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May 6: Flash Fiction Challenge

Back at the Boston Homestead where my daughter and her husband are expanding their farm across what was once a neighborhood of company copper miners, their hens escaped the coop. The girls didn’t go far. Chanticleer, the rooster who crows when I sing to him about eating cracked corn, didn’t stray from them. They gathered among the budding blueberry plants and partied.

I’ll accept that as my cue to follow suit. Somebody blow party horn.

School’s out, but may the learning never cease. How quickly coursework gave way to gardening. Black soil slips under the tips of my fingernails, erasing twenty-one straight months of studies and writing for an MFA. Technically, I get my degree by mail after June 1. May is limbo month. A month of fresh ideas, starts and new paths. A month to find joy among emerging flowers, seedlings, and dreamers.

I’m with the chickens, pecking after the best blossoms. Except my escape from the student coop calls for cake not flower petals. I’ll confess to having had two lemon cakes already. One in late March after I completed my thesis. The special women in my veteran spouses group lent their stories and struggles. My protagonist met her own group of warrior sisters, ones she would called BABs. Danni Gordon gets cake in THE MIRACLE OF DUCKS. Lemon cake. When I completed my thesis and turned over my manuscript (MS) to my BABs, one of them made her famous lemon cake. After she read the MS, she baked me a second!

A fun aside to the second cake: Coming home from our last group meeting, I had lemon cake in my car. I stopped in Ripply where I haven’t been in ages because of the pandemic. In front of a friend’s house, we distantly gathered, delighting in the sunshine and recent second vaccinations. It seemed surreal to “people” and then I remembered. I had cake. A small village street consumed a lemon cake. Forgotten birthdays and private celebrations surfaced. Through shared cake, we felt human again.

I’m distancing my grad celebrations which is really an excuse to camp for three nights. But first, to Bayfield and the Old Rittenhouse Inn on Monday. My novel began in Bayfield. It flared in many directions, and in the end it became ashes. The thesis I wrote rose up from the ashes of my first novel to become a Phoenix among my drafts. I kept the title and protagonist but changed the premise, crafted a plot, and created a compelling character arc with a memorable group of women who carry the burdens their husband’s bring home from the battlefield. For me, to visit Bayfield is to reconcile the full journey I’ve been on to write my novel.

After a night in Wisconsin, I’ll pick up my incredible celebration cake from three Chippewa sisters in Minnesota. Then I return four hours to the Keweenaw to camp for three nights at McLain State Park. Cake, bonfires, cacao, and the sound of surf and spring peepers. Friday, I’ll go home to wish my Svalbard daughter a happy birthday. Then it’s off to the Unicorn Room for a Musical Zen Sound Bath with my sound therapist. She’s offering to do the meditation that bathes participants in sounds from drums to crystal bowls. It will be live on her FaceBook page at 5 pm EST on Friday, May 14. If you are interested in sharing this experience with me, shoot me an email at wordsforpeople(at)gmail(dot)com for links and instructions.

On Saturday, May 15, I’ve set up three Zoom Rancher Gatherings to cover a diversity of time zones and availability. Hop on to meet and talk with fellow writers at Carrot Ranch. Maybe meet the chickens of Boston or the wild Mause of the House. Celebrate. Socialize. I’ll read a snippet from my thesis and ask any questions about MFAs or writing. Bring your own bubbly! Times: 9 am/2 pm/7 pm (Eastern Time US).

If you are interested in the sound bath, socializing on Saturday, or setting up a time to chat, shoot me an email at wordsforpeople(at)gmail(dot)com for links and instructions. If you want to send graduation cards, you can mail to headquarters at 1112 Roberts Street, Hancock, MI 49930.

It’s my birthday on May 21. My son and daughter-in-law are driving up from Wisconsin for the weekend. I will complete my celebrations that weekend and start the new journey in earnest. For now, I’m going to party like hens let loose in the berry patch.

Note extended deadline on account of Party Business.

