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Mapping the Hero’s Journey

Tips for Writers“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”
~ Joseph Campbell

It’s appropriate to begin a discussion on the hero’s journey by quoting the man we now equate with modern understanding of mythology. Joseph Campbell theorized: “all myths are the creative products of the human psyche, that artists are a culture’s mythmakers, and that mythologies are creative manifestations of humankind’s universal need to explain psychological, social, cosmological, and spiritual realities (Joseph Campbell Foundation).”

As a writer, I’m a mythmaker. My private dreams are the stories I want to tell, but I believe that if I can map my story to public mythology, those stories will resonate with readers. I believe that the hero’s journey (coupled with quality writing) is the difference between a mediocre book and a best-seller.

At its most basic explanation, the hero’s journey is a pattern of public dreams that Campbell recognized in myths across multiple cultures. In “Hero With a Thousand Faces,” he writes:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

In 2011, I attended a retreat at the Franciscan Spirituality Center in LaCrosse, WI called, “Awakening the Soul of the Writer.” While the hero’s journey sounds perfect for fantasy or paranormal genres, what that retreat taught me is that we are all everyday heroes. The workshop leaders revealed at the end of our five day retreat that they intentionally led us on the hero’s journey. It was transformative.

The hero’s journey fits any genre, even memoir. But I struggled with matching up the cycle to my progressing novel, “Miracle of Ducks.” Every chart I could find was an arc, linear or a circle. This is the one I studied at the retreat (note that the graph is popular online and cited as public domain):

From Awakening the Soul of the Writer

While it helped me understand how to shape my story, it didn’t help me understand my story’s shape on the page–or 400 of them. Then, in 2012 I quit my career, downsized my possessions and moved in with my eldest daughter and her husband. I was going to finish that novel and live where it was set in Bayfield, WI. As it happened, another writer’s workshop was offered on Madeline Island, across the bay from where I was writing. That’s where I met Mary Carroll Moore and her storyboard.

While trying to make sense of the “W”  storyboard that Moore implements to develop a book, I realized that it was a navigable map to the hero’s journey. In fact, Moore teaches in her workshops and book, “Your Book Starts Here,” that the most successful books and films are those that use the ancient three act structure. Furthermore, the three act structure can be adapted to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.

Bingo! This was the storyboard for me!

So, keeping that diagram in mind up above, let’s look at my storyboard in its bare-bones stage:

6-Anchors Located on the W

Moore says that you can use poster board or even tape together multiple (6) pages as I did on Madeline Island:

1-Creating the Story Board at MISA

The idea is to map your book according to three acts and the most significant scenes. We’ll discuss the three act arc more thoroughly in a few weeks. The most significant scenes correlate to the hero’s journey. They are represented on my permanent board as five circles or on my temporary board as blue sticky notes (there are two sticky notes to each circle which represents inner story and outer story which we’ll address with the three act arc).

Each circle, in order from left top, to bottom left, to middle, to right bottom to right top represents the hero’s journey:

  1. The call: the opening scene in which the hero is called out of the ordinary world. Therefore we need to see the ordinary world, there hero’s attachment to it and thus her refusal to accept the call. We also meet the character who will be the hero’s mentor or a supernatural aid.
  2. The test: here’s where you (as writer) develop conflict through tests, challenges, temptations, allies and enemies. It’s the beginning of the hero’s transformation.
  3. The cave: this is the crisis, the hero’s darkest hour where she falls into the abyss of her most extreme ordeal. It’s a place where it feels like the hero has met her end, but is reborn. Her own power or will to live is revealed and she crawls out of the cave.
  4. The transformation: having survived, the hero is changed and begins the journey home. There are rewards and resurrection as the story heads toward resolution.
  5. The return: the hero returns to her ordinary world, but is changed. We now see her with the gift or the elixir which is her knowledge of how she’s changed.

Do you better see the map on the W versus the circle? It gets even clearer as we then write scene by scene and place those scenes on the board. And that, will be for next week: Writing a Novel Scene by Scene. Here’s my significant scenes from “Miracle of Ducks”:

7-Key Scenes in Place

A closeup of the opening scene:

8-First Anchor is the Opening Scene

As a writer, you are on the hero’s journey. Let me leave you with this final thought from Campbell:

“Follow your bliss.
If you do follow your bliss,
you put yourself on a kind of track
that has been there all the while waiting for you,
and the life you ought to be living
is the one you are living.
When you can see that,
you begin to meet people
who are in the field of your bliss,
and they open the doors to you.
I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid,
and doors will open
where you didn’t know they were going to be.
If you follow your bliss,
doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

December 12: Flash Fiction Challenge

Snow scatters in the wind like grain to a scythe. White tendrils whisk across the road, accumulating at times into pure whiteouts. It’s hard to tell the difference between snow falling and snow drifting. Evergreens line the road with sagging snow-laden branches and pavement hides beneath the frozen mat. We live where snow-tires are a must. Anyone who tries to fudge that requirement finds out how much it costs for a tow from a ditch or snowbank. Already the city of Hancock is removing snow to the fairgrounds. It is December 12, 2019, and we’ve had 62 inches of snowfall.

Welcome to the lee side of Lake Superior, where her snow globe is in full swing.

It might be time to break into song, “Oh, the weather outside is frightful…” But it’s not all that bad. We adjust here in the Keweenaw. I had an appointment a few days ago, drove through. swirling snow, and stomped my boots as I entered the building. The receptionist said, “That time a year, eh?”

Yes, it’s that boot-stomping, snow-blowing, globe-living time of year again, and I’m settling right into the rhythm. Driving 12 miles to the Hub’s ortho appointments is a breeze compared to the 200 miles we had to drive the past two winters. What has changed? The VA is working with local providers for those of us who live far away from urban VA hospitals. It continues to be a major battle with every approval comes a VA retraction. Medical records don’t get sent.

But our orthopedics center in Larium is fighting for us. After driving through snow dervishes, the nurse greeted us with a growl that she had a battle with Iron Mountain (the Hub’s primary VA. hospital) but finally found the right person to get the right records, and now she had that phone number. We are so grateful for their dedication because they don’t have to deal with the VA. They could refuse to work with veterans like many centers do. So, we appreciate the good care, the willingness to deal with a difficult system, and the close proximity to home.

Before driving through the blowing snow tunnel again, we took full advantage of stopping in at Cafe Rosetta. It’s a small Finnish coffee shop with scratch-made soups, sandwiches, and lavender-honey coffee. They even tolerate my BLT alteration — bacon, sprouts, guacamole, and pepper jack cheese, toasted on whole wheat with a smear of mayo. It’s a divine place to watch the snow howl down Main Street.

And, it’s where I encountered the gnomes.

Bearded fellas with tall woolen and pointy hats (not ears), the Joulutonttu is the Finnish Christmas elf. Cafe Rosetta was overrun with the stuffed figures, in caps gray or dull red. While associated with winter solstice and Christmas, the gnomes protect the house. There’s even a Joulutonttu Sauna — a sauna gnome! His job is to make sure everyone behaves in the sauna. That makes me giggle because I then think up all kinds of ways to misbehave.

If you aren’t familiar, the Fins sauna instead of bathe or shower. Today, I imagine they do both, but it’s still regarded as a weekly activity. We have a cedar sauna built into our house on the lower level and can dive into the snow afterward. I’m not kidding. It’s a thing! We sit in a wooden box with heated rocks that we pour a dipper of water over and then sweat in the steam, followed by a cold plunge outside and a warm dinner. Many people on the Keweenaw sauna. The heat penetrates all the way to your bones. It’s considered fortifying and helps if you have a winter cold. If the idea of the snow plunge unsettles you, opt for a shower.

