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April 6: Flash Fiction Challenge

April 6The woman tells her friends to go on without her. They’re at the crest of a ridge that overlooks thousands of acres of wilderness in the Inland Pacific Northwest. Sun breaks through the clouds and they are illuminated, a human crown on top of the world. The friends want to hike to a thumb of sheer granite further up the trail. She declines. Says she doesn’t feel well.

In two hours the friends return to find the woman curled up beneath the boughs of a pine, sobbing. She can’t explain why. She says every time she stands she feels vertigo. One friend stays, to help her off the mountain ridge, while the others continue their hike and several days of back-country camping.

“Agoraphobia,” says the man, recounting the story. He was one of the friends who continued on the journey. Later he found out that she’d suffered an attack of agoraphobia — “a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and often avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.” (Mayo Clinic definition.)

The man became fascinated by his friend’s condition. He empathized with her anxiety, understanding that she had many possibilities open to her but had to make a decision to choose one. The rest would go away. Unable to let go of the possibilities and confronted with endless wilderness, she succumbed to anxiety. This incident sparked the idea of a new book and and a new character. The author telling the story had just read from book two of the series.

Writers are story-catchers. I believe many of us were (are) voracious readers, but at some point we have to catch our own stories and not the ones already upon the page. Many writers are inspired to write because of the stories they read. Others find inspiration in discovered stories. I’ve gravitated to the latter, becoming a story-catcher in the way song-catchers record and reclaim forgotten tunes of folk history.

Before I ventured to the Well Read Moose in Coeur d’Alene, south of Sandpoint, I went to North Idaho Cider. It was a social event, yet I had managed to arrive late and the social part had left. So I chatted with the brewers, sipped a Logger dry cider that tasted of wood and spring sunshine, and caught fantastic stories. One of the brewers is a long-time investigative journalist covering the political beat. We started lamenting how writing has changed since the 1990s and how writers fell from grace and no longer earn their value as wordsmiths,  story-tellers and truth-seekers.

Yes, we cried little pity tears in our cider, then we moved on to the good stuff: swapping stories.

By the time I arrived to the bookstore, I was ready for more stories. As I’m meeting more local writers, I’m pushing myself to ridges of vulnerability. I’m continuing to read your flash fiction and mine at Open Mic to get people interested in what we are doing at Carrot Ranch; to find new authors and bloggers. I’m hosting Wrangling Words (the Idaho Writers League and two screen-writers showed up last time) and volunteering at the library. I’m helping other writing organizations to support writers, including BinderCon. And I’m stepping up my freelancing — I just submitted to some major US magazine networks, the Washington Post and some big regional publications.

I fell into a gig because I was outside my comfort zone and in the right place at an opportune time.

I’ve said it before — serendipity happens when we do something. We can’t hide in the boughs of a pine forever and expect unexpected gifts. Yet, not only is it uncomfortable out the comfort zone, it’s also vulnerable. We might fail. We might look foolish. We might be misunderstood or under-valued. But we won’t succeed, shine or prove our worth without trying. Despite our best efforts, situations occur beyond our control and we have to deal with them.

Last week I had shared a soul/sole polishing experience for Irene Water’s Times Past challenge. Every time I thought of the beach (which was the prompt) I thought of the sand at Sioux Beach, which made me think of what it felt like to lose my home. Not a cuddly memory. Yet, I had just met an inspiring New York Times best-selling author, Laura Munson, at the BinderCon event I had hosted in Missoula. She was our live speaker. I also met the phenomenal rising star, Montana writer and Binder, Stephanie Land. Both inspired me to write harder truths. So I did. And I felt vulnerable.

I don’t know if feeling vulnerable made a difference, but when I learned last Monday — completely out of the blue — that our house lease was not going to be renewed because the owners decided to sell, I was rocked to the core. I became that agoraphobic woman and huddled beneath a tree. I didn’t just sob, I howled. How can I be displaced — again? What is so wrong with me that I’d face the possibility of homelessness a second time. Vulnerability. As renters, we are vulnerable to the whims of owners. As owners we are vulnerable to a fraudulent system.

Every time I stand up, I get vertigo. My eyes water when I’m trying to watch my screen. I feel a sharp pain when I look outside at the beauty of Elmira Pond and think, it’s not mine. But it never was. In fact, my first post at Elmira Pond Spotter acknowledged that Paradise resides in the Shadow.

Still I rise from that hiding place on the ridge and face the wilderness like a Weeble (Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down). Agoraphobia demands that fears be faced. This is the worst thing I’ve feared. A repeat. But it is not a repeat because I can make choices. I am not without those. And one choice remains strong: I’ll write my way off this ridge.

