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Let’s Get TUFF and Rodeo!

You can expect spills and thrills at the Rodeo. At last, we launch, late due to multiple technical difficulties following an extraordinarily long day at the Minneapolis VA Polytrauma Center. In the end, a Rough Writer drove all the way from Nebraska to feed me tonight after a day of unintentional fasting. I feasted on kale and sweet potato curry with bok choy and cauliflower rice with C. Jai Ferry (of TwitterFlash and grit lit fame).

Forgive the lateness of this post and the lack of video. My recorder died, and I can not figure out an elegant solution to videotaping on my laptop while also reading the winning entries. And I know that’s what you are all chomping at the bit to learn. I just figured out wi-fi connection at the Fisher House where I’m staying.

First, let me say this was the hardest contest I’ve ever had the privilege to judge. No one turned up with weak entries. The writers who all submitted entries to the free-writes stretched their writing abilities, pushed into the prompt and took risks on the page.

Right after the final free-write, my judges and I began the process of selection. First, we focused on entries that created a memorable impression. Next, we looked at writers who short-listed more than one entry and stories we all selected as judges. We had three clear winners and an agonizing time to decide who took the final two spots.

I want all the writers who submitted to know that each one of you drafted with creativity and skill to convey a story in 297 words. Even if you were not selected, your writing will be posted in a collection on November 1. I hope you will play along.

Finally, at last, the wait is over — please meet the TUFF Fab 5 who are about to embark upon the TUFFest Ride:


Soon as we got to Nannie’s I hurried to the kitchen to pour a cup of her sweet, cheek-sucking Kool-Aid. I gulped it down and wiped my mouth with my sleeve. Then I set outside to spy on Grandpa.

Grandpa never left his car, an old Dodge that sat under the pine trees out back. Sometimes he’d sleep there, with his head lolled back in the seat, his mouth opened, snoring loud enough to wake Mrs. Wilmer’s dachshunds. But most days he just listened to the radio, sipping on Coors Banquet, banging his fist on the steering wheel depending whether he was listening to a ballgame.

I was tossing my football around when he called out my dad’s name. I dropped the ball and looked around when he honked, “Now come on, Douglas,” he said, “We’ve got a long drive home and no time to waste.”

He waved me over, to that old Dodge that hadn’t moved in my lifetime. The hood didn’t shut, and the tires were flattened to a fold. Still, I plodded over and opened the door, breathing in a gust of spring pollen, summer mold, fall leaves and a sprig of winter pine.

“Shut the door, Douglas. Hurry.”

I reached over and yanked it shut, cans scattering under my feet.

“There we go,” Grandpa said, hands on the wheel. “Gosh, Dougie, I didn’t think you were going to make it home,” he said, taking me in. A chill over my bones, him calling me that. All I knew about my dad sat in a dusty flag-folded triangle on the shelf above my dresser. But Grandpa, even with that map in his head a few roads short of an intersection, I liked him saying it. Besides, the seat was comfortable.

“Yeah, let’s go home.”



The tree is always there, taunting us, imposing itself on who we are.

We are the weak link in their chain.

I am the weakest.

I am often left alone.

“He’ll be fine,” he says, as I hear the door close, the slam, the silence, the crunch, feet falling on cracking snow.

I lift the window, look down. Iced air snaps in, smashes my eyes, freezes my face.

I glimpse the shape of them going to the car.

She hesitates. I wonder. Maybe this time.

“Its not right.”

He scoffs, “Christ, Jennie, he’s almost of an age.”

Of an age?

I am almost of an age.

“You say,” she says.

“Fuckin’ right. Where do you think backbone comes from? From you? From your kind?”

She touches the car door handle.

He stomps to the driver’s side.

“GET IN! It’s bloody cold.”

Her gloved hand lingers.

“JESUS! He’ll be fine. It didn’t do me any harm. Ever.”

She opens the car door, gets in, closes it.

The motor grinds. It won’t catch. Another grind. Then it catches, engine firing, exhaust swirling in the winter night.

They drive away.

I stare until they vanish.

His memories come in angry waves.

“Your Grandfather. Tough as steel. ‘The best ones are found as high as you can go,’ he’d say, demand I climb as high as I could to get the best Braeburn. I gave it my all, even when a broken branch shredded my skin.”

He flashes me the underside of his left wrist. I bear witness to the scar he wears like a medal. “See. A little blood. A little souvenir. That’s what life’s all about.”

I have no scars from climbing.

No medals for what I am.

I close the window, crawl into bed.

This is it, then.



The sun was just starting to rise as I drove east along Interstate 80 as the black dawn gave way to shades of gray and purple that marked the beginning of a beautiful Midwest sunrise.

Cars passed in intervals and my mind drifted mile after mile. I had been driving for 10 hours and decided I needed to stop, fill up and shake off the storm of my past as I drove straight towards its center.

I zipped my jacket up and wrapped my hands around my coffee as I leaned back on my car listening as the pump filled my tank with gasoline. As I had expected, the sunrise was beautiful and for the first time in a long time I let my heart feel a pain I had pushed down since I left Laramie in October 1998.

The controversy surrounding his death divided our town and the nation. When they found him he had been left to die in a field after being savagely beaten. Deciding I would defend him and in turn I would be defending myself, I was ready to have ‘the talk’ with my father.

I had anticipated anger, after all he was a religious conservative man but I hadn’t expected the explosion. His fist flew faster than my head or heart could react and with a broken nose I fell to the floor. That night I packed my things and headed west to California and never saw him again. That was the year life as I know it began.

