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February 14: Flash Fiction Challenge

It’s February 14, and I find much to love today. I can imagine that the invisible warm winds lapping at the coast of snow outside my stoop conform to aerodynamic heart-shapes. Why not? The wind is unseen so I can pick how to see it in my mind. Hearts float by and surround me in such an imaginative construct.

Today, I met a Nigerian Prince, and I loved so much about our encounter. He didn’t say he was a prince, but by his demeanor and broad smile I couldn’t help but think he was. The local Rotary Chapter invited me to speak at their weekly luncheon. Not one to miss an opportunity to read and tell stories, I accepted the invitation to be their guest. That’s where I met the Prince.

He wore cloth not from the US — it looked thicker, and held a linen-like weave. It was dark blue, almost like a midnight sky when a full moon casts enough light to give color. Small dots of cream decorated the Prince’s matching shirt and pants. He dressed handsomely and spoke eloquently. Suddenly, I loved Nigerian language. It occurs to me in afterthought that I should have asked him to speak his native tongue.

The Prince spoke clear English, but I noticed he rounded his sounds as if his mouth were an instrument. It made me think how sacred oral communication is, how as people, we take great care to shape sounds into words to give meaning to what we feel inside. And what is that exactly? What is this tug to love so many things — people, ideas, stories, exchanges? Literary art feeds on this impulse of expression.

Mostly, I loved the Prince because he appreciated my stories. Isn’t that the simplest of love stories? He approached with great care and asked if I had my words down in something he could carry. A book. But think about that a minute, because that’s where I’ve been languishing all day, believing heart-shaped wind caresses my snow into melting. He asked to carry my stories back with him. Back to Nigeria.

How could I refuse such a request? Yes, I gave him a copy of Vol. 1, and he requested I write something in it just for him. I’ve not felt so revered as I did with the Prince. Of course, that’s why I thought he had to be royalty. He was magnificent. Further, he told me a story about how he and his friends collect books and how hard it is to take all the volumes back to his country because of weight limits. Image that Nigeria is a place where literacy is so valued that when you return, you try to haul back as many books as you can!

Although I’m less enamored with children, I did love the ones who came with their parents today (something about a half school day). They all wanted to listen to the writer. One listened intently. I could see her listening with her eyes, creating images of the stories her grandmother told at my lunch table. That woman was one to love — a natural-born storyteller who announced to me as she left that she was going to declare herself a buckaroo, too!

How about that? I found a kindred-buckaroo-spirit in the Keweenaw. She and her granddaughter would have understood if I had whispered to them that the winds were blowing hearts today.

During my talk, I read. I love the privilege of working at Carrot Ranch among such talented, tenacious, and courageous writers. Fellow literary artists. I read a few stories from Vol. 1. I read a trio of Copper Country stories for Vol. 2. The audience marveled at the power of 99-word flash and the scope of where writers come from around the world. I love watching people connect with the stories. There’s nothing quite like reading aloud literary art and watching it grab ahold of listeners.

When I talk to audiences, I make sure I know who they are — business or civic-minded, students, or casual listeners looking to be entertained. I select stories to stir their hearts and prod their minds. I have my own 99-word stories I read, and a few I share from my storytelling tradition. Today, I asked for a volunteer to join me up front to hold my hand. I swear I don’t gnash my teeth at people, but you’d think I went feral at the uncomfortable silence that ensued.

I love that uncomfortable silence.

That’s the space where humanity happens. If we are comfortable, then we are walled up, everyone happily co-existing in boundaries. I want to break down walls. I want to risk discomfort, which is the point of my request. The man from the back who braved stepping forward let me hold his hand. It’s not the story I tell that alters the audience. It’s the understanding that shifts their hearts.

Holding the man’s hand, I relate a story once gifted to me by a Kentucky storyteller who once spoke at Carroll College when I was a student. She had asked for my hand and told me about the time her grandfather died. Before he passed, he asked for her hand. She was eight-years-old, and he told her that when he was that age, he met a man who fought in the Civil War. He held a rifle in his hands and battled cousin against cousin. He was old, but held the boy’s hand and said: “Don’t forget — you once held the hand of a man who fought in the Civil War.”

The boy grew up, raised a family, and as an old man on his deathbed, he passed down the story to his granddaughter, holding her hand. He said, “You’ve now held the hand of a man who held the hand of one who fought in the Civil War.”

And yes, I passed this down to a man in the Keweenaw Rotary Club today. I told him, “You held the hand of a woman who held the hand of the granddaughter of the man who held the hand of one who fought in the Civil War.” It gets long-winded, lots of hand-holding as the story grows, but they all got it. And I loved that moment of recognition. That moment when stories express the humanity of one to the humanity of others. That’s literary art. And that’s why we practice and put our stories out there.

We talked about collecting stories, about being story-catchers for the Rotary, their businesses, families, and life. I gave them my Lego bucket analogy for gathering 99-word stories. The kids all knew what we do with Legos — we build. One member asked if Carrot Ranch was my business. No, I told her. It’s my author platform, and I share it with a community. I explained how authors need to work simultaneously on three strategies — writing (drafting, revising, editing), platform building, and publishing. I told her that I also loved the interaction with other writers and the chance to create literary art as I work on longer projects.

I closed with this 99-word story I wrote for one of the Rodeo contests in 2017. I think. Sometimes, I realize I’m not a good curator of my own writing as I wildly sow seeds and then try to gather them up in some sort of organization. I don’t always pick the same stories to share, but I love this one so I will share it now (perhaps, again):

When I Grow Up, I Just Want to Be Happy by Charli Mills

I’m six-years-old and have told a lie. “Mom said I could go home with Mitch.” I leave school early with my cousin and our grandfather.

Mitch is Underdog to my Polly Purebread fears. He’s my hero. My pulse doesn’t flutter like a swallowed bird in my throat when we’re together. We pedal bikes through the apricot orchards, watch cartoons, roam turkey barns, climb baled haystacks.

Our grandfather catches me in the lie when my mother panics, not finding me at school. “Always tell the truth,” he chastises us.

My cousin does. He becomes a cop.

Me; I write fiction.

It’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m happy. In Finland, they greet, “Hyvää Ystävänpaivää!” Don’t ask me how to say it; I can hardly understand the English of Yoopers who shape their mouths and perform tongue gymnastics differently from my Nigerian Prince and me. But it means, “Happy Friendship Day!” And I love that. Love among friends, palentines for pals, love for life, humanity and art is so much broader than steak-and-lobster-for-two kind of love. Although, I do love steak and lobster.

A few household details — remember to include your story on the form, not just a link to your story. A link makes me work differently, kind of like I have to get off my horse to go take care of a chore that I asked a rancher to do. If you were my kids, I’d give you that “look.” And kudos to all of you who are getting into the mash-up vibe (combining constraints). I love that creative energy! But remember that this challenge is more than a prompt — it’s 99-words, no more, no less. Otherwise, you know the deal — go where the prompt lead!

Go spread love. Write. Make art.

February 14, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about valentines. It can be Valentine’s Day, the exchange, love for another, romance, or friendship. Have a heart and go where the prompt leads!

Respond by February 19, 2019. 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.

 

Be Mine (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

No Valentine’s Day card greeted Danni in the mailbox. Only an official Veterans Affairs mailer. She flipped on houselights, contemplating cold leftovers. She’d rather be wining and dining Ike, but he was in Iraq. Her landline rang.

“Hey, Michael.”

“What’s up? Hear from Ike?”

“No. just something from the VA.” Danni opened the envelop as Michael told her the latest from the Canadian border – nothing. “Oh, wow. This letter rates Ike for PTSD.”

Silence.

“Michael?”

“Are you going to leave him?” Michael asked.

“Are you going to dump your friend?”

“Hell no!”

“That’s my answer. He’ll always be mine.”

February 7: Flash Fiction Challenge

My front window buzzes with thousands of white bees dropping from the heavy skies in search of clover in the grass. Except, there is no grass. There’s no clover. And the swarm outside is yet another snow storm. All signs point to winter in the Northern Hemisphere even if we did celebrate Imbolc last week, noting that the days are getting longer.

The Hub just popped in to grab his workout shoes. His red and black checkered flannel jacket is dusted white. He’s off to the local Crossfit Gym where he works out with one of his counselors and another veteran. It’s a pilot program to see if the Crossfit program can adapt to veterans with disabilities. The idea is to get these former soldiers to reconnect to their warrior mentality in healthy ways.

