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Raw Literature: Choreography in the Rough

Essay by Allison Mills, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers, and the Darling Daughter of the Lead Buckaroo

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Deep down—way deep down where words melt into heartbeats and cation exchanges—I know I am a dancer. In that regard, I consider myself a writer second. Or perhaps I’m an editor second because I play the role of choreographer as I craft the words of a first draft. In my mother’s words, these stories in the rough are raw literature.

Yes, Carrot Ranch blog extraordinaire Charli Mills is my Mumsy Darling; it’s a nickname my sister and I gave her in high school and the one I still use in my mobile contacts. No surprise, my earliest memories are of her, living room leaps, and Shakespeare. I can appreciate Norah Colvin’s recent post on teaching children the process of writing and the value of a portfolio as Mumsy Darling was my first instructor in storytelling.

The specific memory I can recall is filtered through a home video. Her long auburn hair swaying, Mumsy leads us three children in a wild, dance-run circle to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. We spin, leap, throw our arms as only children and their mother can. The suite transitions, we fall to the floor, and ever the writer, Mumsy hears her musical cue for words, “Romeo, oh, Romeo! Where art thou, oh, Romeo?”

Before she can finish the monologue, my logger of father—wearing a cowboy hat and Elmer Fudd t-shirt—walks through the door, swinging his arms as only a man with bull shoulders and cantaloupe biceps can. “Right here, babe!”

The whole scene is improvised. There is an ease to the phrases and pirouettes. It’s raw. It’s a feeling I now chase as an adult writer working in science communication for a university. It’s a memory I use to spark choreography as a dance instructor and performer. To embrace raw literature, I approach my writing as a dance piece.

I get too excited listening to Tchaikovsky to get much rough drafting done, but headphones and music are an important part of my writing process. No lyrics—words don’t beget words for me. I have to tap into a mental and emotional space where I feel the shape and rhythm of words as movement before my conscious mind taps them out on the keyboard. Caught up in the steps, my hands will rise and flick out; at times, deep in concentration and imagination, my whole body steps away from the screen and I’m snapped back to reality by my headphones. Many of my coworkers have walked in on this desk dance; lit happens, people.

For all the touchy-feeling sound of this process, I’m terribly precise. Before my writing flows, I have to soak up so much information—just imagine all the facts a top-tier researcher with new paper can lay out in an hour-long interview—and I sort it first into messy notes and recordings, then weave the highlights into a tight and detailed outline. I work best with templates and a plan, even a rough one, helps me breathe life into a raw story. Sometimes I jump into the petit allegro of the body copy; often I bend the beginning into place and follow through like a traditional barre from plies to grand battements, kickers are endings after all.

Dance improvisation is the closest thing to writing for me. Improv appears extraneous; non-dancers may be surprised to learn how much structure is needed, much as non-writers may not realize how much research and thought goes into raw literature. A dancer builds up muscle memory, so that as she choreographs on the fly, her moves come smoothly and with practiced grace. Sometimes the steps are repetitive or off-beat, but you can’t rework what you don’t practice. A writer pens words every day and sometimes coughs up a phlegmy first draft for the same reason.

Practice does not make perfect; practice just opens up more opportunity and makes it easier to clear out the crud. Cutting and polishing are the precise tools of editing; raw literature is the material, crafted from intuition.

While rawness comes with some roughness, genuine expressions beat rote and memorized masks. I channeled this recently in a fusion improv I dedicated to my family and where we’ve all come since our living room ballets. I planned out the structure and agonized for months on what story to tell. On the night of the show, though, I realized it’s only a dance. It’s only a rough draft. Let go.

(See Allison’s solo at 4:55 and you’ll understand what comes of her raw choreography in a piece she dedicated to her family.)