May 6, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about party hens. Who are these chickens and why do they party? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by May 18, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

The Hen Party by Charli Mills

Chanty shook his coxcomb. “Party ‘til the cows come home. Farmer Brown doesn’t know his party hens.”

The hens lunged for the blueberry patch. In the morning Farmer Brown would blame a blight or a bloke. Either way, he wouldn’t believe his best layer had a spare key to the coop. Seventeen hens clucked and clogged beneath the moon.

“It’s time,” said Henny Penny. They slowed their shimmies and wrote their plans in chicken-scratch.

“Party hard, Ladies. We have to write the next campaign to get a Madame President in Office.” Henny Penny held the party line – Chicks Only.

🥕🥕🥕

April 29: Flash Fiction Challenge

Pavement calls like a slithering snake that can wind to anywhere. Windows rolled down, engine roaring, music blasting. I’m seventeen again, driving my truck across the Nevada valley I once knew so well I could drive the roads in my dreams for decades after moving on. I didn’t know what came next but I knew I was outta there. Never did I think I’d move 22 times between then and now.

I’m not moving but I am moving on.

School’s out next week, and my wheels are turning. It’s hard to think beyond that one last essay I have to write because it’s Friday, due Sunday, and I really wanted to cross the finish line by now. Regardless, when I wake up Monday Morning, May 3, it will be like looking down a long stretch of road.

Where to next? Do I follow my map? Take a pleasure cruise, a side trip, an adventure down a two-track? Maybe I park under the shade of a black oak, and watch clouds scud across blue skies. May is not the month for hard decisions, nor is it time to lose momentum.

I’ve landed a freelancing gig and have plans to collaborate with a local artist, a podcaster, and a new storytelling center. I have business plans and job applications to finish, each taking me down different roads, each a companion to writing novels. The Ranch needs some new paint. My manuscript needs final edits. June 23 is the Big Day — the date I send my book to the agents who are interested. The wheels keep turning.

It’s the song, Hit the Road Jack, that comes to mind, though.

It’s more than moving on. It’s about leaving what is no longer needed. It’s telling 2020 to get lost. It’s declaring a new era. Claiming the road trip for your own purposes. Whatever happens next, I get to decide. When I left Nevada all those years ago, I never expected to live in almost every western state. I certainly didn’t expect to settle along one of the Great Lakes. When I hit the road, I had dreams.

I still do. We never stop dreaming.

Next week, I’ll let you know dates for my party plans. I have a truckload of fun to work out. Without a formal graduation ceremony, I decided to create my own. A friend is a neo-Druidic ceremonialist is going to lead an online graduation cacao ceremony. Another friend is going to host an online Sound Bath. I’m going to camp for three days at McLain State Park after I pick up the most incredible bucket-list celebration cake ever made by three young Chippewa sisters in Minnesota. And I will set up several readings and times for Ranchers to meet up on Zoom for friendly socials. Finally, my son and daughter-in-law will visit for a family weekend with a vegan cake (yes, two cakes).

On Monday, I also tell Covid to hit the road. I’ll be fully vaccinated and out of quarantine. It’s strange to emerge from the pandemic cocoon. Strange to not have coursework next week. But that’s the nature of moving on.

April 29, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story using the phrase, “hit the road, Jack.” You can interpret the phrase any way you like — road trip, goodbye, or story. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by May 4, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Jack’s Escape by Charli Mills

He waited for her the mouth of the mine. She visited late at night with stubs of carrots. She’d light a pipe and he’d sniff puffs of smoke while she spoke her troubles, wetting his neck with tears. Life in a mining camp caged a white mule and a soiled dove forced into service. One night, she arrived with a rope, blanket, and satchel. He had no regrets stepping outside his pen, letting her rig a makeshift bosal. She said, “Let’s hit the road, Jack,” and they left behind what they had known, never to speak of it again.

