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February 7: Story Challenge in 99-words

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.


  1. You’re so right about putting the emotion into our writing to avoid characters “running from page to page winking, blinking, and nodding in fits of weird gestures to convey sadness or anger.” Love that phrasing, and I think we’ve all done a bit of that in our time.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Having spent two years with an MFA cohort and professors fond of pointing out repetitive blinks, I can’t unsee the gestures of flat characters, Anne. It’s definitely a writer’s challenge to express what they feel through people penned to the page words. My advisor had fits with my quirks of writing that I didn’t realize I had. But that’s an area of craft we can all continue to foster awareness and polish.

  2. ellenbest24 says:

    Charli, your list is missing a spot, laughter therapy, smiling and humour lift spirits so high it can release tears. Like the baby that laughs so hard it’s lip wobbles and they cry 😢. Great Post and a strong prompt, I will do my best to join in this week. ♥️

  3. Norah says:

    What a long list of helpful resources, Charli. I hadn’t heard the term Mental Health First Responder before. I might look into what is involved with that. It sounds interesting. There’s a good bit of anxiety in each of the generations of my family (not necessarily my direct line) and it is something with which I am quite familiar. It will be interesting to contemplate on it in order to write a response. I’ll have to make sure I get to the complexity of my character/s. I think one of the first flash fiction pieces I wrote for the Carrot Ranch for about a panic attack. Full circle.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Oh, that’s right — the avalanche of a panic attack. Your first flash, Norah! That was a less anxious time for me, as I recall. I wonder how anxiety impacts generations? We are beginning to understand that children of those with PTSD tend to have anxiety. Sometimes, it’s what makes us resilient, too but only if we have tools to help us connect and find purpose and overcome any unwanted inheritance.

      We owe our thanks to Australia for developing the Mental Health First Aid training. You can find out more here: I think it is in Canada as well as the US now. Not sure about the UK or other countries.

      • Norah says:

        Thanks for the link, Charli. I will find out more about it. I’m not surprised the children of those with PTSD have anxiety. One learns what surrounds one. I know PTSD and anxiety are not the same thing but sometimes manifest in similar ways.

      • Charli Mills says:

        When I think about it, Norah, the children may not have experienced the trauma of the parent(s), but they must feel like something is about to happen in response to the attributes of living with PTSD. And the parents might not be aware of the anxiety they create even in the absence of the trauma.

  4. “Ello, Mees Shorty. Ees been long time, no?”
    “Pepe LeGume! What brings you here?”
    “I have read da leest; I notice dere ees not aroma-terapy. I would like to offer dees for you and your ranch hands.”
    “You, Pepe?”
    “Oui. Me. I know a leetle about de power of scents.”
    “No stanks, Pepe. Er, thanks; no thanks. Really.”
    “I can see dat you need me. You seem a leetle anxious.”
    “It’s just that… I’m not so sure about your aroma therapy, Pepe.”
    “I would tink you would be more open to dees.”
    “Uh, how about we open a window.”

  5. Thanks for this blog post and for the resource list. My body hurts when I watch people doing yoga(!) so that’s out for me, but there are a lot of really helpful resources on your list. I think this might be the most difficult challenge you’ve give us since I’ve been around here.

    • Agreed! This is a tough challenge.

    • Liz H says:

      Consider Restorative Yoga…it’s easy and supportive on the body…and just feels goooood!

    • Yes, just thinking about coming up with a story like that makes me anxious.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Michael, Liz is right — try restorative yoga! I did my first downward dog at 10 months old. My mom was a teenager of the sixties and wore miniskirts and practiced yoga. I was fascinated and coveted her Richard Hittleman 30-Days to Yoga book until I made off with it around the age of thirteen. I was never trained and felt intimidated by classes because of the reason you cite! But through adapting PT to yoga moves I knew from Hittleman, I developed my own flow. Then my daughter introduced me to and I rediscovered my joy of yoga. It’s about breathwork and movement. Give it go! In a room of your own.

      Yes, I thought about the difficulty of prompting with something like anxiety. The Collection will be interesting, though. An experiement.

  6. Liz H says:

    Self-care for mental health is especially difficult as the winter months dig in, even as the days are getting longer. We are fortunate to have so many resources for addressing our various needs and modes. I think that’s one good thing that grew out of the pandemic: the opportunity for online connections and groups. Thanks for your list of sources!
    Missed submitting last week because of too many new things starting up, family needs at a peak, home repairs, and not yet used to this new Carrot Ranch groove. But I submitted something on the form that contains a unicorn for strength…cuz we all need a little of the magical, realism or not, when life presents challenges for growth.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Especially for those of us who might have forgotten what the sun looks like, Liz. But I do find a brightness in snow (just not Vitamin D). You are right, the pandemic did lead to the development of accessible tools and classes. Through the VA Caregiver program, the VA has also expanded through digital offerings, too.

