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We look through screens all the time and never see the mesh. In the latest spit of snow, Lake Superior warmed enough to drop flakes like meringue. It clings to the screen, and I see the mesh. Small gingham squares of space fill the lines between fine steel wire. No longer do I see out the window; my eyes cast no further than the screen.
He interrupts my study, standing in the doorway. A wide arched entry between the living room and hallway. The oak banister leading upstairs gleams behind him. He has a mug of coffee, steaming in his hand. He looks good in his black sweatshirt. The man in black, not like Johnny Cash. More like tactical black. Army Ranger.
Why do you think he’s stuck in Ranger mode?
It’s just a pointless question that echoes in my head. I’m no brain doc or expert on neural connections. Instead, I recall a presentation I went to years ago about the hard-wiring of boys’ brains. The significant discovery was that boys don’t complete their neural connections until their mid-twenties. The presenter’s point regarded the dangerous influence of violent video games.
What about war, M16 rifles and extreme military training?
Like a small beach gravel stuck in my Keens, the idea rolls around my thinking uncomfortably. If video games are detrimental to the final phase of the developing male brain, then the military training, Ranger training, combat dive training, paratrooper training, live training in covert South American operations, and smash-landing in Grenada by the age of 22 has to be influential. Possibly injurious.
I can’t say when I noticed for certain that PTSD became a problem for the Hub. Wiser and more experienced friends suggested he should go to the VA. For four years I volunteered to help my friend give acupuncture to soldiers who did “not” have PTSD. To say so was to kill a career. So we helped with “stress,” the covert word.
And that’s what angers me. The denial from those who not only know better, but who could have helped. If we know male brains are not hard-wired until mid-twenties, isn’t it insidious to train them up as elite soldiers? If I were writing a conspiracy thriller I’d plot out how the government takes advantage of those qualifying for Navy Seals, Delta Force, or Army Rangers. What if they know, and that’s the point of the extreme training?
Problem is, once hard-wired, the off-switch goes missing. Readjustment counseling seeks to guide combat veterans back to civilian life. The Vet Center is a part of the VA but also a separate department set up in 1979 to acknowledge the difficulty Vietnam-era soldiers experienced adjusting to civilian life. In 1981, the Hub joined the Army, hard-wired for combat. His first combat jump smashed his body. 34 years later and he’s still seeking help.
What if he received readjustment counseling after Grenada?
If he had received it, would I be looking at him, standing in the doorway, wondering where he’s gone? Maybe the hard-wiring is irreparable. Maybe he could have found a way to use it productively. He did, on his own, for many years. Although the signs flagged, especially during times of stress, he always soldiered up. If I was certain of one thing, it was that my husband would protect us.
Now he is magnificently untrustworthy. It’s mind-blowing to me on many levels. He began to see the mesh and only the mesh. This started when we left Minnesota. The holes in the mesh are empty space. Look through the screen outside the window and you see clearly. Begin to focus on the mesh and it distorts your view. Focus too long and all you see is the screen.
Somewhere, the Hub is behind the screen in his mind. It unfolded slowly with moments that left me wondering why he was so unreasonable. That’s when I began to push for him to seek help for his injuries and PTSD. When we experienced crisis last year, he did not react the way a normal person would. He led us a merry chase with me prodding the whole way to get into the VA.
Fast-forward through the quagmire of the past year. Here we are, living with our eldest daughter. And he wants to go. Where? Just go. It’s the deployment response. Here, in the land of Lady Lake snow, he’s finally getting help. He’s finally meeting doctors and therapists who see the red flags. But is it too late?
Staring out through the window I look past the screen. I’ve returned from a healing retreat where I sat among women who’ve lost children to car accidents, mothers to cancer, husbands to heart attacks. Yet I was not the only veteran spouse there. I’m finding solidarity among for this specific pain. Ultimately, what matters is that we sit with each other, share and find our joy among the ashes.
We all bared our vulnerabilities, our pain and grief. We let go. I took off my earrings which I’ve worn every day since June 16, 2016. They had become my symbol of suffering at his side. Instead of taking the house on Sunnyside and continuing my writing retreats, I stayed with him, hoping for help, seeking help, not leaving him to wander alone.
I’m letting go of my position behind the mesh. It’s not what I choose to see. I know it’s where he’s stuck, but I can still support him from a different view. It may seem a little thing to let go of, but it’s profoundly shifted my perspective. As another friend recently told me, this is my new normal. I’m not sure what that is, but I’m feeling freer. I sigh, and hope he can feel that way again, too.
I turn back to the doorway, and he’s gone upstairs.
November 16, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) use the word mesh in a story. Mesh is both an object and a verb, which you can freely explore. You can play with its sound, too. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by November 21, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published November 22). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Between Here and There (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Danni trailed a finger across the mesh. The screened box rested empty, all the dry artifacts now collected. Her vision blurred. The mesh veils the place between here and there. The thought startled Danni. No, the mesh is a tool. She shook off her stupor and focused on the Styrofoam trays that contained shards of crockery, broken glass and rusty square nails. After transporting sixty-seven trays to the lab, she flicked off the lights. In the dark, she thought again about space and time. If material items and bones remain, where does the energy of the spirit depart to?
Yellow cats prowl the neighborhood. She has come, the Lady of the Lake. I expected her cloak of white, her hair of ephemeral snow, and her rasping howl. The cats are not hers, although I could imagine creatures trotting at her feet, purring, and observing the wake through golden eyes translucent as honey agate. Instead, the cats belong to the county — grand Caterpillar road graders the color of working-man gold. They’ve come to plow what the Lady has wrought.