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2F47NorthBellyDance%2Fvideos%2Fvb.140461969751378%2F227246991072875%2F%3Ftype%3D3&show_text=0&width=560

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Allison Mills is a Science and Technology Writer at Michigan Tech. A through and through geek, Allison writes university research stories. She studied geoscience as an undergrad at Northland College before getting a master’s in environmental science and natural resource journalism at the University of Montana. She moonlights as a dance instructor, radio fiend, and occasional rock licker. She writes features from fruit flies to sulfurous volcanic emissions. Read her published articles at Michigan Tech, and for all you sci-fi geeks and writers, follow her at Unscripted where science rolls off the tongue in discussions about campus research. Allison wrote, Welcome to Superfund, a multi-media masters project, including podcast journalism, environmental writing and map-making. She dances with the troupe, 47 North Belly Dance, and tweets at @aw_mills.

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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

A Class of Raw Literature

Raw Literature by Norah Colvon @Norah Colvin @readilearnEssay by Norah Colvin, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.

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I was quite fascinated with Charli’s introduction to this conversation about raw literature  right here on her blog at Carrot Ranch Communications.  I was unfamiliar with the term but her explanation made it clear.

 “Raw literature is first-works. It’s the original material a writer produces in response to an idea, challenge or aspiration. It’s the novelist’s first draft; the poet’s scribbling of a sonnet; a screenwriter’s initial storyboard. It’s a memoirist’s recognition of a relevant story to share. It’s that ah-ha moment when the imagination outpaces the fingers across a keyboard or a tongue giving diction. It’s the writer’s eye on the blank page like a sculptor’s gaze through a block of marble.”

Her description makes these works feel authentic, real, and valuable in their own right, without a requirement to be measured against anything else. They are first works; not drafted, revised, and edited; not polished for publication; but works that deserve recognition for their contribution to the process that is writing.

As an early childhood educator, I was immediately excited about how the concept of “raw literature” might apply to the writings of children. Surely nothing can be more raw than those first steps into the world of writing; nothing more authentic, more real, or more valuable in their own right. Surely these first works need to encouraged, nurtured, and respected as are those of any writer.

Unfortunately, all too often, writing done in school is seen as an opportunity to bring out a red pen and have all its failings highlighted. If that were to happen to one of our first works immediately we downed our pen, or removed our fingers from the keyboard, how would we respond? Would it encourage us, or would we feel crushed, never to try again?

Too often school writing requires children to write a single draft, about a given topic, in a particular genre, in a set and limited amount of time, with little opportunity for planning or discussion, or for editing and revision.

Then they are assessed on it.

They are required to be pantsers whether they like it or not. Some do, relishing the challenge. These are often the children with advanced language and literacy skills; able to use book language, having an understanding of story and other literary structures, and an above average ability to use conventional spellings. A red mark on their work is rare. They are more likely to receive words of encouragement, if one could consider “Good work” to be encouragement.

Many more children dread the challenging experience, knowing that whatever they produce, their pages will soon be more red than black. As with much else at school, they accept their lack of choice and do what they can to meet task requirements.

Far better than this approach is that of “process” or “portfolio” writing. In some ways, it does for writing what DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) does for reading. It values writing, and the process of writing. Everyone, including the teacher, writes. Every. Day.

Children keep all their pieces of writing, their first works, their raw literature in a folder or portfolio. Teachers conference with them about their writing, and children choose the pieces to work on, the pieces to polish for publication.

In a conference, children talk about their writing; including their purpose for writing, what it is about, what they like about it, and where they think it needs improvement. The child might read it to the teacher, and the teacher responds as a listener, requesting more information if required for meaning, asking questions to prompt ideas for revision. A teacher’s pen never touches the paper, but children are taught and provided with guides which they use for editing their own work. Only when a piece is near ready for publication might a teacher, in the child’s presence and with the child’s permission, edit the work. For early childhood writers, perfection is never a requirement anyway. Their invented spellings and implied complications and solutions are always a treasure.

Conference responses are also modelled for, and taught to, the children to enable them to share with and respond to each other in ways that help progress their writing process. Responses from peers are always appreciated and valuable.

Children’s raw writing is just one facet of a classroom program identified by an immersion in literacy and literature. Without exposure to literature it is impossible for children’s writing to develop. Children must be read to daily from a wide range of rich literature. They must have many opportunities for independent reading, and be involved in group reading such as readers’ theatre.

