My Experience with a Sledgehammer

Last year an intriguing contest rolled across my Facebook feed. It was held monthly at a local wine shop in Portland, OR. All I knew was that it was a short story writing competition and at the time, I was just getting my feet wet with writing fiction. I had studied books and kind of dabbled a little but that was about it. At this point in my writing progress, I was a strictly solitary writer. I had no groups that I was involved with outside of stalking a handful of websites and Facebook groups online. I was also somewhat disillusioned that all one needed to be a great storyteller was to be able to write well, which I felt confident I could. I walked into the shop knowing no one in the group, at the time that was the part that I thought was brave.

The administrator explained the process. We had 36 minutes (which is why it is called the Mini-Sledgehammer) to write a complete short story (beginning, middle, and end) and it had to include all four prompts (usually a character, action, object, and phrase). At the end of the 36 minutes, we would have a short break to upload our story to the online thread so that we could all follow along as we each read our stories out loud. Then the judges (usually an admin or two plus the previous month’s winner) would select the current winner based on things like story arc and originality. Honestly, the first time, I was devastated that I didn’t win.

But I learned and after I swallowed that jagged little pill, going and participating became something that I loved to do. When I started, I was unaware that actual short stories are deemed the hardest pieces of writing to do well. I was hard on myself for not grasping the concept more, month after month. I was also discouraged but I fought that discouragement back with a heavy dose of determination.

With each session that passed, just listening to the other’s stories, I was so inspired by their levels of creativity that it started to affect my own. I learned and I grew as a writer because of the group. Last night was my fifth time attending and while I once again did not win, I smiled with the acceptance that I am getting better. While I still have a long ways to go, I am grateful for the improvement. I am inspired by the group’s observations and comments on my writing and am more dedicated than ever. Not to win but to succeed where I once floundered.

Here is yesterday’s attempt, unedited.

Mini-sledgehammer for May 2018
36 minutes, 4 prompts

 

Character: a kid with chickenpox
Action: opening a window
Object: a lava vent
Phrase: “I always perform magnificently!”

Smoke and Scars
Written by Jaimee Walls

Baxter Bradley sat in his dingy south facing room, the sun beat across his spotted chest and sweat gathered on his brow like the smoke on the horizon. He itched all over even where his mom had spotted the calamine lotion leaving him feeling like a bingo card on breast cancer awareness night. Grandma used to drag him along with her before she died. Like a statue, he waited for the alarm to sound again. He wanted to get up and at least draw the curtain but he didn’t have the strength to do so. His mom would be home soon.
The alarms were sounding again and the ground shook from time to time. He knew the danger was growing closer but it’s not like he could run or anything, not today. Why did all the cool stuff happen when he was sick? He had a vision of being like the men years ago who engineered a series of pipes to put out the lava flow hardening it into a crispy crust of new land. He pictured the congratulations from all the community and news crews. He would announce with no unnecessary certainty that he outsmarted the lava vent that grew into a fissure covering miles of his hometown. “I always perform magnificently!” he announced as he tried to raise himself slightly so that he could creep into a spot where the sun wasn’t going to make things hotter.
He heard the front door as his mother came in and fought to open the window, it slapping open and wind rushing in. “It’s as hot as that lava vent in here!” she announced and turned on the overhead fan. “How are you feeling?”
“Like butter burning in a pan…” he winced as she checked his forehead.
“I’m going to go run you a bath.”
“Not another bath mom, come on. Besides I can barely get up. Shouldn’t we be evacuating or something?”
“There is a ship waiting, just in case, but the authorities say we should be fine.” She grabbed the calamine lotion and the bag of cotton balls. He started scratching just at the sight of them.
“Don’t scratch, you’ll scar.” She held his hands down as she dotted the spots again.
The siren went off with a sick sound of its own followed by a low grumble beneath Baxter’s bed. A dog howled along with the siren. Outside a scar in the earth was growing wider, setting things ablaze and devouring every little thing it touched. Smoke drifted in through the window and danced with the thin curtains. He pictured the pools of lava licking flames along the little things in his life. Part of his school was gone so at least there was that. It might be a nice long summer, he just wondered if there would be anywhere left to play.

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Novel Number Two

During the month of March, I was introduced to the continuation of the National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) with Camp Nano, which is always done in April. I persuaded myself to attempt the same feat that I had accomplished just a few months ago back in November. There is this one character that I have carried around in my “back pocket” for a few years and knew she was ready for a novel of her own. I decided this was the perfect time to bring her to the surface. I gave her her own spotlight and stepped back to see what would happen.