I think I need to find a sauna gnome made of stone. I like the idea of a Joulutonttu living in the small cedar room off the back of our house.

Finals are quickly approaching. I’m finishing up three novels for required reading and several books. This week and next, one of my courses is focusing on the contemporary fiction genre. I found out that I’m in the minority with my MFA. Most of my cohort are writing speculative novels. With much thought and class discussion, it finally occurred to me what I love most about writing — exploration. And that’s what contemporary fiction does.  Themes, styles, and elements can vary, but contemporary fiction explores who and why within a setting of realism.

I’m finally starting to see how I can construct my novel, too. We’ve been deepening our understanding of story arcs, and the complexity of multiple sub-plots added to drive the tension forward. One article I read this week challenged the notion of novels being plot or character-driven; they are all tension-driven. It can be external (plot) or internal (character), but it’s tension that turns the page for readers. Conflict can often come in the form of clashing values, no villain required.

I’ve also added a step before using my W-storyboard that has me plotting to be a better plantser. First step is to plot an arc; second is to draft scenes; third is to map the scenes with the help of the W layout shows both internal and external tension and mimics a hero’s (protagonist’s) journey. A-ha! And I have an expanded idea in the hero’s journey arena, too. An element of contemporary fiction is that the narrative generally focuses on a character’s journey and emotional experience. The call sets up a promise, and the elixir follows through with a satisfying outcome, which does not have to be a happy or expected ending.

In the novel Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, every time her protagonist experienced growth as a character, there was a consequence. Each time, the stakes got higher to the point that her life was in jeopardy. So, her final act in the novel is courageous and seems to satisfy the reader as a conclusion, but actually ends before we witness the consequence we know must follow. I won’t spoil what that means specifically, but the ending ties back to the opening, and it’s a brilliant conclusion, though not it leaves us wondering how much more suffering continued.

For me, it’s back to snow and books.

December 12, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a gnome. It can be a garden gnome, a Christmas Joulutonttu, or a sauna protector. You can write magical realism, or feature contemporary gnome-like product.  Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by December 17, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.

House Protector by Charli Mills

The Russian soldier came on baking day. The Finnish women kept their kerchiefed heads bowed. He dismounted, kicked the oafish-looking gnome statue, and grabbed the youngest girl by the waist.

“You smell pretty today.” He smiled coldly.

Macy tried to withdraw and relaxed when she saw Joulutonttu upright himself. “It’s the bread,” she said, distracting him.

She led the soldier to the communal kitchen where the massive beehive hearth burned. She showed him loaves, opened the large oven door —

They later told their men that Joulutonttu protected them. But it was Macy who shoved the Russian in the oven.

December 6: Flash Fiction Challenge

If winter on the Keweenaw Peninsula of upper Michigan were a masterpiece, then the sky works in collaboration with Lake Superior. Together they manipulate air temperatures to create color and texture. You might be surprised to learn that Lady Lake prowls on land during the winter. I don’t mean waves that batter her shores — she’s an artist hovering in the air, twisting her waters into a scattering of icy snowflakes, mist, or battleship-gray clouds.

Today’s collaboration features patchy blue sky milky as glacial till. After a furious night of banshee-snow, Lady Lake has calmed and sorts her art into glowing pink remnants of moisture that look like clouds made of shell. Soon the sun will dip, but it won’t grow as dark as you might expect. That’s the gift of living in a snow globe — all that white from below to above captures light.

Colorful Christmas lights make the neighborhood festive. We humans add our own imprint upon the natural winter art of the region, expanding the collaboration. I’m surrounded by an ever-changing canvas.

Is the nature of art collaborative?

It’s like the philosophical question — if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound? Sure, it might reverberate, but if the vibrations don’t hit an eardrum, the sound is not heard. Art requires one to produce and another to receive. I suppose an artist can appreciate his or her own work, but the sharing creates a dynamic. In such a way, artist and reader/viewer/listener/beholder work in collaboration.

As a writer who’s share work, you’ve probably experienced comments that observe something in your story you did not intend. And yet the reader points it out. To some, this interaction can feel disconcerting. But we don’t have to own (or defend) the alternate perspectives. We can embrace it as an expansion. As a collaboration of sorts.

Like another philosophical question — which came first, the chicken or the egg? — I also wonder which came first — art or the inspiration?

When did you first become inspired to craft stories or imagine the lives of characters? Likely you read or were read to. I remember Mrs. Couch reading to us every day in first, second and third grade. In fourth, fifth and sixth grade, Mr. Smith read us YA sci-fi. In seventh and eighth grade, Mr. Price required us to write weekly spelling stories.

Growing up in a buckaroo culture, I heard stories swapped with regularity and recognized that the tellers had a rhythm and often delayed an element of surprise for humorous effect.  I read comic books, Laura Ingalls Wilder, classics, Ian Flemming, Louis L’Amour, and discovered romance novels.

And everywhere I stepped I was acutely aware that others had passed this way before me from the Washo people to the likes of Kit Carson and nameless pioneers. History told it’s own stories if you knew how to read a cemetery or discarded artifacts of another era.

Somewhere in the mixture of all those influences, I found inspiration to write stories I imagined. Mostly, I get strong impressions about people who lived where I do now because I’m curious as to why they came to some of the remote regions I’ve known.

When does inspiration become art?

Often, these near-winter days, I watch the dense gray bank of moisture that rises up from Lake Superior. I get a better view when I cross the Portage Canal and look back toward where the Lake nestles below the ridge of Keweenaw hills with start white birch and leafless maples. I image Lady Lake “soaking up” before she creates a storm across the sky. As writers, artists, we do that too — we soak up.

Then we let it out. Lady Lake can change wind directions so swiftly that I can see the snow shift out one window and yet still blow the opposite direction out another window. To me, that’s a master who can blow all those details and craft their shapes in multiple ways at once. Drafting is often like spewing snow.

Yet, the masterpiece is not complete until after the snow. Wind can reshape drifts, temperature can crystalize snow and suspend icycles, sun can sparkle, and sunsets can add color. Writers return to the storm upon the page make it into something different, something new.

Inspiration also comes to me from those who create in different mediums.

Growing up, Greek mythology, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones inspired me (hence my fascination with the hero’s journey). I could recognize artistry and felt drawn to it — I once spent my entire month’s earnings on a hide painting a traveling artist painted when I was 14. Music moved me. I played the radio, records, 8-tracks, and cassettes all the time, and thought the greatest invention in the world was the boombox.

Johnny Cash, Regina Gigli (the print artist I cleaned house for), John Beata (the cowboy foreman I rode for who trained horses like an artist), and Bob Parker who hand tooled a leather scene of my horse were my go-to’s for inspiration. But I never dared to think I could collaborate with any of them. Not that I had a chance to work with Johnny Cash, but I knew plenty of dancers, musicians, poets, crafters, and artists.

Somehow I thought I had to do my art on my own. My guilty pleasure was to “feel” a song and let it color a story I wrote, or admire a painting and imagine it’s likeness in a character. One writer would post a story and ignite a spark of an idea. Last year, one Carrot Ranch writer invited others to add to her Boots flash fiction in what emerged as a collaborative murder-mystery.

I think it’s natural for creative impulses to rise and feed others as much as it feeds our intended interest. Like Lady Lake, we soak up. And we share.

Last night I was listening to an interview with Hozier, an Irish musician. He was influenced by the 1960s civil rights movement in America, and its impact on his own country. His latest song is not only one that honors those who influenced him but also features the voice of an American blues singer who knew the very protestors in his song. What a collaboration!

“It’s not the song, it’s the singing!” What that makes me think is that it isn’t the art but the making of it. It isn’t the story so much as it is the catching of it. Art in action and the more people involved, the more powerful. I don’t mean in its creation but in it’s sharing and influencing and making new.