When I first became involved with process writing in the 1980s, we called ourselves “A Class of Writers”. We wrote daily. In addition to their independent “process writing” time, children wrote a diary, which was really about communication between each child and me. They wrote to me first thing in the morning. I wrote back to each in the afternoon after school, and so it went, every day of the school year.

The children were always bubbling with ideas, begging for writing time. Ideas came from what we had read together, or they had read independently. Sometimes they wrote about real experiences, sometimes from their imagination.

Alongside all of this, there was instruction, guidance, encouragement, and support, often referred to as “scaffolding”.

We cannot simply give the children pencils and paper and expect them to write. We must model the skills for them, and make them privy to techniques that writers use, through an appreciation for, not an analysis of, literature.

We need to extend children’s repertoire by sometimes providing a stimulus, a suggestion, a structure; by modelling a genre; and writing collaboratively to teach particular aspects of the writing process.  And more than that. Every teacher must be a writer. I don’t mean a published writer; but every teacher needs to write, with and alongside their children. How else can they understand the process and what they are expecting of children?

If we view children’s writing as raw literature, giving it the same respect as we give our own, how differently may we view them as writers? How differently may they view themselves?

If you are interested in reading more of my thoughts about children’s writing, check out Writing to order – done in a flash! and Writing woes – Flash fiction on my NorahColvin blog, or my early childhood teaching resources for writing on readilearn.

Charli, thank you very much for this opportunity to share (some of) my thoughts about children’s raw literature.

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readilearn @NorahColvin @readilearn

Norah Colvin is an educational writer, an educator, and a writer. She is passionate about education and driven to write in almost equal measure. She writes for the joy of combining both passions in one pleasure.  Responding to flash fiction prompts at the Carrot Ranch provides an opportunity to hone her fictional writing skills in a supportive community while sharing her thoughts about education and learning. Exposition and fiction: the twin joys of reading and writing.

Norah has contributed to numerous educational publications over the years. She currently shares teaching ideas and resources for early childhood educators on her website readilearn.

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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

 

Raw Literature: Writing is Water

Essay by Kerry E. B. Black, esteemed Friend of Rough Writers.

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To write is simple, some say. Every literate person holds the capability of putting pen to paper or fingers to keys to produce the next great novel. However, words are like water. They skip about. Some hold multiple meanings, while others change throughout time. The human experience finds definition in capturing triumphs and struggle, and although times change, humanity rarely does. Writing documents is the finest and the worst about society. It focuses attention, and in so doing raises awareness and conscience.

Writing is producing word after word to create complete thoughts and convey images. Like Alice chasing an elusive albino hare in a waist coat down a rabbit hole, writers pursue an ideal. Beautiful prose elevates a message. When the words flow onto the page in gorgeous, heart-catching, mind-expanding eddies, a special magic ensues. Yet words, like water, need containers, structures designed to hold them. Otherwise, they slip away as quickly as we grasp. Thus, a good writer hones craft and sharpens skills. Through such pursuits, writers progress from journeymen to masters, but the pursuit of perfection never ends.

A good writer reads. Through reading, writers identify what is beautiful in others’ works. A transcendent passage causes a reader to pause and reflect on the majesty of language and thought. Thus, the words become art.

Within its author, a work of writing fulfills an inner longing which the author hopes will resonate with readers – or at the least, A reader. This deeply personal pursuit of comprehending and interpreting the human experience at once seizes and eludes those who try to capture even a moment let alone a story. The proverbial Muse uses the very hand that beckons to in turn flip off her captives. To survive, though, a writer must write. To create is as necessary as food and, indeed, water.

So, a writer struggles, be it with capturing slippery words or difficult-to-define thoughts. Like many artists, a writer’s exploration begins as an internal investigation. It culminates in an understanding of the universality of humanity. It celebrates the unique while understanding the common bonds. A writer’s work finds definition in its fluid interpretation of mankind, all while doubting the presentation and the presenter.