This has me thinking of Mary McCanles. I’ve struggled with the last segment of Rock Creek because her scenes feel flat. Sarah and Nancy Jane are clearer. Then it came to me. I can imagine Mary feeling similar to how I feel. She must have felt displaced by Cobb’s tragedy. It wasn’t her doing, yet she was the one left behind. Even Sarah and Nancy Jane left. She was vulnerable, too.

But she made it off that ridge and raised all her children on one of the ranches Cobb built. She survived Indian attacks, locusts and the villainized reputation of her husband.

April 6, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a response to an agoraphobic moment. Does your character see the shadows or the light filtering through? This can be used as a character trait or as a moment that causes an anxious reaction. Explore the character’s discomfort — embarrassment, indecision, feeling trapped. The scene can be direct or overheard. Is there a solution when fears are faced?

Respond by April 12, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

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When Breakfast Becomes a Decision by Charli Mills

The wagons left yesterday. East, not west. Mary collected eggs in the henhouse at dawn. Soon the orb was orange, the rutted road empty. Leroy said he’d not come back if she refused to go.

And refused she did.

Except now, Mary wanted to toss eggs from her gathered apron and run down the road. She changed her mind. Eggs splattered and Mary fell to her knees, clawing at her clenched throat, wheezing.

“Ma! Ma!” Roe ran to her throwing his arm around her shoulders. A sob finally escaped and she cried muddy tears before rising to cook breakfast.

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Times Past: Grainy Memories

Grainy MemoriesAs a child, I knew the marshmallow give of hot tar while I padded barefoot down the street to the summer swimming hole. I’ve felt the tickle of moss while wading in irrigation ditches, shoes off and jeans rolled up to my knees. I understood sand to be grit I used to wash camp dishes in the dim light of dusk with a creek as my sink. I might be a seventh-generation Welsh-Scots-Irish-German-Basque-Portagee-Dane born in California, but I did not grow up a beach-comber. Cowabunga, surfer dudes and California dreaming was not on my side of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

My only memory of oceanic beaches from childhood is a fuzzy recollection of the clam-digger who drowned; a story I already shared.

To participate in Irene Water’s Times Past prompt, I’m dipping into more recent memory because I simply didn’t spend my childhood upon any beaches. Yet, I do have one summer when I lived along the south shore of Lake Superior, a great inland sea. I followed the feel of sand between my toes to that time. For the record, I’m a Gen X Baby-buster and this is my creative interpretation of adult memories from rural Wisconsin, USA.

Unchained on Sioux Beach

With each step the sand sings to my bare feet.

I’ve lost my home, my job and now I just let loose the leashes on  my dogs. Fear clutches the breath in my lungs and I wheeze. Yesterday I walked out of my office, the one I had for 11 years, after shaking hands with my own replacement. 90 days ago a judge said, “I’m sorry, I have no choice.” 80 days ago my husbanded dumped jeans and t-shirts into the back seat of his car, dismantled his aviation toolbox, set trays in the trunk, and said he had to go west; it was a job. 30 days ago I declared myself a Craig’s List dealer, giving strangers my phone number and address, giving away books, suits, dishes, furniture and everything my husband left in the garage, wishing I smoked cigarettes after each transaction. 10 days ago my boss called me into to her office so she could cry. She said, “I’m grieving.” I’d have grieved, too if only tears could have breached the shroud of terror and loneliness. Five days ago my staff held a going away party with jazz and cake. Despite having disrobed my life’s accumulations, they gifted me new stuff as if homelessness was not my destination.

Damp and coarse like Kosher rock salt used to freeze home-made ice cream, I feel the sand scrub my feet.

This morning I awoke in a spare bedroom not my own, having slept in a borrowed twin bed and surrounded with the last of Things That Still Matter — three crates of books, enough clothes to make choices, a small writing desk and a laptop with a hopeful half-drafted first-novel. It is not my first first-novel. I had cheerfully told everyone I was going to Wisconsin, to the fishing village where my novel was set to finish my book, as if foreclosure had made me Hemingway. The two dogs remained with me even though they limited my ability to find places to sleep and write. They Still Mattered. They remained my last fragment of scheduled time with a persistence to go outdoors. They had to pee early this first morning when I felt the weight of loss upon me like a death shroud. We could have stopped at the clumpy patch of grass, but I could hear the seagulls and Lake Superior close-by. So I went to Sioux Beach, took off my shoes and removed the leashes on two dogs who had only known their house, yard and neighborhood walks.

