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December 7: Flash Fiction Challenge

December 7 Flash Fiction Challenge at Carrot Ranch @Charli_MillsWe crowd into the lobby, snow nipping at our backs each time a new couple or family enters the oak doors. I wiggle my fingers to diminish the giddiness of a night out to the Calumet Theater. I listen to chatter as people explain who they know in the upcoming performance of Alice in Winterland. One mother laughs when she explains how much green paint her daughter wears as the Grinch. Another confesses how nervous her son is the play Charlie Brown.

It’s a winterland mash-up of familiar American Christmas stories all set to the music and narrative arc of Taichoski’s Nutcracker Ballet. It’s a bit like this take on multiple Christmas songs in one minute:

And all of this creativity in bites to produce one performance also reminds me of the weekly compilation of responses to our flash fiction challenges. It struck me, as I took my seat in the historic gilded and velveted Calumet Theater how much of a ballet mom still resides in my heart, rounding up the stories backstage each week. I want to bring roses to all the writers after a performance.

It’s been too long since I connected with my inner stage-mom. For 15 years I lived in awe of The Nutcracker. Five of those years I eagerly watched from backstage as my eldest daughter and youngest son both performed in a professional ballet troupe from Minneapolis.

Every child in dance dreams of shoes and sugar plum ferries. In ballet, it’s point shoes. After spending $100 on a pair of pink satin slippers with ribbons so fair, my darling daughter would pound the toe-boxes, burn the satin off the point and whip-stitch the ribbons. If it sounds horrific, consider what we writers do to a flash fiction.

We pound stories into sentences, slice words to a perfect 99, and strangle characters with twists so fine.

Between the audience seats and the dancers behind the curtain exists a stage upon which we both suspend belief and let art convey the story. I love dance as much as literary art, but I have no skill for it. I can take classes, just as I learned the craft. But writing is the performance I prefer. I’m content to sit in the audience and watch the dancers.

For years, I helped backstage, learning how to double-pin strands of wayward hair and zip sparking costumes during quick changes. A quick change occurs when a dancer must change costumes for back-to-back dance numbers. My son, one of few boys who even studied classical ballet, was guaranteed to be cast as one of Clara’s brothers and rarely had quick changes in the first half. My daughter danced in the corp, meaning she had numerous changes.

And lucky me, one year I was responsible for the Prince.

The Calumet Theater with its opulence and history reminds me of the Red Wing Theater where The Nutcracker performed on tour. I went with the troupe and taxied my kids to classes, performances, and costume fittings. Each December dreams of sugar plums danced on stage. And then the lights went out.

Children grow up, move on and stage-moms are left with no one to buy roses for or help whip-stitch new ribbons. What a comfort it is to be in a theater again, listening to family chatter, watching former students return for the holidays and sneak backstage to say hello. I sink into my seat, wait for the house lights to dim, knowing that these children performing on stage have received classical ballet instruction from my daughter.

A literary community knows such connectedness, too. I’m stage-mom in the back-wings, watching each of you work at your craft, find joy in the steps and brave the spotlight when it’s your turn to perform. And yet we are a whole, each voice lending to a more powerful dynamic than one alone.

Hold on to that feeling a moment. Two points I want you to own: no matter your solo, no matter your dream and your pain to accomplish it, no matter how many hours you write alone — you are not alone here. Second, we are a part of something bigger, something we call art. And we are champions for literary art, giving voice to unheard stories, even giving voice to the invisible.

If you know some of my journey, you are aware of how I feel about the homeless experience and veteran struggles being invisible among society. They are the unsung songs, the canceled performances, the flash fiction in a journal no one reads. Recently I learned of an organization using another art form to give voice to veterans and their families:

Songwriting With Soldiers operates from a simple principle — pair veterans and active-duty service members with professional songwriters to craft songs about their military experiences.

To me, this is a powerful way to use art to heal, to create empathy for another’s experience, to give voice to those who struggle to articulate that experience. Songwriter, Mary Gauthier, wrote The War After the War (below) with the input from six combat veteran spouses, which is the number of women I share my own experiences with each week. It’s empowering when the invisible are seen and heard.

While I don’t have roses to share with all you who perform on the writing stage at Carrot Ranch, I have a digital gift for the holiday season. If you’ll go to my Canva profile, you can pin or download the Carrot Ranch Seasonal Desktop Wallpaper to add a touch of holiday cheer to your computer. I tried to think of different manifestations like the diversity we have here at the ranch (the squirrels are for the nuts among us who don’t like holiday cheer).

Surrounded by velvet the lights finally go low at the theater. The performance has begun. And I’ll let you get to your own.

December 7, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write that features a performance. You can interpret what is a performance any way the prompt leads you.

