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."
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.
I have a pretty common first name, which has two common spellings: Ann and Anne. According to the site Nameberry, the two spellings trade popularity, with Ann more common in the past and Anne edging it out more recently. By the year 2000, Anne was more popular than Ann by almost 200 spots on the most common names list. Still, they were both in the top 500 US baby names. Because both spellings are so ubiquitous, people often use the wrong spelling for my name.
I once wrote an essay about my name, "They Call Me Lucky," in which I made fun of the Anne spelling, describing it as a "superfluous affectation, like “Ye Olde” in a shop name." Similarly, the most famous fictional Anne, Anne of Green Gables, says, "A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished."
The truth is, its not that big of a difference. When I was younger, it used to bother me when people misspelled my name, especially the childhood Christmas that a relative's handwriting of "Anne" was mistake for "Arne," my brother's name, and he got to open my gift. (One year the reverse happened and I opened a package of boys' underwear.) However, now I know it's an easy mistake, and I expect it. When I was planning my website, I purchased both annhilllesland.com and annehillesland.com, knowing that that half of the people looking me up would spell my name Anne.
Still, I do find the number of people who misspell my name curious. The other day I received an email which started "Dear Ann" but referred to me as "Anne" in the body. In many cases, the misspelling occurs in a reply to a Facebook post or email of mine, where the correct spelling was right in front of the writer. So what gives?
After thinking it over, I've decided that people misspell my name because they think they already know how to spell it. Very few people misspell my last name, which is much more complicated.
When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that good writers are observant. I often give them the homework assignment to keep a journal of things they've noticed that sparked their interest. Of course, as soon as I assign them the task, I go off and try it myself, and instantly realize how unobservant I am. I'm always amazed at the things I notice, even in familiar locations. A spider has built a web in the corner. The nightlight in the bathroom is shaped like a miniature blender:
OK, maybe I'm the only one who thinks that.
I don't usually notice these things because I think I already know what my familiar surroundings look like. It's easy to go on vacation to a foreign country and be amazed at the decorative manhole covers. But have I ever looked at the manhole covers in my own neighborhood?
Prague's cover is spectacular, of course, but even my local one is surprisingly beautiful, and nothing like the mental image I would have supplied, thinking I already knew what it looked like.
I have a boundless ability to overlook things that are right in front of me. I need to keep learning that fact, and keep fighting against that tendancy. Because in the end, I'm as likely as anyone to mistakenly think I already know how to spell a name, or describe the world.
When the Literary Orphans editor accepted my story "The Pines," the editor said it was "very unique." The piece was unusual for me, because my initial impulse was about form, not story or character. I thought about writing a story told both from the present and and past tense to express how difficult it can be to break free from a traumatic event. The past is still present, and you can get trapped in the past, especially if you are blaming yourself. You're caught in a loop.
I don't write a lot of pieces with experimental forms, but I have published a few before, such as "My Route" and "Dear Squirrel," which both appeared in Corium. Another example is "The Moon in Daytime," which appeared in Wilderness House Literary Review. "The Pines" is my second story to appear in Literary Orphans. The first, "Just So You Know," also had a slightly unusual form, as it was spoken directly to another character.
Recently I went up to San Francisco to look at some locations where I’m setting scenes in the novel I’m writing. I had been to most of the places before, though not recently. Others I had never visited. While I was writing the first draft, I used Google Images, Google Street View, pictures in Yelp, my own photos, and web searches to give me an idea of the locations. However, pictures can only show, at best, what a place looks like. They cannot tell what a place smells like, sounds like, feels like. Using memories and imagination, I populated the scenes with sights, smells, sounds, and temperatures to fit the scenes.
However, I was unwilling to rely only on images and imagination, so recently I went up to San Francisco on a whirlwind tour of locations for the book. Though sometimes my imagination hit a detail spot on (yes, it was very windy at Alta Plaza Park), mostly I was struck by all the things I saw that were more interesting and unique than I imagined. For example, the woman in Golden Gate Park wearing a ball cap with brown feathers on the sides, like a redneck Wagnerian helmet. The graffiti heart atop the staircase at Fort Mason. The man carrying a cymbal under his arm at the Ferry Building. The whales surfacing off Point Lobos.
The bride and groom taking wedding pictures in front of City Hall:
The pink ballet slipper tossed over the wall at the Sutro Baths overlook:
The woman sweeping the rocks in the Academy of Science’s penguin exhibit.
The homemade Batmobile parked at Land’s End.
I’m not sure which (or any) of these unexpected sights will make it into the book. But this trip reminded me of how strange and wonderful the world is—much more so than we imagine. We just have to look.
A few years after my grandmother died, my mom brought out Grandma’s jewelry box while my two sisters and I were visiting. Mom laid her mother's jewelry out on the dining room table in a river of rhinestones so my sisters and I could take turns choosing what we liked. Sometimes Mom examined a piece before putting it down, smiling slightly as she remembered a particular pin.
I love old-fashioned jewelry, especially rhinestone broaches. I chose many pieces I frequently wear, including a set of autumn-colored rhinestones. I also chose a pair of white mice pins because I remembered Grandma wearing them on her red wool coat.
