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.
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."
As is my custom, I'm taking a few moments to look back at my year of writing. This year my main area of concentration was revising the novel I wrote last year. I also was fortunate enough to have some short pieces published, and to participate in some other writing-related events. I'm thankful for the editors that published me and for all the people in the literary community who read my work and invited me to participate in writing gatherings. I know that most of them are writers themselves, often volunteering their time to give back to the literary community.
I'm also very grateful to everyone who read my stories, essays, and blog this year. I really appreciate your support!
Some of the non-publication highlights of my writing year included:
Online Short Fiction Publications
I was also extremely pleased to have short fiction published online in the following journals:
Print Short Fiction Publications
Two print journals published my stories this year, giving me the special satisfaction of having a journal I could hold in my hands:
In addition, I had an essay published. I write less nonfiction than fiction, so I'm always particularly pleased when an essay gets picked up:
Thanks for reading, and I wish you all a very happy and prosperous 2018!
I'm so happy that Gravel published my short essay "What's He Doing in My World." The year my father died, I wrote a handful of essays about him and nothing else. Under ordinary circumstances I often wait quite a while before editing or sometimes even completing a piece. However, the essays I wrote after my father's death sat for longer than usual before I could bring myself to complete them. Some of them I still haven't edited, and it's been three years since his death.
I can't remember what inspired me to write about my Dad's music preferences. I was just thinking of him one night, and this essay came out.
I'm always on the lookout for great settings. Sometimes I go to a location and instantly realize I want to set a story there. A visit to the San Francisco wave organ became "Secret San Francisco." Other times, my fiction is inspired by an object, such as a hidden avocado in "Dear Squirrel."
My new story, "I Used To," published in Gravel, was a combination of the two. I instantly liked the retro Shell Shop I visited in Morro Bay. What a marvelous location! And they had such interesting little knickknacks made from shells. I was captivated especially by the ships made from shells. I knew I also wanted to include one in the story, so I bought one.
I set my characters loose in the shop, looking at the shells and tchotchkes, and "I Used To" came out.
This fall I went on my first-ever writing residency. I didn’t know what to expect. I packed up my laptop and filled my backpack with books that might have some bearing on the novel I was revising. I took Highway 101 north, and around Salinas I turned toward the coast until I reached Highway 1.
I was heading towards Soquel, which is east of the beach town Capitola. As I drove up Highway 1, I felt like I was moving into my past. I lived in the Bay Area my whole life until about two years ago, and the smell of the air, the sight of the exit signs--to the town where I used to stay in a friend’s beach house, to the Sunset and Seacliff beaches where I used to go as a kid—all brought memories.
The Wellstone Center is up a steep, crooked road with a redwood grove behind it. The smell of the air took me back to childhood camping trips. It’s a smell of heat hitting trees, of the sagey wild bushes, of the nearby ocean sending salt air up. September is one of the most beautiful months on the coast; summer is often foggy but fall tends to be clear. The Alaska ocean current is warmest in the fall, though the surfers still wear wetsuits.
The Wellstone Center’s main house is a whimsical, half-hippie, half Victorian affair, wood-shake sided and set with stones. Sarah Ringler and Steve Kettmann are the proprietors. I was there with two amazing writers, Karen Smyte and Erica Buist. On open mic night, their work blew me away.
I stayed in the Pool House. It was small for two people, but fortunately Karen, who shared it with me, was a great roommate.
I worked at the Pool House’s kitchen table, looking out at the water. It was an amazing luxury to be able to spend all my time on my writing. I had some comments from my novel's beta readers, and I was able to mull them over at my leisure. I read chapters out loud as I revised; there was no one to hear me (Karen was working in a different cabin). I gave myself permission to avoid all social media for the time I was there. I told myself not to worry about the latest political outrage, and the silence was lovely. I didn’t realize how much the continual noise of social media expanded into my life until I stopped it.
At Wellstone, the emerging writers all have jobs around the place. I was assigned watering the garden. My mother has always been an organic gardener, so watering the garden, picking zucchini, smelling the acrid tomato plants, listening to the splatter of water spray on giant pumpkin leaves, connected me with her. I found myself thinking about her, and my dad, a lot as I watered. The sense of endless time also contributed. Not having my usual responsibilities and distractions, I could spend time watch the hummingbirds lighting on the tree over the Pool House, or study the ant trails across the concrete. I had the strange feeling that time had moved backwards, and that I was still a girl.
However, time had clearly passed. The beach my family used to go to has a concrete ship at the end of the pier. When I was a girl, you could go out on it partway. Later, you could go to the end of the pier and look down on the orange starfish clinging to the ship’s remains. After I moved away, the boat broke apart during heavy winter storms. The pier is damaged too, so now you can only stand behind a fence and look at an empty pier and the remains of the boat. Birds have taken over that area, noisy seagulls and slow pelicans.
One day it rained at Wellstone, the first rain I’d seen in months of hot summer days. I danced in it, then stood watching the way the drops hit the pool, the way the ripples intersected, far from the original drop’s location.
Yes, in my time there, I got a lot of work done on my novel. I had great dinners and conversations with Karen and Erica, about writing and about life. But the biggest benefit was reconnecting with my past, with childhood’s sense of spacious time, where past and present meet and creativity begins.
I was fortunate to have my story "Safety and Well-Being" read by actress Emily Serdahl at Stories on Stage, Davis. The experience was wonderful. Emily did a great job bringing my story to life. The Pence Gallery, where the event was held, was a great venue. In the background you can see a beautiful painting by the artist SHIMO, whose paintings and porcelain surrounded us in the space. i am so grateful to Naomi Williams and all the Stories on Stage staff.
I said a few words before the reading.
Then Emily read the story. She read the story so naturally I felt like she was channeling the character! I was blown away.
If you'd like to watch a video of Emily reading the story (or just put it on and listen), here it is:
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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