I don’t like singing Bach. I’m in the minority, I know, but he seems to have only two modes: fugues with endless runs, or chorales. This year, my chorus sang Bach’s Christmas Oratorio Parts 5 and 6, and I grumbled about it. However, one fugue I truly did enjoy—it contains a dramatic moment on the line (English translation, which we sang): “Let not our faith and courage fail us.”
Though the lyric is about trusting God ("Lord, when our haughty foes assail us/ let not our faith and courage fail us/ but with thy might and help be near") I find myself thinking about faith and courage in many contexts. To me, this lyric reminds me that we need to have the courage to do the work at hand and have faith that we will eventually see a good outcome.
In activism, we need to have faith and courage to keep fighting for the environment, for healthcare, and for justice and equality for all. Setbacks occur, but that doesn’t mean we should give up.
We need to have faith and courage in our personal relationships, to speak what we feel, making ourselves vulnerable to others so that we can be closer.
In writing, I remind myself I need to have faith in my writing abilities and have the courage to keep submitting my work, even in the face of rejection. The voice in my head that says I’m not a good enough writer is a foe belittling my efforts. I need to keep faith in myself.
I’ve been having trouble with that voice in my head lately. My faith in my abilities has been wavering, and my courage to keep submitting (especially the novel) has faltered. I haven’t submitted my novel to very many agents yet, but most agents don’t even respond with a no, which is disheartening. I haven’t been writing much either.
However, recently I had a great tonic for my malaise: my annual writers’ group Christmas party. For many years we have had the tradition of getting each other gifts based on our writing. This year, in addition to receiving some interesting books which I’m looking forward to reading (including one from Mark Coggins), my writer friends gave me some gifts representing work I have written this year, reminding me that I have been producing new work.
Referencing my story “Aces” which involves a poker game with high stakes for its participants, John Billheimer gave me a deck of marked cards. The marks are very subtle. If you play poker with me, you might want to bring your own deck 😊:
Referencing my story “Roadside Shrines,” set at a highway shrine in Argentina where people leave offerings of bottle water, Anne Cheilek gave me these amazing earrings:
Referencing my story “Stealing the Unicorn,” Sheila Scobba Banning gave me a giant inflatable unicorn and portable unicorn in purse:
None of these stories are published yet, though I’ve started submitting a couple of them. Even though I haven’t had the most productive year, my friends reminded me that I haven’t totally lost faith and courage.
Much is out of our hands. I can’t control whether my writing gets published and finds and audience. All I can do is keep working with as much faith and courage as I can muster. And be grateful that I have good companions in the struggle.
Jack Kerouak’s scroll manuscript for On the Road—or at least the first 40 feet of it--is on display a library near where I live. Kerouac typed fast and hated stopping to change paper, so he taped together a roll of paper 120 feet long and in three weeks typed the first draft of On the Road. I saw the scroll before, years ago, in San Francisco, and what impressed me then was how long it was. The narrow case seemed to go on forever.
This time when I saw it, I was prepared for the long narrow case, so I took a closer look at the manuscript itself. It was yellowed and tattered and typed single space. If you want to see an image of the scroll’s opening, NPR has a nice one here: https://www.npr.org/programs/atc/features/2005/feb/kerouac/scroll.html
Near the start of the scroll, the curators propped open the finished book to the novel’s beginning, making comparisons easy. Leaning over to read the scroll, I got my first jolt. The draft opening mentions “Neal” not the published version’s “Dean.” I don’t typically write autobiographical fiction (though of course all fiction has some autobiography in it), so I had assumed that Kerouac had meant from the beginning to fictionalize his journey. But here he was, straight up using Neal Cassidy’s real name.