So far, all signs indicate Crossfit is working. It’s part of the bigger plan to integrate the Hub’s care so that every day he has something that helps with pain management (chiropractic, acupuncture, physical therapy), cognitive strategies (CBT, speech therapy, group), and health (medical care, fitness, and nutrition). Basically, with the guidance of our Vet Center therapist, we’ve built our own Poly Trauma program that addresses the Hub’s needs holistically.

Personally, I’ve been looking for signs, too. Not necessarily the tealeaf reading kind, but some sort of sign from the universe as to which direction to take. What next? I knew I had come to a fork in the road. At times like this, I thank my North Star for its guiding light. I know where I want to go, but the path has led to unfamiliar terrain, and I have choices.

Some decisions I’ve made and stand solid — I landed in the Keweenaw, and I intend to stay in the Keweenaw. Here, I have my Warrior Sisters, the Hub’s home-spun Poly Trauma program, a beautiful and remote outdoor setting, and proximity to two of my three children. Runner and his lovely bride-to-be, Runner2 live near Madison, five hours away. We live with Radio Geek and her Solar Man, and if our world-traveler, Climber and her Chef visit the States (they live on Svalbard in Norway), they’ll come here.

Place is settled.

Last June, I decided to end my 16 years of writing for Valley Natural Foods. I penned my final member profiles. After I left as marketing communications manager in 2012,  I stayed on as managing editor and writer for two of their key publications. Before I left Idaho in 2016, I decided to wind down all my freelancing. Last year I decided to pursue the workshops and retreats I wanted to do. My first one got canceled because the Father’s Day flood wiped out the retreat center and turned my new community upside down.

In July, Finlandia University hired me as an adjunct instructor to teach a Career and Technical Education (CTE) Marketing course. I read it as the strongest sign to let go all my freelancing and business consulting. I knew it would be tight between July and September, but I had a couple of local gigs. Then my class got canceled the first week of school and caught me off guard. I was gutted. It was at the same time that we were still trying to get help for the Hub and understand what he was facing.

Timing-wise, you can see that all this upheaval aligned with the Rodeo at Carrot Ranch. I can’t say enough good about Norah Colvin, Irene Waters, D. Avery, Sherri Matthews, Geoff Le Pard, and all our judges who led superbly. We carried on and had a good run and a few recording hiccups when I had to go to Minneapolis to accompany the Hubb into the VA Poly Trauma program. It was terrifying for me. I grieved for the husband I no longer had.

But as you know, through my writing and sharing, I pulled through that dark place and came to an understanding — I still have my husband. My family recommitted ourselves to loving-kindness, no matter what the future was going to bring. We have now. We have him. When I saw Welby Altidor, he connected the pursuit of creativity to caring, and to carving out safe space to take risks. Carrot Ranch always has been “safe space” for literary artists to explore their craft, stories, and characters. I just needed to adapt that model to my life and how to live with a veteran who has an altered brain.

Are any of you familiar with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way? It’s because of her that I identify as a literary “artist.” Her book influenced me during my 20s when I dreamed of being a writer and wrote in lined journals. She dared me to be bold, to go to college at age 27 when I had three young children. I got my undergrad degree in creative writing. I wanted my MFA but chose to follow the Hub to the Midwest where I built a freelancing and marketing communications career. Julia Cameron (through her book) helped me when I dreamed up Carrot Ranch.

If you are familiar with The Artist’s Way, then you know she advises daily morning pages and weekly artist dates. The idea to write 99 words a week was a reduction of the morning pages. If we write every day, I figured we needed to share something of our writing, too. Alone, we are writers. Together, we experience the dynamic that is literary art — writing meant to be read. Collectively, writers and readers give meaning to literary art. When I arrange the writings of participants into a collection, well, that’s my weekly artist’s date.

So, no matter what I decided to do next, I knew that Carrot Ranch, with its torch to keep literary art alive and available, would be a part. An important part.

Finlandia University has employed me to develop the CTE course and help recruit for next fall. They intend for me to be the instructor. But next fall is a lot of meals away. I’m not paid to be an instructor-in-waiting. Back in October, when my world was all about flash fiction Rodeos and stressing over a husband in the hospital, a once-in-a-great-while kind of job came up at Michigan Technological University. It was a public relations position, responsible for curating and distilling the stories of the research university as it prepares to lead the world into the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

I was intrigued. I took the bait. I applied.

No job can ever replace my North Star with its glowing dreams to encourage world-wide literary art, publish historical novels, and build community. I had to think long and hard how a fulltime job would fit into my plans. What excited me beyond the work, was the opportunity to invest in Carrot Ranch monetarily. Oh, the thought of buying those turquoise cowgirl boots and a new wardrobe to replace the one I left behind in Idaho.

After I sprained my ankle, I sat on the couch and came up with a plan. I was at a crossroads and would have important decisions to make. One path was MTU, the second was FU; the third was to revitalize my freelancing, workshops, and retreat; and the fourth was if the world imploded, I’d leave and go find an MFA program to start anew. In January, I went on retreat to polish my vision and plan the first three paths. The fourth was like a Hail Mary football pass.

The reason I’m telling you all this now is to process and understand which path the Universe finally set a go-sign to. MTU selected one other candidate and me to go through final interviews (mind you, this was a three-month process, including writing assignments). After an all-day interview on campus, I felt proud I made it that far. I also felt awed and scared that my world was once again about to change drastically. The result? MTU rescinded the job. It no longer exists. There is no public relations position.

If that wasn’t one helluva sign…

Disappointed, I wasted no time in setting up a freelancing platform and will wait and see what happens with recruitment after the CTE open house last week. I also realized I felt hugely relieved. My writing time is sacred and I almost gave to an organization in exchange for shiny new clothes.

Then my world shifted yet again when a letter arrived yesterday from the VA. For once, a good shift. And the sign that appeared blew me away. The Hub’s benefits finally, finally, finally came through. Blessedly he can stop pulling his own teeth with pliers and get dental care. He will get his knee replaced. We can even get into a place of our own. But the unexpected — my name in the official document with the words, “education benefit.”

I still feel all atwitter. My stomach is still somersaulting. Education benefits. For me! Suddenly, the fourth path isn’t far-fetched. I can get my MFA! You betcha, I wasted no time in contacting an advisor, finding out what the benefit was and when I could use it and — it’s no longer 1998. Ha! It’s no longer 1998. There is an INTERNET. And I looked up online MFAs and found one! I applied, yes, I already applied. There’s more to the application (writing). Get this — my master’s thesis could be Miracle of Ducks. AND, I can earn an additional teaching certificate.

Do I need an MFA? No, I don’t. I still believe that writers live in a time of incredible publishing opportunity. But the question that I answered immediately before my brain could ask it was do I want an MFA. And yes, I still do.

Sometimes, we have to wait for our Sign to come in. I’ve waited 20 years for that one!

My daughter took me out last night. We both cried and laughed. She remembers me giving up my chance to get an MFA. She remembers me writing away to programs at different points in my life. She knew I never gave up the ghost of that dream. And it fits Carrot Ranch like a custom glove! I’ll get to learn how to teach craft, not just encouragement and marketing. I’ll also get to use Carrot Ranch as my platform for coursework.

For now, I’ll continue the application process, open up some freelancing gigs, and plan to start coursework August 12. I’m setting up some local workshops, and of course, we have the first Carrot Ranch Nature Retreat this July. I’ll continue working on MOD, and I’ll set a deadline to finish Vol. 2 before school starts. At last, a path.

And, be sure to check back on Monday because I finally met with the folks at The Continental to close out our Bonus Rodeo contest. We have three winners to announce (and pay). The radio spot won’t be developed until later. Some issues came up but had nothing to do with us or the contest. Thank you all for your patience, especially those who entered.

Thank you, also, for being my weekly artist’s date! Your writing of 99-word stories inspires the blazes within my writer’s soul. Must be a sign.

February 7, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a sign. It can be a posted sign, a universal sign, a wonder. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by February 12, 2019. 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 Drive Back in Time (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Ramona looked for the sign, the one that read Elmira. Snow pelted her windshield with a mesmerizing kaleidoscope that Vic called whiteout fever. She ignored it the way her husband said to, and instead followed the tracks in the snow. Ramona startled when her headlights caught the township sign. Why were the mill lights out? So dark! She slowed and pulled into her driveway where someone was plowing the easement. Vic, her husband. The power must be out. She waved and blew him a kiss. Silly man. What was he up to, calling a young thing like her, “Grandma”?