Respond by December 12, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published December 13). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

***

Performance Anxiety (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Standing in the darkened wings, Danni stretched her hips. She arched her back, clasping her hands overhead. On the stage, Evelyn prepped the audience.

This was her moment. She couldn’t see faces, just the heavy beam of overhead stage lights. Her professor taught her tricks to overcome performance anxiety when she realized that as an archeologist she’d occasionally have to give public presentations.

The Sandpoint Theater was packed, and Evelyn was already giving introductions. “Without further ado, Dr. Danni Gordon…”

Walking out into the lights, Danni conjured the friendliest face, as if she were performing just for him – Ike.

###

 

November 23: Flash Fiction Challenge

In the US, November 23 is a day of feasting. Not the date, but the fourth Thursday of November. Thanksgiving we call it, and it centers on a roast turkey.

Legend has it, Benjamin Franklin favored the turkey as America’s symbol. Some people find the thought silly because they find turkeys silly. I spent my formative years between three ranches — two cattle ranches and a turkey ranch. That might sound silly, too: A turkey ranch. When you realize turkeys once roamed before “free-range” became a designer label at the grocery store, then ranch fits.

Paullus Turkey Ranch in California

Instead, the US chose a bully of regal raptors, the American bald eagle. As a national bird, would the turkey have led us to be more thoughtful in our pursuit of life, liberty and happiness? Perhaps. But it would have been weird to eat the national bird once a year for a decidedly American holiday.

Feasting might not be unique, but the foodstuff set upon a Thanksgiving table originated in the “New World.” Potatoes, yams, cranberries, pumpkins and turkey. To this we add the flavors of our immigrant roots. Does my love of butter and bacon reveal Irish DNA? Does the essence of tarragon waft all the way back to 1840s France? Does smoked Spanish paprika reflect the influence of my native California?

This year we revived several vegan recipes. Runner, Rock Climber, and Radio Geek are all gathering  in the Keweenaw. Radio Geek’s husband, Solar Man, is taking the other two back to Wisconsin and Minneapolis (to fly back to Montana before returning to Svalbard, Norway) so he’ll get a second feast with his family in the Twin Cities. With so much food on the menu, we’ve focused on health as much as feast — less white, more greens. We’ve been talking about eating more fruits and vegetables.

The World Health Organization promotes healthier eating with a 5 a Day (fruits and veggies) campaign in many nations across the globe. It sounds simple, but one aspect of food injustice (at least in the US) is that junk food and filling carbs cost significantly less than fresh fruits and vegetables. Expense is a secondary concern to health, and often it prevents consistent choices.

Returning to grow-our-own is an answer. Urban gardening, community gardens, container gardening, gleaning (of fruit trees in neighbors and on city streets), Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), food cooperatives, cheese artisans, family ranches and farmers markets all serve a sector called community food systems. The people involved in these systems seek to overcome the barriers  to 5 a Day through improved access at a local level.

At one time, community food was my beat.

The Keweenaw Co-op is within a few blocks of my daughter and son-in-law’s house. It’s tiny compared to the large cooperative grocer I once worked for as marketing manager. It’s even smaller than the ones I used to audit or assist in developing marketing plans. Size doesn’t matter. It’s the impact. It’s about bringing fresh regional food to people at a fair price. From farmer to diner, it’s meant to be a sustainable system.

Ten years ago, my co-op hired a meat manager who was an old-time butcher with skills nearly forgotten. It might seem as silly as a brass turkey on a flagpole, but butchering skills are disappearing in the US. With the spread of big-box retail like Wal-Mart, meat processing in the US is completed at the factory. “Butchers” in grocery stores receive shipments of boxed product machine cut (or ground), packaged and frozen.

My friend, the Butcher, knew all about carving whole hanging beef. I did too (remember, ranches?). Our store wanted to work with small family producers to grow beef, pork and poultry according to our clean standards (no fed or injections of antibiotics or hormones, and animals must have access to sunshine, fresh air and be grass-fed). We had the market, and the Butcher had the connections.

One of the small family farms we worked with was Ferndale. They knew turkeys and had raised them for three generations with open access (free-range). They worked with our standards, and for many years they became the signature turkey of my co-op. They were one of six stories a year my marketing team produced in video, magazine, photography and social media. My strategy was to express the brand with the stories about the faces and places behind the food we sold

You can go to Ferndale’s website and see remnants of this work. The top right photo is one I took years ago while sitting in a pasture surrounded by white and red turkeys all giving me the curious one-eyed look. That moment feels like yesterday. You can see the soft glow of a setting sun that cast a glow on red glottals. For me, it’s a bit of a legacy. Not the stories left behind in video, print and photography. But the knowing that I was part of the stories.

