In my last blog post, I wrote about how my old water aerobics hat had gotten faded without my noticing. What was once cute was now shabby. I decided I needed a new hat and went on a quest.
After looking locally and finding only blah tan hats, I decided to order one off Etsy. Because so many people list their handmade items there, I had a huge variety of patterns to choose from. Should I get one particularly appropriate to water exercise, such as the hats with whales or with rubber duckies wearing tiaras? Or should I get whatever pattern appealed and not try to be thematic? I peppered the sellers with questions: How wide was the brim? Could they make a special order?
Finally, I selected a polka-dot hat. The brim was generous without being so wide it would drag in the water. The light-colored material would be cool. It had a toggle I could fasten under my chin for windy days. The seller would swap out the standard lime green lining for a darker, more glare-resistant material. What color would I like? Pink, I decided.
As I placed the order for my custom hat, I contrasted this process to the way I got the last hat. One day I was walking through Macy’s, right by a table of clearance accessories. Everything was jumbled together: purses in odd shades of green, belts with huge buckles, tiny, zebra-print pocketbooks that would hold no more than lipstick and a credit card. And sitting in that pile of miscellany, a bucket hat with sexy cowgirls on it. I had no use for such a hat, but I wanted it. (I often find clothes and jewelry in the clearance section that I love and no one else seems to.)
So what does this have to do with writing? Well, to me, it seemed like a metaphor for the difference between how I write novels and short stories. Short stories, for me, mostly happen serendipitously. I see something like a squirrel’s poor attempt to hide an avocado, and a story is born. I’m essentially walking by the clearance table and am inspired to grab an intriguing detail. A story (especially a flash fiction) is an impulse buy.
Novels can start with a momentary impulse or small detail, too, but I’ve found that as the writing process continues, I need to become more calculating and selective. If the character does that, will I run into trouble later? What can I do now to plant the seeds for a development coming towards the end of the book? I don’t outline, but by the time I’ve written around half the novel, I do have a general idea of where I will end.
Novels cannot completely be impulse buys. At some level, you have to make sure the plot elements you get suit your overall purpose. Select them as carefully as a new hat.
I have been using the same hat for water aerobics for several years now. It’s a reversible bucket hat—black on one side, with a sexy cowgirl print on the other side. For the exercise class, the hat is perfect. It shields my face without dragging in the water. In the summer I wear the light colored print side out, and the black underside helps shade my eyes. In the winter I turn the hat around and wear the dark side out, so it absorbs the sunshine and helps keep me warm on cold January days. It is washable: if it blows off and lands in the water, no harm done. I have worn it three times a week to the pool for years.
Over time, it simply became my swim hat, something I didn’t even look at, even as it became old and faded. In fact, if I didn’t know the print was of cowgirls, I might have trouble figuring it out:
Here’s a sample (taken from a fabric site) of what the cowgirl print looked like new:
One day I looked at my hat drying over the shower rail and thought: that’s an old hat. I hadn’t noticed because my hat itself had become “old hat,” that is, it had become predictable and familiar. So familiar I didn’t even notice that it was faded beyond recognition.
Writers are always trying to avoid “old hat.” We don’t want to use clichés or tell stories that have been told the same way a thousand times. Clichés become clichés because they are perfect for the job. When you’re afraid, the hair on the back of your neck really does stand up, but now that’s such a clichéd way of describing fear that it really is old hat. It’s gone from being (like my hat) cute and fun to being something so faded you pass over it without even really seeing it.
But I think the biggest old hat danger for writers is not a way of writing, but a way of seeing. We should not pass over the ordinary without looking closely. Henry James said to writers: "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" If we let our world become old hat, then we won’t really look at it. We won’t be able to describe it in new and fresh ways.
Don’t let your everyday life become old hat—faded because you no longer pay attention.
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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