In all my life, I’ve known snow. Last winter was my first experience in a warmer climate (Mars) and even there I marched for justice and voice in half a foot of snow at the Kanab Women’s March. Yet, this is my first time experiencing lake-effect snow. It’s a weather phenomenon easily given over to myth and mystery because the science reads like fiction. According to air temperature over water temperature, the result can be snow, blizzard or thundersnow.
It’s the Lady. I’ve hunted the shores of Lake Superior to develop a deep respect, awe and healthy fear of her depths and power. Some days she pelts my calves with tumbled rocks like a mischievous sprite. Other days she intimidates the combers with roars and riptides. I’ve glimpsed her on the North Shore of Minnesota where I first fell in love with Lake Superior. I’ve bobbed in her gentle waves at Chequemegon Bay in northern Wisconsin. Now, I’m seeing her take shape as she rises to the land of the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan.
Think about it — lake-effect snow is a visitation. Science or myth, it’s amazing to behold.
During the Flash Fiction Rodeo, Carrot Ranch had visitors of another kind — spammers. Because I pay for WordPress, I have hearty spam filters in place. Sometimes, too hearty. I’ve learned to check it frequently for the occasional writer who gets nabbed for no discernible reason. The spam never makes it through. But with the forms we used spammers did get inventive (such as copying and pasting their spam message in every required field). A few got through.
While it could have been the opening to a murderous musing, I doubt the Cialis ad qualified for Sherri Matthew’s Rodeo #7. Soon after, a dubious person named Male Enhancement began following the Ranch. Sherri quipped perhaps we were on someone’s target list because of her dongle, which had come up in conversation through comments. As naughty of a word as dongle sounds, especially in the presence of those selling vasodilators, it is a technology devise to enhance internet receptivity. Oh, the lurking innuendo in all of that.
And that’s why another piece of spam caught us off guard. Was it brilliant innuendo? Was is intentionally misspelled and miscalculated to look like spam, but be humorous? It was submitted to the Funny Man himself, Geof Le Pard of Little & Laugh Rodeo #2 for which the winner will be revealed on Tuesday, November 13. We laughed. We said, truly this is spam, and then we wondered. Norah Colvin, educator that she is, pointed out the plausible intention behind the content and its errors. One of the L&L judges suggested she might even know this character.
A character he is (or she). We’ll pick a gender and go with he to balance the Lady of the Lake. Both blow over Carrot Ranch in a shroud of mystery with a hint of playfulness. He, our humor spammer, is Nanjo Castille. While disqualified, we will share this clever spam that pulled our chain as an entry to Little & Laugh:
Hello Mrs Geoffarey DuParts. How are you for ten dollars? Or just a $20?
i am Nanjo. I have lots of extra high end luxyry purses and handbags because of website overstock gilch.
Are you intestrested? Let me explain to you how this works, Mrrs Geofarai:
Perfume and excessories all loaded up ready to ship out. The man came in and fool#s forch lift broke down. Cant transport stock out of the building. Gfppd fpr the gppse. Good for the gander/. Hence shooting off quick message in your FAQ bored.
Some of the finest stitching amd sewing work in many of the persfume bptt;es.
Not only that but you will find purses and hand bags of Ralphiger, Verskatche, Mr. Tommy Rott, and Coco Carmel.
How much would you be willing to me for this in money? A very little amount of bitcoin?
$20? For as little as $20 of BiTCHcoin we candei;ver to you a fine Channel bag and perfume for just £20. Reverse the other side of it, and it will fill your home with deliicsours vagrance!
>>>>This is 1 time deal because of warehouse overstock. Lots of high end
>>>> merch including Coochi, Pravda and Choco Caramel handbags.
Fo go go! No time!
Whether it was intentional or not, Nanjo harvested laughs among Rodeo Leaders. The only clue to his name was the email which we all avoided like the plague. Charming as Nanjo Castille might be, funny, nonetheless, we didn’t want to get sucked into his sketchy world. And if perchance you are a writer now realizing you absolutely fooled us with what was meant to “read” like spam for the sake of a good guffaw, fess up!
Writers are fond of personifying snow and lakes, imagining the lives of people in house we pass, and studying circumstances for stories. So, we are going to make up the life of Nanjo Castille.
November 9, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a fictional story about The Real Nanjo Castille. You can set any gender, era or genre to reveal the character behind the mystery. You can also imagine the daily life of The Real Nanjo Castille. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by November 14, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published November 15). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Interesting, but when I sat down to write my response I was thinking of all the funny stories we’d get. I’m a NaNo Rebel, revising Miracle of Ducks this month, so I chose to question what interaction my character might have with Nanjo. As what happens often, what I set out to write did not end up on the page. And I was struck by the lack of humor. Instead the irony of those who witnessed history being told it happened differently appeared.
I mention this to encourage you to go beyond your expectations. This is your time to explore. You never know what you will discover.
Interviewing the Real Nanjo Castille by Charli Mills
Danni pressed record, fluffing the sound muffler Ike called “The Muppet.” Today, she had access to living history. An elderly man called “The Real Nanjo Castille.”
Wrinkled and shrunken, he hunched beneath a blanket in a wheelchair. “I was born the year they assassinated my father, Pancho Castille.”
“1923. What were you told about your father?”
“He was a great revolutionary. He captured Buffalo Soldiers after Americans attacked our border towns.”
“Wasn’t it the other way around? Castille’s forces attacked US towns, stealing gold coins and burning a purse factory.”
“Why interview me if you already know the story?”
Coffee spiced with fresh shavings of nutmeg warms my hands while I settle into the cool fabric of the porch reading chair. It’s not porch weather, but tolerable with a sweatshirt. After tossing tantrums of snow squalls for nearly a week, the cool lake air cracks open the cloud cover and presses in like icy tendrils.