🥕🥕🥕

April 22: Flash Fiction Challenge

The sun slants differently in April, carrying warmth, bird melodies, and dust motes on rays of midday starlight. I’m lulled to go outside and feel the brisk air softening. Bulbs send shoots to greet the one who will melt the snow. If only Lady Lake Superior would stop playing with cold fronts, dumping more of her white rain. Crocus continue to bloom, tulips unfurl, and glories of the snow live up to their name.

Despite a determined sun, the weather remains fickle. On a sunny Sunday, Mause and I made our way to see my favorite beach at McLean State Park. The campground remains closed, but the shoreline was accessible. We hiked through the forest alongside the lake. I could hear the rush of small waves and turned the pup toward a tall hill. As she crested the outlook, Mause got her first look at the Lady.

And in true German Short-haired Pointer fashion, she pointed.

That night, the snow churned and icicles long as Jack Frost’s fingernails glazed the trees along the shore. In town, on Roberts Street, the robins, squirrels hunkered down and rode out the storm. By Earth Day, all was once again merry and bright. Snow remains in the shadows, but as a good friend who experienced a recent snow storm said, “It’s white mulch.”

Earth Day is a good time to talk about earthing. Also known as grounding, earthing describes interacting with the earth barefoot and bare handed. Like Mause did on the beach.

When the summer sun warms the sand, I love to dig my feet into its grainy depths. Not only does it feel good to my feet and soul, the contact improves my immune system. According to a fully researched article at the US National Library of Medicine, earthing has real health benefits:

“Multi-disciplinary research has revealed that electrically conductive contact of the human body with the surface of the Earth (grounding or earthing) produces intriguing effects on physiology and health. Such effects relate to inflammation, immune responses, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.”

The effects of grounding (earthing) on inflammation, the immune response, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases by James L Oschman, Gaétan Chevalier, and Richard Brown, 2015

Going barefoot and digging in the garden without gloves is good for you. Earthing is akin to forest bathing. It gets me excited for camping because I also love the energy of sleeping on a pad on the ground. I can’t tolerate the cowboy method of sleeping on the ground, but I realize that as cowboys slept on the trail, they were recharging their batteries every night.

As I come to my final finals week for my MFA, I have one more week after to wrap up and submit my portfolio. Much is uncertain as conditions progress and I shift gears. A part of me wants to collapse, but I will do that on a sun-warmed Keweenaw beach. Like the tulip that breaks ground, we never really know what will greet us — sun, rain, snow, freeze, drought, or the nibbles of a winter-hungry deer. Still, we rise and grow to reveal our true colors. Until then, one day at a time.

Happy Earth Day, one and all.

Do not try to save the world or do anything grandiose.Instead, create a clearing in the dense forest of your life and wait there patiently,until the song that is your life falls into your own cupped hands and you recognize and greet it. Only then, will you know how to give yourself to this world so worthy of rescue.

~Martha Postlewaite

Walking. I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.

~ Linda Hogan

Your sadness doesn’t make you less of a human being. In fact, it makes you more. More expansive. More connected. Painfully beautiful. Raw. Open. Completely alive.

~ Panache Desai

April 22, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about earthing. Put a character’s hands, feet or body and soul into the earth. Who needs recharging? What happens between the interaction? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by April 27, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Earthing on a Working Ranch by Charli Mills

Jerilyn’s house smelled like a barn. The danger of spring calving is weather that plummets into freezing blizzards after the bulbs rise. The night seven cows dropped calves she provided shelter in her newly remodeled kitchen. So much for pristine linoleum. Today, calves and mamas would reunite. Sam saddled their horses while Jeri mopped and dried breakfast dishes. Glancing at her Zen calendar, she realized it was Earth Day. A quote encouraged her to seek earthing, connect with the ground. She wondered if a mouthful of fresh clods counted? She didn’t relish getting thrown from that flighty mare again.

🥕🥕🥕

April 15: Flash Fiction Challenge

Just when I was feeling despondent over how far my front potager garden has to grow to live up to its name, someone planted bunnies along its border. It’s spring-ish in the Keweenaw of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, give or take a few more spits of white rain. The snow smartens the landscape of leftover street grit, dead plant stalks, and mats of maple leaves that resemble road-flattened toads. As much as I want to have a garden that emerges from winter like the ones I see on Monty Don’s “Gardening World,” the truth is I don’t live in the UK.

