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Mini Sledgehammer: November 2013 Metlakatla Library


Elissa Nelson and her dog, Ollie

Now that I’m back in Alaska for the winter, we finally started up the Metlakatla Mini Sledgehammer again. This one went a bit differently than usual, though.

As many of you know, ardent Sledgehammer supporter Elissa Nelson has been ill for a while. Just a few days before this Mini Sledgehammer, she passed away. I felt compelled to honor her with a tribute activity, so I came up with writing prompts all related to Elissa. Although the other writers here in Alaska didn’t know Elissa, who lived in Portland, they joined me in honoring her with these prompts:

Character: someone terminally ill
Action: squinting one eye
Setting: on the front porch
Phrase: [silence]

While Sledgehammer was founded to help shatter the fiction writer’s block, this combination of prompts led us all to write nonfiction. Grief, it turns out, is a topic most people can relate with and most writers can convey.

It was a beautiful moment to hear the true stories as these writers honored someone they’d lost. And it was not a moment to pick a winning story to post on the website. We’ll keep our stories to ourselves this time, but we invite you to write your own story with these prompts. And we hope you’ll find healing in the process.




“Visiting Allie” by Elissa Nelson

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


Visiting Allie

 by Elissa Nelson

George drives into Portland from where he lives, near the coast, near Florence. He’s not quite on the ocean—but he’s only about ten minutes away on his motorcycle, so good weather (really lots of kinds of weather), he gets over there a lot. Just to be by the ocean. Whoever would’ve thought he’d live ten minutes from the ocean? But he does. Sure, his house is smaller than it would be if he were farther away, but it’s big enough for him. Him and Frankie, who loves the ocean, and they’ve figured out how to get him there on the motorcycle! Took some doing, but they figured it out. Thank god Phil has her own bike, because he doesn’t know if he could stand to leave Frankie at home. Especially at this point, when they’ve figured it out. George is still working a lot—what the hell else would he do with himself, anyway?—but he does get to the coast most days. He has to swing by his house and get Frankie, unless Frankie came in to work with him, which he does a lot these days—then they head over to the ocean.

Continue reading

Mini Sledgehammer July 2012: Blackbird Wine & Atomic Cheese

This turned out to be the last Mini Sledgehammer Ali will host for a while. It was great to see some of the regulars as well as a couple new faces, and we’re excited to have Kristin take over Mini Sledges!

Congratulations to Elissa Nelson for writing a story with great character development and a nice plot arc.

Enjoy reading!

Character: Park planner
Action: Not buying moose insurance
Setting: At grandma’s house
Prop: Explosives



by Elissa Nelson

“You’re not going to skip the moose insurance, are you?” Jessie’s sister said, concerned.

“Jason said that everyone he works with says no one’s seen a moose on this island since the 30’s.”

“But you’re going to take your car off the island, right?”

“No moose insurance, Rita.”

“But Jessie—“

“Guess how much moose insurance adds to the premium. My car and Jason’s car, with moose insurance the six month premium goes from nine hundred dollars—“

“Nine hundred dollars!”

“For both cars, for six months! From nine hundred to fifteen hundred.”

“Ugh. No moose insurance, then.”

“No moose insurance.” Jessie changes the subject. “Where are Tania and Justin?”

“They’re with grandma and Steve-o for the fourth, of course!”

“Oh right. Steve-o and his explosives, eh?”

“Yep. Grandpa would have a fit, wouldn’t he?”

“You know he would. Give my love to the kids, of course. And grandma, and Steve-o.”

“And mom. Of course. She’ll probably call you later anyway.”

“Yeah, probably. How’s her new career going?”

“Her new career?”

“Park planner, right?”

“Oh. I think that’s more of a hobby, really. Like, they’re looking for a volunteer to do some gardening at Lake Green Park, you know? And it sounds like mom can do what she wants, but of course she’ll have no budget to buy plants or anything…”

“Is she taking cuttings from the yard?”

“We haven’t really talked about it. Anyway, this isn’t the time of year to transplant anything anyway.”

“It’s not?” Jessie says. She doesn’t really care, but she also really has no idea.

“Early spring, or late in the fall,” Rita says impatiently. “How’d you grow up with mom and not know that?”

She didn’t really grow up with mom, as Rita knows. She grew up living with dad, who took off when she and Rita were in college, sent postcards from all over the place for a while, and now they—her, mostly—hear from him every six months or so. She’s seen him every year/year and a half, he’ll stop by from wherever he’s been—living in Mexico for a while, as far as Jessie knows he’s still there—before that he was in New Mexico, before that, Oklahoma, before that Alabama. She visited him in Alabama—that was a weird place. He was doing his art stuff, working as a security guard in some weird little museum. She visited his museum—he showed her the whole thing, it took about forty-five minutes.