Although many say writing is easy, to pour one’s impressions upon a page and allow others to analyze the results is anything but easy. Writing requires bravery. It demands honesty, and to be done well, it needs schooling and an understanding of what makes good writing art.

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Kerry E.B. Black hails from a land of steel and bridges where three rivers meet as a glacial point. With her spouse and four of her five children, she lives in a little swamp along one of the rivers. She writes daily, and although she’s completed three novels, to date her only publishing creds include short stories and drabbles. Please follow at Facebook, Allusionary Assembly — Writings of Kerry E.B. Black, Amazon, and Twitter.

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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

Raw Literature: Raw From the Soul

ann-edall-robson

Essay by Ann Edall-Robson, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.

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I struggled with the thought of writing something insightful, useful and raw. Several starts and stops took me to the same conclusion. I write from my heart, about things I am passionate about. Often capturing moments others may not have had the chance to experience. Sharing, not only what I view in my everyday life, but also from the western heritage I am so proud to say I am from.

Writing isn’t something I just decided to do one day because it had become a fad. The stacks of journals, pieces of tattered edged papers, loose leaf pages and old school scribblers are a testament of how long my mind, paired with writing tools, have been having a love affair.

Books filled with poetry, fiction and life stories. Dribs and drabs of teenage dreams, and adult realism. All following me in boxes from my rural home, where I was raised, to the place close to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where I now call home.

Raised with the expectation that please, thank you and excuse me, were not only part of every person’s vocabulary, you had best be using those words, yourself.  Respect for everything and everyone, unless they proved otherwise, was mandatory.

This was not the beginning of the raw world I cherish.  Our western heritage encompasses so much, and is almost nearing a point of the “forget about it” era. Technology infringing on moral standards is pushing the wild, raw, traditional life, to the side. Ranching, farming, neighbouring, and knowing the land cannot and should not be shunned. It is such an important part of going forward. Without remembering, telling the tales, the history, we are nothing.

Fast forward to the 21st Century. We are in a time when no one writes letters by hand and mails them. Families don’t eat meals together, and when they do, they have no idea how to carry on a conversation. AND, our heritage is being paved over for the next shopping mall.

Now, more than ever, is the time we need to be the keeper of the old ways, traditions and stories. The raw life, regardless of the culture, needs a home. In both my writing and photography, I am passionate about recording and sharing the old days and ways.  Every chance I get, I include something from a time gone by. A time when our grandparents and parents were children. A time when I was a child.

How easily we choose to forget, or perhaps ignore, the history we were making in our young years. How we fervently wish the door could be opened to find it close at hand. Disappointed and even devastated, when we know it’s lost, gone forever, without a trace and without a recorded word.

I was connected to the land in my young years and didn’t even know it. Yet, when I read pieces I penned almost half a century ago, I recognize the influenced of my lifestyle. The Wire and Post Contraption and Partners, both included in Moon Rising: An Eclectic Collection of Works are from that era. Other short stories written for this book, came from within. From the heart of where and how I grew up.

horse-belly-deep-grass-2My writing and photographs are fed by the old-cabin-2soul of our western heritage. A honourable culture I remember, the stories I was told, the people I have known and places I have been. The fields of horse belly deep grass speak to me. Inviting the imagination to reminisce about the pioneers homesteading in the cabin, where now, only a few weathered grey logs are left.

The Quiet Spirits, my current project (Release 2017), has traits of western heritage immersed throughout.  And yes, there is another book being penned, not yet titled, and modeled after western ranching traditions.

Writing Raw or Raw Fiction is a style I have always embraced. The word Raw, to me, means open, unbridled, passionate, from the heart. I write by the seat of my pants, not missing the chance to record a thought, any thought. I made a recent comment, “The first draft should sting with every thought imaginable.” That is what raw writing is all about. Uninhibited, telling the story as if you were there. Find the whatsit, whatchamacallit, thingummy you are passionate about and use it until you exhaust the soul it came from.

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Ann Edall-Robson, writer, photographer, lover of life, and all things that make us smile. She has an unwavering commitment to share the traditions, heritage, and stories of the country life she hails from. 

