Snow flutters as if a stagehand in the rafters has dumped a sack of white down upon a stage. I’m the actor in a small shell-pink room, playing at life. Opposite my purple meditation pillow is a large vision board for my manuscript and a blank W-story board waiting for my next plot outline. I’m surrounded by watercolor pens, inspiring art, and smooth rocks from Lake Superior. Through the gauze turquoise curtain, the snow falls so slow and fluffy it looks fake.

This makes me consider the irony of writing fiction — we create fake people who do not read as fake on the page.

Whether you write speculative, realism, memoir, poetry, or genre, authenticity matters. We don’t connect with someone or something that isn’t what it’s made out to be, including characters. In writing, flat characters can move a plot along its trajectory, or assist the protagonist. But when we want to engage readers, we develop complex characters with genuine emotional depth. Round characters.

Emotions are ripe with possibility for crafting tension, contrast, and conflict. The more real these emotions feel in character development, the greater the potential impact on the reader. Emotions can trip us up, too. They can make our characters into flat stereotypes, running from page to page winking, blinking, and nodding in fits of weird gestures to convey sadness or anger.

Therefore, as writers, we also need to be observers of behavior and sages of emotion. We need to add ourselves into the mix and lay bare what sadness feels like or why anger is a go-to reaction. That takes vulnerability. Sometimes, readers will even pick up on emotional tells we did not know were there. We worry we might reveal ourselves in our writing.

Imagination gives our life experiences and rich inner lives wings. If we know loss, we can imagine what a character in an apocalyptic setting might feel. If we know sadness, we can imagine what living in a remote sweep of land without friends could feel like. As writers, we then decide who else to bring into that emotional stew and how it will carry the plot and change the protagonist.

Yes, we feel for our characters. We even orchestrate the tragedy they go through on the page. We connect with our readers in moments of authentic emotional clarity. And, yet, we live alone with our thoughts and feelings. We know we need community as writers. But what about mental health check-ins?

This week, at Finlandia University, we are coming together in unity for Mental Health Awareness. As a writer, PTSD survivor, and caregiver I’m well-versed in the importance of one’s mental health. Yet, mental health comes with a big stigma, kind of like a neon sign that flashes fearful (and incorrect) messages. Often those who tell others to “get over” something like depression or anxiety remain unaware of their own struggles.

Mental health is not a concern for those “others” who suffer from conditions or diseases. It’s a concern for every human. My Unicorn Room is a place for healing and maintaining my mental health. I’m acutely aware that I have the privilege of finding respite through sound therapy, meditation, and yoga. My care partner does not, although I can successfully play calming music because he recognizes the music I’ve practiced yoga to for thirty years as familiar. But if I try to get him to listen to ambient sounds or chants, he gets upset, not calm.

In college, students often cope with depression, anxiety, and grief. No one has to have a “diagnosis” to feel mentally under the weather. However, there are life-saving/changing resources available for anyone in crisis mode or dealing with a condition such as bipolar. Even researchers of CTE, which we suspect my husband has, say that the condition is not a death sentence.

We all need hope no matter where our needs fall.

Part of my lesson plan this week includes a toolkit of resources based on ones I use regularly in the Unicorn Room. I pay for full access to apps like Calm, Tapping Solutions, Mei-Lan’s Sound Sanctuary, Do Yoga with Me, and Amazon Music (music has always been a great mental and emotional healer for me). In fact, sound healing is an important part of my self-care along with myofascial therapy, acupuncture, Reiki, camping, rock hunting, and kayaking sloughs.

Through Building a Better Caregiver training, VA Caregiver support, and several groups for Caregivers of Wounded Warriors, I have learned that taking care of my mental health is paramount. I’m a certified Mental Health First Responder and I’m working on developing a course to teach others how to do “emotional reprogramming.” You probably won’t be surprised if I tell you it has a narrative component!

This week, I’m sharing a list I curated for the students I teach and tutor. I’m looking forward to starting each of my classes and learning labs with 10-minutes of guided meditation this week. I’m aware that mindfulness practice in the US can be exclusive space, so I researched resources where a diverse group of students and global writers could find inclusivity. If you have suggestions from your own practice, add them in the comments.

Here is a list to get us started:

As a writer, you’ve probably noticed that writing itself can be therapeutic. There’s empowerment in finding our voice, honing our craft, and telling our stories as we’ve lived or imagined them. Take time to check in with your mental health; check in with a friend who might be isolated; consider the mental health challenges and healing of your characters.

February 7, 2022, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes anxiety. Who has anxiety or what is the source? Is there conflict? How can you use anxiety to further a story? Go where the prompt leads!

  1. Submit by February 12, 2022. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. The Collection publishes on the Wednesday following the next Challenge. Rules & Guidelines.
  2. Carrot Ranch only accepts stories through the form below. Accepted stories will be published in a weekly collection. Writers retain all copyrights.
  3. Your blog or social media link will be included in your title when the Collection publishes.
  4. Please include your byline which is the name or persona you attribute to your writing.
  5. Please include the hashtag #99Word Stories when sharing either the Challenge or Collection posts in social media.

Submissions are now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

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