She guesses he won’t visit her in Alaska. But you never know with dad. And it’s not like she’ll have the money to get to Mexico.

Also, far as she knows he’s never been to Alaska. So that alone might get him there. There aren’t many places he hasn’t been, at this point. At least that’s what it seems like to her. Also she knows he’ll just be so glad she’s getting the hell out of California, even if she is gonna go back. He’s told her that staying in one place for twenty years, from the time he met their mom until Rita then Jessie went away to college, was maybe the hardest thing he ever did. She knows she has a little bit of that in her, too. He passed it along. Only a little bit, though. She and Jason will spend a couple years in Alaska, then they’ll go home. And yeah, start the family and all that.

Mini Sledgehammer: November 2011, Blackbird Wine

The days have turned blustery, and the beautiful leaves have begun to fall, but that didn’t keep writers away this month. We started the evening off with a reading by Dora Raymaker, 2011 Sledgehammer winner of the Individual category. Then we announced the prompts and had at it!

character: someone with a quirky phobia
Action: affixing reflectors
Setting: next to a broken-down car
Phrase: I’m torn

The prizes went to Elissa Nelson for the following story, though she graciously shared her entry to that Saturday’s workshops at Indigo with another player. Such generosity!



by Elissa Nelson


“Eating foods out of cans is dangerous,” the woman tells him. “I see you’ve got your cans there. Six of them. That’s not good.”

“I’ve got my beans, my fruits, three kinds of veggies, and that potted meat I love so much. No carbs—it’s a well balanced meal, isn’t it?”

“Fruit cocktail?”

“I like the fruit cocktail the best. You get em all, you don’t have to pick. Maraschino cherries too. Good stuff.”

“That dye—it’s toxic.”

“Toxic. You drive that car around. That’s toxic.”

“True, true.”

“Course I’d drive a car too, I’m not too good for that, only mine’s broken down. There it is right there.” He points. “So I can still sleep in it, but she doesn’t really go places these days. Unless you push her. I’m not much for that. I just leave her be.”

“I see you have reflectors on her.”

“That was Pearl did that. She scavenges all that kind of stuff, came over one day for dinner—black beans, peaches in heavy syrup, creamed corn, these fancy red peppers, and those little onions? And I had some Spam, but she didn’t want any. So she came over for dinner and brought the reflectors along. Susie—that’s the car—Susie had just broken down and a couple guys helped me haul her off to the side there, but Pearl said it’d be better if people could see her, if she reflected light when people drove by. So now she does.”

They’re quiet for a moment. The guy eats, the woman stands there, not sure what she’s doing. At least that’s what it looks like to the guy. He finally asks her: “What’re you thinking?”

“I’m torn,” she says.

That’s all she says. He waits for her to say more but she doesn’t.

“Torn about what?” he asks finally. He doesn’t really care—if she’s not going to eat, he’d just as soon that she gets out of there and lets him eat. Eat and have his evening. Sit by the fire, smoke his pipe. It’s old-fashioned, but he still doesn’t like to smoke around a lady. And she’s a lady. At first he thought she was one of those social worker types, or just a do-gooder—she’s got the nice clothes on, her hair done, no clipboard but she might’ve left it in her car, a late model Mercedes, not one of the real fancy ones but it’s still a Mercedes.

“I guess I might as well just tell you,” she says finally, about ten minutes later. Maybe not really ten minutes, but it’s a while.

“Tell me what?” he says, when she doesn’t tell him.

“It’s about Ed.”

“I don’t care anything about Ed. What do you know about Ed? What’s he got to do with you?”

“I’m his—he’s my brother-in-law.”

“He married your sister? Must be, because you couldn’t’ve married his brother. He hasn’t got one, far as I know. If he did, he’d be lots younger, because he never did as long as I knew Sally Jane.”

“He married my sister. Married Lydia three years ago.”

“Three years? Has it been that long?”

“Says he hasn’t seen you in ten years.”

“Nah, he’s lying about that. Ten years. Last time I saw him was—shit, ninety-eight, it must’ve been, and what’s this, twenty eleven. Okay. That’s fourteen years. God damn. Pardon my language.”

He’s really on his best behavior.

He’s not what she was expecting at all, either. Okay, he lives in his car and he eats out of cans he cooks on an open fire. But he’s so nice to her.

“What did Ed tell you about me?”

She shrugs.

“Told ya I was a crotchety old asshole, didn’t he?”

She shrugs again.

“I am. There’s other bits to me, but I am a crotchety old asshole. I was a hell of a dad to him, that’s for sure. How’s Sally Jane?”

