I always thought that as I grew older, I’d grow my hair down to my waist. I always wanted to be one of those old women in a long peasant dress who wears her hair braided down her back and stands at her front picket fence handing out home-baked chocolate chip cookies to the kids passing by on their way home from school. I’m not sure where, or why, I developed this fantasy image of how I would age. But I’ve had it for as long as I can remember.
And it had to be stick straight, my hair. I’m part of the Woodstock Generation, after all, an aging hippie. We were supposed to have long, straight hair.
Over the years, that has been a battle for me. My hair tends to wave. Sometimes, curl. Oftentimes, frizz, especially in humid weather. In high school, I actually would beg my mom to call me in sick on hot, humid days, because the school had no air conditioning and I knew I’d be a frizzy mess by the end of first period. Nothing could have been worse as a high schooler in the early 1970s.
I went through hell, getting my hair straight back then. I’d roll it up every night on hair rollers the size of soup cans. After brushing it out in the morning, I’d apply so much hairspray that if I turned upside down, my hair wouldn’t. If I did this on a hot, humid day, my hair might make it to second period.
I continued to fight my hair throughout my twenties. And thirties, until the time I was struck by lightning. The doctors had to shave a portion of my scalp to put in a tube through which to drain fluid building up on my brain. For the next few years, I simply kept my hair cut short, because I was too sick to deal with it. Then, when Miracle Baby Robin was born the next year, I was both sick and the mother of an infant. I cut it even shorter.
By the time I’d reached my forties, I was a little less obsessive about my hair. I’d blow dry it and that was about it. If it waved or frizzed, I pulled it back in a ponytail. Or stuck it under a hat or bandana.
Now, I’m in my mid-fifties. I tried, I really tried, to grow it out waist length. I tried to braid it. But I’m all thumbs when it comes to doing a braid because of the neuropathy I have in my hands. And as my hair grew longer, it grew thinner and more prone to breakage. My hair also refuses to turn grey. I don’t know why; both my sisters had greying hair by the time they were my age. So did my mother. I think the lightning did something to my hair follicles, because the grey refuses to come in.
I realize this is not something I should complain about. Many women—I dare say, most women, and a lot of men—my age spend a lot of money every year coloring their hair. One source I found says $330 a year, but I know of salons who charge more than $100 to color long hair. Do that once a month, and that’s $1200 a year you’re spending. Plus tips.
But I welcome grey. I feel I’ve earned it, what with all I’ve been through over my adult lifetime.
As for the long-haired hippie grandma handing out cookies I’ve always dreamed of being—she’s gone, out. Oh, my son and daughter-in-law are talking about producing a grandbaby for me in the next year or so, but with that little one, I’ll mostly be a Skype Grammie, because they live in Chicago and I live in LA. (Even though the kid’s maternal grandmother will probably see the kid at least every week, I’ll still be the cool Grammie, because I live only 20 minutes from Disneyland.) But having grandchildren who can stop by for cookies? Not going to happen anytime soon with the kids—both biological and step—who live here in LA.
So a few days ago, I cut it all off (the hair, not the kids). I went to see Grace, my previously once-every-year-or-so stylist, and said “Do it.”
Thirty minutes later, I walked out of SuperCuts with a capful of curls. Short curls, all over my head. And they didn’t disappear after a good night’s sleep.
And I’ve made a momentous decision: I’m throwing away the blow dryer and flat iron. I’ve fought my curly hair for more than 40 years. It’s time I give it—and me—a break.
So what’s all this jabber about hair got to do with my writing stories?
I get ideas for stories all the time. I write them down in a little notebook I keep. But I often don’t know what kind of story a glimmer of an idea will turn out to be. That’s why I never tell myself, “I’m going to sit down and write an 80,000-word story from this idea,” or “I’m going to write a 2,000-word short story from that idea.”
The fact is, sometimes an idea is only worth 2,000 words. That doesn’t make it any less valuable an idea. It just means it’s not novel worthy. It’s short story worthy.
I’ve read books by authors, and had writing students (I’m a writing coach), who tried way too hard to stretch an idea out beyond the natural length their story should be—kind of like I tried to grow my hair out beyond the natural length it wants to be. When you do that with an idea, you end up having to pad it, and a padded story sounds just like that—a padded story. I could have paid the big bucks to get hair extensions in my hair so I could have the long braid, but they would have been padding. Extensions wouldn’t have been my real hair, anymore than padding an idea will render a real story—or, at least, a good story.
That’s why when people ask me, “What’s the one most valuable tip you’d give an aspiring writer?” my answer is almost always, “When you get to the end, STOP!” If you end up not having enough words to call your story a novel, call it a short story and publish it as such. But don’t try to pad it into being a novel when it doesn’t want to be one. There’s no shame in being a short story writer. I’m proud that I’m one—just as proud as I am to be a novelist.
Last week I was nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize for my short story, “Breakfast at the Laundromat.” Could this story have been stretched into a novel? I hardly think so. It would have ended up as thin as my hair gets when I grow it long. But it’s a story I’m tremendously proud of, and proud that with the Pushcart nomination, it has been recognized as the best of the best.
And you know what else? When I look in the mirror really closely at my hair, if I get right up close, to where my nose is almost touching the glass, I think I just might see a few grey hairs coming in.
And I am ecstatic.