So, imagine my delight when I discovered the Keweenaw Co-op planned to special order Ferndale turkeys for Thanksgiving! I’ve moved on from writing about food and sadly, my friend the Butcher died several years ago. The Peterson’s operation looks strong for the fourth generation. And I am serving my family something more than the 5 a Day. Yes, healthy veggies, but also the continuing experience of our Thanksgiving stories.

And for a special treat — if you like recipes — I’m sharing a few recipes from our feasting table. These are ones that include fruits and vegetables, and can be enjoyed across the globe, not just at Thanksgiving time.

Savory Apple Cider

1 gallon local cider
½ C. frozen blueberries
Peel from 1 lemon
10 whole allspice
20 whole peppercorns
5 whole cloves
¼ tsp. cardamom seeds
½ vanilla bean, halved
½ tsp. cinnamon

Pour cider into a stockpot. Add lemon peel as long strips (not zest). Add frozen blueberries and spices. Heat on stovetop, but do not bring to a boil. Simmer and allow the aroma to infuse the kitchen. Serve after 30 minutes. Keep warm in a crockpot, or store in fridge and reheat later.

Roasted Root Veggies

3 large red beets, peeled and chunked into bites
3 large golden beets, peeled and chunked into bites
2 medium turnips, peeled and chunked into bites
2 large parsnips, peeled and chunked into bites
1 large rutabaga, peeled and chunked into bites
8 large shallots, peeled and halved
12 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
¼ C. olive oil
2 Tbsp. tarragon
Applewood smoked salt to taste
Cracked black pepper to taste

Combine vegetables, herbs and olive oil in a medium mixing bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss to coat. Turn out vegetables onto two cooking sheets. Roast vegetables 30 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 375°F. Reverse baking sheets (top rack to bottom rack) and continue to roast until all vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes longer. Transfer to platter and serve.

Boozy Cranberry Sauce

1-12 oz. bag of fresh cranberries
1 C. sugar
2 1⁄4 tsp. zest of a blood orange
1⁄4 tsp. cardamom seeds, lightly crushed
1 vanilla bean

½ C. Scotch (adjust to taste; booze does not boil off, so add to turkey sandwiches responsibly)

Combine cranberries, sugar and zest in an over casserole. Split vanilla bean in half and scrape into cranberry mixture and add bean. Bake uncovered in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes. Remove to stir, return to oven and bake another 30 minutes. Pull from over and stir in the Scotch. Transfer sauce to a medium bowl and cool. Cover and refrigerate. Can be made one week ahead.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, near or far. We need a day to break bread, gather around the table and tell stories.

November 23, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about Five a Day. It does not have to be five servings of fruits and vegetables. What is needed five times a day? Have fun with what pops to mind for the prompt.

Respond by November 28, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published November 29). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

***

A Better Five a Day by Charli Mills

Five a day, Mama says. Doesn’t she know how awful they taste? Crunchy raw spindles and squishy flavorless lumps. Good for you, Dad crows. Honestly, I prefer the mash the neighboring farmer drops by our house. Mama says it’s not organic.

My skinny legs chase after tastier treats. Beyond the place where parents coop my culinary dreams I have a secret spot to dream. Beyond our scratch existence meanders a brook with a magical bush. That’s where I found the round globes sweeter than any clover.

Blueberries! I’m in chicken heaven! Better than five insects or worms any day.

November 16: Flash Fiction Challenge

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?

###

November 9: Flash Fiction Challenge

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:

Website Overstock

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!
By bi.
Najno/

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?”

###

September 21: Flash Fiction Challenge

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!

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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.

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September 7: Flash Fiction Challenge

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: wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

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.”

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August 31: Flash Fiction Challenge

Tapping out the word “g-r-a-m-m-a-r” I recall a teacher’s joke from the past: your Grammer would be appalled at your grammar. The mnemonic humor clung to the idea that one’s grandmother, or “grammer,” would disapprove of misspelling the word grammar. Problem is, with my colloquial western accent, drawled by many California buckaroos, my grandmother was my gramma, thus the joke backfired. It didn’t aid my memory; it confused it.

Every time I see the word grammar, I think the final “a” is incorrect because I think Gramma would be appalled… I personally don’t know anyone who calls their grandmother Grammer. There must be an easier way to recall the spelling of misspellable words.

Poking around an old mining house in Mohawk during an estate sale, I found a 1917 The Merrill Speller. Worn and and claimed by a flowing signature, this education book once belonged to Lawrence Barsky of 211 Gratiot Avenue in Copper City, Michigan. For a silver half dollar, how could I resist? Copper City is a town of 200 people on the Keweenaw Peninsula, near Calumet.

Would I be able to find the student who once doodled a medieval looking B in his speller?

After finding several alternatives of Barske, Barskey and Barke, I almost gave up. Then I found a forum listing a genealogy for a Brisky family from Copper City! Like a misspelled word, I misread the last name (seriously, Lawrence, you should have dotted your “i”).

