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.
I spent my mornings recently working on some wooden Adirondack chairs that after summer’s heat and winter’s rains needed some cracks filled and a new coat of paint. I washed, spread wood putty, sanded, wiped with tack cloths, then got out my paintbrush and started applying primer. I thought I was being pretty careful. When I went to put the first coat of paint over the primer, though, I found drips on the arms, back, and even the seat, where the primer had run through when I was covering the chairs’ undersides. I made a halfhearted attempt to sand off the worst drips before saying screw it and just painting over them. And though I again tried to be careful, after two coats of paint, the drips had multiplied. From far away, the chairs look great. But anyone examining them will find many flaws in my paint job. Thing is, I don’t really care. They’re good enough for me.
Many versions of the 80/20 rule exist, but the one I first heard, and took to heart, is that 20% of the effort gives you 80% of the results. For many undertakings, 80% is enough.
Take cooking. When I make soup, my vegetables are not chopped finely—especially onions, which make my eyes water so much that I hurry through the job, producing large, uneven chunks. But who cares? It’s just soup. I’m eating it. I’m not putting pictures on Instagram or Facebook. And even if I did, I wouldn’t care. An 80% job (maybe even less) is fine.
However, sometimes 80% is not good enough. In my writing, I’ll take a word out one day and put it back the next. I’ll read out loud with different inflections to test the rhythm and sound. I’ll feel a story is close, even know it could be published somewhere, but still hold it back because I’m not satisfied it’s as good as I can make it. I sand off every drip.
Sometimes, after a particularly dispiriting stretch of rejections, or of wrestling with a novel ending or a story opening, of starting work and cutting most of what I wrote the day before, I want to give up on writing. But when I think of how hard I work to get that extra 20% I know I have to keep at it. Because anything I take such pains with is important to me. Show me where you spend your time, and I’ll show you what you value.
Postcard Poems and Prose has published my story "Abandoned Bees" in the form of a beautiful postcard. Such a fun way to present a flash fiction!
I wrote in my blog post "Two Watches" about my little whiteboard I use to keep a list of story germs (I can't really call them ideas) to use when I need inspiration. In that post I wrote about putting headlines from the local paper on the board to use for future stories. The story published today was inspired by a headline about abandoned bees. What a great idea for a story, I thought. Did the beekeeper die, or simply lose interest? What happens when a beekeeper abandons a hive?
The newspaper story, however, was not about an abandoned hive. In fact, the headline was misleading, since it was about a bee colony that was found in an old junked water heater. A beekeeper transported the bees to her property. So it was simply a wild colony, not the product of a feckless beekeeper. The only thing abandoned was the water heater.
I decided I would write the story I wished it had been, about domesticated bees left without a beekeeper, becoming abandoned in both senses of the word.
Recently, I was fortunate to have Play on Words San Jose present one of my stories, Your Superpower," in their reading series. Play on Words pairs actors with flash fiction: the actors read the stories on stage. The actress Ivette Deltoro read my story, imbuing it with loads of energy.
I had a great time! The night showcased the works of top-notch writers. I loved finding new voices to enjoy. I met up with some friends and met in real life some folks I had only known virtually.
It's always interesting to hear someone else read your work; their interpretation is not always what you expect, and the result is fascinating. I hope they'll post the video; if so, I'll post it here when it's available.
My story “It’ll Do Motel,” has just been published by The Harpoon Review. I often write stories inspired by real places I've visited, such as “I Used To,” inspired by a shell shop in Morro Bay, and “Secret San Francisco,” inspired by the San Francisco wave organ. “It’ll Do Motel,” though, is about a real place that I imagined.
At church coffee hour a while back, a man told me a story about traveling across country years ago and stopping at a motel called the It’ll Do Motel. The name inspired me to write a story set in my imaginary version of that hotel, and because it’s imaginary, it’s fitting, perhaps, that the story veers away from strict realism at the end.
By the way, I googled the hotel name and found more than one hotel called that, but the one he stayed at might not even still exist. In any case, any similarities between those hotels and my imaginary one are strictly coincidence.
Recently, I noticed that the tip of my left index finger wasn’t as sensitive as usual. At first, I wondered if I had burned it on the oven (I manage to burn myself whenever I bake). It took a few days for me to realize that I was developing a callus from playing the ukulele.
I’ve been playing the ukulele a lot. For those who read my earlier post on the ukulele, you’ll be glad to know I can now play songs with more than four chords. For about six weeks, I decided to subtract one occupation and add another—I gave up playing games on my phone and pledged to play the ukulele every day.
Shockingly, I only got a smart phone last fall. After I’d had it a couple of months, I found a solitaire app and also downloaded the Candy Crush game that I’d seen my friends playing. Soon, though, I found myself playing these games often. Candy Crush especially mesmerized me with all its bright colors and movement. If my phone was handy (say, on my bedside table) I’d find myself thinking “just one game” and playing for half an hour or more. I was surprised, after I quit, how often I craved a quick game.
Physically, my arms hurt from holding the phone out in front of me and tapping. But I discovered that the mental effects were worse. Because Candy Crush suggests moves, I could sit there tapping mindlessly, watching candies explode and getting rewards for playing often. I’d stop interacting with the world around me and only see the phone. Meanwhile, I wasn’t learning facts or experiencing emotion and empathy, as I would be watching a movie or reading. Even working a crossword would have kept my mind more engaged.
By playing those games, I was developing calluses of the mind—deadening sensation and my interaction with the world. Instead of people-watching while I waited at the DMV, I watched the bright lights on my phone. But that meant that I wasn’t observing the world around me. Henry James said to writers: "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" I wasn’t being one of those people. Maybe I would have noticed some DMV detail that would have sparked my imagination, the way seeing an out of service bus flashing the word Sorry became the start of my story “My Route.”
Playing the ukulele, on the other hand, has made my mind work in ways it hasn’t had to work previously. It’s teaching my fingers muscle memory for chords. It’s given me the opportunity to meet other players at my local ukulele group. The ukulele is stretching me to develop in new ways.
Now, mindlessness has its uses. Sometimes it’s a relief to sink into an activity that can distract me from nervousness or worry. Will I go back to playing the games? Maybe. But I hope I spend more time on more engaging activities that feed the heart and soul, instead of activities that act as a barrier between me and the world.
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.
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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