Let me just say now that I have never been in love with On the Road. I think it’s messy and half-thought-out in many places, maybe because Kerouac included too much unshaped real life. I read the book in college (I still have my paperback copy, almost as yellowed as the scroll, labeled “25th Anniversary Edition”). In that class, another student described how he’d read the book when he was 17, and that it had inspired him to travel, and was in fact one reason he was studying at Berkeley—he’d grown up in the East and wanted to go somewhere new. I, however, did not find the book so inspiring. Maybe at 20 I was already too old for it. The book seemed naïve. I remember thinking: “They go to Mexico, and smoke a big joint and go to a brothel? That’s it? That’s the ultimate vision of freedom on the road?” Also, the dismissiveness towards women in the book turned me off. Kerouac seemed mostly incapable of imagining that women had inner lives—they existed only to serve or thwart the men’s needs.
And yet, the book has its lyrical passages, its unusual and well-chosen adjectives and verbs, it’s jazzy rhythm. The book contains a lot of dreck, but it also contains moments of startling beauty.
So, when I look at the scroll, I see not a relic of a perfect book, but a testament to Kerouac’s sheer determination to write, to put his vision into words. He found a way to get his draft out, and that’s a huge task for any writer. Then he edited, removing words, removing paragraphs, rewriting. The scroll is not a symbol of unconstrained creativity, but of writing process working.
It took me many tries to get beyond the first fifty pages of a book. When described my problem to one instructor in my MFA program, he suggested writing on smaller paper, stationery sized. He found it gave him less pressure—it didn’t seem like so much empty space to fill up. I was horrified. I hate writing on small paper because the size feel like it's hemming in my thoughts. We all have to discover our own way to get moving, to get the book out of our heads. The scroll is Kerouac’s triumph over the blank page, an inspiring achievement.
Bonus: I love this clip from the Steve Allen show where Kerouac reads from On the Road while Steve plays jazz piano. Allen interviews Kerouac first—the reading starts about halfway in. For me, this kind of prose is the best part of On the Road: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LLpNKo09Xk
Typehouse Literary Magazine has published my story "Meet Your Kid for Lunch" in their latest issue. You can order a print copy or read the pdf version (my story is on page 11).
Sometimes the origin of a story is mysterious. But this one is not. Like my story "Psychic Cleaners," this story was inspired by a sign. Driving home from working out one day, I saw the sign at the middle school displaying "meet your kid for lunch." Well, I thought. that would be quite a trick, as I don't have any kids. Then I thought. what if someone COULD walk into that middle school and meet the kid they never had? And so I wrote the story.
In my early 20s I had a vision of myself: wearing a suit, living in a tasteful apartment. Finally a grownup. I drove a four-door sedan. I owned a lot of pencil skirts and low-heeled pumps. I bought neutral-colored furniture. To my mind, that is how serious grown-up people acted.
In my post-college apartments, my furniture included:
Sophisticated, I thought. Basic pieces I would never tire of and whose colors would never date.
However, I never really loved most of it. I like bright colors. Neutrals bore or irritate me. This furniture wasn’t me—it was what I thought I should like.
When I got married, I ditched half of my furniture, favoring my husband’s bolder, better-made pieces. We chose more furniture together. But a few of my original pieces are still hanging around, 20+ years later. Like the coffee table, end tables and wine rack. And the chairs from the dining set (the table is long gone).
When we moved recently, the new house was done up entirely in beige, gray, and brown. To counteract that, we bought a colorful Mexican tile table. Wanting bright chairs to match, I ordered some with brown seats and, after watching a few Youtube videos, I recovered the seats in yellow-orange. Turns out, it was pretty easy. I then looked around and saw that we had TEN MORE chairs I could recover. I could change them into anything I wanted.
I’ve learned that it’s better to get something I love instead of something I think is tasteful. I know now I’m likely to keep loving it—maybe that’s the confidence of no longer being 23. Or maybe it's the confidence of years of writing, knowing that good work is bold, not timid.
For the next chair coverings, I wanted something bright and fun to go in my beige office and bedroom. Something even a little wild. So now I have chairs with parrots on them. Who cares if they aren’t what a serious grown up should have? It turns out that I never really became one.
Before and after. Which would you rather have?
