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Sledgehammer at Burning Man

We’re very excited that Sledgehammer was represented at Burning Man this year. 2012 Individual Winner Courtney Sherwood attended the annual arts festival with golden sledgehammers as prizes for the first-ever Burning Man Mini-Sledgehammers. Here’s her report.

Nothing at Burning Man ever goes quite as planned, and my attempt to bring two 36-minute Sledgehammer contests to the Nevada desert this year proved no exception. I made plans with organizers of two different camps to hold different competitions over the course of the week.
The first 1,000 or so events submitted to the official guide are included in print listed distributed to everyone in attendance, and organizers of the rest have to hope and pray that their events find an audience. Somehow, one of the contests made it to the guide and the other didn’t. It’s no coincidence, then, that dozens of people showed up for the first contest, and nobody made it to the second.
ImageThe official meet and greet for the first-ever Get Lit(erary) at Burning Man collaboration took place immediately before the Sledgehammer competition, so I had to run to get to the contest site on time, and when I arrived there were at least 40-50 people already waiting to go. Some had started writing without any direction from me, and one person spoke up to say that they had agreed to write about Jane Austin clones.
Rather than halt the action that was already under way, I decided to go with the flow. So I stepped to the microphone and asked everyone to take a quick break from writing while I introduced myself and explained how Sledgehammer works in the real world. I told everyone that they had 36 minutes to write a story that incorporated the prompt they had chosen together — Jane Austin clones — and two prompts of my own — burlesque and the phrase “mental floss.” Then I stepped back and turned on the timer.Image
When time ran out, I invited anybody who was interested  to step up and read. So many people raised their hands that I imposed a three-minute time limit. According to my notes, at least 19 people opted to share their stories, and plenty of other people wrote but did not read outloud.
Within 1-2 stories, it became clear that nobody had heard me say “mental floss.” Not a single story incorporated that phrase. So I judged according to these criteria:
1- use of the other two prompts.
2- beginning, middle and end.
3- originality (a few stories that seemed original at first came  to seem less original when other people stepped to the mic with very similar plots and phrasing)
4- audience reaction.
5- arbitrary caprice.
By the time everyone had read, we had been there for close to two hours, and we were running out of stage time — musicians were scheduled to perform in the space we occupied. There were so many entertaining and bizarre stories that I knew it would be impossible to go through my notes and give a completely fair and just ruling, so I quickly chose three people as winners who had scored well during the reading, but I also emphasized before the audience that I could not vouch for the fairness of my judgment, and that many, many people had told excellent stories.
After we wrapped up the event, the manager of the stage —  the event was at the Lost Penguin Cafe — came up to tell me that we’d drawn one of the biggest crowds of the day, and said he’d loved to host Sledgehammer again next year. I thanked him for hosting, and promised to get there early and to be better prepared if we do it again.
Thanks for hosting it, Courtney and Lost Penguin Cafe! We look forward to seeing what comes up next year.

“When Your First Bust Is a Santa Claus” by Courtney Sherwood

Congratulations to Courtney Sherwood for winning in the 2012 Individual category!


Character: Police station clerk
Action: Tightening a knot
Setting: A meeting for a subversive group
Prop: Decorative songbirds made from vinyl records


When Your First Bust Is a Santa Claus

by Courtney Sherwood

When your first bust is a Santa Claus, it can be hard to believe in what you’re doing.

I remember the little boy’s dusky tear-streaked face, his bold older sister as she crossed her arms and furrowed her brow in defiance. “It’ll be OK,” she asserted, as though she knew anything. Ages four and eight, the file said. How much harm could a little magic cause? I wondered, then stifled the thought.

Continue reading

Mini Sledgehammer: August 2011, Blackbird Wine

We sat outside Tuesday for a lovely evening of wine, cheese, and frenzied writing. While all the stories were quite strong, one stood out for all of the judges. We’re happy to announced Courtney Sherwood as the August 2011 Mini Sledgehammer (Blackbird Wine edition) champion!

Character: Landlord
Action: Haggling
Setting: The set for a TV show
Phrase: “I just came over here to…”



by Courtney Sherwood

It’s not like I didn’t know anything about the world when I ran away. Some of the kids in my homeschool group had televisions, and they’d whisper inscrutable tales about the world of sin when mama left us alone doing exercises as she changed a diaper or kneaded bread. When I was very young she even used to take me in to town on her supply runs. I saw billboards and the shockingly immodest attire of the modern world. Plus, mama and papa even talked about it, to warn us off, to explain why we lived this strange, sequestered life. Not that it felt sequestered. It was all I knew, and I was loved and nurtured and encouraged, as they raised me up  to become a godly woman, a mother, a helpmeet and a wife.