Consider Hozier’s first song. It moved a young Ukraine ballet dancer, and this video of collaborative art went viral:

And when I say collaborative, I’m talking more about the natural space of artistic influences. Hozier didn’t know about this dance project. I think the record label got snippy about it at one point, but in the interview, Hozier was humbled by the interpretation and use of his song. So much that he did collaborate with Sergei Polunin on a new song.

We are like Lady Lake and the sky. Every week we soak up, share and form a collective voice on a single topic. Creativity knows no bounds.

There’s something open and uplifting about art expressed without boundaries, taking influence from other artists and mediums. This week, we are going to turn toward graffiti, an expression of art on the street. How can we take it to a story in 99 words?

December 6, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about graffiti. It can be an artist, art or the medium itself. Get out your can of spray paint and go where the prompt leads you.

Respond by December 11, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

A Sign (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Danni traced graffiti on the grain-car. What did it mean? A message? A name? Traffic stalled on both sides of the tracks where it crossed the highway. She didn’t want to think about Ike who had been ahead of them. Better to study the graffiti and let Ronnie find out what happened. She wasn’t in a hurry to know.

“Danni?”

She stiffened and asked, “Who got hit?”

“An elk.”

Danni blew out the air she’d been holding in. “Ah, damn elk.” Ike had made it across then. Maybe the graffiti was a symbol of gratitude to live another day.

November 8: Flash Fiction Challenge

While up north on the Keweenaw Peninsula, I overheard one elderly local tell a monk that an early October snow was no indication that we’d have a long winter. At the time, I was returning from a brief retreat at a lighthouse keeper’s cottage, and the monks were closing up shop for the winter and selling the rest of their jams while fat fluffy flakes covered the ground. I bought six jars. Who could resist blackberries jammed in rum?

It was like overhearing a riddle, though. My mind pondered how early snow could be anything but a long winter on a peninsula fiercely guarded by Lady Lake Superior who has the power and desire to create her own snow globe? It’s different from out West where a late August blizzard in the Rockies reminds us to prepare, but that long cool, even warm, autumns could follow.

Here, the snow means snow. It didn’t stick, but it didn’t return to blue skies, either. The gray mist and soggy cold rain feel dreary. The snow falls brightly and white-washes the world, removing the dinginess of constant cloud cover. Snow illuminates the globe Lady Lake keeps on the mantle of her ice-water mansion. Snow has returned.

And with flair. Of course — it’s Lady Lake. Why not be a drama queen on the fourth day of the 41 North Film Festival at Michigan Tech University? I walked out of the Rosza Center, following a film on the WWI Hello Girls, and into the lobby with 30-foot glass windows facing east. Snow fleeced the view. The next film up was a work in progress called Copper Dogs about female dog-mushers in our region. Well played, Lady Lake.

Culture and snow fill our winters, so I don’t mind. Travel, for me at least, shuts down. After my terrifying drive in a true Copper Country blizzard at the start of last winter, I vowed to be a winter home-body. Students return to our universities and with them come cultural events. So it’s a good time to hunker down. The film festival filled my well.

Tuesday night, I returned to the Rosza Center to listen to Welby Altidor speak on creativity and collaboration.

Altidor believes that each of us possess creative genius, but it must be cultivated and developed through practice. Creative courage is more than practical tools and strategy, it’s a way life for Altidor and those who dare to embrace it.

Yes, yes, yes! You betcha I was going to drive across snow-paved roads to listen to Welby. He was speaking my love-language — make (literary) art accessible!

Welby was the creative director for Cirque du Soliel, and as a dancer and choreographer, he understands the universal power of telling a story. Art is the great communicator wrapped in many mediums from movement to written words. He began by telling us that every good story includes three elements.

Welby teaches that every good story includes love, power, and transformation. You could compare this to the classical teaching of the Greeks, who perfected the three-act story: pity –> fear — > catharsis. Love seems more universal to me than pity, although I understand the Greeks intended for an audience to love the protagonist enough to pity his or her plight. Power is what we might call tension and leads to the Greek ideal of the audience fearing for the well-being of the protagonist. Catharsis is an emotional release (from the fear) and transforms the audience.

Note that in the hero’s journey, the three acts still apply. Of course, I started thinking, what would Anne Goodwin say… After much discussion on the model of the hero’s journey failing to capture the protagonists who don’t change or return with an elixir, I had an a-ha moment. We change. Not the protagonist, but we — the writer, the reader, the creator changes.

That’s the universality of the hero’s journey. Even if the hero falls flat, the creator of the story needs to provide a transformation for the reader — a greater awareness of self, others, or the world around us. And Welby was speaking directly about creatives and how to build creative teams. We must love our art enough to give it power and transform ourselves and audiences.

Welby’s book (and presentation) center on creative courage. To create transformative work we must start from a place of caring. Like at Carrot Ranch — we gather because we care about literary art. We care about writing. We care about stories and words and what we can do with them. We care about our stories. We care about the stories of others. This is the beginning of creative courage.

What comes next wouldn’t surprise anybody who understands Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but it might surprise you to think it applies to art. We need to secure safety. Yes, creativity needs a safe place to plant the seeds. That is also the purpose of Carrot Ranch — to create safe space to practice, explore and discover our literary art. I felt like Welby was looking at our community!

For collaboration, Welby says we next need to foster trust. Our literary community builds trust through positive feedback and consistency. We also learn to trust the 99-word constraint as a creative process. Our weekly collections are creative collaborations.

So what happens next? This is where we get to play with danger!  Welby explains that art pushes limits and takes calculated risks. Writing dangerously is to push deeply into an idea that you might think is on the fringe. It’s breaking the rules to create something different. It’s risking creative failure, submitting to a contest or writing outside your comfort zone. It’s earning the “runs with scissors” badge.

Once we start writing dangerously, we dream! We experience breakthroughs! We grow!

Welby went on to say that many of us are disconnected from our superpowers. Part of our mission in life is to discover them, accept them, and share them with the rest of the world. He asked us to tell the person seated next to us what our superpower is. If you can identify your superpower, you will better understand your voice as a writer.

And don’t think any of this creative business is easy. It isn’t. Welby also points out that there is a war on imagination. He said it hit him hard when he had the opportunity to go to North Korea, and he recognized constrained people the way his father was. It’s rooted in fear of failure. Methods might be taught and learned, but what we really need is creative courage.

A significant shift occurred the night I listened to Welby, and it didn’t have to do with my creative art. I wondered as I took notes, how can my family create fertile soil for the Hub. No matter his condition, our circumstances, or unknown future we need creative courage. I looked again at the seven dimensions of creative collaboration and realized the answers were there.

My daughter went with me to listen to Welby speak. We stepped out into the snow, and I told her that the seven dimensions could apply to her dad. She went home and sketched the concentric circles around each one and posted this statement with her photo on Instagram:

Great talk tonight with @welbyaltidor@rozsacenter. Here’s the mental model he presented; good insight into how to rebuild relationships and goals with Sgt. Mills. Walking the tightrope of late effect traumatic brain injury (LE-TBI) starts with taking care, raising safety nets, and building trust.
#creativecourage #love #veteranfamily #braininjuryawareness #tbiawareness #onestepatatime”

And Welby Altidor replied:

“Great stuff! I love your reinterpretation! Honoured it provided inspiration. Never give up!”

On that fine note, let’s move on to mashed potatoes. In the US we near the festival of turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy — Thanksgiving. I’m working on my menu and my novel which seems like opposing creative efforts. But Welby told us that fitting two things that don’t go together is how the troupe creates such memorable choreography and art in Cirque du Soliel. His examples: drones and lampshades; clowns and robots; treadmill and hoop-diving.

