September 12: Story Challenge in 99-words

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

September 12, 2022

After I exit from McLain State Park, I follow the familiar curves of pavement home to Hancock four miles away. The road hugs the shore of the canal that makes our Keweenaw Peninsula an island. Mause is wet and snugged as close to me as she can get. We played with a lot of rocks while the waves battered the shore.

In the rearview mirror, I notice a truck advancing with great speed. Five other vehicles follow it closely and before I know it, I’m lead car. The truck behind me has white balloons bobbing from its front bumper. I feel like I’m sucked into a parade of sorts.

Unwilling to lead the party parade, I pull over to the narrow shoulder. The truck blasts past me and Mause. The tailgate reads, “Just Married.” Wherever those newlyweds are heading, I’m no longer slowing down their progress to party. The vehicles following the married couple pass, honking their horns. I honk back with good cheer.

It’s been a whirlwind of a week, but I’m finding my groove. I’ve had three full weekends and two full weeks of teaching. I have sixty-one students, three classes, and seven learning labs. I’m beginning to grade the first round of essays and I’ve already assigned the second 99-word story. I love how the students come to life in their writing. In ENG 103 we begin with personal narratives and in 104 we jump into writing with “rock essays.”

What I love about the rock essays is that I get to go full-on rock nerd. I collect rocks for each class, thinking about rock lessons, such as comparing granite to gneiss. Both contain a similar mineral makeup of quartz, plagioclase, k-spar, and mica but the minerals in gneiss form bands. Amygdaloidal basalt (or rhyolite) allows for me to explain vesicles (gas bubbles) and secondary metamorphosis where minerals like epidote, calcite, jasper, analcime, and chalcedony fill the holes. I like to pick plain basalt and tell students it’s 1.087 billion years old!

Of course, I also look for my favorites — prehnite, copper, and agates. It’s fun to watch the students pick a rock and then ponder it. The assignment asks that they observe the rock dry and then wet, noting any differences. Then, they have to solicit opinions from their peers about their rocks. Finally, I go around the room and inform each student of their rock so they can research it. This assignment establishes where my students are at with writing and how difficult it is to write about a topic they have no experience or interest in. It sets up the next two weeks of exploring topics for their 15-page research paper.

I remind my students that writing is thinking. But it is also feeling. We write best with material (subjects, genres, BOTs, stories) we can relate to. However, one of my students who has clearly had a classical education, explained how he developed a thesis to engage with his rock observations, opinions, and research. He’s way ahead of where I’m leading the class, but through brainstorming, mind-mapping, and plumbing the depths of modern media we will catch up on how to develop research questions.

It always cheers me when a student declares an appreciation for their rock. Better, is when they decide they might actually appreciate writing.

We know, as writers, that stories are thrilling to collect. The moment I saw balloons on a bumper of a big pickup truck in my rearview mirror, I began to see stories rise. I wonder…what if…the treasured inspiration we think about and feel our way into as imagination greets us to play.

September 12, 2022, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about balloons on a bumper. Is it a spectacle, an occasion, an eccentricity? Why are the balloons there? Who is involved? Go where the prompt leads!

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  1. LaShelle

    I love how insightful this was! That’s so wonderful about your students and the story was delightful. I hope they surprise you with their rock essays!

    • Charli Mills

      I’m receiving some great essays, LaShalle. Insight gets shared the more we engage. I love that about writing and hanging out with writers.

      • LaShelle

        I feel the same way!

  2. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    It’s nice you don’t take gneiss for granite. Rock on, Perfesser Mills!

    • Charli Mills

      Granite can be gneiss. But don’t take schist for granite! 😉

  3. Sam "Goldie" Kirk

    Is the research paper on the topic of the rock, or is the rock only an exercise to prep for a different topic?

    What a cool exercise you got there with the rock. It’s bound to push people out of their comfort zones. Definitely not an easy thing, I think.

    I also wanted to say that I appreciate you getting out of the way. Mindful drivers (and people in general) are rare, which makes my appreciation that much larger.

    Stay golden!

    • Charli Mills

      Ha! Goldie, I don’t like being in anyone’s way. If I’m lollygagging my way home to process time spent at the big lake, I don’t want to be rushed. I’ll move over! But you are right — I often wonder why drivers don’t let others pass.

      The rock essay is a warm-up to the research paper. I love teaching the full writing process in ENG II, including productive peer critique. It bonds the class.

  4. Doug Jacquier

    It had never occurred to me that it might be helpful for a teacher to nurture a group of students by putting rocks in their heads. 😉

    • Charli Mills

      Doug, that is the best summary of the rock essay’s purpose!

    • Norah

      Hehehe. Very clever!

  5. TanGental

    Rock on, Charli; I have no idea about any of these rocks, apart from granite but I’m glad someone does..

    • Charli Mills

      Granite is good to know, Geoff. That’s the foundation stone. We’ll keep on rocking in the free peninsula.

  6. Colleen Chesebro: WordCraftPoetry

    You are a true rock goddess, Charli. I’m so happy everything is going well with your students. It all sounds like great fun to me. ????

  7. Jules

    Charli, are gems rocks? If so my favorit is an opal!! It is the imperfections that make it ‘shine’. 🙂

    I was running slow this week. But I’ve got my story in…

  8. robertawrites235681907

    HI Charli, you are a busy lady. I also don’t like being the lead car and would have also pulled over. Have a lovely weekend.

  9. Norah

    Your story of balloons also made me think of a wedding party. Fun!
    Your students are really getting their money’s worth – learning about rocks and developing a new interest, as well as becoming observant, imaginative and creative writers. Way to go, Charli!

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