The bunnies brought me cheer and a mystery.

Who planted the family of wooden bunnies, each painted gray or brown and detailed with artistic designs? Each bunny is a different size and mounted on a dowel to press it into the ground. I simply walked outside one day, and there they were. I posted the discovery on Facebook, certain the artist would claim their handiwork, but so far, no one has.

Some people sow seeds of generosity without an audience. I like the idea that it could be anyone on Roberts Street or beyond. Some artist is chuckling over their drive-by bunnying. It seems that would narrow the list of suspects but almost everyone I know on the Keweenaw Peninsula is artistic. As I clean up my potager, I look forward to creating bunnyscapes. As hard as it is to resist, I’m late with a rake in the spring. I want my bunnies in a pristine setting, but the garden wildlife need warmer weather to emerge from the leaves and winter stalks. Patience is my act of generosity.

Not that I have time to dig the dirt. Two and a half more weeks and I’m done with school. I’ve had classmates tell me that I’m in one of the most dreaded classes of the course. At least I know I’m not the only one struggling to understand it. The other course is a content and copy class and we are studying SEO. Shoot me in the foot. I get what Search Engine Optimization is. I don’t buy into its value or all they hype that it’s something worth mastering. Not to say it isn’t a worthwhile strategy for marketing content. I adhere to other strategies. SEO will never be WOM (Word of Mouth). The latter includes people, the human factor in marketing.

Regardless, one of my favorite professors leads the course. I wish it were a prof I didn’t like and I could feel more justified in my moaning and groaning. I also can tell a difference in my classmates. Many from the earlier part of the program have taken a break or left. It seems COVID has exacted a toll. People are tired, unhappy. More disconnected. One peer has been a shining light, though, and I’ve gravitated toward her generous feedback that has helped me get through these last two classes.

I’m learning to be generous with myself, too. I had wanted to forge ahead with plans after graduation. I tried my best to keep up with business development, coursework, and thesis writing. In the end, my focus narrowed to a laser beam on my novel. After all, it was the primary purpose of my MFA journey. I’ve received a generous amount of feedback from my advisor and began yet another round of revisions last week. To me, it’s exciting. I know to dig into the comments, read the resources she recommends, and roll up my sleeves and do the work. Like my garden emerging ugly, I’ve decided to find the beauty in the mud.

And to wait. I don’t have a deadline on what I plan to do. True, I have a tiny bit of savings, enough to see me through six months after graduation plus a small investment in my business. I want to shout it to the world because I am excited for my vision. But I’m practicing mindfulness and recognizing that my neighbors can’t possibly see the potager as it will be in years to come. All I have is shaping clay and I need to trust the process to make it into the artistic vision I see. I need to be generous and offer myself the gift of time.

According to a newsletter I subscribe to:

“One way to practice generosity is to give energy where it is needed, whether that is in the form of time, money or love.”

Daily Om, Planting the Seeds of Generosity

The gift of time spoke to me. Giving without thought of return is an act of generosity. Someone gave me bunnies, a work of their artistic hands, and my neighborhood is enriched. Every week, writers give me stories, and like a community table, I prepare a spread we can all taste and enjoy. How remarkable generosity is.

There is yet another way to consider generosity. Brené Brown counts it as part of the Braving Inventory from her book and process, Dare to Lead. I post a copy next to my desk, alongside my vision for my writer’s life. You can print off one of your own, scroll down this Workbook page to Downloads where you will find Generosity listed in the Braving Inventory.

“What is the hypothesis of generosity? What is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?”

Brené Brown

Do you feel what she is saying? That we can be generous in our thinking towards others. Instead of generalizing the worst about someone, we can extend them the best intentions. The grace we can give one another to co-exist with diversity of views, expressions, and lived experiences. The love and compassion we can all feel when the table is set generously for everyone, especially those who have experienced oppression and marginalization. The empathy we can extend recognizing individual traumas, healing, and scars. To sit and listen, to hold space for others, to witness — these are acts of generosity.