An avid quilter and gardener, Ann grew up participating in rodeos and gymkhanas. She now lives with her husband near the rolling foothills, mountains, and country life that inspire so much of her work; both written and photographic.

Published books include: 

 

Moon Rising: An Eclectic Collection of Works

            From Our Home To Yours: Cookies

From Our Home To Yours: Cakes & Squares

Other writings:

Voice and Vision 2016 includes two of Ann’s stories

WebsiteAnnEdallRobson.com

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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

Raw Literature: Possibilities

Raw Literature Possibilities @Charli_MillsFor the purpose of this series, we’ve been exploring what it is to write first works. We’ve considered What Lies Beneath the ongoing process of a memoirist who digs deep. We’ve interviewed a writer newly elected as State Representative of Missouri’s 91st District. We’ve contemplated writing that is Natural or Explicit, as well as recognizing when Raw is Ready. We’ve considered Jewels on the Page, Safe Spaces and what feeds Grit Lit.

Clearly there’s much thought to share about the process.

If you seek prompts, like the Weekly Flash Fiction Challenge at Carrot Ranch, you probably understand the benefits of writing quick raw responses. It can be like practicing scales, or warming up before a sport. After a year or two, you can amass suitcases of raw stories. What to do with them, might be on your mind. This week, Raw Literature is going to unpack some possibilities.

Suitcase #1: Craft

When I studied creative writing in college, I was taught to master the short-form before tackling the long-form. Master is a relative term, as I think writers continue to master their craft throughout their lives. That’s something raw literature reveals to us — our writing evolves. As craft, however, we can work on elements, such as characterization, tone, structure and language. What you practice, explore or learn in short-form you can apply to longer works.

Flash fiction is often spontaneous and can be fun for the surprises it might bring to both the writer and reader. Yet, the writer can also be deliberate in craft. I’ve watched regular writers play with twists (which work well in short form and also becomes a linchpin to ending book chapters). I’ve marveled at others who employ BOTS (based on a true story) as a way to use the challenge to explore inroads to memoir. Poets tackle the challenge with further constraints of form. Some flash focuses on imagery, others are character-driven. The brevity each week can offer ample possibilities to try different craft styles.

Another craft technique flash fiction can offer is what I’ve come to think of as non-committal application (point of view, character traits, tone). Raw literature employs discovery, but if I’m uncertain about a character, I don’t necessarily want to discover something essential half-way through the first draft of a novel. Flash fiction allows me to play with characters. One week a character might be the villain; the next week I might write him as the hero. When practicing craft, I don’t have to commit during exploration.

Something else I’ve seen other writers accomplish are serials. Through the weekly challenge, characters and their plots are born and progressed. Through the course of hosting flash fiction challenges, I’ve seen continuing stories of brow-beaten werewolves, a family with more twists and turns than an epic novel, a school girl explore her life between various ages, a western tale unfold and conclude, and characters start their own blogs. Many WIPS begin as a serial idea energized by weekly additions.

The possibilities for developing craft and raw material are endless.

Suitcase #2: Platform

A writer’s platform is both a billboard (for the writer) and a launching pad (for the writing of a writer). Raw literature can inform the platform’s elements of branding, credibility, community and target audience.

Voice is unique to each writer. Some writers might use the craft aspect of a writing challenge to discover or hone that voice, and more seasoned writers use it to further broadcast identity. That identity — a dark, lyrical writer of YA who is fond of hedgehogs and armadillos — becomes part of the brand. The writing that accumulates gives visual credibility that this is a writer who writes. If a writer intends to break into a specific genre, writing shorts in that genre is also a way to develop brand and credibility.

Writing among other writers is an experience in community. This is one of the most rewarding aspects of a platform. It’s interaction that can lead to friendships, tribes, networks or an assortment of each. Community can be supportive and encourage your aspirations, or you can reach out to community to learn from different experiences. Diversity is another rewarding aspect of community and can lead to greater insights through writing raw literature collectively.