So we are going to write mash-ups that pair an unusual superpower with mashed potatoes.

November 8, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that pairs mashed potatoes with a superpower. It can be in any circumstance, funny or poignant. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by November 13, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments. Rules & Guidelines.

Fast Hands (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills

Nancy Jane flung the bowl of mashed potatoes at Horace. The bowl bounced off his shoulder and Hickok caught it midair. Horace hadn’t even moved except, Sarah noted, his eyes had widened the way a cow might look when protesting a lead rope to the milking barn. No one spoke as glops of white, buttery mashed potatoes slid down Horace’s shirt. Nancy Jane growled and slammed the heavy oak door when she stomped outside. Sarah understood her friend’s upset with how poorly Horace had handled Cobb’s interference at the station. More than that, she marveled at Hickock’s super speed.

July 26: Flash Fiction Challenge

The train has left the station, and a suitcase remains on the tracks. Which is bereft? The passenger who will miss what she packed, or a transportation company who has failed to make good on its reliability? Maybe the suitcase grieves.

Perspective can change any story. It can even change our personal narratives and shape our identities. How much choice do we have when it comes to success and failure? Is it a matter of perspective?

I’m walking the surf at McLain State Park, relishing in the windswept waves, pondering another perspective — the difference between worries and wishes. I’m thinking about wishes because every time I bend low to search a patch of water-tumbled pebbles for a possible agate, I find a wishing stone.

My daughter, who has an undergrad degree in geology, told me about wishing stones — any rock encircled completely by a mineral vein. Usually, I find one or two basalts with a vein of quartz, or maybe feldspar ringed with epidote. Today they are abundant.

I wish…to find a big agate!

I wish…to have a successful class at Finlandia U.

I wish…for Cynthia to get her house rebuilt.

I wish…for the Hub to be happy in his present condition.

I wish…

That’s when the worries slam down like an unexpected big wave, taking away my breath. I realize wishes and worries are equal energy wasters. Both feed off the same emotions. Both give control to matters beyond myself.

Instead, I recall that accountability leads to empowerment. I will do my best to create and lead a successful class at Finlandia. I can define what success looks like. That will help me shape the course. Students will be an unknown factor. I’ll focus on one rule: we are a marketing class, and we will behave professionally. I’m sure I’ll be pushed to define that over the year, as well.

But more than wishing, I can be accountable for each step and response I make.

For my friend Cynthia, I’ll continue to offer my help. She’s now in our RV which is parked at a beautiful home in the country not far from her beloved Ripley. I’ll stay in communication with her, attentive to ways I can offer my strengths and let others offer where I can’t fill in. Together, we are a community, and that’s empowering to all of us.

As for the Hub, his happiness is his own. It’s hard to watch a loved one falter. No doubt, life has dealt him an unfair hand, yet we all encounter such losses in life. He will have to come to terms with the impact of long-term TBI and how it complicates PTSD. It’s both neurological and psychological. Some days I want to flee. Mostly, I stand in the gap for him to hold the space he cannot.

But I’m no saint, and wishes and worries wash over me as I comb the rocky beach. I’m no hero, either, yet I’m on my own journey to be who I can be.

What about those who don’t or won’t? Or can’t because of circumstances stacked against them? Can the hero’s journey extend to those who don’t answer the call or step out of the cave?

And so I’m brought back to perspective. My perspective is that I believe I can push through and be all I can be. Funny because that’s the US Army slogan — be all you can be. Where did that get the Hub? Bashed knees by the age of 25 and damaged brain matter by 50.

It reminds me of the Vietnam vet who said, “Those who fight for the freedom for others are never free.”

My perspective progresses; my husband’s stays locked in the cave. I want to shout into the dark, “You have the key! Get out, get out!” But the sound of his own troubled perspective groans louder.

The suitcase remains on the rails. I want to pick it up — it seems so natural to me. Even success and failure are but different perspectives. If I don’t find an agate, I have failed in the hunt. Yet, I can average the number of agates and hunts and say that my success rate is high. Or I can call other finds a success in the absence of an agate. I might even claim that any day spent with feet in Lake Superior and eyes upon her rocks spells s-u-c-c-e-s-s.

I don’t want to perceive failings because I want to spend my energy pursuing what brings me joy. If I fail, I can try again. If I fail, I can learn from the experience. If I fail, I can choose another way. Failure can lead to resiliency, breakthroughs, and unexpected opportunities. More than perspective, it’s also a matter of choice.

So there the suitcase sits. It doesn’t matter why. It’s what happens next.

July 26, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about what happens next to a stranded suitcase. Go where the prompt leads you, but consider the different perspectives you can take to tell the tale.

Respond by July 31, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.

 

Keeping Secrets (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills

Anabelle found the suitcase in the hayloft, upright as if ready to travel. She didn’t see the slim shadow of a boy slip out through the stalls below. She grabbed it and ran to the farmhouse where her uncle was frying supper.

“Uncle Henry! Look what I found.”

“That’s Grandma Mary’s old medicine bag.”

“It’s a suitcase.”

“It’s what she used to tend to the Ottawa. Been missing for thirty years.”

“It was in the hayloft, plain as day.”

“I’ll be. Someone brought it back.”

Annabelle open the latches. A single sketching of Cobb McCanles drifted to the floor.

 

July 5: Flash Fiction Challenge

I want to be that woman bold enough to wear buttons as a necklace, or that man who can look cool on a hot summer day in a button-up shirt. We all want our characters to be heroes.

But in books, as in real life, heroes are rarely perfect. Not to mention, if you surveyed the average Jane or Joe or Jane-Joe, you’d likely hear that they don’t think of themselves as a hero.

Collecting the stories of everyday heroes has become a side gig. You see, some senator or US representative removed from the swath of destruction in the Keweenaw wants people to tell him who the local heroes are. He’s right — many people stepped up to demonstrate the Finnish concept of sisu. Like other places hit by disaster before us, we know the word strong. I’m collecting some of those stories.

But we dance around the term hero. It’s ironic that we do because each one of us leads a hero’s journey. It’s life. Maybe we have one life to plow through, one cave that hangs us up, but we all resonate to the hero’s journey. We just don’t want to be called heroes.

When I first developed a veteran presentation to teach combat vets how to see the hero’s journey in their own lives, I had near meltdowns among a group of tough Vietnam vets. They emotionally and physically reacted to the word “hero.” They understood the journey, grasped the concept of the cave, and found the return home with an elixir hopeful.

Just not the hero label.

I’ve since renamed the presentation The Veteran’s Journey. Same cycle, same information based on the research of Joseph Campbell, same story, different term. I’m discovering that the local Copper Country Strong folks shirk the term, too. And the interesting observation is that people all act exactly the way Joseph Campbell tells us the hero does in the beginning — we all deny the call.

Let me explain why I’m so enamored of the hero’s journey as a story-telling format: it’s all about discovery. It’s taking real-life and exploring the mysteries within our own mind to be what we have the potential to be. To live with adventure and compassion. Wrap that up into an external story (plot) and show how the internal story transforms (character) and you will have a format we are all inclined to engage with, read and want to read more.

Joseph Campbell collected mythologies and pointed out that the most told story the world over is the hero’s journey. We get it deep inside. We long to live it. He says:

“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”

Phil Cousineau is a storyteller, documentary filmmaker, and teacher of creativity. He expands upon Campbell’s insights:

“The journey of the hero is about the courage to seek the depths; the image of creative rebirth; the eternal cycle of change within us; the uncanny discovery that the seeker is the mystery which the seeker seeks to know. The hero journey is a symbol that binds, in the original sense of the word, two distant ideas, the spiritual quest of the ancients with the modern search for identity, always the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find.”