Sioux Beach stretches vast and empty. So much sand is alien to me.

In this place, as far away from my former home and office as mars is from earth, I force out the fear strangling breath in my lungs. I watch the unleashed bigger dog lunge after seagulls, his dark coloring a beacon on the beach dressed in khaki and white. The water tumbles to shore in waves, making semi-circles of washed pebbles and foam. The smaller dog, roan and lighter, sniffs with curiosity at the water’s lapping edge. I imagine I’m at the ocean and look across the bay until land is no longer visible. Later I’ll learn that even though Lake Superior is an inland sea, its fresh water wave action is due to a sloshing bathtub effect. Gunmetal storm clouds from the nor ‘east can bring 14 foot swells.

Above the surf I still hear the sand.

Quartz particles rub with each step and emit a sound like a tiny singing bowl. For the remainder of spring and summer, I’ll discard my shoes to walk upon this sacred beach. My feet will become polished as if I could afford weekly pedicures. Fear falls away and home becomes defined by where I am and who I’m with in the moment. Structure diminishes, that of houses and time. In the places polished clean by sand, creativity enters and I finally finish a first-novel. I discard my own leashes and trust what comes back to me. These first steps in the signing sand on Sioux Beach are like a return to living fully engaged and alive. Unchained.

I write thank-you notes in the sand to bankers who robbed me with pens as big as ceremonial halberds, watching waves erase the diminished letters of BOA.

 

Times Past: Food From the Sea

Times PastGeneration X, Rural Northern California

Foam-edged waves pushed kelp across wet sand. I don’t recall the waves at Monterey Beach (California) being big or crashing. My focus was on the semi-circles of water that glided toward my yellow rain-boots (or were they red?). Benign wave remnants after the ocean crested further down the slope of beach where I was not permitted to go. Wave remnants, like early memories, glide across my mind. The memory of the rain-boots might not be from that day. But I do recall stopping my chase to watch the men in dark waders — my father and his father clamming further out where I could not go, dragging another body up the shoreline instead of buckets. It’s fractured, that memory, but in family lore the day the clam-digger drowned in a deadly riptide we stopped going to the beach. And it must be true, because I don’t have any other childhood memories of the ocean.

When Irene Waters posted her new monthly challenge, Times Past, I knew I’d want to participate. I never considered memoir to be among the styles of writing I’d pursue, but reading the memoirists who write flash fiction as Rough Writers, I am up to their challenges in return. I’m eager for Irene’s Time’s Past because it will form a revealing look across generations and place. She offers that we can respond to her prompts in any form we like. I’m going to use it to challenge myself within the form of creative non-fiction. Her first prompt is:  The first time I remember eating in a restaurant in the evening.

I cannot think of seafood without thinking about the body of the drowned clam-digger. It never fully struck me the man was dead, but the solemnity of the adults and the curiosity of seeing an ambulance lodged in my mind like a mis-filed note. Somehow it comes up attached to the seafood folder.

The first time I ever ate out at a restaurant in the evening — a huge deal in the 1970s for a kid — was the Ormsby House Seafood Buffet. I was born near the coast of northern California, but moved to the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains by age seven. The nearest big towns with restaurants were Stateline (Lake Tahoe), Carson City, Minden and Reno. These were the big Nevada city-centers (well, big to a kid who lived in a town with the population of 99) which catered to the gaming industry. My parents often went to Carson City when relatives or friends visited. Adults only.

On this particular occasion I was invited to go and allowed to bring a friend. I was nine. We went to the Ormsby House, an older yet elegant high-rise casino. Most of the casinos offered a seafood buffet on a Friday night, but this was supposedly the best one. Excited for my first evening restaurant meal, I felt I had been dropped into the Willy Wonka factory for seafood. There was squid salad with diminutive whole squid among cold macaroni; oysters Rockefeller; shrimp cocktail; and clams in the shell. And that was the salad bar! I had cracked crab legs with steaming butter and a wedge of lemon. For years I’d recall that meal, but it was the only time I ever went.

Later, not far from the garish blinking lights of Carson City’s casino row, my father set up a temporary tree stand, and from the ages of 12 to 16 I helped sell Christmas trees from that lot. I often dreamed of going to the Ormsby House, but we were in work clothes and covered with pitch and the scent of pine. Instead, every night my father would hand me cash from our collection and I’d trot across the street to buy us all dinner in a bag from the fast food chain, Long John Silvers. I discovered hush-puppies (fried balls of cornmeal batter) and deep fried clams. It was a good seafood fix.