You can use your raw creations to find or test your target audience. Often this is a confounding aspect of platform building because your readers are not always easy to encounter. However, you can use your raw creations to polish a few pieces you think represent your writing and longer-term goals and submit to short-form contests or literary magazines. This is a way to find readers and continue to build your brand and credibility.

Think of raw literature as possibilities for expanding your platform.

Suitcase #3: Marketing

If you are a writer, your writing is something marketable. First, let’s simplify what marketing is: it’s the continuous cycle of research, action and measurement. You can get into it more deeply than that, but at least recognize that marketing is more than promotion (action) and that promotion is one of many actionable tactics.

You can use your raw literature, your excerpts from WIPS or your flash fiction stories to gauge response. You can ask your community what they thought of a particular twist or for their impression of a character. You might produce a flash that others want to know more of the story. Exploration is a part of research when you are attentive to it. It might give you the idea to tackle a different genre. I don’t think I would have taken on a full-blown historical novel without the original feedback I got from flash fiction.

Action items can take many forms. You can use raw literature to build e-newsletters or e-books of short stories. You can quote from your own raw works and make memes on Pinterest or quotes on Twitter or Facebook. You can make postcards or bookmarks for promotion. What better way to promote your own writing than with your own words. You can take excerpts from your published (or soon to be) book and reverse-engineer it into a raw response to showcase the work it comes from. You can use your raw literature on your blog to drive traffic. You can be a guest writer and intersperse your raw literature between lines of an article or essay.

Measurement is about knowing if your actionable items were effective. While you don’t really use raw literature to measure, you can measure the impact it might have had on your action goals.

Final thoughts: keep writing raw, be mindful of your process and the possibilities of what you produce.

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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

Times Past: 4-Wheeling the West

Times Past at Carrot Ranch by @Charli_MillsGen X, rural California, USA

Granny-gear is as expected: slow, slow enough a toddler can drive. If that sounds surprising, you’ve not grown up on cattle ranches in the American west. Every buckaroo has stood behind the wheel (yes, stood because to sit is to lose sight over the dusty dash).

“Hold it straight, follow the rows,” were the instructions I remember.

Where are the adults, you might wonder. On the back of the truck, flaking hay.

Back when I was a toddling buckaroo on one of the oldest land grant ranchos in northern California, my task was to steer the truck straight so the adults could cut the wires on rectangular bales of hay (each weighing about 125 pounds) and peel away portions. The hay was dry and it came off in chunks called flakes. The herd of 300 black ballies (a nickname for the cross-breed of Black Angus and Red Hereford for which some calves were born black with white faces) trailed behind to get their winter hay.

Winter in this part of California was the wet and rainy season. It turned the blond hills green for a brief time. While the hills had time to grow grass beneath massive oak trees, the cattle roamed the barren hay fields and ate nubs and dry flakes. Feeding was a daily ritual and everyone worked, even the toddlers. Though I don’t recall thinking of my driving chore as work.

Just like with horses, I never had a fear of driving. Probably because I was exposed too young to have the common sense to fear large beasts and steel cages on wheels. By the time I was 13, I no longer lived in buckaroo country. My parents moved to the Sierra Nevada mountains where my mom ran a general store and my dad logged.

I worked in the summer logging camps, leaving for the job in a logging truck at 4 a.m. I had to be back by 3 p.m. to saddle my horse and ride out to check the cattle for a local ranch. My task was to keep the cattle from coming off the high summer pastures. Any I encountered, I’d have to push back to the mountain springs among quaking aspen.

Granny-gear took on new meaning this phase of life — it’s the lowest gear used to slow a logging truck on a mountain pass or a exit the rough-cut switchback known as a logging road. Hardly a road! Heading off the hill, as the phrase goes, requires low-gear and high prayers. I used to enjoy listening to C. W. McCall’s Wolf Creek Pass, an 8-track tape my dad had:

We’d gear down for our own Sierra Wolf Creek pass (the song is about a hairy switchback in Colorado) and at one corner I could see the wreck of a Cadillac from the ’60s. I remember the belch of the jake-brake as we approached and geared down to granny. We never lost a load, or a truck, either.

