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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Photo by Pierre-Yves Burgi on Unsplashpierre-yves-burgi-579335-unsplash

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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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A Black Crayon

 

The smell of crayons always takes me back to my first childhood memories of creativity. Crayons were almost always available and easy enough to use though I was never “that kind” of an artist. To this day, I love the way the wax slides across the paper and catches every bump or imperfection both in the paper and from the surface underneath it. I still love the smell of a fresh brand new box and can hear in my head the sound of the paper being torn off as the crayon leaves itself behind on the paper.
The black crayon was always my favorite. I saw it as the most useful of all the colors because you can use it to outline anything, like the way a tattoo artist or coloring book does. It creates the lines and structure of your focus. It conducts your direction like the line on a road. It is the color of ladybugs and window frames.
Now as an adult, I get to show my grandkids the cool things one can do with a crayon and I love when they think I have some sort of magical powers. “How do you know how to do that Grandma?” my grandson Lucas will ask, his voice filled with wonder. “Because when I was your age, I practiced,” I tell him smiling.
I hope he always sees me as magical, just as I did my first box of 64 Crayola crayons, the cool one with the sharpener in the back. The box was so much better than that smaller, plain, nondescript box of crayons that mom got me before that, which broke, randomly melted, and honestly did not even write the same as the Crayola brand. I remember feeling rich when I opened that package on Christmas day! I am sure that it came with a coloring book but I have long since forgotten what book that could possibly have been.
I do remember emptying the entire box on a regular basis. I used the four inserts to arrange the crayons in color coordinating patterns, resulting in the colors beaming back at me like some confused sort of rainbow. Crayons, in some ways, symbolize my first OCD moments, which as an adult continue to play out in my color coordinated closets and pantry’s, outlined in black. I manage my OCD with a strong dose of writing and have long since traded my crayons for pens and my drawings for stories.

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Don’t Rue the Day!

I was not brought up in what I would call a concise home. My upbringing involved frequent blurted bursts of verbal emotion but genuine communication was not really encouraged. Few, if any, of the values or structure that I abide by now, were present in my youth and have been instilled with the help of people who have cared enough to help me.
Besides my writing, I currently work in a very public environment and am learning to work within a certain set of boundaries with the desired skill-set. There are things that I say, in general, that can be misconstrued. Those who have bothered to give me honest answers when I have asked, tell me things like “people take you wrong” or “you don’t use positive verbiage”. I try to be as concise as possible but not everything comes out the way I intend it. Inevitably, the wrong words are taken the wrong way at the wrong time by the wrong people. I’ve referred to myself as “Miss Understood” or “Miss Spoken” as these titles fit those moments. This is a problem that has gnawed at me for years. While I am still struggling with this, I am actively working on it.
Twice now, in the last twenty-four hours, I have been reminded of RUE… Resist the Urge to Explain. Since the universe has flagged this one down for me, I must take heed and examine this idea closer. Perhaps in the process, I will eventually find out why I do this and find ways to remove this reoccurring problem.
I stole the anagram RUE from a book I am reading, on writing, called “The Art of War for Writers” by James Scott Bell (My favorite writing mentor!). In writing it’s also called “avoiding excess exposition”. As a writer, I can easily go back and cut my dialog and narration using this method and improve my writing. However, when it comes to verbal communication, I am so worried about being understood that I can also come across as Captain Obvious (which no one likes unless C.O. is funny, which is a tough act to pull off, believe me, I have tried).
In many ways, every essay like this I write falls into the RUE pit as I do my best to navigate and share my thoughts and ideas. I can edit my writing. Can I edit my mind before the words come out of my mouth? I have to ask, am I still being true to myself? Or would I remain me… only an improved me? Or an enhanced me? How do I use this technique and strategy to improve my communication overall so that I am better understood in general?
While I have worked hard and in so many ways, changed and edited my own life so that the present reads the way I want it to, I still have some serious work to do. I will have to be dedicated and observant while I try to slow things down and really start paying attention to this aspect of my life. My goal is to become a clear and concise communicator and improve my communication competence, both with my voice and with my words.

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The Peaceful Wallflower

You think I don’t notice all the ways you ignore me. I notice the way you treat me, different from the others. You make time for them, you include them, you smile at them. Don’t think that I don’t see it. I do. I see it, clearly. I won’t lie that it hurts. I won’t lie that it makes me mad. I wish that I didn’t care.

At least you are not outwardly cruel to me like you are to the un-liked others. Don’t think I don’t see that too, your obscure sense of kindness. At least you ignore me rather than push me, you look through me instead of directing your energy at me. I appreciate the kindness, even if you don’t. I would break under the stress of you and that is not something I want to do. I wish I didn’t care.

You swell in your pride and your hate. I know what it feels like, I know how consuming it can be. You think you are beyond reproach and so far, it seems that way. I wonder if the feeling will hold or if it will fade for you as it has for me? I wonder if you will change. I wonder if you could grow on this wall like I do. I wonder what your path looks like, what those shoes feel like, what your heart beats like… a drum or a nail, pressing deeper into the skin. I don’t want to care.