This is what the cycle of the hero’s journey looks like:

The abyss is what I teach as “the cave.” It’s a basic story of refusing a call — accepting a circumstance, swearing off the love interest. We don’t want to be heroes. We want to walk the path laid out, which Campbell notes is not our path. Our path is the one we can’t see, and it’s dark, leading to a cave. No wonder we don’t want to go! We don’t want to pick up the phone when the unknown calls us.

Campbell also assures us that when we accept the challenge, forge the dark path, go our own way, we will have mentors who show up. A hero gains guides. Also, a hero attracts enemies. But forward on the hero marches. It gets crazy, but the hero has left home. Odysseus has sailed. Luke Skywalker left on the Millennium Falcon. Those who came to help the flood and landslide victims can’t turn the truck around mid-stream. Boots on the ground have to complete the mission.

There’s always a cave. Not literally, though it can be. It’s a dark moment when the hero can’t continue without becoming forever changed. No one wants to hang out in the cave forever, but some become afraid to leave its confines — think of depression, anxiety or PTSD in that way. Cave dwelling. It takes great courage to face internal forces and defy external ones. It takes boldness to get off the couch, out of the swamp, across the street.

Push through, and life alters, the hero transforms. The elixir the hero receives is not always the antidote to save the village or the blow that defeats the villain. The elixir can simply be the realization that life is ever-changing. That one’s self is continuing to evolve. The elixir is the power to go on and return home again, renewed.

If you think about it in personal terms, the hero’s journey is messy. Who wants all that trouble when security and clear paths afford a safer route. Ah, but then we miss the potential for who we were meant to be. So we go forth and be awkward. We make mistakes. We fall short of goals. We disappoint and are disappointed.

Without those uncomfortable moments, those difficult seasons, we’d have no idea how powerful a sunset is, or know the inner peace of observing a tadpole in a ray of sunlight on a shoreline. It’s like birth. Everyone tells expectant parents your life will change. It’s like death. We know after the loss it can never be the same. Yet, we gain some inner clarity, we feel more authentically ourselves.

No one wants to answer the call, including your characters. Before you begin your tale about that bold woman in the button necklace or the cool man dapper and tailored, think about who they were before. Or think about the journey yet to come. What if she learns what it is to doubt? What if he’s torn and no longer in control? Poke into the hero’s journey.

And button up for this week’s challenge!

July 5, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes buttons. You can use the word plural or singular in different expressions, or focus on how buttons relate to a story. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by July 10, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.

In the Silent Places We Hide (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Danni didn’t want the buttons. They sat in a jar on her shelf by a faded photo. The night Michael accused her of hoarding artifacts, he didn’t mention old buttons. Today, he asked.

“Mom’s,” she answered, looking away, sitting on the floor.

Michael opened the jar and poured them into his hand. “Sacred.”

After he left, the house echoed ghosts – the mother she never knew, Ike’s booming voice, the dogs barking. She smashed that jar, buttons and glass scattering like those she had loved.

Picking up the pieces, button by button, she resolved to quit hiding in the house.

June 28: Flash Fiction Challenge

My hand races across the page and I sketch the scene unfolding — Suomi dancers in blue aprons and kerchiefs over white-blond hair circle around, stepping in time to violins. To my left I’m vaguely aware of the large brick structure that once served as a high school and now classrooms to Finlandia University. Its bricks offer a backdrop of ghostly students, sons, and daughters of copper miners.

A shadow crosses my sketch, and a person asks, “Are you an artist?”

“Yes,” I answer glancing from dancers to page. I scribble a bit more, shade less, and turn the page to capture another scene.

“Can I see?”

I pause. The spell has broken, I’m now firmly aware of the rush of sights and sounds beyond the dancers. I’m at the Hancock Tori. The local farmers and craft market. A jewelry maker hawks carved stone beside me and a Calumet couple cut fresh microgreens for $3 a bag. My neighbor Cranky displays her collection of antique hand-crank sewing machines. Across the green from us, painters set up tents with scenes of Lady Lake Superior.

“Sure,” I say, handing over my sketchbook.

The man holds my raw art committed hastily to blank pages recycled from a dump on the East Coast. His eyebrows scrunch, and he shakes his head. “It’s just words,” he says.

I’m a literary artist. A writer. A novel-drafter. A publisher of weekly collections and annual anthologies. I flash, and I write for the long-haul of longer trains of words. I’m a story-teller, a story-catcher, a story-forger. I am an artist, and I sketch with words.

Years ago, in high school, I had a mentor who told me to carry sketchbooks. I had no trouble catching the wingspan of a hawk or the gurgle of a spring. Deer didn’t give me odd looks if I stared too long at their rumps or horns, figuring out how either end could feature in a tale.

But when I was among people, I felt self-conscious of observation. I didn’t enjoy thinking about the length of someone’s hair in relation to the tone of their voice. I became more adept at capturing emotions and motives than looks. I was too shy to sketch in front of other.

Now, I roll my eyes at the man’s comment and offer to read my scribblings. I really do look at people and write without looking at the page so it can be a mess of ink, jumping outside of lines, slanting and scratching out words, interjecting new ones. I clear my throat and read:

Suomi Dancing

A blonde quartet draw bows across time and strings of old-world violins. They remake the songs of midsummer in Finland. No longer homeland, home is here, Finlandia, USA.  Voices rise, the blue cross on white flag rises, the Juhannus pole rise. It’s summer solstice and young girls in blue dresses with matching kerchiefs circle around the adults from out of town and suomi-dance with joy. Around and around they skip and step. Holding hands, they dance inward and back out again. Just like celebrations back home, a thread of culture unbroken dances lively beneath a copper country sun. Hey!

He smiles. Nods. “Cool,” he says.

We’ve discussed names and what we call ourselves as writers many times before at the Ranch. Artist is the latest evolution for me because it captures the spirit of all I write and arrange, as well as my vision for Carrot Ranch as a literary art community. Artist might feel weird for some writers, but we are — words are the medium we use, it’s what we paint and sketch.

A few days ago, collecting updates from Cynthia at ground zero at Ripley village, she realized with delight that her three friends were all writers. She said earlier that day her artist-artists were with her. The poet among us frowned and said, “Wait, artist-artists? Like, we aren’t real artists?” We all laughed, knowing we weren’t being excluded.

I’m happiest sketching freely. I carry a waterproof sketchbook for trips to hunt agates. I carry several in my purse, one in my car and have a stash in my desk next to the chocolate. Sometimes I meditate, give three cleansing breaths, then sit in my own stillness and catch what is around me. I listen for stories. I stare awkwardly at people’s clothes and gestures, but if I remain quiet and calm people don’t notice the way a nuthatch ignores a birdwatcher.

Sometimes, I know someone has a good story, and after coaxing them into telling me, I boldly whip out my sketchbook and say, “I’m writing this down, and make a few notes.” I captured the story of one of the Ripley firemen that way:

From Kitten to Fish

Bill wades into the muck to grab the flopping silver steelhead. Disaster all around and he can’t bear to see this fish die, gasping in the muck. The flash flood has wiped out the spawn. Had Bill been fishing in his boat, he’d have a great catch. Today he’s in waders and his volunteer fire department t-shirt. He thinks about keeping the fish for dinner later but sees the state patrol and thinks he better wade out to the flooded creek instead. A flash of a camera and the newspaper headline cheers the firemen for rescuing kittens and fish.

He really did save a steelhead trout, and the story is sad, although I chose to give it a lighthearted tone. In reality, Bill (whose name is not Bill, but I told him he’d recognize his tale by that name) saved a large steelhead stuck in the Ripley mud. All these floods in our local creeks washed out the spawning salmon, and the smelt are done for, which may take years to recover.