At the logging camp we had an old Willys Jeep, the kind the US used in WWII. The thing about a Willys is that in granny-gear it could go up, down, over and across anything. After lunch, I was allowed to take the Jeep for a drive, and I found pioner trails and even old mining camps in this ride. And many old roads required granny-gear and 4-wheel drive.

4-wheeling is a distinct western heritage and why so many people in the US West drive trucks. It’s what replaced the Conestoga wagon and horse. For me, a truck is a work vehicle. We have the Mills farm truck and have hauled our own firewood and had many adventures in it. But I still dream of one day having my own Willeys.

And you bet I’d take that Jeep 4-wheeling the back-roads of the west in granny-gear.

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Join me and others in a look at wheels from Times Past with Irene Waters.

Raw Literature: Writing Grit

c-jai-ferryEssay by C. Jai Ferry, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.

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Several years ago, scandal erupted in a small rural town, population 1,000. A female junior in high school contacted the school administration to say that one of her teachers had requested naked photos of her in exchange for a better course grade.

The townspeople were outraged. How dare this girl make up outlandish lies about such an upstanding teacher—a man who had been voted teacher of the year three times already in his relatively short tenure, who had won state-level accolades and was clearly a rising star? This girl was just looking for attention and needed to be put in her place.

And then a second girl, one who had already graduated, stepped forward with a similar experience.

Again the townspeople were outraged. How dare these girls conspire together to harm this innocent man. Didn’t they know what kind of harm they were causing to the school, the community, and the man’s family? The authorities needed to be called and the girls charged for their maliciousness.

So the authorities came for an investigation, and they charged the teacher, who pleaded guilty, after they found evidence on his computer that he had been requesting nude photos throughout his entire tenure at the school.

Once again the townspeople were outraged, this time reaching a fervor not often seen in such sleepy communities. How dare these girls not just keep their mouths shut? Clearly they had misunderstood the teacher’s propositions, reading something in his emails that simply was not there. Now his career was ruined because these girls had taken it upon themselves to send the teacher naked photos of themselves. Worse, the community was making headlines throughout the region—not for its economic revitalization efforts or its pristine parks and nature trails. The girls should be ashamed of themselves! Clearly they had no sense of community.

The teacher has already completed his three-year prison sentence, but many in the town still blame the girls, saying that they must have worn skimpy clothes that enticed the teacher, that they had to have intentionally manipulated him to say things that could be misrepresented to the authorities, and that they undoubtedly sent him unsolicited photos to get him into trouble.

The teacher pleaded guilty and went to jail. The numerous victims were publicly and viciously shamed. Those who could left the town, losing their families and their homes. Ask the townspeople about this situation today and many will respond that it was such a shame that the teacher had to give up such a promising career.

Yeah, too bad for that sexual predator.

Most readers are probably thinking that “normal” people wouldn’t react the way these townspeople did. But these were “normal” people. They went to church every Sunday, paid their bills on time, and were quick to step up when their neighbors were in trouble…except when their neighbors were female and the situation involved sex in any capacity.

The reality is that humans simply don’t come with pristine white cowboy hats or intense black cowboy hats. We wear shades of gray.

Search the internet for the world’s greatest predator and you will find websites boasting the ferocity of sabre-tooth cats, megalodon sharks, and dinosaurs that make the T-rex look like a baby kitten. In truth, the world’s greatest predator is humankind. We have the unique capabilities of free will, logic, and empathy, yet we routinely and repetitively harm and even destroy our own kind simply because we can. Tearing people down is commonplace in our world (although it is not a new development—not by a long shot), and it seems that hurting someone is easier for many people than standing up for that individual.

Most readers would probably argue that humans are, for the most part, good. I would agree with this. Yet every day we see more and more headlines about how a ten-year-old pushed his best friend into moving traffic, a college athlete raped an unconscious woman, and an aunt sold her teenage nieces to men in hotel rooms. Society goes to great lengths to find a way—any way—to set these individuals apart, underscoring that they are not the norm. They had difficult childhoods. They are mentally unstable. They recently changed their meds. They are too young to understand the consequences of their actions.