January 31: Flash Fiction Challenge

George C. Bailey Photography 2019

Water sustains life. We thirst for droplets pure and cool, hydrating brain cells and skin. Cool blue. Azure coasts. Caribean surf. Water calls us to buoyancy in its waves. Floating, bobbing beneath warm sunshine. But that image is from the travel blog for a warmer destination. I’m bundled up on the thumb of land that juts into Lake Superior. Keweenaw, which must mean “hell hath froze over.”

My water mistress runs with the frozen devils. They touched down earlier this week, a hoard of them called Polar Vortex. It would be like a tale of Jack Frost if George R. R. Martin were to pen it — no survivors. I thought my Lady Lake would freeze solid, go quiet, turn white. Instead, she surges and hurls her powers across our peninsula gripped in the clutches of the Polar Vortex gang. We get the worst of both phenomena.

Lady Lake Superior undulates 10-foot swells like curvaceous hips, slow, sensuous, semi-frozen. Sea mist rises as heat against the sub-zero touch of the frozen devils. They hover above her open water, crystallizing her shores. The layers in between turn to slush the color of icebergs. The shore looks as deadly as the final view of the Titanic.

Further out, the shipping lanes freeze. The US Coast Guard ice cutter, Katmai Bay is churning ice at 12 knots tonight. A curious pastime, when I can no longer get to my favorite rocky beaches along Lake Superior, is to check in with the marine vessels on the Great Lakes.  Traffic is but a trickle on Superior. The Lady has opened her ice water mansions, and no sailor wants to go.

The Hub met a sailor in town. He’s crew on a ship that goes down to Toledo and other interior ports. For Christmas, he gave the Hub a package of sausages from a butcher shop made famous by the character of Klinger on the tv series MASH. The Hub was proud of his gift. He enjoys talking to anyone who can connect with him on an intellectual level. Intellect remains intact and creates an avenue for communication. I’m grateful for the people who choose to notice the Hub’s attributes and ignore the oddities of his condition.

The brain will have its way, but for those of us who care, we stand beside him to preserve dignity and as much of his individualism as we can. In the meantime, he scoops snow and reminds us all how much better the desert is to this tundra.

With the ridiculously cold temperatures, Lady Lake didn’t forget to gift us more snow. We’ve had 60 inches of snow in January and will likely see another 100 inches before it all ends. February is typically the snowiest month, and storms continue through March and into April although days begin to lengthen, and the sun returns its melting warmth.

But what if it didn’t?

What if the sea mist rose no more and the Greatest of the Great Lakes did freeze bone-white solid? Ice heaves upon ice heaves would build just as they do no, but with even greater strength and height. Soon, rivers of ice would rip apart rocks and grind cities. One theory of climate change is that the Gulf Stream can collapse and cause an ice age. What we see with the spread of the polar vortex is the result of the ice melting at the poles. It’s terrifying to think about. But so are all the weather extremes.

The US Midwest freezes and part of Australia are baking, flooding and on fire. All around the world we see climate change in extreme weather events.

Can we yet find the natural beauty, and find a way to give the earth her dignity.

This week, a good friend of ours, a veteran and husband to one of my Warrior Sisters, attempted suicide. He has similar brain issues to the Hub, which gives us worry. However, what gives us hope are the individuals through the VA system who have stepped in to help. A surprise, a good one, to us all. The civilian hospital reminds me of climate change deniers. They don’t want to look, listen, or maintain dignity for another. We are relieved that as of today, he’s in a VA facility with good care.

What’s with denying human dignity to other or even to our environment. Even if a person doesn’t believe in the science of climate change — and understandably, there are many theories and arguments — we can still do what is right and best for protecting our precious planet. What I don’t understand is the denial only so that resources can be stripped and robbed at the price of stability, wonder, and beauty.

I feel like our veteran friend was treated as if he were a criminal because civilian population doesn’t understand their points of fragility. An aging altered brain is frightening. In our family, we made the shift to stand on a foundation of caring, to approach all the discomforting issues that occur with loving kindness. Instead of rigid rules or treatment, like caring for the earth, we need to do what is best, to bring out the best in another. Not to strip and rob of dignity. Not to deny that veteran vulnerability is real and deserves our attention.

While Mother Earth can’t call for help, veterans in need can. This is the US Veteran Crisis Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 (press 1). You can also text 838255, or open access help for those hard of hearing (and most combat veterans suffer hearing loss) 1-800-799-4889. Share this number with FRIENDS AND FAMILY of veterans!

Most spouses and grown children probably unaware that they can call. Please keep in mind that isolation can lead to suicidal ideation. One of the reasons me and my family work so hard at keeping the Hub engaged and communication grounded in caring is so he does not feel isolated. One of the ideas behind suicide as a part of CTE (and PTSD for that matter) is due to the person losing connectivity with other people. As the brain deteriorates in CTE, a person feels trapped and disconnected. In PTSD, self-isolation is common.

So make sure family and friends know the Veteran Crisis Hotline number and that they can call. Our friend’s spouse called and likely saved her husband’s life. Just two weeks ago, one of our fellow Warrior Sisters gave her the number. She said she didn’t know she could call. We didn’t know she’d have to call so soon. We never really know the moment.

Like with the earth. We don’t know when the exact crisis will be. In the meantime, let’s be kind to one another and think of extending others and the environment a sense of dignity.

Take a look at the photo for the prompt. I asked permission of a local photographer to use it. George C. Bailey and his wife who is a renown Copper Country artist live high up on the peninsula right on the Lake. There’s something enlivening about Lake Superior in her layers of ice and sea mist. Remember, that there is always beauty around us. Do not lose hope to the frozen devils or fears of the future. Stay connected to one another and live life to the fullest.

Write to your greatest potential.

January 31, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about sea mist. How does it create an environment for a story? It can set the stage or take the stage. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by February 5, 2019. 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.

 

Mountain Passage (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli MIlls

At the top of the pass, Ike pulled over. Danni radioed the lead forester to verify any logging trucks. The Forest Service road tapered to one-way traffic. For the next five miles, loggers used the narrow switchbacks to haul loads from an active site. If they met a truck on the grade, there would be no way to pass. Danni surveyed the steep ravine, waiting for a reply. Morning fog obscured the forest and hid the road. Before an affirmative crackled over the radio, Danni heard grinding gears in the distance like a rumble of surf beneath sea mist.

January 17: Flash Fiction

Collonades of bare trees cluster like ruins jutting from the snow. For such a forceful start to early winter in the Keweenaw, I’m surprised at how little snowpack we have this year: only 70 inches compared to 137 inches by January last year. It seems a cruel jest to abruptly end a pleasant autumn in early October with fierce storms, plummeting temperatures, and blizzards only to fizzle.

Of course, as I type, snowflakes dance like tiny fairies outside my window, taunting me. Snow or blow away, I want to tell them. This middle ground of gray brings me no joy.  I want to see my colannades gleaming white as the engulfed snowscape I know my dome can be. Can they hear me, these frozen water crystals of endless form?

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand.”

Nature’s genius imbues that inner space from where we write. If ever the Muses existed, they come to us on the wind, the wing, or leap into our walking boots from a sprig of moss. Imagine a Muse biting your ankle like a midge, a tiny irritant like sand to an oyster. You scratch at an idea, and before you know it, you write a pearl.

Thoreau knew this itch. Every observation he made about humanity flowed through a filter we classify as nature writing. Nature’s influence on literary art is ancient. The first storytellers who painted on rock walls from Sulawesi, Indonesia to Chauvet, France depicted animals. Nature features heavily in Hellenistic poetry, and the Greeks developed philosophies that explored humanity in nature.

Even Shakespeare’s writing felt the bite of nature’s midge. Charlotte Scott digs deeper into the impact nature had on the bard’s ability to use nature to reveal human psychology. She explains (a fascinating 2-minute video):

All my heroes write the spines of mountain ridges or the flows of Walden Ponds and Tinker Creeks. Even my favorite cultural icons like Sherman Alexie wield big stories built from vast landscapes. You can’t have a book set in the American West without it being influenced by the natural world that defines the West. From Edward Abby to Louis L’Amour, Annie Dillard to Terry Tempest Williams, Tony Hillerman to Laura Ingalls Wilder, my reading immerses me in a shared passion for nature.