Once I moved away from California, I moved further and further from those Pacific coast waves and fresh seafood. In Minneapolis I found Sea Salt, a little seafood stand at Minnehaha Park, and it was one of the only places to find fried clams. Every Christmas, I’d put tins of smoked clams or oysters in my children’s stockings along with an orange and peppermint stick. When they grew up and we had friends or spouses join us in the stocking exchange, they found the smoked clams odd. Now, I crave the fish and chips served at the local gas station four miles down from Elmira Pond, not for the fish or potatoes but for the side of Pacific Ocean fried clams they serve with it.

And I wonder who that man was. Like the true color of my rain-boots, I may never know.

Bite Size Memoir: Interviews

Bite Size Memoir for Carrot RanchOver the years I’ve been involved in interviews on both sides of the table. I’ve had terrific coaching from a wonderful HR manager, yet nothing comes to mind worthy of a story when I think of interviews I’ve conducted. There were the oddballs like the resume that escaped HR scrutiny–the first page was promising and the second page revealed the applicant’s obsession with aliens. Seriously. I did not grant an interview. Only two job interviews truly stand out. One was a boon  and the other a disaster. Both left a lasting impression, but I’m not sure how to distill either one.

Then I recalled other interviews–the ones writers conduct. The latest memory prompt from Lisa Reiter at Sharing the Story is about interviews. This is based on one I got to photograph.

Interviews

She was driving a University of Montana fleet vehicle to conduct interviews with local farmers about newly released GM alfalfa. It was a hot-button story for rural communities and food advocacy at large. I rode in the passenger-side seat, watching miles of snow covered fields stretch between jagged profusions of opposing mountain ranges. Not an easy place to farm. I was riding shotgun as the photographer. We pulled into a dinky motel in Lewistown, Montana. I once lived here, 22 years ago. Bittersweet emotions washed over me. Here my daughters toddled at Big Springs and watched Bugs Bunny the day their brother was born at home. It’s a tiny town with streets on steep hills that close in winter. It’s where I once dreamed of going to school one day, of being a writer. This day I returned with a journalism grad student. This day my daughter was the interviewer.

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Bite Size Memoir: Bad Hair Day

If you are a child of the late 70s and early 80s then you must have photographic evidence of a bad hair day. I have evidence of ferociously faulty fashion sense induced by mixed media influences. (This photo is what you get when you watch Little House on the Prairie and Charlie’s Angels while also reading Tiger Beat and ordering clothes from Sears.)

Beyond the hair, note my retro-pioneer gingham and glasses so large as to dent my cheeks when I attempted a smile.

Thank you Lisa Reiter for resurrecting this photo from its hidden gloom in my hope chest. You can join me and other writers in linking up with her Bite Size Memoir on her blog, Sharing the Story.

Bad Hair Year: 1980 by Charli Mills

The Lesser Known Fawcet/Ingalls Flair of 1980

Fickle fringes do not always shape up like in the movies. In this school photo my tresses are a little bit Farrah Fawcett; a little bit Laura Ingalls. What I remember clearly was my frustration with the curling iron and why it didn’t “work.”

My hair refused to hold a curl. The bangs alone took multiple crimps with a hot iron and enough AquaNet hairspray to be guilty of at least one thin spot in the ozone. No matter how many times I curled the longer sides into a hot coil, they brushed out into uncooperative waves.

Note to my 13-year-old self: you weren’t supposed to brush the curls.

What makes me chuckle is the flair I added, completely of my own creation. Fashion magazines, you did not totally rule me! Yep, that side braid was 100 percent my idea. Why it didn’t catch on in Hollywood is beyond me.

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Bite Size Memoir: Crazy

Bite Size Memoir for Carrot RanchSeveral years ago I was accused of writing a letter that was mass-distributed to neighbors in a rural district where my father’s parents live. It was about them being pedophiles. Which is true. But I didn’t write the letter.

I made my escape decades ago. You might think me crazy for the amount of therapy I’ve slogged through as a survivor of incest. It’s a disgusting word and I wish it wasn’t a part of my vocabulary. I’ve learned that the healthiest members of such generational sickness are the ones who seek help. Few do.

Instead it comes out in skewed ways. Most likely the letter was written in retaliation from another family member. They’re seriously enmeshed; the generations live in close proximity and they constantly bicker and war over familial power. I moved away. Twice. The first time they drug me back “home.”

The second time they knew I was dangerous—I wasn’t afraid of them anymore. I spoke out.

It took years to heal, lots of therapy, taking parenting classes, building a nucleus of trust within my own family with a supportive spouse and children who grew up without knowing my messed-up relatives. I grieved. Escape is lonely. The “family” protects the abusers.