In our desperation to prove that we are not like these “evil” individuals, when none of our excuses work, we shift to victim blaming: the best friend had a history of bullying the ten-year-old, the unconscious woman was drunk so she should have known what would happen, the nieces could have just gone to the police for help, but they didn’t….

I think most people would agree that, in certain situations, humans will do the wrong thing if they feel pressured to choose the lesser of two evils. We have that capacity. But we console ourselves with the idea that these situations are the extreme; they would require us to choose between the survival of our loved ones and the harm or death of a stranger. In my writing, I explore just how easily humans make the wrong choice in everyday contexts. The worlds of my short stories focus on the guy next door, an elderly man missing his dead wife, a woman with inappropriate thoughts about her best friend’s husband. My characters deal with break-ups, infertility, cancer, rape, anger, frustration, abuse, and revenge—usually between cups of coffee or during a commercial break. Often my characters are simultaneously protagonists and antagonists; no one is categorically good or bad.

My stories will never be made into after-school specials. They are gritty and raw, tackling difficult issues that we all facecjaiferry_profile-picture-jpg at some point in our lives. I categorize my writing as “grit lit,” which is a type of gritty, raw literature (think Cormac McCarthy). Patrick Ledford describes grit lit characters as “desolate and volatile common folk who will do what they have to do to get the job done. Grit Lit is an uncensored, ‘balls to the wall,’ literary throwdown.”

For me, writing is inspired by characters who have made really, really bad choices in life or who find themselves in horrible situations. I take them back to a point in time when they would be perceived by society as “normal” and then let the story unfold from there. Sometimes I create a “normal” context for them and then, through the story, reveal that their normal is a far cry from the reader’s normal.

My biggest fear in my writing is that readers might accuse me of normalizing such unacceptable behaviors. For example, lately I have been focusing on trafficking contexts in my writing. I am working on a novel in which, in the near future, human trafficking has become the norm due to a biological threat to the human population. To understand the intricacies and relationships between trafficker and victim, I have been studying recent historical situations, like comfort women in Asia, as well as current trafficking situations in the West (and am shocked at how little progress we have made in stopping trafficking). I use my short stories to work out my own struggles to understand how societies accept such occurrences.

But if I write a story where the reader ultimately empathizes with a character who turns out to be more evil than good, am I normalizing the behavior of that character?

Normalization is not my goal. Rather, I try to draw attention to how seemingly everyday activities are actually laying the foundation for a society much darker, much more heinous. The kid sitting next to you at the doctor’s office could be tomorrow’s headline. The girl with her mother ahead of you in line at the grocery store could be a victim of trafficking. Your child’s favorite teacher could be a sexual predator. If we can’t identify and recognize the everyday behaviors that set the stage for the evil world lurking in the shadows, we will never be able to stop it from becoming a reality.

Humans are amazing creatures, and not just because of the atrocities we commit in the name of…well, whatever suits our fancy. We have this fascinating ability of self-realization. We can learn from our past mistakes. We can educate ourselves. We can work through the logic and see where our behaviors and actions today might lead us tomorrow. It’s not always an easy process, and it almost always requires us to confront ideas that make us squirm in our seats, but as long as we are willing to work through the uncomfortable, we have hope.

This is why I write grit lit.

***

skeleton-dance-generic unraveled-generic C. Jai Ferry grew up in a small rural town in one of those middle states between New York and Los Angeles. She put together her first book of poetry, complete with a lime green cover, for a class assignment in fifth grade. Today, she focuses on short stories with narrators who are often described as brutally honest and who likely need some form of professional help.

Her most recent cuntitled-designollection of microfiction, “Unraveled,” earned a 5-star review from Readers’ Favorites, and her award-winning short story “Skeleton Dance” was made into a short noir film that was chosen by the Prairie Lights Film Festival for its Nebraska Noir anthology project. To learn more about her publications, get a free collection of short stories by signing up for her newsletter, and read her (more or less) weekly musings and stories, visit www.cjaiferry.com.

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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.