THE WRITING LIFE: Stories From Higley Hill


First Snow 2016 at Haystack Mountain, Vermont

Last night a howling wind came across Higley Hill. Snow flurries quickly followed but stayed only long enough to accompany us down the hill to the Valley Market where we picked up some lemon seltzer for the vodka and a bottle of chardonnay. If it was going to snow we needed supplies.

The fire in the Defiant wood stove was roaring. A beef stew simmered on the kitchen stove and there was a ciabatta bread in the oven. The lights only flickered a couple of times. We’re still without cable but we’re on the list for fiber optic wifi with Duncan, a local company in town. Duncan owns mountaintop land and has set up satellites. The locals say the service is good, fast, reliable, and cheaper than Comcast. We’re starting with just wifi and our smart TV. The lack of the Golf Channel presents a bit of a problem. When we lived in Florida and at the inn in Connecticut, my husband couldn’t survive without it. He says he’s learned everything he can from watching other people play golf. Now he just needs to golf more, and he did, late afternoons after work, all summer long and into the fall. He’s closing in on par.

While he golfed and worked, I finished a fourth novel, living what some people call the writing life. Bloggers on the Internet use this expression a lot lately. Writers on Instagram use it as a hashtag, #thewritinglife. I heard it mentioned several times at a literary festival I attended in Brattleboro last weekend. It sounds pretentious to me and although I have occasionally used the hashtag I feel awkward saying it out loud. My writing life. All the years I worked in bookkeeping I never referred to it as my bookkeeping life.

Looking back, it seems I was preparing for this so-called writing life. During the years spent crunching numbers on a calculator I accumulated characters, dialogue, and places, unaware of the fact I was preparing to exchange one keyboard for another.

Richard Ford was once asked about the raw material in his notebooks.

”What’s more interesting is what I do with it. A sentence in my notebook will come at a place where I never imagined it. And that’s really what writing is for me, taking the raw stuff and recasting it into a logic that is its own. Taking lines which maybe have occurred in life in one context, and then creating another context for them.’’

I have been observing people and places, and recording conversations all my life. I had so many different bookkeeping clients over the years. The cast of characters were the only thing that got me through the monotony of my days. I’ve worked for construction guys, a seafood restaurant on Rye Beach NH, and a vape shop in Pompano Beach FL. There was the costume jewelry wholesaler near Filene’s basement in Boston, an art gallery on Newbury Street, a tree removal guy in Brookline whose office walls were covered with Scientology quotes, and in Boca Raton, a flashy attractive young couple who owned a marketing company. When they argued they always spoke to each other in Hebrew. It was there that I had some trouble learning Quickbooks on the Cloud. I was already proficient in Quickbooks and that was good enough to pay the bills. I sensed they were arguing about me and my incompetence with working on the Cloud. She was very impatient and clearly the one in charge. Little did she know, I was working on my third novel, Life Is All This. My thoughts were lost in another cloud and I had reached a point in my bookkeeping life where I had no desire to learn Quickbooks on the Cloud.

They eventually called the temp agency and asked them to send over someone who knew what they were doing. There was a lot of work for a hungry bookkeeper in Boca and the surrounding towns but by then I was surviving on words. Surviving spiritually, not financially, so I continued to take temp jobs and did learn a new tax preparation program while working with two women CPA’s in West Palm Beach. What I took from that job was not the new bookkeeping skill I acquired but the way the younger woman was all nerves and jumpy jitters. Each day the three of us would eat lunch together in the conference room and she would do most of the talking while slicing and dicing her salad with a knife and fork then tossing the chopped up mess. While she chattered, her silverware moved like a conductor directing an orchestra. She never finished her salad. It was more like a prop or a receptacle for her nervous energy. She’s in my notebook now, waiting to appear in a story I have yet to imagine.

I also got a blog out of the tax season I spent with the CPAs in West Palm. It sprang from a boring afternoon spent creating a travel log on an Excel spreadsheet for a truck driver who brought us a shoebox of gas receipts and slips of paper he had kept his destinations and mileage on. The blog was really more about me and my fascination with driving the open road than about him. I never met the guy, just spent an afternoon sitting at a desk imagining traveling with him across the country in his eighteen wheeler.