Regardless, there’s something irresistible about a porch.
On sweltering days we clink ice cubes in a glass of lemonade. When it’s cold, we still seek the porch with a hot beverage. We aren’t here to resolve any particular issues. Typically meetings are held in windowless rooms, not on open-air porches. Some porches are screened and others paned in glass.
Despite the chill, the south-facing windows capture enough sunlight to set the seasonal room aglow. Bright and warped from old-time glass techniques, the windows overlook the lower neighborhood of six houses and a hockey-field visible through the leafless maples. All the houses have south-facing porches.
It reminds me of the ancient stonework my father discovered at a timber sale located near Lake Tahoe. He showed it to me before logging destroyed the structures that were old enough to contain towering pines nearly a thousand years in age. It was a high elevation job a mill in Sacramento got for top bid. Virgin lumber in the Sierras was rare on the market.
And ancient structures on a mountaintop were so unheard of that the Forest Service didn’t even bother to send out an archeologist. They thought my father mistaken. But my father showed me. He explained how the slope faced south, catching the lowered winter sun, melting the snow naturally.
How long have we humans known the wisdom of south-facing slopes? When did we desire to retire to south-facing porches? You know the longing — growing old together in our rocking chairs on the porch.
In my daughter’s home, the back porch is the reading nook. I find the windows alluring, they call to me to contemplate. We’ve discussed writers and windows before. But this time its more than writers and windows. I’m curious as to why older homes have porches for sitting, yet modern homes eschew the thoughtful space.
If a modern home has a porch, typically it’s an entry space, a catch-all for discarded shoes and jackets. A place for the mail delivery to set a package. In Paco Underhill’s merchandising book, Why We Buy, he talks about how an entry space allows customers to convert hurried thoughts into a slower shopping space.
Thus even as an entry to home or business, the idea of a porch slows down our minds.
My mind is a whirligig today. I’ve gone from a year of wandering to growing Carrot Ranch as a literary community to hosting a collaborative and wild Flash Fiction Rodeo to diving feet first into the mess I made of my WIP, Miracle of Ducks. I’m a NaNo Rebel in search of the clues I need to publish this muddy novel as a gleaming book worth reading. I’m in need of a porch.
Just 10 minutes of cold porch time serves me well. My breathing slows, my coffee cools and disappears sip by sip, and I clear my mind enough to see what needs doing. I’ve already taken my opening chapter to TUFF (which any writer can also enter as the final Rodeo contest by 11:59 pm EST November 6). TUFF acts like a porch, giving me windows to contemplate.
Let me show you what I’m doing:
First, I have revised my W-storyboard with a Dollar Store posterboard and placed it where I write. I can’t miss it. I’ve tweaked it from how I had it set up earlier. Originally, I had my five key scenes (the circles on the W) correlated to five points of the hero’s journey: The Call, The Test, The Cave, The Transformation, and The Return.
After trying to sell my manuscript, the weak point of my novel was its opening. It didn’t punch any agents or publishers in the gut. My editor had advised on an earlier draft that I didn’t give enough page time to Ike. Then I became homeless and decided to shred my manuscript to give my protagonist a western location and more hardship. I went to archeology field school in June and found my opening. All this processing taught me that we need to focus on the hero before we can focus on the call. This moves the test and the cave, which is more towards the end. The transformation is part of what happens between the cave and the return, which I like thinking of as the elixir — what gives the journey meaning.
For my NaNoWriMo Rebellion, I’ve also include a few more Dollar Store purchases: notebooks. What I’m doing in this notebook is applying the TUFF steps to work out revision issues I’m having. On the first day, I did a free write “about” my opening. I chose to brainstorm about it because the last thing I need is yet another opening: I have three!
I brainstormed the action I wanted to set up in the opening, drawing upon the three choices I have. Next, I wrote a 99-word flash fiction. It was flat, but revealed where I was getting hung up (it’s easier to see what is NOT working in 99 words than in 1,099 words). Next I wrote a 59 word flash and I actually liked what emerged. So when I wrote 9 words, I felt I nailed what the opening needed to be about. Of course the next part was to rip into those three scenes and make them the opening to MOD. That was my word count for today as a NaNo Rebel.
Not one to pass up on $1 notebooks, I bought several. This one is just for free writes. I’ve kept fiction journals the way others might keep diaries. Here’s what I learned about free writing many years ago: it’s your best tool against resistance. in his book The War of Art, Steve Pressfield writes about resistance as the enemy of creativity. He compares it to Freud’s Death Wish, our inclination to block our creativity or sabotage our own efforts. For years I wrote three pages very morning, “I hate mornings, I can’t think, I have nothing to write…” Not exactly Pulitzer winning stuff. But the discipline taught me to meet the page no matter what.
So here we are, back at the Ranch, sitting on the porch and sharing a cuppa. I’ve given you a window from my porch before and now I’m giving you a window into my process. I want you to write. You aren’t here because you want to take up parasailing or crochet. You’re here because you want to write a spy thriller about a crochet-loving, parasailing agent. Well, maybe not exactly that story, but one like it. You want to craft with words. Me, too.
November 2, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story a chair on a porch. Why is it there, and what might it mean? Think about using it as a prop or the main thrust of your story.
Respond by November 7, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published November 8). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Where Stories Begin by Charli Mills
Between Danni and the front door sagged a small front porch. Inside the cabin lived a former log-skidder. Rumor had it Old Man Moe was blind, but his stories of the Great Fires of 1910 remained vivid.
“Take a chair,” spoke a voice behind her.
