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.
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.
While writing a couple of months ago, for some reason I got the idea that one character should send a vintage post card of San Francisco to another character. I included a brief description and moved on. I'm not sure where the vintage post card idea came from. I had bought a folio of vintage post cards as a Christmas gift for one of the writers in my writer's group. Or perhaps I'd seen reproduction post cards in a recent trip to San Francisco. Wherever the vintage post card idea came from, it took root.
A few chapters later, I decided I wanted another vintage post card. So I started googling images of post cards to choose one as inspiration.
When I clicked on one image that interested me especially, I discovered that it came from a folio of vintage post cards from the 40's for sale on EBay. So I decided to bid on it.
First I had to read about EBay auctions, because I'd never bought anything from EBay before. The auction was closing in a few hours, so I wouldn't have to wait forever to find out if I'd won. I put in a bid (I was the first bidder) and waited for the hours to pass, checking back every once in a while to see if I'd been successful. At 10:20 that night, I checked in. I'd won! Mine was the only bid. The cards would be shipped to me soon.
Meanwhile, I had to keep writing, so I described the post card I'd seen online, and imagined it as a physical object--the feel of the paper, the real colors of the ink.
A few days ago, my postcard purchase arrived.
They were gorgeous! And, oddly, they felt just like I'd imagined they would.
The cards fold inside a covering that closes with a flap. These post cards had been mailed, though there was no message and no signature, just a recipient address
The postage was two cents (!), and the address contained no zip code, just the two-digit number that was the zipcode's precursor. I wondered why the sender did not sign the post card--perhaps the sender thought the recipient would know who the cards were from.
Closer examination revealed that this card folio was postmarked in 1944. The date made me wonder. Was this folio of cards sent from someone who was about to be shipped overseas for WWII, or perhaps someone on leave from the military and visiting a city all the way across the country from his home in New York? Obviously I could tell a lot of stories about these cards. But for now, I'll just use them for inspiration on my current project.
After living my whole life in the San Francisco Bay Area, I recently moved to California's Central Coast. Since place is a strong influence on what I write, I am already starting to write stories set in my new location--stories with circling turkey vultures, deer crossing the road, and abandoned almond trees.
Yet some of what I see reminds me strongly of my childhood in the East Bay. The area was more rural then. When I was a child, cabbage fields still flourished near city hall. At my new home I've seen, for the first time in years, the small gray and white checked butterflies that used to alight in the yard near my childhood home. My weedy yard is rife with the wild geraniums our rabbit used to love (we never could persuade her to eat the beet plants instead). When I walk through our weeds, the smell rising from the bruised plants takes me straight back to running through the field at my elementary school, picking the tiny scarlet pimpernel and the English daisies.
Maybe since I'm new to the area, I'm simply looking at the world more closely than I did when I was accustomed to everything. And looking closely, noticing the small things, is what good writing is all about. I need to remember to look as closely at the familiar as I'm currently looking at the unfamiliar. Maybe I'm seeing the sights of my childhood because I'm seeing more like a child who examines the world closely because it is novel for her. I need to be more of a newcomer, more of a child, in how I approach all the new, and all the familiar, that surrounds me.
I've written a couple of blog posts (here and here) recently about how setting inspires my writing. However, inspiration can come from many places. Sometimes I'm inspired by seeing something odd. For example, I have an avocado tree in my backyard. I also have a lot of squirrels, and they love to take the avocados and hide them, sometimes in places only a squirrel would think were clever. I have a vase of artificial flowers on my front porch, and one day I saw this:
I started to imagine a character who wanted to tell the squirrel that this was a bad hiding place. Soon I had a flash fiction about that person. The story was recently accepted for publication; I'll post when it comes out so you can see what noticing an odd thing turned into.
In my last post I talked about setting fiction in Argentina. However, another overseas location is on my mind today: Budapest, Hungary. I went there in 2006, and recently had a story accepted for publication that is set there. The story is slated to appear next year, meaning that the story will be published ten years from the time i actually was in the city. On that trip, I went on a lovely Danube cruise, and so was able to send my protagonist on a similar cruise. This photo I took helped remind me of what it was like when I was there.
And now that the story is being published, I am grateful for the opportunity to remember Budapest again.
Setting is important in my fiction. An interesting location often inspires me to set a story there--for example, a date farm in Indio, an untraveled alley in Venice, or the wave organ in San Francisco.
Recently, I traveled to Argentina. I visited Buenos Aires, Mendoza, and San Juan. I took notes on many intriguing locations: Recoleta Cemetery, a cattle estancia in a deluge, the empty plains at the feet of the Andes. One of the most interesting locations for me, though, was a park in San Juan on a sunny holiday afternoon, where kids rode their bicycles and a brass band played in the distance. I started imagining the people who lived there, who called their kids off when they tried dangerous climbs on war memorials, who ate helato next to a cement-lined lagoon.
Will I ever publish a story set in any of these places? Who knows? But I definitely have some ideas churning.
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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