According to the 1920 Federal Census, Lawrence Brisky was born 6 Aug 1912 in Copper City, Michigan as the youngest of eight children. His parents, John and Veronica, were Croatian immigrants. His mother was 39 years old when she had Lawrence. His father was a trammer in a copper mine. A trammer used brute strength to push the ore carts to the shaft. The mines viewed Eastern Europeans as human beasts of burden. Consider that for a moment.

And then think of young Lawrence, doodling the B in his speller.

Ten years later he was no longer in school. It was the copper mine fate for him. Hid father was dead and his brothers worked the mines. At age 27, Lawrence was far down state from the copper mines. On February 27, 1940 he married Eva Rodosevic. According to the 1940 Federal Census record. Lawrence only complete 7th-grade. He had a machining skill and worked a trade in Detroit, Michigan. He died in 1995 in Tennessee.

Besides the the clear instruction on spelling words like statue (not to confuse with stature or statute), I found the life of a young copper mining boy in a primer at an estate sale. I wonder how the book stayed in Michigan but the man escaped? I wonder how his father died in 1922 while Lawrence was yet in school?

Margaret Meade once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Did copper miners change the world? Most definitely. I’m not sure that’s the change Meade meant. I think she was referring to small groups of like-minded people working together for a common good.

Carrot Ranch is a literary community. It’s my writers platform, but one I created into a sandbox, an imaginary ranch where literary artists can play. It’s open to any writers. The challenges are meant to be fun and safe space to jam with words. It’s intended to be a brief challenge weekly, although writers are welcome to linger. At the heart of this community are The Congress of Rough Writers.

For the next month, there’s an open call for new Rough Writers. What does that mean? If you participate at the Ranch through the writing challenges, your material qualifies for consideration in the literary community’s anthologies. It’s more than a round up of responses; it includes new and varied creative writing. The Rough Writers share their books, blogs and writing through the platform at Carrot Ranch. It’s a way to co-create greater visibility for community writers and for community readers to discover new authors.

Want to be an official Rough Writer? Send me, the Lead Buckaroo, your interest through email: wordsforpeople@gmail.com. I’ll answer questions and let you know what comes next. I’ll be updating the Rough Writer page and others throughout September. The only requirement is that you have been writing here as that’s the material we use to build our anthologies.

In November (date yet to be determined) Carrot Ranch will publish the Rough Writer’s first anthology, Vol. 1. In anticipation of the book launch, Carrot Ranch will host a Flash Fiction Rodeo during the month of October with eight different writing contests. I’m looking for eight leaders to create a fun and unique contest prompt and create small teams of three (leader included) to judge each contest. Got an idea? Send me an email: wordsforpeople@gmail.com. I’ll give you more details on what to expect as far as commitment.

On October 3, the complete Rodeo line-up will publish. We’ll post our last flash fiction compilation on October 4. The challenges and essays will take a break in October, replaced by a contest each Thursday and Tuesday, starting October 5 and ending October 31. Winners and compilations for each of the eight contests will be revealed every Tuesday, beginning November 7 through January 2 when the All Around Flash Fiction Champion is announced.

Winners and a selection of runner ups will be included in the Rough Writer Anthology Vol. 2. The community will begin developing the second anthology in January. The idea is to continue to host a Rodeo each October and launch a book in November.

Flash fiction challenges will continue to be the anchor event at Carrot Ranch. It gives writers a fun outlet, serves as a safe space to explore and share writing, create visibility for community literature and generate material for collaborative projects. If you want to engage in the community but you don’t want to commit to being a Rough Writer or you are one of our lovely readers, you can still contribute. Have a prompt idea? Challenge the buckaroo! Send me an email: wordsforpeople@gmail.com with your weekly flash fiction challenge prompt. Any time I use a prompt from the community, the contributor will earn a prize — it might be a book; it might be a rock; it will be fun!

Now is the time to get your grammar sorted out and saddle up to ride at the Ranch!

August 31, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a speller. It can be one who spells or a primer like Lawrence once had. You can deviate from the primary meaning if magic catches your imagination. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by September 5, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published September 6). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

***

Note Pinned to a Copper Mine by Charli Mills

“Con…con…”

“…tract. The word is contract, Father.”

John followed the word with his finger, stating, “Contract.”

“Good! Not to be confused with contact. That means to get in touch with.”

John tousled his son’s dark hair. “When did you get so smart?”

Lawrence beamed a smile, one of his front primary teeth missing. “Since you bought me this Speller!” He held up the brown cloth covered book.

John nodded. “ I need you to help me read more.”

Lawrence nodded and continued, “…contract required for trammers or we strike.”

John folded the note. “Don’t tell Mother. Keep learning, son.”

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