I started out on April 1st with all the gusto and feeling I had from November. In the weeks before, I had taken the time to develop her backstory as well as creating a current “situation” and even a subplot full of personal tension. I gave her a bit of a platform and set out to tell a harrowing tale! During this time, I also started or was in the process of reading 3 heavy-hitting books. “The Art of War for Writer’s” by James Scott Bell, “Character’s and Point of View” by Orson Scott Card, and “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris. I also didn’t fully take into account the fact that April is our busiest month of the year at my work and that I was scheduled for almost double my normal workload.

Like I said, things were good at first. Although I wasn’t regularly hitting my word count and I knew it. I was exhausted from work but I kept telling myself that I could catch up. I got sick. I caught the crud. Of course, I did. I was stretched too thin already and barely able to keep my house clean. I was managing to get some reading done and in turn, learning things along the way but not getting much in the way of actual writing done.

As my story became clearer and clearer, I realized that I had more work to do before I could really keep writing, or at least that is what I told myself. The truth was I had lost my way. I had taken on too much and my learning was getting in the way of my writing at that point. For the first time since I started writing again, I hit a full-blown wall of solid writer’s block. Through my reading, I learned why I hit this particular wall, but it did me no good as far as finishing the manuscript by my deadline. I had oversold myself and needed to step back. So I did.

This is also the first time I didn’t beat myself up for not finishing by my deadline. I showed myself some compassion and for once, I learned something by not finishing. I learned that reading a brilliant book like “The Silence of the Lambs” makes your own writing look even more amateurish than you would ever think possible. Also, I would not recommend reading any type of learning books while trying to reach such a tight goal. I worked on things that are developmental in nature instead of just focusing on getting the story out. I ended up changing the direction so much that I couldn’t recover fast enough to keep the ball rolling, not with me on top of it anyway.

So, once again my character goes into my back pocket. Only this time, for the next few weeks, as I finish up these books I am reading, I will be working on her character and her story, but this time from the pinhole points of synopsis and loglines, developing elevator pitches, voice journals and honing her story down to the barest essentials. I will take the current story skeleton that I have and piece it together like Dr. Frankenstein and put meat on its bones like fattening a calf for slaughter. When I am finished, I hope to have done my character justice and while I’m no Thomas Harris, I hope to create a lasting character, with deeper substance and an amazing story.

I did not win the contest (because I did not reach 50k in one month) for Camp Nano this year. However, I did win in general because I am learning to set my character into motion and develop a story like never before. While there is still plenty of writing to be done, I am proud every time I stretch my wings and at least try. I always accomplish more than I would have if I had never tried at all.

Camp

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The Girl No One Saw

Growing up, I had what I will call, an alternative childhood. I loved books and one of my greatest unmet childhood desires was to be read to. My mom and step-dad worked crazy hours and there was rarely anyone around to guide me or nurture me let alone read to me. Without a present parent, the circumstances were far from ideal. I did not have sleepovers or even a best friend. How could a girl have a best friend when she had no clue how to even be a friend? Now, as an adult writer, it is my job to not only write about what happened to me but how it affected me and how I grew because of it. Most importantly, how I managed to get through to the other side.

I’ll be honest. I made it through by stumbling my way along, picking up experiences as I went. I learned life-lessons from sharp comments and public humiliation. I learned how to laugh because of social ostracization. I learned how to do things by watching others from the sidelines of life. The perpetual wallflower. The fly on the wall. The girl no one sees. Finding better ways to be ignored rather than to be abused or humiliated was my central goal during my early years. During this period, I tried to make myself small and insignificant– to which I succeeded for the most part but also hindering my growth.

Also, my alternative childhood left me too scared to try new things, a problem which has continued to plague my adult life. I was not taught that it was okay to make mistakes because that is how you learn; I wish I had been taught that one. Instead, I was taught that not only was making mistakes a bad horrible thing but that I was only good at making mistakes. That was my everlasting teenage state. I was always wrong. I was born wrong into a world that would always see me as wrong, a single weed in a valley full of beautiful flowers.

But in a way, these turned out to be good experiences. I learned to entertain myself. I learned to embrace my weirdness and used it to create laughter when I could. I was semi-cautious and managed to stay out of trouble for the most part. However, I’ve struggled as an adult to learn all the things I missed out on as a child. I’ve found that as a writer, I must observe everything around me in detail, and in doing so, I also am able to shine a light on my own flaws. “To succeed in life is to be able to transform.”