Robert Jordan, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Brandon Sanderson all write fantastical places that capture otherworldly natural settings to convey epic stories. A lack of nature still influences us because we can’t help but notice its absence. I’ve long been captive to natural wonder, but understand not all writers or readers are.

Not everyone nature writes.

Probably my least favorite writing comes out of the American center for literature — NYC. Many novels, bestsellers, in fact, leave out nature’s influences in favor of intellect, as if wilderness was the human mind. I can’t help but feel such writing is empty. How can we explore the human experience outside the natural world in which we all live?

What does the nature writing Muse mean to us as writers if we don’t all dance beneath dappled tree limbs?

It’s important to understand what “sense of place” means. It doesn’t have to be about nature or influenced by a roaring sea or rushing waterfall. It can be a cityscape, a bunker, an underground world carved of steel, or a conversation. No matter the setting, it serves as the space we imagine the characters and story that unfolds. It roots the reader.

Beyond setting, writers also cultivate a sense of place from which our voice emits. Voice belongs to the writer. Voice is not of the narrator, protagonist, or characters. Voice is you. Voice is me. Voice captivates the reader on the page, giving recognition to those who follow an author because “of the writing.”

If you think you want to write and be read by those who appreciate your writing, then you want to cultivate your voice. The best way I know how to teach this is through nature writing. I know where my voice comes from — it’s gritty with red sand, deep as Lake Superior, and fits in my traveling bag, melding all the places I’ve trod, birds I’ve seen, and rocks I’ve collected.

I can’t say that’s where your voice comes from, but if I show you how nature influences me, then I can teach you to listen for morning dew, feel the nostalgia in an open campfire, and spot yourself among a moth in flight. From those experiences, you’ll understand what writing from a sense of place means. You’ll strengthen your voice.

This is the most exciting experience I could ever share with other writers, and why writing retreats factor into my vision for success in life lived immersed in literary art.

Back on Elmira Pond, I offered a free room and retreat to any writer who wanted. Six came. The first writer arrived from Seattle and stayed for 10 days. Her first experience of Elmira Pond was in winter. She wanted to walk on the ice, something I had not thought to do, which means I get to grow from encountering different perspectives, too.

Since that time, I’ve wandered and dreamed of retreats around the world, wanting to share Mars and New Mexico, Lake Pend Oreille and Lake Superior, England and New Zealand, the Keweenaw in winter and the Arctic in summer. My vision is vast. Where shall I begin?

Vermont. After all, that’s where the nature writers began, the ones who influenced the writing of the West. It’s like the motherland to my western roots, calling me home to a place that’s in my DNA. A place I am returning to this summer. I’m thrilled to announce the first Carrot Ranch Nature Writing Retreat held in Vermont for two different sessions: July 12-15, and July 17-20. What I have long dreamed of, is happening!

You all know Kid and Pal’s wrangler, D. Avery who writes weekly Carrot Ranch Yarns. She’ll be our host, providing her A-frame summer sanctuary, director for outdoor activities, and a nightly campfire. Writers will have access to trails, kayaks, and the best of New England nature.

And you know me, lead buckaroo of this outfit. I’ll be guiding three writers each session on a journey of discovery. More than an immersion in nature writing and voice, writers will explore the inspiration to create and the knowledge to craft and plan. Each session is four days (three nights) with lodging and meals included (except for one night out in town). That means, I’ll be cooking, which is a secondary art form of mine.

Space is limited to three writers each session. The full retreat, meals, three nights lodging, and a one-on-one consultation on your personal project (manuscript or marketing) will be $750. For any writers through this community, I’m offering a discount ($650) and the next month to sign up. After that, I start an ad campaign.

You are all the first to know that Carrot Ranch Nature Writing Retreats have begun! I want to thank D. for her place and patience (this took a year to set up, and I had to cancel an exploratory visit last summer). I’m thrilled to be sharing her campfire. D. and I share a special connection through our naturalist author-heroes, and we’ve both come to realize the West got its cool from Vermont.

And bonus points to any long-time Rough Writer who remembers what color my boots will be on retreat (I’ve been dreaming of this development for a long time).

Now let me invite you on a stroll through the colonnades of the three worlds — the built world, the world of humanity and society, and the wondrous natural world.

January 17, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes colonnades. It can be natural, architectural, or a metaphor. Take a stroll and go where the prompt leads.

Respond by January 22, 2019. 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.

 

Seeking a Moment of Silence (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Danni nudged Blackjacked and entered the long colonnade of aspen trees. The elk path cut straight through the grove as if it were an engineered road. White bark gleamed like a classical structure. Danni mused that her archeology career never ventured overseas. There was too much history in the West for her to explore. Overhead the leaves fluttered on long stems but held a reverent silence. What could be better than a ride to clear her mind? A sanctuary of nature to ease her anxiety over Ike’s choice to leave. Only here could she ride her horse into church.

January 3: Flash Fiction Challenge

Like a groggy giant who has slumbered a thousand years, I feel stiff as stone as I try to re-enter my days. What is normal anyhow but the false idea that we can control our days? It truly is a gift each morning we rise to a new dawn. Well, maybe not at the crack of dawn. But you know — a new day. So I stretch back into routine, to build a sense of normalcy for what comes after a long slumber. Not a thousand years, but it has been since last year.

My computer sat closed and silent at my desk since before Christmas. I feel like a stranger to her keys, but quickly the tappity-tap-tap returns like muscle memory. This is the first day I’ve returned to my desk, following a minor accident that has my right leg healing — and throbbing. Sitting has been hardest to do, that and walking, or standing. Even lying down has challenged me.

Then I discovered myofascial release therapy, and it is aiding my healing. The therapist I’m seeing was able to unlock my foot and ankle, giving me back more mobility. It’s still painful, but healing with arnica rubs, immobility, and rest. I thought of all the things I could accomplish on the couch, and all I have to report is that I completed an epic novel by Brandon Sanderson (Way of the Kings).

However, I did use the front window often. For staring. Writers need to stare out of windows, and I stared which meant I processed. It’s what we do when we go for a walk or seek anything that relaxes the mind to ponder plots and develop character backstories. It’s what we do when the giants within us wake and ask questions. When we write stories, it’s not enough to explore “what if;” we also need to answer why.

What I’m referring to is the inner story which relates to the outer one. The outer story is all the action. It’s the plot. The inner story wants to know more than why is the protagonist on this journey; the inner story asks why it matters to her.

From the time that I fell down the basement stairs to gathering my laptop on the couch, huddled with an ice pack, not yet knowing if I had a sprain or a break, all I could think about is why Danni felt safe with a former Army Ranger. I could articulate the answer because of how my husband reacted, reminding me how willing he is to charge into danger on my behalf. Not that I endangered him, or imagine Danni endangering Ike, but as my teeth chattered in shock, the “what if” Danni got hurt question arose.

And that’s a great for action. But I wanted to explore it because I have been long struggling to answer why Danni and Ike are together. What finally emerged was a series of why questions regarding the “what if” exploration. Once I had opened this vulnerable terrain for my characters, I needed time to stare out of windows, to let the images in my mind come forward so I could better write them as words and convey the emotions I could feel to the reader who would need to slip into Danni’s skin and care about what the protagonist desired and feared.

As it was also the changing of the years. I spent time working on my vision which also required looking back. Windows are great for that purpose, too. A character in the Way of Kings is a special kind of historian who looks to the past to interpret the present. Like that character, I summed up past events to understand the crossroads where I now stand.

Crossroads equate to choices on the journey. This year, I did vision work that included three different scenarios. In each one, Carrot Ranch flourished as a place to encourage writers to create literary art 99 words at a time. This place is not a destination, it’s a traveling companion, a ranch on wheels. It’s satisfying to know that Carrot Ranch is here for the long haul. Try as we might, writers can’t escape the call of words. No matter what choices I make next in life, I’m still on the writer’s journey, and it’s like a pilgrimage — better to share the road.

Did you explore your own vision over the end of the year break? Did you try to follow or adapt the vision process from the last post? Have you taken time to look back so you can better understand where you are at and where you are going?

Regardless, here we are at the beginning of 2019. I hope you get to follow your calling and do what it is that makes writing meaningful to you. I encourage you to set goals and check in quarterly on your progress. Please share your goals or vision in the comments if you feel moved. You can share them privately, too if you want someone to bear witness outside the public eye (just contact me).