Not to mention most of our beaches are closed due to sewage and e-coli. I’ve vowed to stop licking rocks when I hunt! Already I’ve developed a different way of wetting Lake Superior rocks to see their best colors and definition. I take a small bowl to the Tori with me and keep a pool of water for dipping.

Visitors to the Tori enjoy the #CarrotRanchRocks stories, and I have a set of educational rocks to teach people a bit of geology. Then I read some 99-word literary art. Two of my tent-mates are rockhounds. One is going to take me out in his Jeep, the other gifted me with his art so I could assign stories about his etchings. This community doesn’t grip me — it holds me up.

In addition to sketching, teaching rocks, reading stories and selling books at the Tori, I’ve set up several activities in literary art. Once we get dates settled, I’ll be renewing Wrangling Words at the Portage Lake District Library. I offered this literary program at other libraries, and I thoroughly enjoy working with libraries. Susan Sleggs, one of our Rough Writers, is also giving a Wrangling Words presentation to her writer’s group.

My writers retreat at the Ripley Home of Healing is on hold. My nature writing workshops might be, too because McLain is cut off. But my presentation at Fort Wilkins in Copper Harbor is still a go July 16:

Copper Country History in 99 Words, No More, No Less
Join local author Charli Mills in a presentation of her flash fiction with a focus on local history. Participants will also learn the literary art of flash fiction and get to craft one of their own, using prompts from Fort Wilkins.
If the signs align, and they seem to be heading east from west, I have a special presentation to give around a Vermont campfire. I think cider and yarns might be involved.
We write, we sketch, we evolve.
When I started Carrot Ranch, I intended to have a landing page for marketing clients. I was still freelancing for major outlets on topics of business and marketing, traveling to give workshops to community food systems to set up marketing communications and branding. Looking back, I see that as fast as the Hub was unraveling, my desire to go all literary was rising.
I freelanced until May of 2016, writing my last magazine feature: Sandpoint Magazine Summer Issue: “Dog Town.” By the close of this month, my employer of 17 years will no longer contract with me as their publications editor and writer. It seems momentous, but I’m ready for that break. My GM left last year, and only one of my former staff remain of the department I built. My closest friend from the remaining management team is also moving on, and it seems a chapter has closed.
So how do I sketch my life from this point?
My latest evolution is to return to leading workshops, which I love to do. I’ve pondered the whole “marketing and editing” issue as I don’t want clients like I’ve had in the past. I’m done with that phase of my life. When authors contact me to market their books, I politely decline. Marketing is a huge task, and it’s part of the professional development of an author. Even if you get picked up by the so-called “Big 5” you will still have to develop your own marketing strategies.
To that end, I started developing an e-zine last year, called Marketing Mavericks. If you’ve ever heard of guerilla marketing (for small budgets and time allotments), then my take is similar. It’s specifically for authors with the ambition to market and sell. I’ve narrowed my niche to strategies and branding for authorpreneurs and entrepreneurs. The e-zine will be by subscription. I’ve also started writing for my book marketing hero, Rachel Thompson. You can catch my #NaNoProMo article or read thru the #BookMarketingChat she invited me two a few weeks ago: Author Marketing Strategies.
After my pitch to 1 Million Cups last month, a local incubator for entrepreneurs from Michigan Tech University contracted with me to teach entrepreneurs how to pitch for an upcoming event. I had my first coaching session with the small group on Monday and taught them the power and shape of stories, including the hero’s journey. It’s evolving, turning over yet another new leaf.
But it doesn’t change what Carrot Ranch is all about — a safe space to play with words, to craft stories, to interact with other writers. The weekly flash fiction challenge is the base of what I do to make literary art accessible. From there, any willing writer can join the Rough Writers in an anthology project. Vol. 2 is massive and magnificent! I’m in the throes of editing all I’ve arranged. You writers continue to amaze me.
We’ll Rodeo again in October. I’ve been uncertain what to do with all our entries. When I thought it would be “no big deal” to put them into an e-book, I had no idea how many words it would turn out to be. I know writers from last year’s contest want to read the volume, and I want to use it to raise the prize purse for this year. I’m contemplating a sale on a PDF through the Ranch. I’ll keep participants and leaders posted.
I’m doing some limited developmental editing and brand work. I’ve edited some scientific papers and content for a local web developer. I’m best at the developmental stage, I’m not a copy editor, but I can recommend some. You’ll be seeing some pages and ads going up. These are directed toward clients I’m interested in securing, so don’t think there’s any expectation on you — you are who I fondly call “my writers.” You are the story-tellers, the story-catchers, the novelists, the flash fictioneers, the memoirists, the sketchers. You are who the Ranch benefits. I want to make that clear.
I want to share my vision work with you, too. Part of my work with the entrepreneurs is to craft their visions and concepts into stories and pitches. So you might recognize part of TUFF! They are crafting their visions according to a process I shared. My writing partner in the UK has also completed this process. She did it brilliantly! In two weeks, the entrepreneurs will return with their vision in 99 words, which becomes a 59-word mission statement and a 9-word tagline. You are welcome to try this, too:

A Vision of Success (99)

Writers high-fived across the string of comments, appreciating craft and creativity in their sandbox, 99 words at a time. Carrot Ranch, an imaginary place made of real people from around the globe. A tribe. Buckaroo Nation. Authors and entrepreneurs arrived too, looking to forge brands and learn how to tell stories around investor campfires. Readers found literary art in small bites palpable to a modern diet of busyness. A buckaroo wrangled the words and published collections, hosted rodeos for writers, and flashed her way to write novels about veterans, history and earth science. The vision for the future rocked.

Carrot Ranch and A Lead Buckaroo’s North Star (59)

Carrot Ranch understands that writers and entrepreneurs need safe space to explore the craft of literary art and harness the power of storytelling. Lead buckaroo, Charli Mills, gave up riding horses to write brand stories. Now she wrangles 99-word flash about history, veterans, and rocks. Flash by flash, she crafts award-winning novels, leads authors on retreat and coaches entrepreneurs.

Tagline: Making literary art accessible 99 words at a time. (9)

June 28, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that is a sketch or about a sketch. It can be “A Sketch of a Romance” or “The Sketch of Aunt Tillie.” Go where the prompt leads you to scribble.

Respond by July 3, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.

If you want your story published in the weekly collection, please use this form. If you want to interact with other writers, do so in the comments (yes, that means sharing your story TWICE — once for interaction and once for publication). Rules are here.

 

A Sketch of Rock Creek by Charli MIlls

From the barn, you can see across the draw that is Rock Creek. Wagon ruts remain visible on both sides. David Colbert “Cobb” McCanless built a toll bridge across the deep cut. He arrived at this road station along the Oregon Trail in March of 1859. Family denies that a woman, not his wife came with him, but records show her signature as his bookkeeper. His wife and children arrived from North Carolina in September 1859. The women know what happened when two years later a young Wild Bill Hickok shot Cobb. But no one thought to ask them.

Literary Outreach

Carrot Ranch makes literary art accessible online and in-person. Learn more about the lead buckaroo’s philosophies on the value of literary art.

In addition to weekly literary challenges, annual writing contests, and newsletters, Carrot Ranch offers free outreach programs and paid professional workshops.

Wrangling Words is a free community outreach program to bring literary art to an underserved area. Developed by Charli Mills, the program teaches any level of writer from novice to advanced how to use the literary form of flash fiction (99 words, no more, no less) as a writing tool. Learn to write like the myth of Hemingway. Create stories, scenes, and novels 99 words at a time.