Danni startled, not hearing the man with foggy eyes ride up on a mule. “Moe, I’m the Forest Service archeologist.”
Moe slid from the saddle as if sighted, and walked confidently up the decrepit stairs to one of two rickety wooden chairs. He patted the one next to him. “Stories begin here Doc Gordon.”
The Flash Fiction Rodeo begins next week! When I was old enough to know the rodeo season, I’d start to get excited by the flurry of activity. Working buckaroos had to get their chores done, their best western shirts pressed, and their show tack ready.
I learned young how to soap a saddle. The ones in our tack room were seventy-five to a hundred years old, and yet their age only made them all the more beautiful. They were stamped by famous saddlers in the San Fransisco Bay area. I used to marvel at the different artistry as I rubbed in the soap, going in small circles with an old but clean cloth — basket-weaves, florals and Spanish embellishments told the story of our heritage passed down from the vaqueros of the Californios.
All the ranch-hands, owners and countless children in between gathered to show their skills. A ranch owner might take pride in his fine stock. A ranch hand savored the competitive opportunity to show his who was boss on the back of a bull or bronco. A daughter wanted to show she could throw a rope and race a horse as hard as any brother or buckaroo.
I’ve always liked the word buckaroo. It’s genderless unlike cowboy or cowgirl. It’s also specific to a region and its heritage. Before Sutter found gold in his Californ-i-a mill causing the ’49er stampede, the Californios of Spain (and then Mexico) operated huge land grant ranchos, raising beef, saddle horses and vineyards. Most ranchos settled near the missions. I was born near Mission San Jaun Batista where my father’s family had run cattle since 1852. My mother’s family diversified, running turkeys and growing hay and apricots. I was born a buckaroo.
This meant I was indoctrinated into the San Benito Rodeo and Saddle Show early. It’s still held annually at Bolado Park near my hometown of Tres Pinos. Until I was seven, I lived on my mother’s family’s turkey ranch. Today it’s a golf course, the vision of my Papa Sonny who was as big and boisterous as our ancestor Cobb McCanles. I spent most my early life on the back of a horse at the Law Ranch, now called the Paicines Ranch after its original rancho name. One grandfather was its foreman and the other would later buy it and fail to develop it into another golf course.
I doubt either grandfather would make me a welcome guest there today, but I knew those hills, valleys and vineyards well. My first horse, Acorn, went blind and thereafter ran with the cattle herd. When I think of the Law Ranch, I think of my horse walking in circles to find his way through the vast green valley with the herd, his black main and tail long and tangled like a mustang’s and his dark red coat dusty.
Another horse came to me from that ranch, my best friend Captain Omega. Co was also dark red with black mane and tail. He bucked me off the first time I rode him. I got back in the saddle and we settled that argument. Before my bay horses, I rode the red sorrels my family favored. Often my grandfather waited at the stockyards until some fine horse-owner decided to dump an expensive horse with phenomenal breeding but bad habits worthy of dog food. My grandfather would pay the cheap stockyard prices, train up the horse and show off its breeding and skills at the Rodeo.
It was on the back of one of these sorrels I won my first trophy. It was called Best Girl’s Outfit. It meant I had to have the gleaming tack, thus why I learned early to soap a saddle. We made all our own reins, and I can still remember how to braid rawhide the way vaqueros did it for hundreds of years, but I can’t remember the button patterns. What we lacked in silver, we made up for in fancy buttons and horse hair weaves. To win the trophy I had to sit in the saddle straight, walk my horse to the end of the arena, turn him around and run him back. I wore a chocolate colored Stetson, turquoise and pink frilly western shirt, jeans, roughed boots and white gloves. I was three.
The Rodeo has me waxing nostalgic for a heritage I can’t extract from my blood no matter how far from it all I am. I’m sure my three-year-old self could out ride me today! But I can definitely out write my three-year-old self. If you want a buckaroo soundtrack for the upcoming Flash Fiction Rodeo, 2017 Carrot Ranch FlashFiction Rodeo Playlist. Songs 24, 25 and 26 are heritage specific. Song 20, True Grit, is my anthem minus the need to “find a man with true grit.” More like this little girl found her own grit within. I’d change that line to “when you find writers with true grit.”
That’s you, that’s me. Writers with true grit. You remember that as you prepare for the Rodeo. It’s about having the courage to push into your writing, to do something that makes you afraid, to be bold. Write into that.
With the Flash Fiction Rodeo (check out the details on the Events Page) the weekly challenges will wait until November 2 to resume. For those of you not interested in a contest and liking the challenge of a prompt, you can still follow along. Instead of entering the contest, you can submit a response that won’t be judged for top prize. If you do, I’ll ask if that’s what you intended because entries are not in the comments or on your own blog. You’ll need to use the form or the platform (Twitter) outlined in the contest. There will be one on Tuesday, and one on Thursday each week Oct. 5-31.
Be sure to check in Oct. 3 for Rodeo Fest. You’ll get a chance to hear me reading from The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology, Vol. 1 and can enter a random drawing for books, chocolate or rocks by leaving a comment on the Oct. 3 post before 10 am, 2 pm and 6 pm.
I have some soaping to do, and the last two compilations will post before the Rodeo begins. I hope you are as excited as this buckaroo is!
Tendril by tendril the plants pull themselves sun-ward. Leaves bob on light currents of air, hiding fragile white blossoms. The plants thicken to the point of hiding the slender iron trellis they cling to. They’ve grown so equally green, I can’t distinguish one plant from another. Nor can I tell when the white blossoms have fruited. This is not a patch of raspberries or sun-gold tomatoes. I await a harvest of peas.