Crazy, I know.

So, when Lisa Reiter prompted us with her clever Trekkie memoir about a time that was crazy for her, I couldn’t think of anything else but this stupid letter I didn’t write, and me and my cousin getting blamed for it. I wanted a funny story, a light story, but crazy is heavy word on my shoulders.

The good that came out of the letter incident is that it reunited me with my cousin who shared in childhood horrors. She had been blackmailed into staying silent and it broke my heart when she told me that she had to stay away from me after I got out. You leave and they shut the door on you. You have living family, but they are neither loving nor caring. You have parents that breathe but are dead to you. They protect the lies and do everything to discredit you. They tell everyone that you are the crazy one.

It’s beyond crazy and no wonder few make it out.

The letter was my cousin’s ticket to freedom. Because they thought she conspired with me, they let her go. With her own children, she escaped. Years later, she’s now happily married, ranching in eastern Montana and has support. She’s officially listed as crazy. And that’s the sanest place to be where we come from.

Crazy Cousins by Charli Mills

We’re like orphans, clinging to each other for support. My parents refuse to speak to me after we reunited, and her mother disowned her after the letter accusation. Yet they have no problem chatting with the pedophiles that walked us across brimstone as children.

My cousin and I have no family. Neither one of us will return to crazy-making. Bribes of horses no longer work on me. Blackmail no longer ties her. We have boundaries.

She sat in my kitchen a few months ago with her Montana rancher who believes she’s not crazy. We swapped stories as only cousins can do.

“He used to give me silver dollars afterwards,” I told her.

She nodded, and then a huge grin spread across her face. I got the feeling she was going to one-up me. “He used to give me two-dollar bills.”

We laughed uproariously. We survived. And we share this craziness.

NaNoWriMo is Your Ax

Tips for WritersI’ve always liked the analogy that writers have a toolbox. It validates that we engage in a craft where we can add new tools, fine-tune our favorites and pass on trade tips to other word-artisans.

We’ve been discussing the storyboard as a versatile tool for creating structure. But before you can build your structure or revise your plans, first you need material. You need to write. You need scenes, chapters or pages.

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). While it is an event that encourages writers across the globe to write 50,000 words in 30 days, you can also think of it as a tool. NaNoWriMo is an ax; use it to chop down the raw material from which you will build your book.

Think of your strategy as harvesting the timbers of your book in 30 days. For the rest of the year use the storyboard to construct and revise your book: map your hero’s journey or arrange your three act story; develop your characters; research any topics or scenarios that are beyond your common knowledge; identify gaps; edit; revise; proof and publish.

For me, I like to have a strategy, a process to completion. But when I write, I need to press the pencil lead to the paper and just go. NaNoWriMo lets me be Paul Bunyan with the ax swinging mightily. The challenge doesn’t allow time for my inner editor or and second guessing. I’m just creating material–I can judge it later.

Year 2012: Partial Draft

2012 was the first year that I participated in NaNoWriMo. I had a partial draft of “Miracle of Ducks.” Earlier that summer, I had taken a workshop with Mary Carroll Moore and learned how to develop a book through using a storyboard. I also learned that it worked best with material. Using NaNoWriMo as a tool to get more material, I added 50,000 more words to my novel project in a single month. It had taken me years to write half that much!

Year 2013: New Draft

The following November I was jazzed to use NaNoWriMo as a tool to develop another project. Even though I was still working on the final draft of the first project, I decided that it would be wise to generate new material once a year. Publishing a book takes so long that I don’t want to have to start all over; I want to have projects ongoing. That’s another strategy we’ll discuss later. So, in 2013 I cranked out an opening scene based on a short story and an idea. But I had no outline, no plan, no scenes beyond the one short. Each day I came to the page not knowing what I’d write, yet miraculously, around 900 words I’d hit my pace and dialog, action, characters would flow. The material is raw but it’ll be a fine structure to build.

Memoir: Not My Own

Don’t let the word “novel” deter you if you are a memoirist. It’s about writing 50,000 words. When I wrote my first novel project I had no idea what genre it would be–I just wrote it. Then the following year, I had my second novel reviewed (a NaNoWriMo “prize”) and it came back listed as science fiction. That was a surprise! The point is, it doesn’t matter what you write, but that you complete 50,000 words in 30 day. Have a memoir in you? Then alter the title a bit and use MeNoWriMo as your ax to slay material for your book.2013-Winner-Square-Button

Next week we’ll look at the end result of NanoWrimo–your book-project.

Do you participate in NaNoWriMo? Why or Why not?