Five at the Mic is a reading event to share and celebrate the short-forms of poetry, flash fiction, and story-telling. Each participant either reads five poems, five 99-word flash fictions, or five minutes of telling a true or tall tales. It’s a collaboration between local oral creatives. It’s also a chance for the public to read or hear their favorite works by others (full credit is given before each reading). It’s an excellent way for writers to incubate works in progress, get audience feedback and learn to love the mic (not fear it). The event is free, but we do pass the hat.

A Veteran’s Journey is based on the pattern of narrative known as the Hero’s Journey. Using the story-telling model, this program looks at how a veteran answers a call to serve and how the final mission is to return to the community with something of value to share. It’s meant to be offered privately to veterans and their families. A story-telling component is included to teach flash fiction as a way to express the veteran and veteran family experience. This event is free to any veteran’s group.

Book Club Support is a way to introduce readers to the fun of writing. Even the shyest will enjoy the process of tackling 99 words, and all will be surprised at the results. The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. 1 will serve as the book under discussion. Speaker’s fee applies.

Writing Group Support is offered to established groups. The topics range from using flash fiction as a writing tool to anything that will help the group develop. It’s intended for groups that live in areas where access to literary art and professional development for writers is limited. Speaker’s fee applies.

#CarrotRanchRocks is a play on words — yes, the Ranch rocks! The hashtag corresponds to a new page on Facebook where literary art meets geology. Lead Buckaroo, Charli Mills, combines her passion for words and rocks by collecting Lake Superior rocks, scientifically cataloging ones to publicly share with a story. Like the popular rock art hashtags, #CarrotRanchRocks will be left in random places for public distribution. Those who find the rocks can learn what it is, read a flash fiction, sign in and pass it along. Rocks are free and most likely from the Keweenaw Penisula.

The Traveling Literary Show is a customized package designed to fit the needs of a community who wants access to literary art. The idea of the Literary Show is to get readers, writers, and lurkers working together in a community to create its own literary art revival. Carrot Ranch’s Lead Buckaroo will travel to any location within the US if three criteria are met:

  1. A community host to provide home-lodging during the Buckaroo’s stay;
  2. An available venue to set up a paid workshop or retreat (1-3 days);
  3. Other venues, including a public library, local coffee shops or pubs, and places where veterans gather (VA hospitals, clinics, Vet Centers, VFW, and other organizations that serve vets).

If you are interested in any of these programs for your community, contact Charli Mills for available dates, topics and applicable fees (much of the outreach is free, but requires a paid element to cover the cost of travel and the Buckaroo’s livelihood). Charli Mills is the spouse of a disabled combat veteran, and all veteran outreach is free.

 

Seeking the Well

I’m like an eagle standing on the ice. The thaw is near enough that I can hear the trout beneath claws designed to grab what I need — words like trout populate the pond of my stories. So close. So close.

But the words I wrote populated pages requested by clients. Nothing creative. Nothing literary. I interview board members and vendors. Such as the ice-cream maker who explained the moment she realized sugar was killing her husband. It was Valentine’s Day and she returned home with a box of chocolate. He loved his chocolates and Mountain Dew. But on that day he met his wife at the door, he told her he had diabetes.

This client told me her story and how years later she still has that unopened box of chocolates in her kitchen cupboard. Her husband stuck to a life-changing diet until he told his wife if he had to give up ice-cream he didn’t think he could stick to it. They were chemists and turned their kitchen into a working laboratory until they created a satisfying, sugar-free, dairy-free, whole-ingredients, plant-based ice-cream.

The secret to their company’s success? They made their mission fun. They were the eagles who broke through the ice and found the pond swimming with all the trout the would need.

I was that eagle on the ice trying to figure out how to break through after my second run at NaNoWriMo in 2013. For 22 years I had been writing for businesses and organizations, writing features, local profiles, and columns. I was a professional writer, a marketing communications manager with a thick freelancing portfolio, but I faced the ice — I wanted to write creatively; I wanted to spread my wings and be a literary writer.

After reflecting, as I do every turn of the year, I felt ready to make the literary leap. But how? I knew I could address writers with my professional experience and share business skills and marketing communication strategies. And that was the first stab I took as the eagle on the ice — Tips for Writers: By What Authority. One person read it. I thought of attracting readers through Ranch Recipes after all my writing beat had been local food systems — artisan cheese-makers, food-justice advocates, and chemists-turned-ice-cream-makers.

No, it was time to take the full literary plunge and it had to be fun.

Anyone who has been writing since the 1990s likely knows who Julia Cameron is — she wrote The Artist’s Way. She is someone who shares my love of Joseph Campbell’s work (especially the hero’s journey), reminding me to follow my bliss just as the creator’s of healthy ice-cream followed theirs. Her method includes daily free-writing, a practice that silences the inner critic. After all, we want to play with our bliss, not analyze it into an early demise.

The other part of her method includes a weekly activity to “fill the well.” She writes:

Art is an image-using system. In order to create, we draw from our inner well. This inner well, an artistic reservoir, is ideally like a well-stocked trout pond. We’ve got big fish, little fish, fat fish, skinny fish– an abundance of artistic fish to fry. As artists, we must realize that we have to maintain this artistic ecosystem.

If we don’t give some attention to upkeep, our well is apt to become depleted, stagnant, or blocked. Any extended period of piece of work draws heavily on our artistic well.

As artists we must learn to be self-nourishing. We must become alert enough to consciously replenish our creative resources as we draw on them– to restock the trout pond, so to speak. I call this process filling the well. (From The Artist’s Way, posted at Julia Cameron Live.)

Understanding that the well is filled with the art — and raw literature — of others, and that creativity is a tribal experience, I sought to make Carrot Ranch a playground for writers. Flash fiction would be the game we played. Nearly four years ago on February 13, 2014, I wrote my first Weekly Flash Fiction Challenge:

Word prompts continue to make for enjoyable practice. Practice makes for better craft, of course, but it also can be freeing. If it’s just “practice” then the writer can leave behind her critic or his editor, and just do the one thing we all want to do–write.

Take a break to have fun, and you just might return to your work renewed with playful creativity. I’m looking for some writers to play with once a week. The game is flash-fiction and each week will have it’s own prompt. Only 99 words, so not a big commitment. You can even develop a blog post around your submission and meet other writers–poets, bloggers, authors, j-students, teachers. If you write you are invited to play. Nothing serious; it’s just practice.

In other words, I had played with raw literature in mind from the beginning. I had no tribe. I trusted the ice would give and trout would be plentiful beneath. I trusted that if I sought the well every week, other seekers would show up. The first to do was was Norah Colvin. Norah’s first words to me ever were: “Powerful. Sad. Unjust. Distressing. Hateful.” I’m not sure those are the attribute of a strong friendship, but she trusted the space to leave a meaningful comment.  And she later returned with her own flash fiction.

We all improved our responses. Practice with any art or skill results in breakthroughs. But the greatest breakthroughs came in recognizing the power of the tribe. I’ve never grown tired of what the well reveals each week. I can’t predict it. But I know it’s going to be powerful.

From our earliest attempts at Raw Literature, our tribe became the Rough Writers. We’ve grown and taken on more Friends as writers also seek the well at Carrot Ranch. We are now a literary community and have debuted an anthology based on our earliest 99 words. We launch our book on February 4 with a live Facebook Event on February 4 from 11:00-11:20 am (EST, same as New York City). Like our flash fiction, it will be quick, inspiring and celebratory of the tribe.