The late summer day when the plants drooped, pulling the trellis out of alignment, I knew. I recognized the heaviness of harvest.Ever since that transition from growing, climbing green to drooping, gifting green I have haunted the pea patch. It’s not easy to spot the first pea, but once you train your eye to see, you see the full magnitude of pea harvest glory. It’s a bit like practicing flash fiction.
When I first began writing various short forms, I did so because it sparked my creativity. After that, I began requiring my team to write a specific creative form of 25 words before our meetings. We didn’t have time to linger over creative writing so most meeting days, I announced to the department that we would meet at the Round Table in ten minutes. I reminded each person to bring their project updates, meeting agenda and their cinquain. Often, team members scribbled their 25 words in the final five minutes of preparation.
As a prompt, a flash fiction of 99 words doesn’t take long to write. When I was leading Wrangling Words at the Bonner County Library, I gave participants five minutes to write. Many wrote several hundred words! The first time I gave the prompt it was 10 minutes and the stories were much longer than I anticipated for our group activity. So I know it’s possible to write 99 words in five minutes. Is it ideal for those who gather here? Perhaps not.
But what does flash fiction have to do with spotting a hidden pea harvest?
Draw the similarity between learning to spot green peas and learning to write tight prose. I view it as training. When I first spot a hanging pea pod, suddenly I see more. My brain understands the cue. When you practice flash fiction, you train your brain to tell a story in 99 words. You might still write 200 and cut, or only write 70 and add, but your brain gets better at recognizing its target.
I used to joke that writing creative constrains was magic because my marketing team responded by solving project problems with improved innovation. But I know science supports the power of constraints in forcing the brain to go into problem-solving mode. Thus two factors occur when we regularly write flash fiction — our brains think more creatively quicker and we train our brains to adapt to a pattern.
If you are concerned that you’ll pick up the 99-word pattern, fear not. It isn’t as if you can only write in that mode, it’s more like you can use that mode to solve clarity or literary issues with other forms of writing. I’ve marveled over our writers who add in verse, and now I realize that as poets they have other forms their brains use. These patterns are of benefit to a writer and it legitimizes writing short forms as a tool.
Of course, if you are like me in a pea patch, you probably care more about the pleasure the taste of fresh pea pods bring over the idea that you trained your brain to find what is easily hidden. You might enjoy the challenge of word-smithing among others, the fun of creating stories and reading what others create, and the weekly activity. And that’s good! I’m not in the pea patch munching on pods because I read that peas are high in magnesium. I simply like peas. And the fun I have, knowing I get to them before others in my household!
Ah, the competitive nature. It’s not that strong in me unless I know everyone is having a good time. That’s why I want you all to have a great pea-picking time at the upcoming Rodeo. It is a contest and it will bring out the competitiveness in some, the intimidation or perfection in others. Let’s admit that’s all possible. We’ll likely have many writers show up whom we’ve not met before or who aren’t interested in hanging out by the campfire. So let me be clear about goals.
Number one: Carrot Ranch is a fun and welcoming place to practice literary art. Don’t be put off by the word “practice.” In no way do I want to demean anyone’s writing as scribbles of art. When I say practice, I mean it according to my personal philosophy that literary art is something writers master over a lifetime. How do you know you’ve mastered it? You’re dead. Shakespeare mastered all he was capable of mastering by the day he died. It’s not about comparing our work to others. It’s about never stopping to push into what we can create with words. The process is the hallmark of a literary artist, not the finished product. Therefore, let’s have fun while we figure out what is possible with words and how to sharpen our stories. The Rodeo is intended to bring you something different and exciting from our weekly writing.
Number two: Carrot Ranch wants individuals within the community to succeed. Those who regularly gather and are willing to do collaborative projects like the anthologies are part of a smaller group that helps spur on the Ranch. They are the Rough Writers. In return, they get expanded visibility for their own writing. Those who gather for fun, who share our posts and read regularly are the Friends. It’s up to writers to decide. Either way, there are no obligations. However, Carrot Ranch is a place where writers can step out of their comfort zones. A contest is an example. If it becomes achievable here, it can become achievable elsewhere. Success is what you interpret it to be, and the Ranch believes in the value of literary art and your contribution to it.
Number three: Carrot Ranch is growing and we want to celebrate. The growth comes in more ways to support access to literary art — the creation of anthologies, public readings of flash fiction, free adult education classes that use flash fiction as a tool to build a local literary community, inspiring retreats, and innovative workshops. We will be launching our first The Congress of the Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology, Vol. 1 late in November with pre-sales in October. A Rodeo is one way to generate excitement about what we do at Carrot Ranch.
Enjoy the Rodeo, use the contests to try different prompts and don’t let intimidation hold you back. Every writer feels doubt. Don’t let it stop you from the joy of what it is to create literary art. Join in, saddle up and write! Remember, the Rodeo replaces the weekly prompt with two weekly contests Oct. 5-31. Stop by the Ranch for a progressive kick-off party on Tuesday, Oct. 3. You might win a random drawing prize so leave a comment on the Oct. 3 blog post. CR FB page will have drawings and live readings from Vol. 1.
Last call for Rough Writers for the next anthology: the one criteria is willingness to participate. We use material from the compilations to build upon, and some of our writers create new work. If you’ve been writing here weekly (even occasionally) send me a quick note. Find out if it’s something you want to pursue. I’ll introduce new Rough Writers at the Rodeo Fest (kick-off party on Oct. 3).