      One of the things my group is laughing about is our WW’s attempts at yoga and meditation. Todd will try if I play f*ck that sh*t which is a real meditation series on YouTube.

      Needs have a way of peaking at the same time. I love the magic of unicorns! I’m always up for that. Thanks!

  7. Marsha says:

    It sounds like you are doing so much to improve and maintain your mental health. My neighbor is in that field as well. There is so much we can do for ourselves mentally and we know so much more than we used to. It’s always been a topic of interest to me. I’ve done a lot of work in cognitive counseling when I worked at the county office. Here is my 99 word flash fiction for today. I just finished a book called Talk to Me by T.C Boyle about a signing chimp and his family. It inspired me to write in the chimps style of talking even though it’s not a chimp talking. I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

    • Charli Mills says:

      Marsha, I find it interesting that my students are equally fascinated with human behavior. A majority of my students are either psychology or criminal justice majors. Cognitive counseling is interesting to me, too. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and cognitive processing therapy are two used in the veteran community. It feels action-oriented. That’s why I like tools, too.

      Oh, a signing chimp! I didn’t know there was a book about that. Wow. The ability to communicate is powerful.

      I have to get you caught up on the changes at Carrot Ranch. We are only submitting stories (and links if you have a blog post) through the form. When I publish the Collection, then I will include the links.

      • Marsha says:

        I am going to try to get more involved. The hardest thing for me is to write fiction. However, having just read that book, Talk to Me. I copied the style of the chimp’s narration. It had his “thoughts” in regular print, but when he named something within his thought narrative, it was written in all caps. He thought he was human, so seeing the other chimps was a huge shock to him. He called them BIG BUGS. He tried signing to them, and was shocked that they did nothing back.

      • Charli Mills says:

        Wow. That book must bring up so many issues of identity and the role of communication. Did the chimp’s ability to sign with humans prevent communication with other chimps?

  8. This is actually a true story.

    My First Panic Attack

    I didn’t realise I had anxiety. In my early twenties I had my first full-blown panic attack. I was in a marketplace and my heart started racing, and the flat ground around me became steep and I was unable to traverse it. I suddenly feared gravity would fail me and I would fall into the blue sky. I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I was dying.

    These days I know the signs, and when it hits in a supermarket or out walking, I focus on my breathing and try to touch something around me. Eventually it passes.

    Joanne Fisher

  9. restlessjo says:

    Charli, I came back to this this morning as there’s a lot of reading here, and much of it is around subjects I’m fairly ignorant of. Lucky me, hey? It’s all interesting stuff. I got quite involved in the tapping lady’s video, because we do something similar at t’ai chi, but without knowledge or guidance. The sound stuff sounded way too technical and might drive me nuts. Anxiety is a huge subject, isn’t it? No one size fits all. Thanks for devoting so much time and energy to this. I know it’s self help in some measure, but thanks for sharing.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Good to see you, Jo! I’m not surprised to hear that tapping is similar to a technique in t’ai chi. It is based on Eastern medicine and uses meridian points. I’ve been teaching tapping to my students! That’s funny about the sound — one of my students has an aversion to binaural beats. You are right — no one size fits all, but it sounds like you already have a tool in the fluid movement and mindful breathing of t’ai chi. Self-help or self-care — it’s good to take care of ourselves, eh?

  10. TanGental says:

    It’s interesting how it catches you out. For years I’d have said I didn’t ‘do’ anxiety, but then in my 50s as the grind of commercial lawyering pressed down I’d wake up in the wee small hours, utterly convinced of some impending disaster or other. Eventually I learnt that going for a pee was enough to break the moment and I could get back to sleep. As Linda said I’d p**s away my fears but gradually even that takes its toll. It took moving to work at the Olympics to break that cycle fully – not exactly stress free but it came from a different place and I could deal with it, with the coping strategies I had ( essentially, a listening spouse, a doorstep that accommodated two people and copious tea). It occasionally raises its pre-dawn head still, usually unannounced but while I can still p**s, I’ll survive. Thank you for opening this up, Charli. I’d say we none of us are immune and we are the fortunate ones if we have the right person around to lead us to the next dawn. I married mine.

    • Nice to see you taking the piss for a good cause. 😉

    • Charli Mills says:

      There is something about pee anxiety, Geoff. It’s real. The first night we were homeless, and I realized I had “no pot to p**s in” I suffered a panic attack that never really subsided until we got to Michigan. Anxiety was never my thing but it visits me now. I find that unicorns help chase it away in that I have learned to meditate and do breathwork in my Unicorn Room. That, and having a toilet is further reassurance. Yet, we all need at least one significant relationship to help us through, like a listening spouse. I think I didn’t suffer anxiety before because I had a reliable spouse. Now, I don’t, but I have the blessing of reliable friends.