Carrot Ranch is ready to roll, and we have our first challenge of the year —

January 3, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a character who looks back. It can be a metaphorical reflection or a glance in the rear-view mirror. Who is looking back, and why? Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by January 8, 2019. 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.

 

Nothing Stays Perfect Forever (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Looking back, Danni understood that she gained more than Ike in a marriage. She said yes to the man she fell in love with and the ranch-home he offered with garden, barn, history, and horses. She said yes to his family, getting the grandmother she always longed to have. She said yes to North Idaho, a balm to a harsh childhood. She said yes to finally concluding her studies and working her hard-earned degrees. Looking back, Danni saw all she stood to lose. Would she have said yes that spring day had she known Ike would leave for Iraq?

A Productive New Year for Writers: 2019

Ho-ho-ho, or rather ha-ha-ha. 2018 seems to be getting the last laugh at me, but I’m punching back. I didn’t fall off the ends of the earth, but I did take a nasty spill down our steep basement stairs.

Good news is that I didn’t break a leg. Bad news is that I won’t be dancing for a while. Wait, I don’t dance. However, even writing or trying to sleep is excruciating and I can’t drive or walk. Friends are graciously helping me finish holiday errands, loaning me a cane, and taking me shopping with a motorized scooter. I’m laughing at the thought of trying to drive one already. I’d be more comfortable on a horse!

All week long, I had been collecting your stories for Cora Kingston and squealing with delight. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to have writers join me in making historical fiction mud pies. Unfortunately, I hadn’t caught up on comments before the accident, so I’ll be doing that from the couch where I’ll be popping Advil and sipping hot cider.

It’s the end of the year, and those who know me won’t be surprised to hear me say it’s time to review our visions. I don’t mean the sugar plums dancing in our heads. I mean the vision each and every writer holds dear. Sometimes we hold it so close that we don’t give it wings to fly.

So that is the challenge until Flash Fiction Challenges resume January 3. We are also delaying the announcement of winners for the Bonus Rodeo until after the New Year.

Let me explain to you why I think visions are golden. Visioning is stating your North Star. Without it, you are a hunter with aimless goals. Dissatisfaction often comes from a lack of clear vision. You might seek the prize, but for what purpose? Why are your passionate about what you do? A vision imagines success, and a North Star guides you. You aim your goals toward it and use it when you get lost.

“When the vision is clear, the results will appear. Keep your mindset positive as you work your plan, flourish, and always remember why you started.” ― Germany Kent

Why do you write? What are your expectations, dreams, and goals?

A vision can be outrageous! You can have a vision to be an astronaut and still succeed as a writer. How? Write a sci-fi novel where you get to immerse yourself in the world of astronauts. You can have a dream to be a New York Times best-seller. Before you get there, you have to look at what success is on that journey. That’s why you set a North Star.

I’m going to share with you a process I use with entrepreneur and author clients. It’s my holiday gift to you along with encouragement to make space for visioning work over the next two weeks.

Part 1: Preparation

  1. Pick your topic. Be clear about what you are creating and why. What do you hope for an outcome? Focus on what you are creating, launching, or seeking to accomplish.
  2. Pick your timeframe. Visions typically span two to ten years. Five years is a good place to start. Your vision answers “where do you see yourself in five years.” This is not “how” — that’s strategic planning. Dream about what success looks like in a specific timeframe.
  3. Brainstorm for 10 minutes a list of “prouds.” Like contests you’ve won, or moments you overcame, or projects you finished, or reviews you received. Let good moments pop to mind. The idea is to build a base of positive energy and high-quality experiences.

Part 2: Discovery

  1. Write the first draft of your vision. Take between 15 and 30 minutes. Set a timer; this is a time constraint which prevents you from becoming bogged in the process. The most creative visions occur within 30 minutes. Believe in the process.
  2. Go for greatness. Think, MLK, “I have a dream…” Think big, specific, scary and exciting. Get past the 59 reasons why it won’t work.
  3. Write from the heart. Effective visioning happens from the inside out. Go with your gut, with what pours out. Ignore the inner critic.
  4. Get in the future. Imagine yourself there. What details stand out? How do you feel? Where are you at? What does your office look like?
  5. Write quickly. Use the hot pen technique where you can’t stop writing once you start. Don’t set down the pen or stop tapping keys.
  6. Get personal. Blend the personal and professional into a single, holistic vision. Include your passions. Grab the details that make your vision the dream that gives you jitters.
  7. Write it as a story. Use a date as a prompt and describe the story that is unfolding that day. Describe the many great things going on that make it clear that your long-term vision has come to be the reality you planned and believed it would be. Give details.

Part III: Revision

  1. Review and redraft. Let it sit a few days. Come back to your draft with a 30-minute review session. Read it out loud. Don’t erase what you wrote. Copy it and then cut and revise. Follow your gut. Don’t remove what sounds too bold or overly ambitious. Often, that’s what makes your vision special. Make it sound and feel inspiring. If it doesn’t make you feel stressed, you haven’t pushed deep enough.
  2. Get specific. Don’t say “founded a company” say where you located it, when and how many clients you have, how many products or ideas you’ve sold. Say which awards you’ve won. State how much of your income will come from your business. State how others recognize you in your industry. What do clients or customers say? Imagine them.
  3. Edit your vision. Work on the language, clean up the content and write a sharp vision in 99 words. But don’t cut the specific details or bold proclamations. Length is not an issue, but again, do this edit in 30 minutes.

Part IV: Polish Your Shine

  1. Seek input. Use only trusted sources to share your vision and ask for insight or feedback. The idea is to improve the vision, not kill it.
  2. Create your North Star. Once you have your vision, create a 59-word mission statement to set your North Star to guide you to your vision of success. Next, craft a tagline in 9-words.

Just like you, I’ll be working on my vision for writing and publishing. These are my visions for Carrot Ranch:

A Vision of Success (99)

Writers high-fived across the string of comments, appreciating craft and creativity in their sandbox, 99 words at a time. Carrot Ranch, an imaginary place made of real people from around the globe. A tribe. Buckaroo Nation.  Authors and entrepreneurs arrived too, looking to forge brands and learn how to tell stories around investor campfires. Readers found literary art in small bites palpable to a modern diet of busyness. A buckaroo wrangled the words and published collections, hosted rodeos for writers, and flashed her way to write novels about veterans, history and earth science. The vision for the future rocked.

Carrot Ranch and A Lead Buckaroo’s North Star (59)

Carrot Ranch understands that writers and entrepreneurs need safe space to explore the craft of literary art and harness the power of storytelling. Lead buckaroo, Charli Mills, gave up riding horses to write brand stories. Now she wrangles 99-word flash about history, veterans, and rocks. Flash by flash, she crafts award-winning novels, leads authors on retreat and coaches entrepreneurs.

Tagline: Making literary art accessible 99 words at a time. (9)

Originally, when I encouraged writers to join me in annual vision work, I shared a vision that included small and intimate writing retreats. 2019 will see that come to fruition. It won’t be at my beloved Elmira Pond, but it will happen at D. Avery’s beloved Vermont Lake. Save the dates for two sessions that have room for three writers each: July 12-14 and July 16-18. More details to come.

2016 was a disaster. 2017 was about seeking stability. 2018 was implementing some big changes toward achieving that stability. All along, my vision hung in the sky, and no matter what happened, I followed step by step. You will appreciate having a North Star because life’s circumstances have a way of tripping us.

2019 will be a prosperous year, or so I’m declaring. There will be some big life changes for me but the struggles of the previous year have prepared me. My novel continues to hammer into shape, and I remain hopeful on that account, too. Vol. 2 stalled out after our Father’s Day floods and diagnoses for the Hub, but I will recommit to getting what we started finished this year.

Once you have worked your vision, set quarterly goals that you can measure (and use the Rancher Badges to encourage achievement). It’s good to revisit your goals every three months to help you stay on track or readjust. Every month, do a quick planning and use a Daily Activities plan to direct your most important priorities and balance writing with career and life.

Also, if you have any clever ideas for challenge prompts in 2019 (like, “break a leg”) now would be a good time to discuss them.

Whatever your year-end holidays or non-holidays look like, I wish you all peace, joy and the prosperity to see your writing dreams through to fruition. I’ll be checking in with you all from my couch!

