A bag of colorful balloons adds festivity to any day. Snowflakes the size of downy feathers float from the omnipresent gray cloud, and all I want is to blow up colorful latex and toss color to the sky. Can you imagine the sight? Red, blue, green, purple and yellow globes of color floating among the snowflakes and bouncing lightly from drift to drift.
Despite a snow-locked land and a frozen shore, my mind and body respond to longer days of light. Not even the clouds can prevent its penetration. For five luscious days, the clouds backed off to hang over Lake Superior, and the southern sun-porch warmed up enough for noon coffee. On the sixth day, snow returned, and my teeth chattered as I tried to capture the joy of sitting in the sun. It was of no use, and I retreated back to the rooms with storm windows and radiant heat.
From my desk, I watch the snow and dream of balloons.
I’m in a festive mood because Carrot Ranch is celebrating four years of flash fiction challenges. Evidently, I drink coffee and talk a lot about the weather. Here’s how I opened the first challenge on March 5, 2014:
In northern Idaho, rain is falling on packed snow. It is a good day to hunker over the keyboard with a mug of hot Yuban coffee. But no matter your weather or drinking preference, I hope you have stopped by Carrot Ranch to pick up a prompt.
That day from a different northern climate, I let go a balloon with a message, hoping someone would answer. It was lonely drinking coffee and tapping keys. I wanted to recapture the camaraderie had felt back in the ’90s while I attended college for a degree in creative writing. I missed the passionate discussions in classes, where we sought hidden meanings in the language of authors. I missed sharing my writing for feedback from classmates I had grown to know and trust. I missed dreaming of the well with kindred spirits.
Many times since I tried to recreate those moments from college. I kept in touch with classmates and professors. I read. I attended literary workshops and joined writing groups. For a brief time, I found a close fit on a social media site called Gather. Started in 2005, the site encouraged discussion. I found groups where I could write fun and quick literary challenges, and I created lasting friendships. Several writers, I employed through my work as a marketing communicator for a natural food co-op, and Gather is where I met Ann Ravoula, a designer who worked with me to build an award-winning regional publication. She’s also the designer of our Carrot Ranch logo, Rough Writer log, and the cover for Vol. 1.
Gather instilled in me the idea that visual and literary artists could come together in meaningful ways. Unfortunately, social media site went the way of profiteering and became more about affinity marketing than social interaction. Affinity marketing sites are ones that force social interaction through a reward system. The idea is to boost traffic so the site owners can sell more lucrative ads. It killed the organic interactions and people left, no longer enjoying the experience.
In 2014 I wondered if I could create a writing challenge on my own website. Two years earlier I had left my job to write a novel. I wrote for business clients and felt isolated from my literary writing. I wrote about marketing and small business for magazines and newspapers, but I had no continuity among literary writers beyond the one month a year that I joined NaNoWriMo. Even there I felt isolated, not knowing anyone else, and the closest regional group was over 100 miles away.
My website was a placard for writing, and Carrot Ranch was the name of my communications business. But the website never generated business — I do that through a network of colleagues and clients, using email and cell phone. I wondered if I could shift some of my marketing knowledge to writers through blog posts, build up relationships and convince writers to play weekly with a literary art form called flash fiction.
Four years ago I launched the ballon, and five writers showed up: Susan Zutautas, Paula Moyer, Norah Colvin, Ruchira Khanna and Jason Kennedy. I knew Susan and Ruchira from social media connections. Paula is family (her Solar Man is married to my Radio Geek). Jason knew Susan (or they were both Canadian). And Norah showed up with a gift in hand — a Liebster Award. I had no idea what it was but delighted that I wasn’t alone to meet my challenge.
From this humble start, I came to identify “the thing” I had been missing — a literary community. The question was, could we build one through practicing flash fiction together? Four years later I’m happy to report that the answer is yes. In fact, Norah helped me collect my thoughts on the topic, and she wrote a chapter on Building Community in The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. 1. When we wrote that book, and I worked with 29 other writers to bring it to fruition, I realized that we had been strangers until we wrote together.
And that’s a beautiful realization.
Carrot Ranch evolved from communications to a literary community. We make literary art accessible — we write, read and discourse. You’ve probably noticed we keep the feedback positive. In Vol. 1, Norah repeats the message:
Be positive, be polite, be encouraging.
It’s not stated anywhere explicitly, but my philosophies on writers feedback originate from three sources:
- Servant Leadership: a philosophy and set of practices that enrich the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.
- Appreciative Inquiry (AI): a change management approach that focuses on identifying what is working well, analyzing why it is working well and then doing more of it. The basic tenet of AI is that an organization will grow in whichever direction that people in the organization focus their attention.
- StrengthsFinder (from Gallup): developing your strengths to do what you do best every day. The pursuit of meaning — not happiness — is what makes life worthwhile. Knowing your strengths and using them is meaningful.
Over the course of four years, I’ve seen the impact of building a literary community through flash fiction on my own writing and that of others. We’ve met each other with care and have built trust, extending it to an environment where writers feel safe to explore and experiment. And we have fun!