  11. You bring up a good point about certain calming techniques not working for all. It can be difficult to not be able to share what works for you with others.

    I’ve never heard of ‘afterburn’ until I checked out your first link. I understand the message behind it, however, it made me wonder about where we are headed. Why do we feel like we HAVE TO reset to baseline? Why is it all about being zen 24/7? Are we indirectly saying that feeling emotions is a bad thing? Are we trying to become robots? While I myself am into mindfulness, I struggle with that part of it sometimes. If I have the room/bandwidth to stew in my emotions, I will. No?

    And another submission is in!

    • Charli Mills says:

      Goldie, I don’t believe emotions are bad, and in fact, I think ignoring emotions is what leads to suffering. No one is zen 24/7. I think we can be “mindful” and angry. Watching my partner succumb to uncontrollable emotions gives me a different perspective. Anger is not a bad emotion. We need anger to get us fired up, we need fear to learn caution and risk assessment. It’s when emotions control us that we become robotic and reactionary. I’d love to engage this conversation more deeply because I don’t have the answers, but I do practice mindfulness in the way of practicing awareness. I’m not mindful to be zen 24/7 — i think that is to deny the human experience. But I practice mindfulness to be aware of my body, mind and spirit. To pause and be curious about my emotions, or see how I can reframe thinking or feeling. This is a great topic to discuss!

  12. Jules says:

    Charli, it happened again. – I hope I didn’t douple up. The first one didn’t go through, but the second did.

    Thanks for all of your information. Right now my brain is in get the blankets I’m making for ‘them’ done. So I might not get in a poem in the comments this week.

    To all the writers and visitors… I’ll be a bit slow this month… but I will catch up and visit when I can ~Jules

    • Charli Mills says:

      Jules, your submission came through once. I’m curious, how long do you have the form open? Good luck with your blankets!

      • Jules says:

        Not even thirty seconds. I barely had time to put in all the info. It worked with the latest entry though… And that was the same amout of time as all the others…

        Thanks. almost done. Then the trim of color change ends, wash and blocking. 🙂

  13. You paint a lovely winter scene in your part of the world, Charli. I’ve heard it said that sitting by a window and watching the snow falling is an excellent way to help calm ourselves down. When we used to have real winter in my part of the world, I always found it very useful, especially if the outside world is quiet.

    I heard it said that we shouldn’t write when sad or angry. And I must admit that if I’m experiencing those two emotions, they seem to dim my enthusiasm for something I’ve always had a great love for.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Hugh, one of my favorite things to do as a child in winter was to wake up when the winds stopped howling, to see the start of the snowfall. In the Sierra Nevada mountains, snow “blew in.” I’d open the old window in my bedroom, prop it with a book and watch the flakes float down. Yes, it is so calming! Window weather can be lovely.

      When I’m sad, I love to listen to sad music. Dolly Parton calls such music “sad-ass songs”! It intensifies the emotion and I sit with it and then write what I call “pushing through the sadness” stories. If I’m angry, I rant to the page. Usually, I have to heavily revise, but there is something therapeutic about giving my strong emotions to writing. It might not lead to polished stories, but it does feel cathartic. When I revise such writing, I feel like I’m working with real emotions but also get a chance to invert the experience into something new and unexpected.

      There’s an edge between happy/sad and satisfied/angry and it’s a place to explore the kind of beauty that rises from ashes. I see that edge in a lot of your writing but maybe it’s hard to get there when you feel the raw emotional state.

  14. Charli, Thanks for all this wonderful information. I can always tell when I need to meditate more and align those chakras. Then my mind becomes clear again. I’ve had my share of stress and anxiety in the accounting world. Glad that is all behind me. <3

  15. Gr8BigFun says:

    Even just wearing a smile helps. There is a mountain of peer reviewed research on proprioceptive psychology that shows not only do we smile when we are happy but when perform the act of smiling it makes us feel happier and that smiling has lasting effects on our well being. The meer act of smiling will lift your spirits. I try to remember to intentionally smile several times a day and especially when I find myself stressed out.

    Well here is my anxiety filled tale…

    • Charli Mills says:

      Thanks for teaching me something new, Greg! I had not heard of proprioceptive psychology. I am a smiley person and always feel better when I smile. I smile for myself as much as I smile for others, so maybe my body already understood the power of such a response. I do feel happier when I smile. Thanks for submitting your story to the form. I’ll share links in the Collection on Wednesday.

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