One last note: I’m not perfect. Seriously, it’s worth saying! We all make mistakes and I tend to bring in a bumper crop. So, I fudged my hastags. I’m not a hashtag genius to begin with and I forgot that I had created #FFRODEO for the Rodeo — Flash Fiction Rodeo. When I created the Rodeo Fest promotion I inadvertently created a second hashtag of #CRRODEO as in Carrot Ranch Rodeo. Better editors than my Inner Editor, pointed out the blunder, but by then both hashtags had been shared widely. I’m a flash fiction writer, so having trained my brain for solutions I will simply use #CRRODEO on October 3 for the Rodeo Fest and pretend that’s what I meant.
Be sure to follow along the Rodeo on Twitter at #FFRODEO. May it bring you all a bumper crop of fun!
And if you missed the post on Tuesday, check out the new Flash Fiction page at Carrot Ranch. It includes recipes for preparing flash fiction and introduces something I’ve been working on for a while — The Ultimate Flash Fiction (TUFF), which is a challenge, the final contest in the Rodeo, and the foundation for a new workshop I’ve developed using flash fiction as a tool to teach an integrative writing/editing approach to book revision.
Thank you for your patience as the sawdust clears on all these new barns and events at the Ranch! I’m a week behind on compilations, but whipping and spurring to get caught up in the next few days. I’ll let you know as new pages go up, too! This is the final prompt until weeklies resume November 2. I’m delighted to have you all here!
September 21, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about what it is to gather a harvest. You can use the phrase or show what it means without using the words. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by September 26, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published September 27). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Harvests Aren’t Gathered for All (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Sarah gobbled picked peas from her gnarled hands.
“Get out of there!”
Sarah blushed, gathered threadbare skirts and fled fast as a 91-year-old could muster. She held her head despite the curvature of her back and walked past the angry gardener as if she were on a Sunday stroll. In fact, Sarah realized, it was Sunday.
“You stay out you tramp!”
So much for Christian charity, she thought. Wandering without a destination she passed other gardens in full harvest. At the end of the street named after her father in the town bearing her surname, Sarah turned away, hungry.
Something broke loose. No longer tethered to the earth’s trajectory I defy gravity, a reverse shooting star. All the things, all the things gathered, all the things forgotten for later, all the things rise up ready to have their day at the beach. But this is no Bathsheba Beach with white sands and tiki bars. This is after the hurricanes when I feel defiant because life can batter me no more than it already has. My batten-down hatches have survived. I’m no longer afraid.
I run down to the riptide.
Beneath hatch number one an anthology wakes up. It has incubated long enough. Next Monday is THE DAY it uploads to its publisher. Already I’ve printed the proof and discovered its formatting errors. Its writers have peeked at the pristine white pages and pointed to spots where error mars. This is good. Nothing ever hatches in perfection, yet often the creator’s fond gaze misses the flaws. Other perspectives round the view, and I apply the polishing cloth. A missed word here — polish — an incorrect British spelling there — polish — pages out of format — polish — headings mismatched — polish.
If anyone believes independent publishing is a shortcut (to what, I wonder when I see this idea bantered about) they have not published. My experience with publications resides mainly with magazines, newsprint and company material. I served as co-editor for a literary journal once and it took a year, following a seasoned and fast-paced process. An author once asked to use a magazine column I wrote as a chapter in her book, How to Go to College on a Shoestring. I received a copy two years later. I’ve watched friends in the literary community fuss and fizz over formatting and issues I feared to poke with a stick.
I run down to the riptide.
Hatch number two is a home. Forever homeless I might be, and yet I’m secure with the three things homelessness taught me to appreciate: a bed, desk and toilet. The RV developed electrical problems shortly after our arrival with a slide-out sticking and batteries dying. Our SIL’s boss said we could store it at his place in the country, along with our truck which is too large for mining town streets. After six weeks, the Hub has finally resolved the issues. The RV is set up as a guest place in the country, free to the generous person allowing us the space and to any writer who wants an RV retreat to the Keweenaw.
Home is not ours and yet it is homey nonetheless. After a year of crushing my own self-esteem against the injustices of a rental market in rural America and fighting the VA for the Hub’s right to healthcare, we’ve soothed our wounds in a new community. Our daughter and SIL have graciously allowed for us to take the time we need to resolve it all without expectation. And they are true to their word, practicing meditation daily to stay calm in a house full of dogs and parents. It has allowed me to rise from the ashes like a Phoenix and become the Agate Hunter.
I run down to the riptide.
You might say that beneath hatch number three is a can of worms. It’s necessary to access the VA healthcare system. As a paratrooper and US Army Ranger, the Hub jumped into Grenada overloaded with his pack, radio gear and a mortar. Easily it all weighed an extra 120 pounds. On top of that burden, he was shot at like a landing duck. He hit the ground so hard — feet, knees, hips, back, shoulders, head — he bounced. He bounced he hit so hard. He bounced. Reeling in his parachute he saw it riddled with bullet holes. His adrenaline rushed so fast he had no idea if any holes were in his body.
For the next 33 years he lived with the pain of that bounce. Early on, his knees locked up and revealed bone fragments. The VA denied his claim, stating no x-rays from his service dates existed. In fact, the military refuses to release his full medical records. We were young and didn’t care to fight the system. How would twenty-year-olds know what growing older would be like? Over the past ten years the pain worsened. To a former Ranger, he pushes through. But employers don’t like to hire broken men. We learned what beast combat anxiety morphs into.
I run down to the riptide.
Like a treasure chest, I carefully unearth my last hatch. Gems glint beneath. I hold each one, attempting to identify the raw material, gems embedded in ancient matrix. I’m tasked to sand each hint of gem quality by hand. Practice, polish, practice, polish. One day I might master revision to make cabs of books and platform. Carrot Ranch, Rock Creek, Miracle of Ducks, and ones barely showing promise yet.
