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.
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.
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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