On Monday, February 5, Geoff Le Pard will kick off a Rough Writers Around the World Tour. Every Monday will be in a different country with a different Rough Writer. February’s line-up includes:

Geoff Le Pard (UK) at Tangental on February 5
Anne Goodwin (UK) at Annecdotal on February 12
Anne Edall-Robson (CA) at Ann Edall-Robson on February 19
Sacha Black (UK) at Sacha Black on February 26

This is what one reviewer has to say about The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. 1:

“A fascinating book packed with bright ideas and worthwhile material. I was greatly entertained by the stories and essays and so taken with the idea that I thought I would give it a go with a 99-word review.

Stories of ninety-nine words, no more, no less, little gems from the Rough Writers of the Carrot Ranch. Like wild flowers in an early morning meadow glistening with dew and I, a butterfly or bee, flitting from bloom to bloom, immersing myself in a kaleidoscope of experiences which pass through my mind like an ever-changing dreamscape. Stories of love and loss, victory and defeat, struggle and gain from the pens of talented authors with backgrounds as diverse as their stories. A brilliant idea that has created an astounding anthology, one that you will return to time and again.” Charles Remington, Readers’ Favorite 5-Star Review

You might think that a 5-star review from an independent source before a book has officially launched is tops. But it’s the fact that the reviewer found the well and was inspired to write his own 99-word story. That’s the beauty of the Ranch — a deep and open well for all who seek.

The eagle has plunged through the ice.

January 18: Flash Fiction Challenge

Just call me Wrong-Way Charli.

I might have boots but they don’t always go the beaten path. You might find me calculating the drop on a rock face or attempting to access a naturally secluded beach. The faintest hint of a trail through forest duff speaks louder to me than the exposed dirt of the worn path.

Adventurous? Mostly by accident. More like curious. As in curiosity-killed-the-cat. I’m Shirley temple chasing the bluebird of happiness. I’m Hayduke weeping at the beautiful places of solitude. I want to know what’s over the rise, if the loons will give chase, and take time to look for just one more agate. I want to be there when the hawk flies past unscheduled.

Snow condenses in layers now. The merengue grows stale. Lady Lake keeps a fresh coat of white paint over it all but cut into the layers and it’s turning grey. The county recently bladed our street and I can see snow in geological layers. Have we been buried for eons? It feels like it.

I press each foot into my boots and tighten the laces. My red cap and scarf keep me warm and I look like a plump elf in my dark green wool coat that flares like a dress. I grab a tote bag, my wallet, and my headphones. These snow boots are made for walking and I head out the door to shop the co-op on the hill.

Passing by the fresh cut of snowbank I can no longer read the Fire Lane street sign. It’s buried. The snow slides like grease with each step and I struggle to stomp my way up the hill. Beneath is a compact layer of ice more solid than concrete. Snow sits in the saddles of trees, taking up permanent residence. Ever-present flakes kiss my cheeks. Lady Lake is loving today.

The heater in our car stopped blowing. Without the fan, the windows ice over making it impossible to drive. Thus I’m experimenting with being car-less. I’m walking to buy my dried mango slices and Wisconsin cheese. I overfill my tote with vegetables to make bone-broth soup. The flu is raging through Hancock and across the canal in Houghton. Fresh snow, fresh veggies — my plan to stay well.

Magnificent Mondays rolled around and car-less, I put out a call for a ride. It’s a twice-monthly gathering of local creatives at the Ripley House of Healing where I will debut my TUFF workshop. Through a few missteps in communication, I got a ride (next time I’ll know to go outside and wait). It was lovely riding in a warm vehicle that I didn’t have to brush off the snow to ride in.

Liking this car-lessness, I let my cake baker know that I wasn’t able to meet up with her downtown, could she swing by the house? This time I put on my boots and elven winter-gear and waited outside. She’s a homesteader and makes gorgeous cakes from whole ingredients. She even bakes vegan. But this first cake will be German chocolate with the sides and middle frosted with traditional pecan and coconut.

Later that evening, I had a meeting for local entrepreneuers. I asked for another ride and was delighted when a local poet and book designer answered the call. We laughed all the way down Quincy Hill and over the canal bridge to the meeting. She lets her inner child run wild with the sharp wit of an adult. I find her fun and fascinating.

We laughed at her car, which was leaking gas. She had recently replaced her rear windshield after it shattered in the cold. This poet lives 16 miles up the Keweenaw Peninsula, so she had to drive to Houghton without a rear windshield in the snow. She said now she can claim she’s a Yooper. After fixing the glass, the mechanic told her about the leak. She asked, “Will my car explode?” After he replied no, she was relieved because things seem to be exploding in her car. It made my heater problem sound better.

About the time I thought I would fully embrace car-lessness, the Hub looked at YouTube videos and figured out how to fix it. He does have his moments. That’s how I came to be Wrong-Way Charli. I got my car back.

Today has been a flurry of preparation and blowing off nervous energy for my presentation and book signing tomorrow. I have felt the rainbow of emotions from over the moon excited to down in the dumps depressed. I feel moody as a teenager, not a time I wish to recreate in my life. I breathe. Following the breath in…following the breath out…and carry on.

When I found out the Vet Center has no projector, I researched buying one. Surprisingly they aren’t too expensive but it wasn’t in my budget, like cake and local advertising. The Vet Center and my lovely group of veteran spouses helped me track down a rental at Finlandia University which is on the Hancock side of the canal. I talked with the librarian who explained to me how to find the campus library.

First, let me explain Quincy Hill. It’s so steep that the Quincy Copper Mine on top of the hill built a special tram to deliver ore to the smelters and docks below. It’s so steep it’s now a ski resort. Mind you, it’s a hill, not a mountain, but its verticle climb is impressive. In snowstorms, some streets are blocked.

And that’s what I drove up today, a blocked-for-one’s-own-safety Quincy Hill Steet. It was one of those mistakes a person makes and realizes it’s the wrong way, but stopping would be worse. So upward I drove, willing those snow tires to work. The car slipped and careened, the dashboard flashing the light to tell me I had lost traction. I know, I know! Two young boys with shovels watch me, probably hoping to see a backward Yooper left turn.

At the crest of the hill were three choices: another hill to the right, a sharp dip downhill to the left or straight into a cavernous parking lot. I say cavernous because the snow banks were so tall and tight at the entrance it looked like driving into a snow cave. I opted for the cave, after all, I am presenting on the hero’s journey tomorrow.

My elixir turned out to be that I found the Maki Library. The door looked rather industrial and I thought maybe it had to do with being a university library. No other cars were parked in my cavern, so I approached the door and walked down the hall. Five people turned around and stared at me. That’s when I read the sign that said staff only. I had entered the wrong way and could see the front lobby beyond. There was no escaping my error.

A man with a ponytail and glasses halfway down his nose asked, “Can I help you?”

Awkward situations bring out my inner comedian and I pointed to the staff sign and said, “I’m looking for a job.”

He smiled, so I told him I was the person picking up the projector. He then escorted me out of the staff area into the lobby. Without further complication, I became a public member of the Finlandia University Maki Library, and I successfully rented a projector, cords, and speakers for free. Then I had to ask how I was supposed to get to my car. “Best go the way you came, Wrong-Way Charli.”

And that’s how I got my Yooper name.

January 18, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes boots. Whose boots are they, where do they go and what is their significance? Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by January 23, 2018, to be included in the compilation (published January 24). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

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Easing Frustrations (From Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Between public affairs and citizen scientists on her archeology dig, Danni wasn’t surprised to see Ike show up with his dogs.

Now she had someone familiar to lash out at. She stomped her boots down the gravelly trail toward Ike and the pointers at his side. Danni trudged past the silent volunteers. She marched right up to Ike and he swung her up into his arms, planting a lingering kiss on her angry lips.

Danni sagged against him. He growled in her ear, “I missed you, Babe.”

“Damn it, Ike. I missed you, too.” She refrained from kicking him.

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