College did not teach me to write novels, though under guidance I started one, ghost wrote another and published a thesis the length of a novella. Books did not teach me to write novels, though I gleaned good practices. Workshops, retreats and closed writers groups did not teach me to write novels, though they deepened my resolve and kept me on the course. Writing novels did not teach me how, though I mimicked process to keep and discard what did or didn’t work. Writing flash fiction week after week has taught me powerful lessons like facing a riptide and writing a book.
The Superior riptide roars, the result of wind and waves. I don’t run, I pause. What do I know of riptides? I’ve come to this shore to hunt the agates that glow like lumps of red wax, so the experts claim. How many experts does it take to write and edit and publish and market a book? All I know is that for mine, I’m the only expert those books will get, and if I don’t figure out how to find an agate, only the experts will continue to cultivate them. I write. I hunt.
Strategy first. From the eroded and forested bank, I watch the roaring waves, surprised because the day behind me was sunny and merely tickled the leaves. How can it be so windy on the sea-side of the front-line of trees against its force? I spot a lone beach half a mile into the shoreline’s curve. My strategy is to walk farther out that average agate hunters. Discipline next. I take the upper trail through the muffled forest. I measure my pace and walk, knowing others might be tempted to start hunting. I follow the trail to that curvature I spied.
After following trails least traveled, under low-hanging branches and over toppled birch, I skitter down a sandy bank and face the wind and waves. Despite the tumult and cacophony of rocks tumbling over rocks, the late afternoon sunshine warms my face. I think it wise to avoid the waves, but they don’t avoid me. Crashing five feet out they skim water over my agate hunting shoes. I decide the surf is not as dangerous as it sounds. Testing my theory, inch by inch I allow the waves to surge across my feet and ankles.
The riptide draws rocks like marbles caught in a vacuum. I don’t turn my back on the water. I can see rocks bobbing in waves like discarded apples. The first one to hit me feels like a gentle bump. Rocks in water are like a barking dog you discover to be friendly. Some waves grow so big that they shadow the sinking sun to cause a momentary false sunset. It’s unnerving but causes no harm. I’m alert to multiple factors and yet focus on the hunt, amazed at the size of my catch. Garnets abound. I find pyrite so well-formed in polished granite, I can see its cubed crystal structure. A waxy red agate shines in the intermittent sun.
Satisfied, I continue to walk back to the trail-head, taking the beach. I’ve noticed it’s empty now. The dog walkers, joggers and agate hunters have all left. And something shifts in the riptide. The rocks sucked out like marbles don’t return. Sand fills what was rocky shoreline. Still, I test my solidity and I feel good. It’s not like I’m sinking or getting caught up in quicksand. But I notice something that even expert agate hunters might have missed in avoiding a riptide. It’s like writing, while also paying attention to pitfalls and staying observant to discoveries.
The riptide tumbles lumpy rocks differently.
Curious as to why these rocks are lumpy, I find unusual gems — matrix with knobs of prehnite, rare golden pumpellyite and a copper nugget. Because they are worn unlike the other rounder stones, they remain defiant to the pull of the riptide. Each lump reveals a different gemstone and I’m reminded of how we all have bumps and barnacles. We can polish the gems, and allow expression of the lumpy matrix. This combination of light and dark surprises me, teaches me that not everything has to be so smooth. In life and writing.
September 14, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a riptide. How can it be used to move a story? It could be a stretch of turbulent water or a pull of another kind. Go where the prompt leads even if you find it unexpected.
Respond by September 19, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published September 20). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Lost at Sea by Charli Mills
“That son-of-a-pup! Toughest crew chief ever.” Howard grinned.
Stella hoped the young couple at the café didn’t mind her husband’s sea of stories.
“Didn’t know what a big deal he was. Me fresh from ‘Nam and him a World War 2 hero.”
The woman asked, “How did you know?”
“His funeral. Never saw so many brass. Laid him out with enough medals to topple him!” Howard laughed.
The couple nodded politely. Stella touched Howard’s hand, sensing the riptide.
“Battlefield sergeant he was. Omaha Beach. That’ll tell ya something. Good boss.” Howard’s eyes watered.
The couple shrugged. Nebraska has beaches?
Collected beach rocks spray across the dining room table. The most promising specimens I submerge in a bowl of water to illuminate agate banding or pink pools of prehnite. My rock-hounding days are numbered because Lady Lake Superior grows cold. Instead of an evening of exercise beneath a lingering summer sunset, I take a mad dash mid-day to the beach when I can. My last trip I hitched a ride and combed the beach rocks until my daughter and her husband fetched me.
I don’t really have time to hunt agates; I’m far too busy.
Busy is an affliction. I’d say it’s modern, yet I suspect it’s as old as any form of distraction. When we think of a busy person we think of the executive or young parent. We could say both have important duties. One chases after meetings and deals; the other after toddlers and laundry. We could also say one is a workaholic. Perhaps both. What is the difference? When business becomes a form of mindlessness, it’s a distraction.
“Look busy,” is a phrase I’ve heard often from childhood on up. It’s hard for a day-dreamer to engage in mind wandering when you’re supposed to look busy. I struggle with tasks I call busy-work. When I didn’t look busy at home as a child, often I was given a broom and told if I had nothing better to do I could go sweep. I learned to daydream while doing chores. To this day, if I have a problem to solve in my mind, I clean. When I was in college, I discovered if I rewrote my notes after class and then dusted, mopped or did dishes, I wouldn’t have to cram for tests.
I had the cleanest house ever when I graduated college.
