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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 30: Flash Fiction Challenge

A black-cap chickadee flutters to the bare bush ahead of me. My bird dog trains her nose to the trail and misses the bird. Neither of us is a prime hiker, but we are both elated to be outdoors. Swedetown Trail spans uphill into the leafless woods of the Keweenaw Peninsula. The air crisps in my nostrils, and I puff steam like an old ore wagon, steadily moving upward.

Another chickadee flits and I wonder if they are living in this brush. Migrators fled south months ago. Like me, these are the birds holding out through winter, curious to see what Lake Superior drives our way next. She’s blustered, but not sent us any more snow. I’ve driven to her shores in hopes of one more rock hunt, but waves slam in a relentless line.

Writers can be relentless, too. I march my fingers to the page and write until my shoulder aches. Either I push through like a wave and hit the keys again and again, or I pause to stretch. All the words, all the stories, all the imaginative ideas won’t ever fully punch the page the way I see it in my mind’s eye. The wonder of it all drives me, though.

And yet, I’ve come up short, once again. Why is it that I count my progress as shortcomings rather than short gains? It’s a beach stone I’m tumbling in my thoughts these days. I resist formal measurement, recognizing its pitfalls, that numbers are not always the full picture. And yet we need to measure progress: pages, words, hours. What we want to see are big results: chapters, books, posts. We want completion.

NaNoWriMo offers both the push and the results. I can now say I appreciate it most for drafting new material and revising when writing is the focus. For my NaNo Rebelling, I did great with my opening rewrite of the first three chapters. But then it was following threads, and nipping material and replacing locations. My progress bogged.

And then I received a gig with a professional author (when you publish more than ten books and can afford editors and designers by merit of your book sales, you’ve made a career). It was one of those chance happenings, both the editor and back-up editor were unavailable. Yet, I doubted my ability. I accepted and plunged into editing two novellas instead of editing my own.

Okay, here’s where even I think I’m weird. I edited the same number of words for someone else that I had waiting for my pen. Hers was slicing pie; mine was ripping copper ore from basalt. Perspective. In the end, the project taught me how to focus during developmental edits. I bombed NaNoWriMo, but I aced the gig. I’m making my edits harder than they need to be. And watching a pro’s process, I know I need to just dive in and not feel so angsty about my writing.

Because I love writing.

Do you ever feel like an imposter? It’s a real thing called imposter syndrome. While my daughter was at work, she sent me this article where I was working from my home office in her dining room: Does Remote Work Increase Imposter Syndrome Risk? It’s worth a read for all writers because we rarely feel confident stating, “I’m a writer,” and even professional authors balk at feeling like they really are.

Which brings me to self-care.

We can’t push relentlessly like Lake Superior on a blustery day. Nor can we beat ourselves up over our percieved short-comings. We can’t let life constantly drive our reactions. At some point, we need to make deliberate choices for a balanced life. What does that look like? It’s a good question and one we’ll each answer differently.

For me, it’s taking breaks for my back to stretch gently, and yet also having focused times to work. I use the Pomodoro Technique to organize my tasks, focus and move my body. However, I found it disruptive for tasks I know take longer focus, like writing and editing. So I also use 50/20/50 minute increments with an allowance for 50/50 tasks. I plug into focus (or study) music to tune out distractions.

Balance means to me, allowing time to process. My brain is like a BriteLite panel with lots of colorful pegs. I know the pattern, but each pegs lights up one at a time. I’m working on lighting up sections instead of lighting random pegs. I make sure I write every day. Every. Day. After a year of homelessness and writing every day, I no longer give power to disruptions. Every day, I battle the resistance to creating (read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield).

That means I’m choosing to fill my mind with what is good and useful. Those nagging self-doubts I mentioned earlier? I will always have them. But I choose not to believe them. It’s a small shift in perspective that leads to huge impact. I’m not a writer, you say inner critic? Too bad, I’m writing anyways. I’m listening to audiobooks that open my mind. Figure out what expands you, what you’re passionate about (rocks, anyone?) and give over to seeking it, learning about it, incorporating it into what you write.

That picture for the post? That’s what a balanced meal looks like to me. Instead of hunkering over my keys eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I unplug, drink water, prepare a simple, healthful and tasty meal (because good food should taste good). Once a day, I play Bananagrams. It’s a word anagram game that stimulates vocabulary. I also read and walk daily. And no, I’m not perfect. Life happens, moods rise and fall, and word counts and walks get missed.

In August, I hired a life coach for three months and it was the best decision for self-care I could have made. My coach, Alexis Donkin, is offering tips on how to create a holiday self-care plan. If the holidays feel like a stressful time, consider creating your own plan or working with someone, even a mentor or partner. A life coach can help you take action in the areas of your life that need attention.

So how might this translate into fiction?

November 30, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes self-care. Does the character need it? What does the character do? Think about how you can use this action to deepen a character or move a story. Go where the prompt leads.

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


Socks for Self-Care (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

“Dr. Danni Gordon! Good to see you!”

Danni unloaded her ruck sack and hugged Carly. “Thank you for making homeless vets your beneficiary this year.”

“Anything to help our military.”

Danni had sent Carly a list to broadcast: socks, toothbrushes, blankets. Spread out on a long table, women organized the items before packing into backpacks for the homeless in Spokane. Danni added Army surplus socks to the pile.

“What an ugly green,” said one woman.

Danni explained. “It’s a familiar color and texture to these men. Sometimes familiarity is the path to self-care for those who’ve lost their way.”