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History

On a rare sunny winter afternoon in Portland in 2008, my friend and fellow editor Kristin Thiel and I were having cocktails at Jade Lounge in Portland and brainstorming how we could build more community in the Portland literary world through our company, Indigo Editing.

 

“I like the idea of a write-in,” I said.

Kristin paused. She was always pushing me to take events beyond the usual, to introduce a new slant, and I squinted at birds flying overhead while I waited for her probe. “What would make this different from any other write-in?”

I’d spent the previous weekend pretending to be dead in various settings and changes of wardrobe while my friends videoed their post-apocalyptic film for the 48 Hour Film Project. I’m not an actress—I can’t even lie about using the last of the milk in the fridge—but I’d had an incredible time that weekend. I was part of a team, we had to use a specific prop in the filming, the director raced to get all the filming and editing done and deliver the finished DVD in time, and there was a screening of the various entries. I wondered aloud if we could pull off a writing event of the same magnitude.

It didn’t take long for Kristin and I to hash out the details of our revamped write-in idea. It would be thirty-six hours long, from noon on a Saturday to 11:59 p.m. on a Sunday. People could participate individually, or for more fun (or, we learned later, sometimes more tears), they could enter as a team and cowrite their stories.

We’d give four prompts that they had to include in every story—a character, an action, a setting, and a phrase (later sometimes swapped out for a prop)—and to get the movement element into the contest, the writers would do a scavenger hunt to find the prompts.

 

We’d get our publisher friends and other iconic Portland businesses to sponsor by donating prizes. We were both glowing with the excitement of it—or maybe that was just from the winter sun.

 

“Now, what will we call it?” Kristin asked.

I don’t even remember the ideas I threw out at the time, they were so unremarkable. After a few minutes, I nervously started wiping the condensation off the side of my cocktail glass.

“What about Sledgehammer?” Kristin asked.

shbadge (2)

“Ooooh.” I was definitely intrigued.

“Get it?” she probed further. “For shattering writer’s block?”

It was perfect.

The first contest went off with, well, many hitches, as first contests do. But despite all of those, we got sponsors, we got media attention, and thank goodness, we got writers. One Saturday morning in July 2008, Kristin and I set up our registration forms on a table in Northwest Portland’s Backspace internet café, and writers trickled in to pay their entry fees. Three teams and three individuals huddled around the table. Then a fourth individual, clearly still in his pajamas, warily stepped up behind them.

“What’s this?” he asked.

We explained the contest to him, and on the spot, he signed up. A spontaneous entry!

By midnight on Sunday, the writers were regaling us of their challenges on the scavenger hunt, their late-night story-development epiphanies, their squabbles with their teammates, and their nearly reckless driving as they raced to turn their stories in on time.

 

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After the frenzied writing window was over, we held an event for participants to read their stories to an audience, which eventually turned into an opportunity to vote on the Readers’ Choice Award.

 

2008 was a humble beginning, but I felt an adrenaline rush with the community being built. Mel Wells won that first year, and we managed to secure her stage space at Wordstock, Portland’s annual literary festival, where she timidly read “Moving On” and then smiled broadly to the audience’s deafening applause.

Without a doubt, Kristin and I decided Sledgehammer was on again for 2009, but we needed to add more readings for the winner.

We continued the Wordstock reading tradition, but we wanted a longer-lasting engagement with the community. We asked the winner, Alan Dubinsky, if he’d be willing to do more events, and a grin spread through his auburn beard. But, as Kristin pointed out, are readings really all that interesting?

“We could do an activity at them,” I said. I think the epiphany dawned on us both at the same time: 36-minute writing contests. There would still be prompts and prizes, and winning stories would be published on the website, though we scrapped the scavenger hunt for the short time limit.

 

Sledgehammer 1.15

 

Over the years, several businesses have hosted Mini Sledgehammer in their venues— sometimes for special occasions, sometimes for longer runs—but Blackbird Wine and Atomic Cheese has been our home and longest running series. We still hold our monthly contests there, though the Mini Sledgehammer facilitators have changed out a few times and the crowd size ebbs and flows.

Meanwhile, the annual Sledgehammer 36-Hour Writing Contest grew in writers, sponsors, and prizes—reaching a high of over $10,000 worth in prizes—and we even began an online version so writers from around the world could participate.

For the 2010 contest, local filmmaker Cameron Harrison and authors Chelsea Cain, Peter Fogtdal, and Liz Prato helped us make a promo video:

 

 

By 2016, the annual contest had grown big that it more than we could manage with a small volunteer team on an annual basis, so we took a hiatus.

But not Mini Sledgehammer—that series continues with vigor. Our steady series is at Blackbird Wine Shop, but we’ve also been hosted by a variety of bookstores and cafes, and even Burning Man!

 

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And here is an appropriate place to do a big shout-out to our current Mini Sledgehammer facilitators, who rotate out who runs the Mini Sledgehammer contest each month:

The first Mini Sledgehammer anthology, The Exquisite Rush: 36-Minute Stories will be published in 2018. See the Anthology tab to preorder your copy, save the date for the launch party, and learn more details!

—Ali J. Shaw
Cofounder and Director

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