Last October we launched a Flash Fiction Rodeo of eight contests. And that was loads of fun, plus eight writers each won a purse. We have a collection of outstanding writing from all the entries, and I intend to publish them in an e-book. I’ve already commissioned a cover, but when I tried to buy the software to design the inside, I realized I needed a Mac. I’m all for balloons, but I’m not going Mac. If anyone has suggestions, I’m open to learning.
Also in motion is Vol. 2. This goes beyond a collection. It begins with new 99-word arrangements from the Rough Writers (our core group from the community) and plays with “serial” arrangements. Think Marvel Comics (at least, that’s what I’m thinking)! You’ll bet we’ll have some BOTS and memoir essays and extended stories. We also have invited our Friends (those who write challenges frequently or lurk weekly) to play with a surprise challenge.
The editing process is intensive — from collecting submissions, working one-on-one with writers on development, working with a Rough Writer editorial team to define and maintain a style guide that represents global writers, working with special content writers, proofing, designing and proofing again. Four years ago I had no idea I’d be doing this, but I knew I longed to be doing meaningful work with literary art beyond my own writing.
From one little balloon, set free with a message — come write 99 words, no more, no less.
Now we are growing and bursting at the barn doors! In business, we say that’s a “good problem” to have. In communities, we focus on servant leadership practices to better understand what makes the community thrive. Going back to our three drivers of literary art — writing, reading, and discourse — I’m exploring ways to stay vibrant, relevant and engaged.
Writing. Our vibrancy comes from our diversity. We come from different locations, backgrounds, experiences, demographics, and genres of writing. I also understand that we each have different reasons for coming to the Ranch. Some seek the discipline of writing prompts; some want to increase their blog interactions; some are looking for the camaraderie. We are all looking to write. Bloggers can share links and writers can submit stories. We also offer Guest Posts.
Reading. We actually have a dedicated readership at Carrot Ranch, outside of our writers. That’s good! I also collect stories to read out loud and arrange into weekly collections. This is an area I want to grow. Readers have the opportunity to discover new writers and their blogs and books.
Discourse. We like to discuss at Carrot Ranch! Well, I’m sure you’ve seen those of us who do. I think we all keep a good balance with those who like discourse and those who just want to share the story quietly. Part of the infrastructure plan is to build a forum at Carrot Ranch. Part of it will be for Rough Writer work or Rodeo planning, and parts will be open to asking questions within the community or start topic threads.
I’m looking for anyone who might be interested in serving as Ranch Ambassadors (spreading goodwill among the writers who gather, so everyone feels welcomed as the response grows) and Ranch Moderators (assist with collecting and arranging weekly challenge responses). Each position will be volunteer (though I may send you books or rocks) and will have a brief description of participation. If you are interested in more of a leadership role and have a few hours a week to spare, shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let me take time to introduce you to the Leadership Team who serve as Rodeo Contest Leaders and as an informal advisory group: Geoff Le Pard, Sherri Matthews, Irene Waters, Norah Colvin, D. Avery, JulesPaige and C. Jai Ferry. They already serve as ambassadors and support the Ranch in areas of extending literary accessibility (memoir, TwitterFlash, education, Ranch Yarns and behind-the-scenes support).
In October we will once again host the Flash Fiction Rodeo. Our Leadership Team will return to the event. We will put out a call at that time for new leaders who want to mentor in 2019 with the Leadership Team. In 2020 they will become the new Leadership Team, and in 2021 they will mentor a new group.
Why? It’s to develop leadership in the literary community through different roles and opportunities. Just as Carrot Ranch is a safe, fun and positive place to write, it’s all that for stepping out of your comfort zone and participating in more meaningful ways among the community.
And if you are rolling your eyes and saying, get to the prompt already — that’s okay, too! We make literary art accessible one 99-word flash fiction at a time. We come to the Ranch to play. Do what feels right for you, further your goals, dream, and by all means, keep writing!
If you like what we are doing here, consider offering Patron Support. It’s not required, but it helps with building and maintaining infrastructure to serve the community and helps cover the costs associated with publishing. Plus you can earn some cool gifts from the Lead Buckaroo.
One last consideration, let loose your own balloon this week. Do something that scares you, but you want to try. Take a risk, and take a step toward the dream you hold. The worst that can happen is that no one sees your balloon. But no one will if you don’t blow it up and let it fly!
March 8, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that features a balloon. It can be a party balloon or a hot air balloon. How does it add to your story? Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by March 13, 2018, to be included in the compilation (published March 14). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
At the Edge of a Long Winter by Charli Mills
Searching the newspaper before I fire up the woodstove, a classified diverts my attention. For Sale: Party Balloon, Never Celebrated. There’s a number, and I recognize the area code for Montana. I’m across the border in North Dakota, trying to keep warm with seven other oil rig guys in a tin-roof modular on some farmer’s north forty. After my housemates rise to the heat of corncobs and newspaper, I finish my coffee and call.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice.
“Um, yeah, calling about your balloon.”
“Cabin fever. I needed to hear another voice.”
“Oil rigger. I’m lonely, too.”