Some people believe the image, though; they believe they are supposed to “look busy.” They don’t problem solve or engage in mind-work at all. Instead they become human flurries of activity. These people, I’ve noticed, are praised for “keeping busy.” It’s an ingrained message and I’m not saying I missed it –it’s just that I developed a way to think while busy. My busy tends to come from the mind rather than activity.
The other day my SIL caught me staring out the porch window. He smiled, catching me un-busy, staring beyond the glass pane. He even glanced to see what I was looking at and upon seeing nothing of interest to warrant such staring he found my behavior amusing. I spared him a moment’s glance and explained, “I’m writing.” He laughed and walked off. Seriously, I was writing. I’ve had a huge breakthrough in my WIP, Miracle of Ducks, and the story was flowing so fast I had to watch it unfold, like an observer.
Stephen King is another writer who stares out windows. In an essay, he writes:
“Sitting down at the typewriter or picking up a pencil is a physical act; the spiritual analogue is looking out of an almost forgotten window, a window which offers a common view from an entirely different angle . . . an angle which renders the common extraordinary. The writer’s job is to gaze through that window and report on what he sees.”
Writers gaze out different windows. Sometimes the view is a different perspective as Stephen writes, and sometimes it’s to see with the inner eye. Of course, being the master of fantasy and thriller, Stephen’s mind wanders to the curious idea of the window breaking. In other words, he posed the question, “…what happens to the wide-eyed observer when the window between reality and unreality breaks and the glass begins to fly?” If you want to know his answer, read his novella, Four Past Midnight.
Stephen understands the busy writer — reality might be typing, staring or scrubbing dinner plates, but unreality is a rich inner world of exploration and discovery. It’s endless with archives of stories, some greater gems than others. When a writer gets busy that mental space thunders like Superior waves, scraping story over story until the writer spots the agates tumbled in the mind. Is it a danger or a joy to become so busy?
I think that’s a valid question for any of us. Does the busyness serve a purpose? Does it provide joy or distraction?
Traveling to VA appointments recently, we stopped at Keweenaw Bay, a small roadside resort on Lake Superior. No matter where we travel in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, we are surrounded by this grand shoreline. Keweenaw Bay is on the northeast side of the Great Lake, and directly south of Copper Harbor. The VA hospital in Iron Mountain is considered one of the most rural VAs in the nation and yet we live two more hours north in even more remote terrain. If wilderness seems a pattern in my life, I won’t deny it.
So here we are near the ends of our nation and a cartoon at the roadside cafe shows a waitress refusing to take a table’s order until they all turn off their cell phones. The line drawing shows no one looking at the menu and everyone instead staring at their screens. It occurred to me that cell phones fulfill a need to be distracted by busyness. How does that differ from escaping into a good book? It seems a book engages the mind, creates meaningful busyness, whereas screen time does not require the mind to actively think.
A hallmark of anxiety is that too many choices make us unhappy. Thus most people will choose to be mindlessly busy because it doesn’t require making choices, or thinking about choices. It makes me wonder if writers are some bizarre creatures who thrive on possibility. Or maybe some writers simply like making the choices for their characters’ lives. I can say my mind winds up and whirs before it settles into the resolution. For me, I think I see what can be and get excited when I find a path that appears to go there. That’s true for me in life and fiction. It’s the a-ha moment.
When I say I’m busy, I don’t mean I have lots of tasks, though actually I do. The busyness right now is the solar flare of my brain excited for the scenes I’m writing, the launch of our first Flash Fiction Rodeo at Carrot Ranch, the open call for new Rough Writers and the upcoming release of the current Rough Writer’s first anthology. Without the worry of homelessness thanks to our daughter and her husband, and with the Hub in a better VA system I’ve let go of much worry and stress.
So pardon my distraction, but I have rocks scattered across my brain and I’m sifting through them all. I feel more than relieved; I feel released. I’ll corner this energy and direct it better, but it feels good to have it back. It feels good to be making breakthroughs and seeing that paths are aligning. It’s a good busy.
If you missed last week’s announcement, I have an open call for The Congress of Rough Writers. This is a literary community for all writers. Everyone is welcome to come and go, to get what they want or need from participation. That participation includes writing, reading and joining discussions. If you want to go a step further and take part in events or anthologies, that’s the work of Rough Writers. It doesn’t mean you get roped in. Even as a Rough Writer, how you participate is up to you. It’s about willingness. If you are willing, shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And stay tuned for upcoming announcements about the Flash Fiction Rodeo. It’s more than a contest — it’s eight different contests! The weekly flash fiction challenges will go on break during October. Between Oct. 5-31, a new contest launches every Tuesday and Thursday. Each one has a $25 purse and there are no entry fees. Winners will be announced consecutively during the pre-sale and launch of The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. 1 every Tuesday in November and December. That gives our event leaders and their co-judges time to decide and collect the Best in Show for each category. And it invites the greater community to participate.
September 7, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a busy character. It could be a busy beaver, gnawing birch trees endlessly or an executive on the go. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by September 12, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published September 13). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Monastery Jam by Charli Mills
Thimbleberries scattered across the floor. “Brother Mark! How careless..!”
Mark shuffled to fetch … a broom? Dust bin or bowl? A rag? He stood like the garden statue of St. Francis. His mind calculated each solution rapidly.
“…just standing there. Look at this mess. And leaves me to clean it. Never busy, that Brother Mark. Idle hands, you know…”
Mark blushed to hear the complaints. Father Jorge’s large brown hand rested on Mark’s shoulder. “Let’s walk the beach.”
Waves calmed Mark’s thinking. “I didn’t know if it was salvageable.”
“Brother Mark, your mind needn’t make jam of every situation.”