I think this is why I like writing so much. I can write to my heart’s content. I can let it all spill out on the page. I can use what I find within myself, deep below the surface. I can take what I learn about myself and transform my ideas both on paper and in my mind. I can choose what I focus on and how I focus on it. I can find my own alternatives and develop positive action.

When I share what I have written, I am always surprised to find others who feel how I feel, have had similar experiences, or who share my perspective. It reminds me that no matter how alone I feel, I’m not. There might not be many people like me in the world, but there are enough of us that I can finally open to the world around me. I cannot change it no matter how much I want to. All I can do is observe and adjust my own sails. I will always come up with solutions. Being resourceful is how I have made it to my alternative adulthood. Growing is how I made it to the other side.

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Personal Essay #44

I’m going to tell you a story that is quite possibly one of the worst things I’ve ever done. Like most of the “worst” things I have done, this was completely unintentional. Not that it made the situation any better; it never does. My crime was breaking trust and in the process, I lost a cherished friend. This is one of the bigger issues for me as I am not one to make friends casually or lightly or even easily for that matter.

This incident still haunts me. It was one of those situations I wish I could have gone back and done differently. But the truth is that I didn’t handle it well and there was nothing I could do to fix it once the damage was done. Once the words escaped me there was no getting them back. The scene was one of friendship heartbreak. All the sorry’s in the world wouldn’t fix it. Instead, a pile of pain laid where once a friendship stood. The remnants broken, trashed, and useless.

I learned so much from such a small slip. She even sat me down and confronted me giving me a chance to at least explain myself—to own my shit and admit to my wrongness. She was calm and open about it.

It was a chance no one had given me before and it instilled in me a greater sense of responsibility. I, in turn, gave her the ability and opportunity to express her feelings and disappointment. I even allowed her to dump all those feelings onto me like trash upon the pile. I can still to this day feel the pain and the guilt, but I learned.

I lost her then. Well shortly thereafter, she uprooted herself and I have never seen her again. Not another word was spoken or passed between us. She fell off the face of my planet. I miss her. I still have some pictures of us together in Vegas. They are in a box somewhere around here. I don’t know why I still think about her but I do.

I’ve been wary and careful in the making and keeping of friends ever since. It’s a hard thing to trust another person (especially women sometimes). It’s also hard to be trusted and you never know the level of expectation the other person has for you in their own life. Therefore, I have very few close friends anymore.

My closest friends are now mostly independent women. I like that and need that independence as well. It’s not essential to see each other all the time to keep our friendship going and growing. I have changed in many ways over the last few years (thank the gods). I now keep secrets without fail. I am careful with feelings when I can be. But I believe sometimes we do need to hear the hard stuff. I believe sometimes we have to be confrontational and express what we are feeling and allow others to do the same in order to better things. I’m still not good at all the intricate bits and confrontational stuff is, and will probably always, be hard for me.

Examining my list of the worst things I have done, I’d have to say this one rode in on a high learning curve. Which in my perspective, turns a mistake, into a lesson.

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Personal Essay #43

Why is the feeling to quit such a strong one? I don’t know about everyone else out there but this is a serious internal issue for me. A task, a job, a relationship, a project; it doesn’t matter what it is, I get to a point where I hit a wall, my mind tells me it’s too hard, I can’t do it, just quit. In those situations, quitting seems like the easiest option, even though I know it’s not.

When I quit smoking it was hard. Quitting any habit is difficult. It doesn’t matter whether it is something like chewing one’s nails or not eating sweets, it takes active effort to quit. The research says it takes 3 weeks to break a habit. Basically, 3 weeks to really quit anything. Yet it takes me one second to say to myself “this is too hard, I can’t do it, I quit” and walk away.

The weight of this feeling slows me way down. Everything suddenly feels unbearably heavy. Everything seems ultimately impossible. It’s that devastating “all is lost” feeling and it tries to devour me. This feeling usually comes along hand in hand with moments of lashing out at those around me because things did not go my way. This frustrated reaction only serves to make matters worse, when what I need to do is to make things work.

Luckily, I’ve been through this series of events and feelings enough times now to know there is another way out. I stop. I pause. I take a deep breath and I either try again or I ask for assistance. Once I have refocused and put that feeling aside, everything usually falls into place or I fall into a place of acceptance. I always feel better for not having quit and enjoy instead the feeling of success.

With all this said, I still don’t understand the feeling and why it persists. What keeps it alive? Cognitively I understand that this is a learned behavior and that every time I choose to change the outcome, I am slowly overcoming that behavior. Yet, it is still there. Like the temptation of a cigarette or Halloween candy sitting unattended in a bowl. Perhaps it is just part of the human condition and entwined in the bare bones of our primitive human brains. There are a million reasons and a million excuses, much like the ones that come up in my mind when I want to quit. I am grateful that, for me, the will to live and desire to improve overcomes the hunger to quit.