She shrugs again. She sure isn’t about to tell this guy what she thinks of Sally Jane, who now regularly comes to all family gatherings, not having any family except Ed.

“How’s your sister since she married him? Changed much?”

She wasn’t expecting that question either. What was she expecting? She thought either she wouldn’t find him here, or he’d be here and drunk, maybe passed out. He might be drunk now, but he’s coherent. Cogent, even. A decent guy. She likes Ed, she’s liked his stories about his drunk of a dad. Is that wrong to say she’s liked them? She has. He wants you to like his stories. And there’s a lot of affection in the way he talks about his dad.

He hasn’t sneezed yet, though. The way Ed tells it, his dad is all about the sneezes. That must be why he hasn’t chased her away yet, though—she doesn’t make him sneeze. That was a sad story Ed told about his dad. “I went to visit him once, this was a while back, and showed up with a bag of food for him. Cans mostly. I know what he likes. He took it. And we were sitting by his fire. Then he starts sneezing. And he says, ‘Sorry, son, got these allergies. Allergic to people. Different amounts of being allergic—I can put up with about as much of Pearl as I ever could, and the sneezing’s just a good excuse to get her out of here—but man, went to the grocery store last week, waiting in line to cash in my cans, and the lady behind me was wearing some kind of hippie perfume, I started sneezing so hard I had to get out of there and go back the next day.’” She remembers that she and Ed and Lydia sat around for a while guessing what the “hippie perfume” was. Sandlewood? Patchouli? One of those oil blends you buy at the co-op that’s called, like, “Peaceful Mist”? But she also remembers Ed saying that was the last time he saw his dad. They had a good conversation for a while, then he started sneezing “all hard and dramatic,” Ed said, “and I just never went back. Only so much of that a guy can take. Bad enough he was a drunk and a bum but allergic to me? Fuck it.” And Ed didn’t talk that way.

“Guess I’m not allergic to you,” he says to her.

She tries to look like she doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

“Ed told you anything about me, he must’ve told you I’m allergic to people.”

She’s still sort of trying to look like she doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but she also knows it’s no good. She shrugs and nods, like maybe Ed’s mentioned it, but he hasn’t said much, hasn’t told the whole story. Which he hasn’t. He doesn’t know the whole story. Doesn’t know the past thirteen years worth.

It’s like he can read her mind. “It’s just gotten worse and worse since Ed stopped coming around. Gotten so mostly Pearl’s the only one I can be around at all. Gotta be careful going to the store… bought one of those masks to cover my nose and mouth, it was just getting to where I kept having to run away in the middle of an errand or whatever.”

She’s still standing there.

“Want to sit down?” he offers. “We could make some coffee—or you want some hot cocoa? I got some of that mix in the trunk, it’s the really good kind. Don’t got milk, though it’d probably keep, it’s cold enough.”

“Tea?” she asks.

“Only kind I like is peppermint,” he says, a little sheepishly. “But yeah, you want peppermint?”

“Perfect,” she says, and it is.

So she sits down next to the fire with him.

© 2011 Elissa Nelson


Elissa Nelson lives in Portland, Oregon. She teaches high school English, which she loves, and is currently finishing a novel (which she also loves, but she’ll be glad to be done with it). She has recently produced two issues of a very small zine: The Hundred Most Influential Writers in My Life to Date, As Best I Can Remember and Mostly Not Including Zines.

Mini Sledgehammer: January 2011

It’s a cold, blustery night here at January’s Mini Sledgehammer, but the shop is warm and the wine makes us warmer, so we’re still writing away. Join us from home!

character: a pet (remember, this does not have to be your main character)
action: doing web research
setting: under a dripping ceiling
phrase: song lyrics (from a real song, recognizable by anyone)

Only writers present can compete, but if you’re writing from home for fun, be sure to post your story to your own blog or website and then put a link in a comment below.

Thanks for writing!

Congratulations to Elissa Nelson, our first-ever writer to win two MiniSledgehammers!


by Elissa Nelson

The dog was lying under her computer annoyed as usual that Cynthia was on the computer instead of curled up with Fluffy. Peter was on the couch watching TV, and Samantha was in her parents’ room reading on their bed, hiding out from the dripping ceiling in Samantha’s own room, but Fluffy still wanted to be where Cynthia was, even if Cynthia was the only one occupied in an activity that prohibited cuddling.