And they are as uplifting as shared art. In fact, the art you share, the stories you tell, they do make a difference in the world.

April 15, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that seeds generosity. Who is generous and why? Think of generosity as planting a future outcome. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by April 20, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Shared Between Neighbors by Charli Mills

Mara’s untamed yard tumbled toward Randal’s. He kept his edges squared, lawn clipped, and garden fenced. Dandelion seeds drifted and yellow globes emerged next door in spring. Mara offered to uproot the plants when Randal returned with herbicide. He scoffed. She persisted. He wavered. She mentioned cancer. Mara dug on hands and knees for three days, preserving roots and flowers. Order reigned over Randal’s lawn once again. She bottled the root tincture to control her menopause. In the fall, she gifted her neighbor a jug of sweet dandelion wine with a vintage label that read, From Seeds of Generosity.

🥕🥕🥕

April 8: Flash Fiction Challenge

Undaunted by 131 inches of snow — a light winter — some of the Roberts Street royal family has survived. One towering seven foot stalk of Lemon Queen sunflowers bob their dry crowns in the wind. All winter the nuthatches and chickadees have feed at their multiple heads. Winds and snow drifts snapped all but this remaining royal.

Mause joined me today as we worked on a new command, “Off the garden.” We examined the rise of tulips, hyacinth, iris and glories of the snow. Grit and matted maple leaves cover the ground now that most of the snow has gone. Crocus of purple, yellow, white and lavender began to bloom a week ago. They color a dun landscape. Nothing is yet green

Winter bleached the Lemon Queens the color of pale straw. Yet still they give.

A friendly male chickadee sang what birders call the fee-bee song and I responded, “Here, kitty.” Some say the call sounds like “Hey, sweetie.” I like my version because I find it humorous that a bird would call a cat. Mause stood at attention. After all, she is a bird dog. I was gathering dropped Lemon Queen stalks to check for remaining seed. The chickadee tried to land on my outstretched hand and I felt like a Disney Princess. Mause vibrated in excitement and the bird flew off to Mrs. Hitch’s tree.

What seemed a lovely overcast day on the peninsula was not so on Lake Superior. She fussed enough to froth waves that sent the recently returned lake freighters to seek safe harbor. Cedar Bay, one of my favorite swaths of pebble beach that I can access through friends who own lakefront property, churned sand, and broken ice. Someone filmed the action. You can view a nice spring day on the Keweenaw and imagine the Lemon Queens, chickadees, and a young pup ten miles away.

Further North and across the North Pole from me, my youngest daughter is welcoming spring on Svalbard. March and September are the only two months out of the year that the sun both sets and rises. Otherwise it does one or the other. They are now in the days of sunshine. It’s cold on the island, never rising much above freezing. It doesn’t snow much but the ice and permafrost are thick. Caves of blue ice form tunnels through glaciers. My daughter and a group of friends are snow machining and camping, avoiding avalanches and polar bears. It’s stunning country.

Caves remind me of the hero’s journey. An important stop along the way is the symbolic cave — call it a bad day or the point of no hope. It’s necessary for the hero to fall before the rise with an elixir in hand. As an epic moment, the cave represents a near-death experience. And it is a confrontation of death. Consider the class Star Wars story when Luke Skywalker’s training calls for him to enter the cave and confront the dark side of the force.

He enters the cave and battles his arch enemy, Darth Vader only to discover the his own face within the mask. This scene is not the actual cave moment in the story, though, but a premonition of what will follow. In order to confront his enemy he must confront the darkness within himself. Ultimately, this leads Luke to believe that if there is darkness within him, there must be goodness within Darth Vader. The actual full hero’s journey in the Star Wars sagas belong to Anakin Skywalker. His hero’s wound is that Anakin never had a father. He dies when he turns against the dark side to save Luke — to be the father he never had.