As I blogged recently, I took up the ukulele several months ago, and I love it. Playing the ukulele forces me to be in the moment, thinking of nothing but the music. I strum and sing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and my concerns are quieted by twin forces of concentration and nostalgia for a childhood time when my biggest worry was running into Bigfoot while camping.
However, I think the most pleasurable part of playing the ukulele is that I don’t expect myself to be good. Which is a lucky, because I’m not. I’ve made progress since I last blogged about the ukulele. I can credibly play many songs containing a variety of chords (though E minor is still problematic, to be honest). With my ukulele group, I’ve played at the farmer’s market, the area ukulele fest, and a church group luncheon. I happily strum all the chords I’m capable of, letting the better players carry me. I put zero pressure on myself to excel.
In so many aspects of my life, I have high expectations for myself. I expect to be good at my job. I expect to write well and am frustrated when I fall short. I also expect to master the music for the singing groups I’m in and am mortified if I sing a wrong note. Like most of us, I pressure myself to excel.
With the ukulele, it’s a relief to expect so little. I’ll fat finger the strings. I’ll play an A chord instead of an F. Who cares? I’m having fun.
Which makes me wonder: how much happier would my life be if I could have lower expectations of myself? If I could live just to have fun? What if life were like playing the ukulele? But I can’t imagine it. Just as I can't imagine it when I try to imagine myself not writing, not going through the wringer of writing, submitting, and handling rejection. I am the way I am.
And if I could stop having high expectations, would I want to be that person? I know that working towards a high level of achievement is its own, different kind of happiness. It’s the reward of discipline and concentration, of sustained effort and dwelling on your mistakes so that you can correct them. In the end, don’t we all want to do well? To take pride that we have accomplished our tasks as well as we possibly could?
A change is coming to my ukulele expectations. I’ve committed to play at an upcoming performance of my singing trio (VERY easy songs). I’ve hesitantly agreed to play with other strummers when my church has a service at the beach next month (song difficulty unknown). I’ll need to practice. I’ll expect myself to be good. Still, I’ll try not to get too serious about the uke. To never expect more of yourself is to never grow up, but to always have high expectations is to forget the joy of childhood.
Whenever I go to AWP, the huge annual writing conference, I come home with a stack of books and journals. When I read them, sometimes I think "What a cool journal! I'd like to get a story published there." Whiskey Island was one of those journals, so I was very pleased when they accepted my story "If I Feed It Quarters."
This story was another story inspired by a headline in the local newspaper, as I detailed in my blog post about my story "Abandoned Bees." The headline that inspired "If I Feed It Quarters" was "Car Fire at Car Wash." Hmm, I thought. How would that happen? Why? When I clicked through, I found the story less interesting than I'd imagined: the car was simply parked at the side of the car wash, and not in one of the bays. But I decided to write the story I first started imagining when I saw the headline: In the self-wash car wash stall, a fire burning in the night.
My mother has wild blackberries along her rural driveway. They grow in tangles, threading their way through other plants, seeking sun under the fir spires. While visiting, I ate a blackberry pie my mom baked, which was incredible—the berries, though tart, had a heady perfume and a concentrated blackberry flavor.
I decided to pick some berries so Mom could freeze them and make a pie for a future visitor. One morning I borrowed boots and a long-sleeved work shirt from my mother and headed out, carrying her "berry bucket," a souvenir from an Olympia Brewing tour our family took decades ago. I told her not to expect too much. The berries are tiny--the biggest no larger than my pinky fingertip. I told her to expect about two tablespoons.
I was pessimistic, not only because of the berries’ small size, but also because I hadn’t seen many ripe ones on the driveway earlier. “Look for the red ones,” Mom said. “Lift some leaves and you’ll find some ripe ones.”
When I got to her favorite berry patch, at first I saw only a few berries. I hunkered down to pick them and as I lifted the leaves away more ripe berries appeared, their deep purple hidden by leaf shadows. I picked, stooped or hunched, stepping into uneven ground with booted feet, working my way down the gravel driveway.
After a half hour of picking, I had picked over a cup of berries.