But she had no choice. It was 9:45 on a Tuesday night, she’d promised her students their presentation grades by Wednesday, and she was still verifying that everyone had used an actual song. In the past, students had been known to make up a song, confident that Cynthia was too old and too uncool to know that 2Pac did not sing—rap, whatever—anything called “Yo Auntie Wasn’t a Black Panther.” So now Cynthia verified all the songs she didn’t personally recognize. This year, that eliminated Yoko’s Joni Mitchell presentation on “California” and Vicki’s Bangles presentation on “Manic Monday,” which included a photo of a dashing young Rudolph Valentino. She had to look up pretty much everyone else. It didn’t help that her own daughter listened exclusively to what she called “emo” music in which the singers felt sorry for themselves and went on about their pathetic lives. Apparently Samantha felt sorry for herself and her pathetic life, but this was not something she discussed with her mother, it was just something Cynthia had inferred, inference being a major skill she taught in ninth grade English and one that she relied on heavily both as a teacher and as a mother. Not to mention as a wife and a daughter. And as a friend. Inference was important. Cynthia couldn’t believe it wasn’t a skill that had been taught when she herself was in middle school. She’d just picked it up along the way. A drunkard of a father was helpful in that regard, if perhaps only in that regard.

Tonight she had looked up and verified lyrics by Sam Cooke’s gospel band The Soul Stirrers (who knew?), a song that she probably would have known if she’d gone to church with her mother and/or paid attention to any of the music her mother had listened to when Cynthia herself was growing up. But until her father took her bedroom door off its hinges, Cynthia avoided the gospel music pervading the house by slamming said door at every opportunity. When he took it off its hinges, saying—slurring—that he was tired of her slamming it all the damn time, and damn it she was part of this family too, why didn’t she come out of that damn room once in a while and spend some time with her parents, she just moved down to the finished basement that no one spent any time in. Granted, the edges of the wall-to-wall carpet were always wet—it was rather a leaky basement—and it was very cold in wintertime, but she figured it was worth it. The basement door stayed closed, and even when it was open, she would’ve heard her mom or dad on the stairs before they could see her. Not that she was doing anything, but maybe it was more about other kinds of preparation than, say, extinguishing the cigarette. That house reeked anyway, and her mother smoked so much that she probably wouldn’t have even noticed if Cynthia had a cigarette. She certainly couldn’t have said anything about it. Not that her mother minded much about hypocrisy, but yeah. Regardless, it never came to pass. It was never an issue.

So she’d looked up “Farther Along.” Yep, a real song. Not that Sally Simmons would lie, anyway. Interestingly, Elvis had also sung it, and so had Johnny Cash, along with about a thousand other people.

That was the problem. Just looking up the songs and verifying their existence wouldn’t take her so long. But then there was You Tube and all the background information. 2Pac didn’t have a song called “Yo Auntie Wasn’t a Black Panther,” but Rashid really did his homework for the assignment, except for making up the song. If he would’ve talked to her ahead of time, she would’ve excused him from the song assignment and let him research Assata Shakur (Tupac’s mother’s sister!) and the Panthers as an alternate assignment, but when he made up a song, what was she supposed to do?

She also looked up a lot of top 40 hits, some heavy metal, too many contemporary Christian rock songs, and some “emo” music that Samantha probably could have loaned her—although she had tried talking with Samantha about this assignment last year, thinking maybe they could at least have a conversation about it, if not bond—and Samantha had rolled her eyes so many times that Cynthia gave up. She had eyes rolled at her enough at school, and at home there was no Principal Woodman to send her daughter to. There wasn’t even a Mrs. Sheehan—and Cynthia had her doubts about some of Mrs. Sheehan’s methods, but there was no question that some of the students really loved her—perhaps loved her too much—and she had probably stopped a few from attempting suicide or running away from home. Who was Cynthia to dismiss her efforts? All Cynthia could do was try to make the difference she could make, and support or at least not interfere with others’ efforts to do the same.

She looked up “A Taste of Honey” and then was very embarrassed to see that of course she knew that one, it had been on that early Beatles hits record that her sister had owned. She’d heard it thousands of times. But Sari Marshall did her presentation on a version recorded in the oughts by some terrible jazz singer, and she didn’t mention the fact that it had been released by the Beatles. Not that that would mean something to every child in high school now, but—sometimes Cynthia couldn’t believe what a world she lived in. How many worlds they all lived in, neatly or messily lined up next to each other. She stopped reading about that terrible song, “If You Wanna Be Happy” (which of course she knew this was a song, did she really need to look it up?!) and leaned down to pet poor Fluffy. Then she looked up a couple more, shut down her computer, and went to watch TV with her husband, Fluffy curled up between them and Samantha now sullen in her dripping bedroom, “emo” music coming from under her door.

© 2011 Elissa Nelson


Elissa Nelson is a high school English teacher and a writer who is really close to being finished with her first novel.