I spent 20 years living a life of discovery, one I lived for two since Matt never got the chance to. I’ve forgiven my father and now as he lay dying, I make the long drive home. It’s time he knows it.



Jody sighed and pulled on her helmet, before heaving herself up onto the horse. Nina cantered up to her, her horse slowing down as he neared her.

“It was a good idea, this break, wasn’t it Jod? An early ride totally blows the cobwebs away. I feel so alive here!”

Smiling weakly at her friend, Jody nodded and gave her horse’s rein a little pull, setting her off on a slow gallop.

Being here had given her plenty of time to think, and she had. But it had been a constant bombardment of memories; pictures flashing through her mind, rather like scrolling through the photo album on her phone. And every image centred around one person.


The one person she was trying to forget.

Ben the bastard.

Ben the cheat.

Ben the di-

No. She had to stop this. She was meant to be forgetting him, not allowing his memories to become sharper with each day.

“Stop it.”

She looked up to her friend who had caught her up again. “What?”

“Stop thinking of him. I know what you’re doing. And it’s not healthy.” Nina’s blood boiled as she thought of the idiot who had broken her best friend’s heart. “And anyway, I brought you here to forget him! What you need is to find someone to help you forget. Have you seen some of the ranchers here?”

“Seriously Nina, I am not interested, not after all the shit with Ben. I’m afraid one little ranch romance isn’t going to help.”

“Oh, I know, but it wouldn’t hurt, eh… haven’t you noticed how that Jimmy keeps looking at you?”

Nina knew.

The only way this girl was going to get over Ben was by having a long, hard ride, and she wasn’t talking about a horse.



Once upon a time, summer sunrises warmed deep forest, from chill evergreen to clattering gold, edging our bedroom curtains with the nascent glow of unarticulated adventures. Ceaseless waves, having raked over agate and quartz all night, left hints in bits of driftwood and bobber, and precious white-scrubbed logs from distant islands and Superior storms. Bare feet scrambled over slick green rocks, gathering and grousing over ownership. Pale pirate’s legs wavered under thigh-deep water, ferrying those bones of raft-base to whatever part of the beach each had designated as “my spot.”

My Spot. My logs. My bobber. Ownership begins early, stains our pure blood with ambition. We soon forget that any pirate’s treasures claimed are gifts, not rights. Even Nature’s well is not bottomless.

Once upon a time, we visited the island’s one hardware store, padding from hot sands to cool dark, a single fan humming from a high corner in the converted boathouse. Its proprietor, wind-darkened skin folding like sail canvas around warm brown eyes and a mouth that found humor in our enthusiasm, stretched in dun and evergreen, beckoning us in. His hands were strong, each line traced by the grease from his last job. I breathed in heady inspiration from motor oil, decades of sawdust, and the tang of fertilizer. He led us to boxes of long nails and spikes, vital to our summer rafts.

I made my own raft. Tiny and wobbly, we were twin mermaids. In deeper water, the boys had their exclusive kingdom.

In this time, I roll back my chair and look out over the empty cityscape. My spreadsheets reflect in the office window, silent as the night office. My stilettos lay behind me, being shoeless my one compensation for success attained.

Papa’s bar was high. My memories wave me homeward.


Congratulations Pete, Ritu, Bill, Liz, and Kay! You will represent the Ranch in an exhibition write throughout the Rodeo. Each of you have won $25.

Each of you will progress through four TUFF tasks with technical twists that won’t be revealed until each Monday at Carrot Ranch.

Three of you will advance to compete for rank of First, Second and Third place. The overall first-place winner will receive an additional $25.

So, let’s talk TUFF. The Ultimate Flash Fiction is a process, a brain game, to reduce words to produce more. TUFF is about learning to go with gut instinct to draft and to then trust the creation to revision. When you free-write, you have to let go of your inner editor and write. When something feels uncomfortable, that’s a sign of writing deep. Drafting can feel vulnerable.

When writers revise, it’s not always obvious how to go about it. TUFF is a quick revision tool that writers can apply to scenes, chapters, and even entire novels. It’s a way to get at the heart of what your story of book is about. I even use TUFF to coach entrepreneurs to craft the story of their business vision. You can use TUFF to create variously sized synopses.

TUFF begins with a free-write. The first revision is 99 words, the second 59 words, and the third is 9. By the time you go through the constraint process, the story or idea sharpens. That allows you to go write the clearly envisioned story. The process will surprise you! Writers who take the TUFF challenge feel the shift.

However, because this is the TUFFest Ride, the judges and I will be reviewing each week’s entries and deciding how best to test the writers’ skills with an additional technical challenge.

All writers are welcome to play along from the safety of home. You can post your challenges in the comments. Due to the volume of words that the extra challenges produce, I won’t be posting any challenge entries. We will enjoy and discuss them right here in the comments.

Except for the Fab Five. Pete, Ritu, Bill, Liz, and Kay will email their weekly entry to Their full entries will be posted on November 1 (please refrain from sharing your entries on your own blogs until the judging is final on November 1).


We begin the TUFFest Ride with a free-write. You have five days to draft 297 words to the prompt: mudslide. Your technical challenge is to include at least three of the five senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, sound). This is the story you will revise and rewrite as a final entry throughout TUFF.


Remember: competitors email entries and challengers post in the comments.

Deadline: October 6 at 11:59 p.m.