December 13: Flash Fiction Challenge

Cora Kingston lived alone in Cat Harbor. When the storms turned violent in November, she’d add more wood to the parlor stove and bake a batch of corn muffins. That way she felt less lonely, listening to the wind moan through weathered chinks in her small frame house that her friend John built. Cora–

No, Cora Kingston never lived in Cat Harbor. But it sounds good and what sounds good to a writer with imagination becomes the plaster used when crafting a historical story. Names, dates, events, and places leave gaps. Historical fiction tries to fill them with believable details — colorful but plausible ones.

Cora and Cat Harbor are two mysteries that my mind often puzzle. The Keweenaw Peninsula dots the map with names left over from 150 years of copper mining. Yet Cat Harbor is an unusual name not linked to a mine or historic figure.

They say…

….when all the trees were logged the curve of land resembed the paw of a feline.
…long ago wildcats roamed this inlet.
…when the Ralph Budd wrecked on the rocks of this small harbor in 1929, cats from the boat swam to shore.
…when the Ralph Budd wrecked, carrying butter and cream, it attracted all the felines in the area for miles.

Whatever they say about the name of Cat Harbor, they say less about Cora Kingston. As a writer who researches the lost stories of women, I can tell you this is a common problem. Often the stories of women are not passed down, and names are easily lost through marriage.

Passing through Cat Harbor during a wild October storm with my friend and local maritime historian, Barb, we paused to watch the massive waves hit a reef of exposed basalt. The force of the water on rocks sent spray 40 feet into the air like geysers. The waves crashed to shore with such force, they sprayed across the road.

It’s easy to imagine the energy of such storms instilling awe in those who first settled this remote region along the shores of Lake Superior. We certainly felt it, standing there, shivering in the cold wind, mesmerized by the force. And that’s when I thought about Cora Kingston.

My friend is a cemetery lurker like me. Barb hunts down the final resting spots of former light-keepers and surfman — the men who rescued stranded and wrecked ships. She writes their biographies and gives presentations to honor their service. Maybe she could help me figure out who Cora Kingston was, I thought.

Several years ago, on my first visit to the Keweenaw, my daughter took me to the cemetery near Eagle River where white-washed stones stood among ephemeral flowers and chattering squirrels. It was at the beginning of my “wandering time,” and yet I was filled with the passion I have for cemetery stories and wrote about it in the May 18, 2016, prompt. Cora Kingston was the woman I mentioned who left a memorial for her dearest friend.

I thought the friend was John Vendow. Turns out I misread the marker (as have others who’ve recorded names from the cemetery). I showed the memorial grave to Barb. She recognized the surname Kingston as one of the “old families” of the area. She later corrected me on John’s name — it’s Yendow. Further research shows he was the son of a French-Canadian carpenter and the surname was originally Gendeau.

In 1870, 1880 and 1894 the Gendau/Yendow family lived in Keweenaw County, which is a broad area full of copper mines, harbors, and towns. The 1880 Federal Census revealed that at the age of 13 John Yendow found employment at a stamp mill. Likely that was the one in Gay. Remember the raven graffiti photo I used last week with the challenge? That’s from the remaining smokestack where John Yendow once labored as a teen in the 1880s.

He died in 1892 at the age of 25. According to a family member that Barb tracked down, John and two siblings succumbed in 1892 to typhoid. Their parents passed on in 1916 and 1918. All are said to be buried in the same cemetery near Eagle River and yet none have grave markers. The Kingstons are all buried in the cemetery near Eagle Harbor, about six miles away. Cora Kingston erected a marker the Yendow family could not afford, and it leaves her name etched in stone:

Erected
by
Cora Kingston
In
Loving remembrance
of
her dearest friend
John Yendow
Born May 31, 1867
Died October 5, 1892

The beautiful white marker joining her name with his stands among an ornate wrought-iron fence with an old tin pot that once held planted flowers. It begs so many questions, but the primary one is who was Cora Kingston?

The Yendow descendant says the family has no idea. He thinks they were to be married. Barb found records for three Cora Kingstons. The most likely Cora was born in 1871, four years John’s junior. Her parents were from England — Charley and Hanna Kingston, who came to the copper mining region. Here’s a small biography of Cora’s father:

“CHARLES KINGSTON, contractor of the Central Mine, has been connected with this company for more than twenty years. He was born in Hampshire, England, May 22, 1824; was brought up a farmer, and emigrated to America in 1851. He came direct to Lake Superior; landed at Eagle Harbor, and engaged in wood chopping. He was next a miner three years. About 1862, he located at the Central Mine, and engaged in contract work for this company, getting out wood and timber and doing their teaming. He also has had charge of the road work for the township of Sherman, as Road Commissioner, some seventeen years. In 1874, he made a visit to his native country, spending about four months abroad. Mr. Kingston is one of the old pioneers of this region, and is widely and favorably known.”

~Keweenaw County History, 1883

John Yendow’s mother, Elizabeth (Nankervis) Yendow was the daughter of a Cornish miner who worked the Cliff Mine. She married Fabien Yendow in October of 1860. John was one of 11 children. By the time the couple celebrated 50 years of marriage, they had six remaining daughters, all married. Thus no trace of the Yendow/Gendeau/Yeandeau name remains. The women slip into other families.

And Cora? It seems she married another John — John Blackwell Holman who was three years younger than her and another English immigrant son of a miner. They moved to Seattle, Washington where her second John worked as a mail carrier, and she took in lodgers.

The story fades. The questions linger.

Did Cora and John Yendow grow up together? Were they sweethearts? If they were going to marry, why weren’t they married by the time they were 25 and 21? How did Cora come up with the money for so elaborate of a gravestone for John? And why leave her name etched with his?

When the records can’t tell the story, that’s when we gather around the campfire and make them up.

December 13, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about Cora Kingston. You can answer any of the questions history obscures or completely make up a Cora Kingston story. Go where the prompt (and the name) leads you.

Respond by December 18, 2018. 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.

Cora’s Scrapbook (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Danni stood up, stretching stiff muscles after hours of sitting on the hardwood floor of Ramona’s bedroom. It was one thing to scour historical records for work, another to snoop through a box stashed under her husband’s grandmother’s bed. But Danni couldn’t pull herself away from the scrapbooks she found. One belonged to Ramona, another to Ramona’s mother, and a third to Cora Kinston Holman. Each documented events, recipes, photos and newspaper clippings. Was Cora Ramona’s maternal grandmother? The name was unfamiliar to Danni. Yet Cora’s scrapbook brimmed with poetry and sketches similar to Ramona’s stories and fairy drawings.

December 6: Flash Fiction Challenge

If winter on the Keweenaw Peninsula of upper Michigan were a masterpiece, then the sky works in collaboration with Lake Superior. Together they manipulate air temperatures to create color and texture. You might be surprised to learn that Lady Lake prowls on land during the winter. I don’t mean waves that batter her shores — she’s an artist hovering in the air, twisting her waters into a scattering of icy snowflakes, mist, or battleship-gray clouds.

Today’s collaboration features patchy blue sky milky as glacial till. After a furious night of banshee-snow, Lady Lake has calmed and sorts her art into glowing pink remnants of moisture that look like clouds made of shell. Soon the sun will dip, but it won’t grow as dark as you might expect. That’s the gift of living in a snow globe — all that white from below to above captures light.

Colorful Christmas lights make the neighborhood festive. We humans add our own imprint upon the natural winter art of the region, expanding the collaboration. I’m surrounded by an ever-changing canvas.

Is the nature of art collaborative?

It’s like the philosophical question — if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound? Sure, it might reverberate, but if the vibrations don’t hit an eardrum, the sound is not heard. Art requires one to produce and another to receive. I suppose an artist can appreciate his or her own work, but the sharing creates a dynamic. In such a way, artist and reader/viewer/listener/beholder work in collaboration.

As a writer who’s share work, you’ve probably experienced comments that observe something in your story you did not intend. And yet the reader points it out. To some, this interaction can feel disconcerting. But we don’t have to own (or defend) the alternate perspectives. We can embrace it as an expansion. As a collaboration of sorts.

Like another philosophical question — which came first, the chicken or the egg? — I also wonder which came first — art or the inspiration?

When did you first become inspired to craft stories or imagine the lives of characters? Likely you read or were read to. I remember Mrs. Couch reading to us every day in first, second and third grade. In fourth, fifth and sixth grade, Mr. Smith read us YA sci-fi. In seventh and eighth grade, Mr. Price required us to write weekly spelling stories.

Growing up in a buckaroo culture, I heard stories swapped with regularity and recognized that the tellers had a rhythm and often delayed an element of surprise for humorous effect.  I read comic books, Laura Ingalls Wilder, classics, Ian Flemming, Louis L’Amour, and discovered romance novels.