You don’t think I notice, but I do, I see you.

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The Cost of Value

The concept of value differs depending on how you use the word. As a noun, it’s the importance or usefulness of something. Yet as a verb, it’s the monetary worth. We all value different things. To one person, the truth might be valuable and to another, it might be a cost. The things I value will not necessarily be the same things that you value. Therefore, to me, a value is relative and changing. Value is intrinsically individual.

To draw deeper into this idea, there are also personal values that shape who we are and shape our decisions. What we personally will or won’t spend money on, what we hold dear, what we cherish and believe, what we live for, what we would die for. These are things that cannot be priced yet they often have a cost. I value hard work, not just for the money it affords me, but also the feeling of freedom and satisfaction it awards me in the long run. Putting time into relationships also affords a cherished experience that we could not have without putting in that time. Finishing a project brings pride and a sense of accomplishment that we could not have without putting in the hard work to make it happen. You hear about lotto winners saying that the money did not bring them happiness, this is because life does not work that way. Life is all about hard work and motion, if you just sit there on your ass you will never get anywhere. You must value motion and get to work, that is the cost.

So, while some people value education and pour their time and money into that, others value fun and experiences, spending their money on vacations or toys. Some value their image and spend money to maintain that image on everything from cars to name brand apparel. Some value privacy and freedom preferring to live a simple and muted life. Some value family above all else and solely strive to provide for their family unity and connectedness. My list of examples could go on infinitely, but my point is that many of us carry strong values that permeate our lives and all our decisions.

It should become obvious then, that these differences are the basis for both human connections and rifts. If you and I value the same things, then we are connected. If we value different things, then we are split apart and there is less to connect us. The universe pulls us in different directions and blinds us to the real reason for the rift. Something I cannot connect with is not important to me, leading to an apathetic viewpoint. While variety and diversity are the spice of life, the differences between what people value can separate and divide us (the clearest examples of this are politics and religion). What one person values and cherishes another may find ridiculous and ignorant, yet shared values can hold people together and create bonds that last a lifetime.

So, what can we do to keep our values intact (or perhaps be open to re-examining them) while still respecting the values of others? How can we change the dynamics without going either rogue or militant? How can we bridge the gap and the honor the diversity of all humans? Is there even a way? Does this mean that we must respect the bad and evil in this world as well?

For me, I think that we can all make improvements on how we communicate with our values and value systems. For instance, we can listen and be understanding, perhaps offering a little more caring to someone who doesn’t share our own values. We can try to understand why something is valuable to another and respect that viewpoint even if we don’t agree. It’s doubtful and foolish to try and change someone’s mind about their personal values. I think it is more advantageous to attempt to understand even if we are unable to be supportive.

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Take Time to Listen

What makes someone a good listener? When they sit quietly, focused on intense eye contact while someone else talks incessantly? When they nod in agreement? When they get outraged or sad in all the right places? Or do you find a good listener to be someone who gives feedback? Or do you simply want to be understood? Do you desire someone who can empathize with you? Since communication is the backbone of humanity, it makes sense to improve these communication skills; it is the “miracle grow” to our developmental evolution. Listening can tune us into our fellow humans, helping us dive below the surface of things, and enriching our communication along the way.

 

I was in my late 20’s before I realized I wasn’t a good listener. I was young and self-absorbed. I rarely paid attention to anything that was said to me (perhaps that’s why I never followed anyone’s good advice…) so when slapped in the face with this embarrassing fact, I knew I had some personal development work to do. At the time, I was taking classes at the community college, so I signed myself up for a class called “Interpersonal Communication”. It happened to also fill my speech requirement for my Associate’s degree yet it wasn’t an actual speech class, which I would have hated. So, I jumped into this class not realizing it would change my life or how.

 

I approached the class with the idea that not only would I improve my listening skills but also my communication skills which I knew were severely lacking. I walked into class confident that I would come out the other side as an active, resourceful, and skilled communicator. The class was anything but that for me. I struggled more than I expected. In fact, I don’t think I made it through a single presentation without crying. I still don’t know what about the whole experience was so heart-wrenching for me besides the sensation of overwhelming vulnerability, or beside my inability to open my mouth and finally honor the muzzled girl who lived within me for far too long.

 

I recently decided to re-read the textbook from that class. After more than a decade, it no longer gives me anxiety. Instead, it is like re-watching an old movie. I barely remember it but when I look back to the person I was then, I am surprised at how far I have come from that girl into this woman. I have to remind myself that as adults, it is up to us to fill in those blanks from childhood and give ourselves the proper tools through learning, so as to ensure our future success.

 

Becoming a better listener has improved my quality of life and enriched my relationships with others. It has helped me to see that the heart of listening is in understanding and while it is difficult to understand something that you haven’t personally experienced, it is a good thing to try. It is good for the person who wants to be listened to, and good for the person listening. So, let’s all step up to the possibilities of language and each do our part to help each other evolve and grow. Let’s strengthen the backbone of humanity and enrich what it is to be human.

 

Take time to listen.

listening

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