What makes Star Wars so crazy-good to study for the hero’s journey is the fact that as a writer, George Lucas befriended Joseph Campbell who defined the epic structure based on worldwide studies of mythology. Lucas and all the writers and filmmakers he has influenced since the 1970s have followed this pattern. Like the 99-word story format, the hero’s journey is a pattern. At the Star Wars epic level, heroes look like the Skywalker men. At its most simplistic form, the hero’s journey is about transformation and not gender specific.

Many people have dismissed the hero’s journey as a white male construct. While that might be so to a certain point, what excites me about the hero’s journey is how its pattern feels like the struggle to overcome and self-actualize. In fact, people relate to this pattern and flock to stories in the Star Wars universe because it stirs up emotion and inspiration. They want to experience the journey. Many fans have, becoming part of the technology, art, and storytelling of LucasFilms.

The latest is a Disney series called The Mandalorian. Many people involved in the project were kids, just like me, when Star Wars rocked our world in 1977. I was ten and started to write stories. My writer-self has evolved with Star Wars. I still get chills hearing the opening music of what has been renamed A New Hope. Now, I have a new theme that fires my synapses, perfectly pitched between light and darkness with a western influence. The Mandalorian is based on western tropes.

The Hub has watched The Mandalorian with me. It’s hard to find shows that hold his attention. Mostly he watches YouTube interviews of soldiers, which I find interesting to listen to as I write but don’t care to watch for entertainment. He began researching George Lucas and the development of Stars Wars and I followed him down every rabbit hole that had to do with storytelling. To bring it back full circle to my ultimate writing mentor, Wallace Stegner, he said:

“An emotional response in the reader, corresponding to an emotional charge in the writer –some passion or vision of belief–is essential, and it is very difficult to achieve. It is also the thing that, once achieved, unmistakably distinguishes the artist in words from the everyday user of words.”

Wallace Stegner. On Teaching and Writing Fiction. Penguin Books. 2002.

That’s why I love the hero’s journey. As a pattern, it provides a foundation to build upon such an achievement in writing.

Yet, many dismiss or dislike the hero’s journey. First, the word “hero” is problematic. Anne Goodwin and I have had numerous debates over the years which has helped evolve my thinking about the hero’s journey. We both decided we like the term protagonist’s journey better. Anne also brought up that not all protagonists complete the journey. I think it’s still a journey, but one that refused to answer the call, and then became an anti-hero’s journey, resisting the cave. Some dark stories enter the cave and never leave it. I see these as variations. You have to know the structure to build it differently.

Today, we have an opportunity to broaden who we define as a hero. Women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and different ages, sizes, neurodiversity and abilities can be the person on the journey. Anyone can be the hero. I believe in the pattern of the transformative journey, not who the face of the hero is. Yes! Magazine published an article that challenges us to reframe who the heroes are: “The Kind of Heroes We Need to Actually Save the Planet.” As writers we are heroes of another sort. Rena Priest, the author of the article, reminds us that:

“The word “author” is from the Latin word auctus, which translates literally to “one who causes to grow.” As storytellers, we plant beliefs that blossom into the structure of the world.”

Rena Priest, The Kind of Heroes We Need to Actually Save the Planet. Yes Magazine. 5 November, 2020.

April 8, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that “rethinks the hero.” Define the hero, comparing or contrasting to the classic definition. Break the mold. What happens to the hero in the cave? Is it epic or everyday? Is there resistance or acceptance? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by April 13, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

A Different Way to Serve by Charli Mills

Her bootlace caught the gunrack no soldier ever used. The force of the blast lifted her body as easily as a child’s balloon rises. Weightlessness defined the pause between rise and fall. When her body crashed, her bootlace held. It ripped every tendon, wringing her ankle. Two years later the VA removed the foot Hunter wanted gone. It flopped and failed, unlike the metal shank they pounded into her bone. Strong. Time to return. She wore no cape, no uniform, but stood to defend an Inuit village. She became the climatologist who sounded the alarm. The ice was melting.

🥕🥕🥕