After several turns choosing, my sisters and I were down to the odd bits, the little trinkets many of us keep in our jewelry boxes for one reason or another. We examined them curiously. Among them was a metal medallion painted sky blue, with a raised silver gilt accordion on it.
I found this medallion so intriguing. How had Grandma come by it? Why did she keep it? As far as I knew, she had never played the accordion. Did it symbolize music? Dancing the polka? Had she won it? Had it been a gift from someone, perhaps a student? Her mother (my great-grandmother) had been a musician. Had it been hers?
Neither of my sisters wanted the accordion medallion, so I took it. I also found, jumbled in the bottom of the jewelry box with sections of broken chain, a gold metal clamp (bail?) that I tightened onto the medallion so that I could use it as a pendant.
Mystery is all around us, even mysteries about those closest to us. I wonder about the story behind the accordion medallion, but I will never know. Since I’m a writer, maybe someday I’ll make up a story about it. For now, I wear the mystery accordion occasionally as a pendant strung on a white ribbon. Wearing it reminds me of all the stories I don’t know, and how intriguing they all are.
Today as I was about to scoop sourdough starter from its mason jar, I realized that my go-to ladle was in the dishwasher with pasta sauce on it. So I went to the silverware drawer and got the mismatched serving spoon.
I don’t know where the mismatched spoon came from. It might have come from a garage sale when I was setting up my first kitchen. It might have been my husband’s before we married. It might have been left by a guest bringing a dish to our house. It doesn't look anything like the spoons in our wedding stainless silverware. It’s just a stainless steel serving spoon that turned up somehow.
It’s quite handy having a mismatched spoon. I always take it to potlucks so if I forget to bring it home, it doesn’t matter. I also use it for any especially messy job I need a spoon for, such as scooping gluey sourdough starter. I don’t have to be careful of it.
As I was scooping my sourdough, I thought how much more interesting life is for the mismatched spoon than for the other serving spoons. Sure, the others get used when company comes over. But the mismatched spoon gets to travel to potlucks, see the world a bit. Also, the mismatched spoon is called upon for every interesting task that might not turn out perfectly. And all because I don’t have to be afraid of damaging it.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about fear. I’m afraid a lot. I’m afraid of fireworks. I’m afraid of dogs. For years I worked in an unexciting but fairly lucrative field because I was afraid to try for what I really wanted, to be a writer. I’d lived my whole life in the same area, played most things safe. But recently I’ve made some changes. I’ve reorganized my life to focus more on writing. I moved to a new place where I knew no one. I’m writing a novel, which always takes courage, since I might spend years writing with no publication to show for it.
Even if I might get banged around a bit, I’m trying new things--leaving the silverware drawer behind.
Who can go to Buenos Aires without tangoing? Not me. Last summer when I traveled there with a large group, we all went for a tango lesson and show in an old movie theater with a dazzling, light-studded marquee. Our lesson took place in an upstairs art deco practice hall with two frighteningly elegant and graceful instructors. I felt more glamorous just being in the building.
After the instructors had explained the basic steps and we had circled them, attempting to copy their moves, we were ready to try tangoing with a partner. Because I wanted to meet someone outside our group, I approached a tall man with graying curly hair. When we introduced ourselves, he told me that his name was Vladimir and that he was Cuban, currently living in Florida. We didn't have a lot of time for chit-chat because the instructors were starting the recorded music. We took our tango position, backs straight, heads proud.
I was confident. I had taken ballroom dancing in college, and the tango had been my best dance. My partner and I had even chosen it for our final exam. It had been years since I'd tangoed, but I was sure tangoing was like riding a bicycle, a rhythm and balance you never forgot.
Immediately, though, I realized that I was in trouble. It seemed like the instructor was asking us to start with the opposite foot from the one I remembered. I could only keep up if I counted out loud--counting in my head didn't do the job. Not very glamorous. Vladimir turned out to be a much better dancer than me, performing the steps with a gliding ease that eluded me.
I moved the wrong foot and collided with Vladimir's foot. "I'm sorry!" I said.
"You can do it that way too," he said.
When I failed to slide my foot across at the right time: "I'm sorry!"
"That way works too," he said.
Whenever I started to relax and think I had finally mastered the basic tango step, I inevitably placed a foot wrong. Vladimir kindly never admitted that I was making a mistake, instead insisting that I was just tangoing in my own style. He was so gracious that I felt even worse about my errors.
Yet, in a way he was right. Argentinian tango, unlike ballroom tango, is an improvisational dance. In that way there is no "wrong" tango.
Life is improvisation too. Even if you try to live a perfect life, you'll end up putting a foot wrong or twisting your ankle. And you can't dance your life to someone else's steps--eventually you'll want to add your own flourishes and twirls.
Writing is improvisation too, and sometimes I feel like I'm doing it all wrong. But workshops teach writers guidelines, not rules. Maybe you want to change point of view characters in the middle of a scene, write a surprise ending, begin or end with a character's dream. That's your own style, and no one can tell you you are wrong. Vladimir's attitude encourages me to take risks in my life and writing. If I break a "rule" I just tell myself "You can do it that way too."
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.
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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