And everywhere I stepped I was acutely aware that others had passed this way before me from the Washo people to the likes of Kit Carson and nameless pioneers. History told it’s own stories if you knew how to read a cemetery or discarded artifacts of another era.

Somewhere in the mixture of all those influences, I found inspiration to write stories I imagined. Mostly, I get strong impressions about people who lived where I do now because I’m curious as to why they came to some of the remote regions I’ve known.

When does inspiration become art?

Often, these near-winter days, I watch the dense gray bank of moisture that rises up from Lake Superior. I get a better view when I cross the Portage Canal and look back toward where the Lake nestles below the ridge of Keweenaw hills with start white birch and leafless maples. I image Lady Lake “soaking up” before she creates a storm across the sky. As writers, artists, we do that too — we soak up.

Then we let it out. Lady Lake can change wind directions so swiftly that I can see the snow shift out one window and yet still blow the opposite direction out another window. To me, that’s a master who can blow all those details and craft their shapes in multiple ways at once. Drafting is often like spewing snow.

Yet, the masterpiece is not complete until after the snow. Wind can reshape drifts, temperature can crystalize snow and suspend icycles, sun can sparkle, and sunsets can add color. Writers return to the storm upon the page make it into something different, something new.

Inspiration also comes to me from those who create in different mediums.

Growing up, Greek mythology, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones inspired me (hence my fascination with the hero’s journey). I could recognize artistry and felt drawn to it — I once spent my entire month’s earnings on a hide painting a traveling artist painted when I was 14. Music moved me. I played the radio, records, 8-tracks, and cassettes all the time, and thought the greatest invention in the world was the boombox.

Johnny Cash, Regina Gigli (the print artist I cleaned house for), John Beata (the cowboy foreman I rode for who trained horses like an artist), and Bob Parker who hand tooled a leather scene of my horse were my go-to’s for inspiration. But I never dared to think I could collaborate with any of them. Not that I had a chance to work with Johnny Cash, but I knew plenty of dancers, musicians, poets, crafters, and artists.

Somehow I thought I had to do my art on my own. My guilty pleasure was to “feel” a song and let it color a story I wrote, or admire a painting and imagine it’s likeness in a character. One writer would post a story and ignite a spark of an idea. Last year, one Carrot Ranch writer invited others to add to her Boots flash fiction in what emerged as a collaborative murder-mystery.

I think it’s natural for creative impulses to rise and feed others as much as it feeds our intended interest. Like Lady Lake, we soak up. And we share.

Last night I was listening to an interview with Hozier, an Irish musician. He was influenced by the 1960s civil rights movement in America, and its impact on his own country. His latest song is not only one that honors those who influenced him but also features the voice of an American blues singer who knew the very protestors in his song. What a collaboration!

“It’s not the song, it’s the singing!” What that makes me think is that it isn’t the art but the making of it. It isn’t the story so much as it is the catching of it. Art in action and the more people involved, the more powerful. I don’t mean in its creation but in it’s sharing and influencing and making new.

Consider Hozier’s first song. It moved a young Ukraine ballet dancer, and this video of collaborative art went viral:

And when I say collaborative, I’m talking more about the natural space of artistic influences. Hozier didn’t know about this dance project. I think the record label got snippy about it at one point, but in the interview, Hozier was humbled by the interpretation and use of his song. So much that he did collaborate with Sergei Polunin on a new song.

We are like Lady Lake and the sky. Every week we soak up, share and form a collective voice on a single topic. Creativity knows no bounds.

There’s something open and uplifting about art expressed without boundaries, taking influence from other artists and mediums. This week, we are going to turn toward graffiti, an expression of art on the street. How can we take it to a story in 99 words?

December 6, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about graffiti. It can be an artist, art or the medium itself. Get out your can of spray paint and go where the prompt leads you.

Respond by December 11, 2018. 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 Sign (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Danni traced graffiti on the grain-car. What did it mean? A message? A name? Traffic stalled on both sides of the tracks where it crossed the highway. She didn’t want to think about Ike who had been ahead of them. Better to study the graffiti and let Ronnie find out what happened. She wasn’t in a hurry to know.

“Danni?”

She stiffened and asked, “Who got hit?”

“An elk.”

Danni blew out the air she’d been holding in. “Ah, damn elk.” Ike had made it across then. Maybe the graffiti was a symbol of gratitude to live another day.

November 29: Flash Fiction Challenge

The last of the turkey and wild rice soup is gone. Officially, Thanksgiving has ended, and the break at Carrot Ranch is over. The barn doors open, the campfire is stoked, and we are ready to share stories.

My mind wanders like a sailor on the inland seas of the Great Lakes. From wooden craft to steel ones, many a ship scatters across the floor of Lake Superior. Writing something big is like navigating dangerous waters — it can be sink or swim, and when the gales of November come early, well, we ride out the storm. We write into the dark of night.

I have a confession to make: I’ve felt frozen since March of 2016. If I looked at a calendar, I could probably name the exact date. Just weeks before, I had led a successful BinderCon live event in Missoula, Montana. I was flowing between two manuscripts, developing sketches for another, writing a weekly history column for a regional magazine, and writing a quarterly publication for a client.

Every morning I rose to more migrators on Elmira Pond. Mergansers, buffalo-heads, widgeons. A research room flanked my large office where I dreamed that one day I’d have a custom table for small workshops in North Idaho. Already I had a writer’s room where guests could stay to write and experience my “peace of Idaho.”

I froze that March day when our landlord sent me an email informing us our lease was up and the owners were planning to sell. All along I had wanted to buy the place, but they weren’t interested in selling. The long-term lease was fine with us. We had no intention to move. Now what? That uncertainty seeped into my bones the way I imagine the sound of the final bell ringing on the Edmond’s Fitzgerald.

Of course, the journey that unraveled was so far from anything I thought would happen. Early on I knew I could succumb to bitterness.

“This hand is bitterness
We want to taste it, let the hatred numb our sorrow
The wise hands opens slowly to lilies of the valley and tomorrow”

~from Natalie Grant’s “Held.”

In the midst of losing our rental, it was apparent something was not right with my husband. What had been easy to dismiss could no longer be ignored. I never thought we’d actually be homeless long, but it’s been two years and five months. Of course, we finally made it to our daughter and her husband after wandering the west, and we finally got the Hub the medical help he needs.

My North Idaho has given way to my Keweenaw. And I’ve rediscovered wander and peace. My Carrot Ranch community never faltered, and like wandering bards we continued to flash. Many circled the wagons when I needed it and have become cherished friends.

But my confession that I froze is an essential lesson in tenacity. I’ve said before that writing is more about tenacity than talent. You know I’ve hung in there, but I also lost my writing mojo — that magic I felt when I chased stories and worked with my characters. I lost my joy.

Last year I signed up for NaNoWriMo to jump start my missing spark. And I couldn’t get past 17,000 words. I experienced a great freeze when I tried to get the flow of my WIP moving. Several months later I asked for help from a few close alpha-readers (these are readers you know and trust and differ from beta-readers who are less familiar with you as a writer and more familiar with the genre you are writing).

Even with their honest feedback, I still couldn’t thaw. Frustrated, I turned to work on other projects. More recently, I asked a few more alpha-readers to look at my original manuscript. Maybe I should go with the original story and setting. With feedback and indecision for a setting, I signed up for NaNoWriMo again.

TUFF was my tool. Flash fiction is not part of my deep freeze, so I used that to flash my way into writing 1,800 words a day. Then something magical happened. Oh, the joy, the writing mojo returned, and I cranked out 91,000 words. Not that they are great words or even a cohesive draft, but from their depths, I salvaged a new perspective, a new character to carry a burden that wasn’t working on my protagonist.

The world of Dr. Danni Gordon, archeologist and reluctant wife of a warrior who doesn’t know it’s time to quit, came to life.

It’s important that I retain and share two important lessons — first, just because you can’t feel the creative magic doesn’t mean you quit writing. Second, community is everything. We cannot be writers in isolation. When I went into the dark of night, I never felt alone. I was like a ship that could send and receive signals.

Don’t quit and don’t quarantine yourself from your tribe.