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Personal Essay #41

“Not everyone is going to like you.” She said.
I was in my early twenties and still new to this world in so many ways. I have always been a sensitive person so I won’t lie; this statement cut me to my very core. We all want to be liked and to fit in and I had always tried too hard and I often failed miserably. I was perpetually socially awkward, (who am I kidding, I still am) with little in the way of ability or experience to fully understand the dynamics of interpersonal communications, let alone possessing any of the tools or skills needed to navigate certain aspects of social interaction. I felt like the child who’d been raised by wolves or apes, possessing no clue as to how to accomplish more than meeting my own basic needs of survival.
This handful of words struck me hard, hitting me like a knife tip sticking into the wood after it’s been thrown, leaving only the ominous sound of pain behind it. This one sentence changed the course of my personal growth. It shifted me into a state of being and learning that would take decades to come full circle bringing about harsh truths of the matter relating to the reasons why not everyone is going to like you and why you will not always like everyone you meet.
Someone may not like us because we annoy them or because we behave in a way or do things that encroach on their personal space or bubble. Sometimes this dislike grows slowly over time and other times it is an initial first impression. Other times it is a conflict of personalities or a difference in beliefs. Sometimes the dislike will evolve into change for one or both parties. Sometimes, and as is most often the case, things will escalate into some kind of drama, some personal or public confrontation.
It happens— it happens all the time.
So who was the woman who spoke this life-changing sentence to me? Honestly, I don’t remember her name. I only remember her face because she was someone I used to work with but I barely knew her. I can’t think of anything specific I could have possibly done to incur her wrath. Looking back, the only thing I can think of is that she didn’t like the person I was then. Honestly, I can’t blame her for that. I didn’t like me then either.
This moment, this sentence, this catalyst, made it easier for me to accept when someone didn’t like me. I was able to spot the signs right away and just steer clear. Though it didn’t take the sting out of the feeling, it gave me the ability to not really give a damn, at least not as much. However, it also provided me the ability to be okay with my not liking someone else. Therefore, I have learned to pause and take stock in the “why?” And then act accordingly. I have learned this introspection is necessary and important and can be very revealing on a personal level.
“Not everyone is going to like you,” …and that’s okay because not everyone has to.

The only person who has to like you– is you.

CUDsWeL
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Personal Essay #38

This year has been populated with natural disasters the same way last year was crippled with celebrity deaths. Enormous hurricanes ripping across populated islands before flooding the coastal mainland. Wildfires destroying miles of forest. Excessive earthquakes bringing unexpected destruction and death. Some people will claim it’s the end of the world or even the effects of global warming— and perhaps either one of those is to blame in part or whole. However, I think it’s more likely to say that this planet is very much alive and is always growing, changing and evolving, all while we cling to her back— like fleas on a dog.

Perhaps we have simply irritated our host with all of our smoke, our pollution, our neglect, our mistreatment, our fracking, our nuclear weapons, or even just our very existence here. When a dog becomes infested with fleas, without proper treatment he’s miserable and is eaten alive over and over. He randomly attempts to put down his offenders only to end up scratch his wounds until they bleed and he starts to lose patches of fur in the process. Perhaps this is what is going on with our Mother Earth— we’ve annoyed her and she’s just trying to shake us off.

The most likely scenario of all is that this is all just part of the natural life cycle of the planet. Perhaps it’s similar to the cycles of the seasons, only longer and on a much grander scale. This cycle potentially holds more time than we will ever have in our own written history. Perhaps all of this is merely the natural course of the planet that has absolutely nothing to do with us at all. Perhaps this is the way things are and would be whether or not we were here to experience it. Perhaps nature is just taking her own course, whether we like it or not.

We may never know what the actual cause is. People will continue to blame those whose choices are only affected by lining their own pockets while they pollute the Earth. Other’s will blame the wrath of God. But in truth, we don’t know who is to blame for anything in particular. So, we continue to weather these storms and pick up the pieces after the destruction has stopped, as we always have. We do our best to help those we can and find ways to avoid such occurrences in the future. Destruction and death are part of this thing we call life. Our life here has its ups and downs, it’s good and it’s bad. We never really know what each day could bring us, so I believe we must remain grateful. We must play the cards we’ve been dealt, the best way we can and be grateful for every day we have on this amazing planet we call home.

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