Lately I’ve been down about my writing. I’ve started sending my novel out to a few agents. So far, no one has leaped to represent me. I know intellectually that it’s a numbers game. I’ve only sent it to a handful of agents, while my friends tell stories of querying 50 or 100 agents before signing. I need to keep trying—only by sustained work will I see results. If I just work at it a little at a time, eventually my queries will add up. I can’t control the outcome, but I can control my effort, and I need to keep going. Keep picking, even if the berries aren’t easy to spot, even if the blackberry thorns prick and the mosquitoes bite.
When I returned to the house, I froze the berries after culling out the grass seeds. My mother will pick more berries, and eventually bake another pie when she has gathered enough. Wild blackberries are work, she says, but they taste so much better than the domesticated ones.
In April, I had the good fortune to have Play on Words San Jose present my story "Your Superpower." The actress Ivette Deltoro read it with energy and charm. When I originally blogged about the experience, the video was unavailable, but PoW recently posted a recording.
I've embedded the video here, but you should check out their website for more of the fabulous stories read that night.
I am thrilled that my story "Lost Hills" won the Prime Number Magazine Flash Fiction contest for April.
It's another of my stories inspired by places, such as “I Used To,” (set at a shell shop in Morro Bay), and “Secret San Francisco,” (set at the San Francisco wave organ).
As part of the publication, they asked me to talk about how I came to write it, and I contributed the following:
Last year, my husband and I were traveling from an event in the North Coast of California down to see his parents in Southern California for Thanksgiving, driving almost the length of the state. We decided to stop partway, in Lost Hills. The drive to the town was nightmarish: we took a scenic route that wasn’t very scenic and added more time than we expected, we hit traffic, and I was getting over a cold. We arrived late and exhausted. We checked into the highest-rated hotel in Lost Hills, a Motel 6, and with only fast food to choose from, ate at Taco Bell. By bedtime, my husband wasn’t feeling well, and in the morning he woke up sick, having caught my cold. Because he was miserable, instead of continuing, we drove home, where I cobbled together a lonely and untraditional Thanksgiving dinner. I’m often inspired to write by setting. I’m sure my experience colored my perceptions of Lost Hills, but in my memory, the town reeked of diesel, disappointment, and desperation. I wrote a story that fit that mood.
I don't have any pictures of Lost Hills to add to this listing, so instead I'll post a picture of the Thanksgiving dinner we had instead: black bean and sweet potato casserole, kale, cranberry corn muffins.
My church periodically provides meals at the local homeless shelter, and recently I volunteered to help. The coordinator sent the cooks a casserole recipe which had condensed cream of mushroom soup, egg noodles, diced chicken, frozen peas, and a topping of crushed Ritz Crackers. “How retro!” I said. I don’t usually cook this way. I’m more likely to make a soup from dried beans and fresh vegetables. This casserole didn’t even use chopped onions and garlic, instead substituting onion and garlic powder.
Of course, I realized why the leader chose this recipe. It’s easy, so that someone with rudimentary cooking skills or limited time can make it. It’s not spicy, so the children at the shelter will eat it (and yes, children live at this shelter, where there’s play equipment and transportation to local schools). But I balked a little at cooking something for the homeless that I wouldn’t cook for myself.
As I boiled egg noodles and opened soup cans, though, the recipe started looking familiar. It was like a tuna noodle casserole with chicken instead of tuna. When I was growing up, I ate a lot of tuna casserole. My parents had six children, so every night my mother had to cook for eight people. Eight people! When I make a pot of soup, I freeze three quarters of it, providing multiple easy meals for the future.
My mother prepared a mind-boggling amount of food; she and Dad bought two carts full at the grocery store every week; plus, many days she walked to the store to supplement the weekly shopping. If I had to cook that much, I’d make anything that didn’t take all day and that my kids would eat.
After assembling the casserole, I swiped a fingerful of sauce from the mixing bowl. Pretty tasty. And as it baked the familiar smell permeated the house—a comfort smell.
A smell of home.
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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