And it’s not even like I was all that sheltered. The Bible’s full of sin, and so are the lives of those who call themselves godly. Mama and papa were kind, but some of the kids from our worship meetings came from stricter homes. No “spare the rod for them.” And after my best friend, Rebekkah, joined in holy matrimony to the godly man who’d courted her I heard of other horrors. Pain and cruelty that we didn’t know the words for, and no way to escape. Marriage was forever, an eternal binding of two immortal souls.

Since I struck out on my own I’ve met other girls and women who fled my sheltered, narrow world. Most were like Rebekkah – shattered creatures, nearly broken by expectations that they could no longer bear. But I was happy. It was the fear – fear of eternity with palm-shaped bruises, fear of a soul bound to a man I couldn’t love. And yes, fear, that the sin in my heart was greater than mama, papa, maybe even God could ever forgive. Though as I thought that I cursed myself, because God could forgive everything. He was perfect. That I could think overwise was proof of my imperfection.

So at 18, after papa headed off to work and mama left for her fortnightly shopping trip, I put my eldest younger sister in charge of the family brood, gathered my favorite calico dresses in a bundle, sneaked sinfully into mama’s spare cash jar and stole half of everything she’d left behind, and struck out east, hoping to have at least a few years of joy before the sin of it all devoured my soul.

I was book smart, I’ll credit the homeschooling for that. I could read and write, do my sums, and quote the Bible on command. But I didn’t know a thing about money or phones or work or the modern world. I slept outside the first night, and on the second day wandered into a town where I saw a “room for rent” sign on a telephone pole.

Took about 30 seconds of haggling with my first potential landlord to learn the $80 I’d stolen from mama was not gonna get me very far. That was three days ago.

The landlord was a woman, a lady with a day job and tall shoes and short hair, and a fast, important-sounding way of talking. A sinner for sure. Well, we’re all sinners, I guess. But she was doubly sinful, to watch her move and listen to her talk, and not a bit contrite. So it surprised me when it turned out she was also a little bit kind.

“You really don’t know anything about the world, do you?” she asked, the same look of wonder on her face as the younguns would get upon discovering yesterday’s tadpole had grown legs over night.

“Look, you can stay in the room, no charge, until I find a paying renter or you find a job. Could be a day, could be a week, could be a month. But if I find someone who can afford my rent brfore you can do it, you’re gone. And no pets, no smoking, no late-night parties, either.” She smiled at that. “Somehow, I think the job part’s really the only thing I need to worry about. You got any skills?”

I didn’t know what to say to that. Skills? Though I can bake and wash and corral a hord of children, plus think for myself a little even, I’d never thought of any of that in terms of skills, and so I hesitated.

“Great,” she said. “No skills. That’ll get you far. Well, follow me. I’ll show you to your room, at least for tonight.”

The room had a big bed, a clost, and even a television set. I’d seem them before, like I said, at homeschool friends’ homes, but I’d never turned one on, and that first day and night I was afraid to even touch it.

Day two, I walked downtown from my temporary home and went door to door in search of work. I never walked so much or saw so many strange things in all my life. Girls and boys holding hands. Men and women with skin all different colors. So much diversity, but one thing was the same everywhere I looked: No jobs.

My feet were blistered by the time I staggered back to the landlady’s spare room, and I only had $70 left, having spent $10 on food to get me through the day.

“I got a call about the room,” she said, as I came in. “I’ll be showing it off tomorrow.”

“I understand,” I said, biting back my fear. I was afraid of the future, but it was strange, because I’d been afraid of the future for months before I’d run away and this was a different kind of fear. There was an excitement hidden in it, and a stubbornness. I was not going back.

I fell sleep instantly when I got to my room, and when I woke everything was dark, there were crickets chirping, and suddenly I didn’t feel afraid anymore. I felt ready for the world – even for television – and I decided it was time to learn more about the sin of every day.

After a few minutes I figured out how to turn the television on, and that’s when I saw the ad for this show: “Seeking young men and women, age 18 to 28, for a new kind of reality TV.”

I got on the bus to California the next day.

I just came here to say, I don’t know much about reality, but I’m ready to learn and I need a job. I hope you’ll consider me for your television show.

© Courtney Sherwood


Courtney Sherwood is editor of the features and business sections of The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash., and a repeat volunteer at the Wordstock book festival. She lives in Portland with her husband, jazz musician Ben Lincon, and their two cats. She loves to eat, drink, hike, sleep, read, write and dream.