How amazing our technology is and how it can connect us! I’m choosing to celebrate technology because it’s so easy for us to curse it and wonder if it’s complicating our lives. We, humans, are complicated. Technology is not going to simplify anything for us. But it opens doors of wonder for the creative and curious – right now, I’m communicating with Carrot Ranchers all around the world from a remote shore with waves and ships we can all monitor while listening to a favorite station from our resident yarnist in New England and reading a book that arrived from (old) England by an author and friend who reminds us all that we write because we are in the process of “becoming someone.”

Keeping connected to creative expression is one of the tenets of Carrot Ranch. It has helped me, and I hope it helps you. Now, we are going to write about what it is to go into the dark night.

November 29, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using the phrase “into the dark.” What must a character face? Write about an encounter, journey, relationship, or quest. Follow the ship’s lights on gloomy seas. Go where the prompt leads you.

Respond by December 4, 2018. 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.

 

Rescue in the Dark of Night (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Shivering, Danni danced with both her hands flash-frozen to the chukar cage. They ignored her. Danni breathed deeply, wiggling each foot, swaying. Blackjack stomped in his stall, lowered his head and nickered. Danni cocked her head, listening for a vehicle. She told her horse, “Wishful thinking, boy.” In the dark of night, Danni marched, thought about hot chocolate, and imagined a noon-day sun overhead. Blackjack’s head rose, ears perked and alert. Danni strained to hear soft crunching in the snow. She crouched, helplessly stuck to the cage when the barrel of a rifle opened the barn door. Ramona arrived.

November 8: Flash Fiction Challenge

While up north on the Keweenaw Peninsula, I overheard one elderly local tell a monk that an early October snow was no indication that we’d have a long winter. At the time, I was returning from a brief retreat at a lighthouse keeper’s cottage, and the monks were closing up shop for the winter and selling the rest of their jams while fat fluffy flakes covered the ground. I bought six jars. Who could resist blackberries jammed in rum?

It was like overhearing a riddle, though. My mind pondered how early snow could be anything but a long winter on a peninsula fiercely guarded by Lady Lake Superior who has the power and desire to create her own snow globe? It’s different from out West where a late August blizzard in the Rockies reminds us to prepare, but that long cool, even warm, autumns could follow.

Here, the snow means snow. It didn’t stick, but it didn’t return to blue skies, either. The gray mist and soggy cold rain feel dreary. The snow falls brightly and white-washes the world, removing the dinginess of constant cloud cover. Snow illuminates the globe Lady Lake keeps on the mantle of her ice-water mansion. Snow has returned.

And with flair. Of course — it’s Lady Lake. Why not be a drama queen on the fourth day of the 41 North Film Festival at Michigan Tech University? I walked out of the Rosza Center, following a film on the WWI Hello Girls, and into the lobby with 30-foot glass windows facing east. Snow fleeced the view. The next film up was a work in progress called Copper Dogs about female dog-mushers in our region. Well played, Lady Lake.

Culture and snow fill our winters, so I don’t mind. Travel, for me at least, shuts down. After my terrifying drive in a true Copper Country blizzard at the start of last winter, I vowed to be a winter home-body. Students return to our universities and with them come cultural events. So it’s a good time to hunker down. The film festival filled my well.

Tuesday night, I returned to the Rosza Center to listen to Welby Altidor speak on creativity and collaboration.

Altidor believes that each of us possess creative genius, but it must be cultivated and developed through practice. Creative courage is more than practical tools and strategy, it’s a way life for Altidor and those who dare to embrace it.

Yes, yes, yes! You betcha I was going to drive across snow-paved roads to listen to Welby. He was speaking my love-language — make (literary) art accessible!

Welby was the creative director for Cirque du Soliel, and as a dancer and choreographer, he understands the universal power of telling a story. Art is the great communicator wrapped in many mediums from movement to written words. He began by telling us that every good story includes three elements.

Welby teaches that every good story includes love, power, and transformation. You could compare this to the classical teaching of the Greeks, who perfected the three-act story: pity –> fear — > catharsis. Love seems more universal to me than pity, although I understand the Greeks intended for an audience to love the protagonist enough to pity his or her plight. Power is what we might call tension and leads to the Greek ideal of the audience fearing for the well-being of the protagonist. Catharsis is an emotional release (from the fear) and transforms the audience.

Note that in the hero’s journey, the three acts still apply. Of course, I started thinking, what would Anne Goodwin say… After much discussion on the model of the hero’s journey failing to capture the protagonists who don’t change or return with an elixir, I had an a-ha moment. We change. Not the protagonist, but we — the writer, the reader, the creator changes.

That’s the universality of the hero’s journey. Even if the hero falls flat, the creator of the story needs to provide a transformation for the reader — a greater awareness of self, others, or the world around us. And Welby was speaking directly about creatives and how to build creative teams. We must love our art enough to give it power and transform ourselves and audiences.

Welby’s book (and presentation) center on creative courage. To create transformative work we must start from a place of caring. Like at Carrot Ranch — we gather because we care about literary art. We care about writing. We care about stories and words and what we can do with them. We care about our stories. We care about the stories of others. This is the beginning of creative courage.

What comes next wouldn’t surprise anybody who understands Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but it might surprise you to think it applies to art. We need to secure safety. Yes, creativity needs a safe place to plant the seeds. That is also the purpose of Carrot Ranch — to create safe space to practice, explore and discover our literary art. I felt like Welby was looking at our community!

For collaboration, Welby says we next need to foster trust. Our literary community builds trust through positive feedback and consistency. We also learn to trust the 99-word constraint as a creative process. Our weekly collections are creative collaborations.

So what happens next? This is where we get to play with danger!  Welby explains that art pushes limits and takes calculated risks. Writing dangerously is to push deeply into an idea that you might think is on the fringe. It’s breaking the rules to create something different. It’s risking creative failure, submitting to a contest or writing outside your comfort zone. It’s earning the “runs with scissors” badge.

Once we start writing dangerously, we dream! We experience breakthroughs! We grow!

Welby went on to say that many of us are disconnected from our superpowers. Part of our mission in life is to discover them, accept them, and share them with the rest of the world. He asked us to tell the person seated next to us what our superpower is. If you can identify your superpower, you will better understand your voice as a writer.

And don’t think any of this creative business is easy. It isn’t. Welby also points out that there is a war on imagination. He said it hit him hard when he had the opportunity to go to North Korea, and he recognized constrained people the way his father was. It’s rooted in fear of failure. Methods might be taught and learned, but what we really need is creative courage.

A significant shift occurred the night I listened to Welby, and it didn’t have to do with my creative art. I wondered as I took notes, how can my family create fertile soil for the Hub. No matter his condition, our circumstances, or unknown future we need creative courage. I looked again at the seven dimensions of creative collaboration and realized the answers were there.

My daughter went with me to listen to Welby speak. We stepped out into the snow, and I told her that the seven dimensions could apply to her dad. She went home and sketched the concentric circles around each one and posted this statement with her photo on Instagram:

Great talk tonight with @welbyaltidor@rozsacenter. Here’s the mental model he presented; good insight into how to rebuild relationships and goals with Sgt. Mills. Walking the tightrope of late effect traumatic brain injury (LE-TBI) starts with taking care, raising safety nets, and building trust.
#creativecourage #love #veteranfamily #braininjuryawareness #tbiawareness #onestepatatime”

And Welby Altidor replied:

“Great stuff! I love your reinterpretation! Honoured it provided inspiration. Never give up!”

On that fine note, let’s move on to mashed potatoes. In the US we near the festival of turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy — Thanksgiving. I’m working on my menu and my novel which seems like opposing creative efforts. But Welby told us that fitting two things that don’t go together is how the troupe creates such memorable choreography and art in Cirque du Soliel. His examples: drones and lampshades; clowns and robots; treadmill and hoop-diving.

So we are going to write mash-ups that pair an unusual superpower with mashed potatoes.

November 8, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that pairs mashed potatoes with a superpower. It can be in any circumstance, funny or poignant. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by November 13, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments. Rules & Guidelines.

Fast Hands (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills

Nancy Jane flung the bowl of mashed potatoes at Horace. The bowl bounced off his shoulder and Hickok caught it midair. Horace hadn’t even moved except, Sarah noted, his eyes had widened the way a cow might look when protesting a lead rope to the milking barn. No one spoke as glops of white, buttery mashed potatoes slid down Horace’s shirt. Nancy Jane growled and slammed the heavy oak door when she stomped outside. Sarah understood her friend’s upset with how poorly Horace had handled Cobb’s interference at the station. More than that, she marveled at Hickock’s super speed.