I’ll share a writer’s secret with you. If you have read Life Is All This, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, I hope this sparks your curiosity enough to buy the book and read it. Not all of my stories start with overheard conversations. Most are pure fiction but some are torn from the pages of real life. The opening scene in Life Is All This? The truck driver named Levon and the midnight ride from Houston to Galveston? That was my story and I gave it to Sam Ryder. It was a scene I didn’t need to write in my notebook. I’ve carried it with me for thirty years and to this day “(I can) still recall the reckless feeling of driving the big rig through the dark Texas night and hopping out of the cab in the early morning light at a truck stop behind a gas station; streetlights flickering, cows mooing in a truck nearby, hazy shades of pink, yellow, and blue enhanced by the smog on the horizon.”

There was another story at the end of The Reverse Commute, an accident that happens at a company picnic and changes the course of two of the characters lives. In an Amazon review, one of my critics thought the ending was contrived. I wish that were so. I witnessed that accident and saw someone die that day. It changed the course of my life. A year later I finished a novel that was based on my time working in a cubicle and the accident that led to the end of my full-time bookkeeping career. If you can call it a career. From where I sat, it was always just a job that paid the bills and provided health insurance but it was also a reminder that truth is often stranger and more tragic than fiction. I’d like to tell the reviewer that but authors are encouraged not to respond to negative reviews.

As a reader I don’t often think much about the author of a fictional novel. I know John Irving lived in Exeter, New Hampshire as I did for twenty-three years. I realize some of the things he writes are autobiographical but most of it is fanciful fiction.

My stories are tales of  middle class life in America. I gather the raw material from barstools, lines at grocery stores, gas stations – for some reason I’ve written several gas station blogs – and the cast of characters I’ve met in the various places I’ve worked. My resume is long and I’ve kept a lot of people’s books. I’ve also kept their stories. They reside in my notebooks waiting to be recast “into a logic of their own.”

The fourth novel is in the hands of two of my best readers. I don’t know what to do with myself now. I know I have to go through that list of literary agents I’ve compiled. Who will pluck me from the slush pile, for that is where my novel will land after I send it off through the Internet ether. I don’t have a friend or mentor in publishing to put in a good word for me. I am lacking relatives who work in the publishing business and Ivy League connections, which if you happen to look through a list of traditionally published authors that pedigree will show where the keys to the door are. It’s a rough business. You need someone to lend a helping hand. Yet writers are discovered in the slush pile every now and then, so this winter that is where you’ll find me.

I finally see myself as a writer, and in some ways I see myself living a writing life but there are still bills to pay while I wait to get ‘discovered’. In the meantime, I’ve been offered a job turning over condos during the ski season. It will put my housekeeping skills to good use. The skills I honed over the course of a year I spent as an innkeeper at a manor house in Northwest Connecticut.

That’s not to say if I don’t succeed you won’t ever see my latest book. I believe it’s an important story and publishing on my own is one of the many skills I’ve acquired over this ragtag life of work I’ve been keeping for many years now.

I am no longer just the keeper of the stories. I am now addicted to writing and sharing the stories. In the meantime I am here in Vermont, off the grid, living my so called writing life. To quote Richard Ford once again, “Writers are all doing the same thing. You are doing what Chekhov did.” And I suppose I am also doing what Ford is doing. All Amazon reviews aren’t critical. There was some unknown to me reviewer who compared me to the esteemed Mr. Ford, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, and through her I found his books and his sage advice. All of it keeps me writing against the odds.


2 thoughts on “THE WRITING LIFE: Stories From Higley Hill

  1. I wish you well with your fourth novel, Sheila. Publishing on your own and all that comes with it is indeed rough, but it is one step better than even a generation ago when self-publishing was known as “vanity press.” Today it is a respected avenue. Still, to be discovered…..
    Your work is good. It may happen yet.
    I like your list of necessary supplies!


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