trump had lost. No landslide victory, which means that we will be battling Trumpism, if not Trump, for a long time. And the sheer number of Americans that rewarded his bluster and incompetence with their votes dismayed me, though it no longer surprised me.
It's a victory nonetheless. I cried tonight, not with despair as I did four year ago, but with relief and hope.
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.
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.