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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!

Prompts:
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!

***

“Untitled”
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.

Mini Sledgehammer: August 2010

We had a thin crowd here this month, but four of us here still had a good time writing. Congratulations to Elissa Nelson, whose story took home the prizes!

Prompts
Character: a new neighbor
Setting: locked out
Action: playing the cello
Dialogue: “busier than a one-armed paper hanger”

Julie is writing frantically, with a nine a.m. deadline in the morning, nine a.m. east coast time so this really has to get done now. It’s one of those articles you take because you need the money, and then you think So this is making a living from my writing, using my gift, my talent.

She interviewed a woman who’s started what is essentially a pyramid scheme, but the woman, Phyllis Camera, calls it entrepreneurial, and it’s for WorkingLadies.com, so it’s entrepreneurial, it’s not a pyramid scheme. If it was for Fortune, or Ms., it might be about pyramid schemes and using feminism and capitalism to prey on poor mothers who feel they should be full-time moms and have successful careers, simultaneously. She could tell them that’s not possible, but nobody’s supposed to tell them it’s not possible.

Phyllis is an older lady, and no, her last name isn’t Camera, it’s McManus, but Camera goes better with her business concept, which is about using adorable photos of children and pets to create serieses of postcards for all occasions.

Julie is trying to wax super-positive about the postcards—the story will be accompanied by a selection of images, including several of children in sweet and homemade costumes ranging from bumble bee to carrot (with the green top, of course—she had to look it up because what do you call the green top part? carrot greens of course). She’s crafting a description that includes “entrepreneurial and forward-thinking, without losing the caring vision of a loving mother, the vision which makes Mrs. Camera’s postcards endearing and universal” when the doorbell rings.

She doesn’t answer it. It’s eight p.m., she plans to stop for dinner once she finishes the rough draft—seven hundred words to go—but she can’t answer the door right now, she’s as much in her groove as she ever gets when she’s doing this kind of work, she has to stay in the groove, shallow as it is. Any little thing could bump her out, way out—

But the doorbell rings again. And then it rings again. And then a voice she doesn’t recognize yells, “Hello? Hello? Sorry if it’s not a convenient time but it’s freezing out here and I’m your neighbor, please help!”

She keeps writing. There’s other neighbors, it’s not like they live out in the country. This is Portland.

The doorbell rings again. “Please, I just need to use your phone. Nobody’s home over to the other side and they didn’t answer the door across the street and when I peeked in I saw there was just a little kid and I didn’t want to make some little kid home alone open the door for a stranger so I just came here. I know you’re home, I can see you out the side window typin’ away. Type type type. Please. Give me two minutes, let me in and I’ll use the phone and then I’ll sit quiet and wait for the key guy.”

Julie gives up. She might get more done once she opens the door than she’s getting done now.

She opens it. There is a very tall woman standing there. She adjusts her view. She realizes you open the door for a woman looking within a certain range of vision, and she had it wrong, because this woman must be over six feet.

“Hi, I’m Lydia,” says the lady. “I’m your neighbor.”

“Hi, Lydia. I know. I heard. You need to use the phone. I’m Julie and I’m on deadline and I’m way behind so please come in and use the phone but I have to keep working or I won’t get any more work from this magazine and you know how times are.”

Shit. She said too much. “Magazine! Wow! What kind of magazine! Gosh, you’re a writer. That’s great. I used to be a writer. I won first prize in the prose essay contest in ninth grade, it was in the yearbook and everything. I got a hundred dollars for writing an ad slogan once too, that was just ten words—the maximum was twelve words, did you ever know those slogans have to be so short? The slogan—it was for this dog food company, you’ve probably never heard of them, they went under pretty soon after my ad ran but not before they paid me my money—the slogan was Even Johnny loves Carnivore, the all-meat food for dogs! And there’s a picture of my son and his dog, Petey, and the caption says, Johnny and his dog, Petey, and Petey’s eating out of his bowl, and Johnny’s eating out of the can, and you can see it says Carnivore.”

Julie’s been holding the phone out since the part about the yearbook.

“Lydia, that’s fascinating, and I’d love to hear more after I finish this article. But really, right now, I’m so sorry, here’s the phone and I have to get back to work. Just let yourself out when the locksmith gets here. We’ll have to have tea sometime soon.”

“Thanks Julie. Sorry, Julie. Except I don’t drink tea, I only tried that chai stuff once and I broke out in these disgusting hives, all over my body, seriously all over my body, and the doctor said it was because chai has tea in it, and sometimes people are allergic to tea, and hives are a common reaction—“

“I’m sorry, Lydia, I HAVE TO GO WORK.” Julie doesn’t want to raise her voice but it’s a natural reaction when someone doesn’t seem to hear you.

She gets back to the article, is writing about Phyllis’s first customers and how they became her business partners, when she realizes Lydia is talking again. “He said I’d be busier than a one-armed paper hanger and I’d never heard that expression before, I thought it was something dirty, I don’t know what I thought he said, but I clocked him with the arm I always use to clock people except this time it wasn’t just my arm, it was my arm in a cast. Anyway I play the cello all the time except I couldn’t hardly at all that summer. Eventually I figured out how to move my fingers around but—“ she shakes her head.

Julie keeps writing.

“I mean, what do you do, you play the cello, it’s your artistic outlet, your calling, what do you call it, your vocation, the thing you do that’s meaningful, and are you going to let a broken arm stop you? Tom said it was too bad I didn’t break my face, but I told him if he talked like that I’d put a restraining order on him, and he said maybe that way he’d get some peace, and his nose was bleeding the whole time because I’d hit him so hard, back-handed, which isn’t such a big deal when your arm’s not in a cast.”

“Lydia, I’m going to have to ask you to wait on the porch if you can’t be quiet.”

“It’s thirty degrees!”

“I have to get my work done.”

“I wasn’t bothering you! You were still typing away!”

“Lydia. There are some magazines on the coffee table in the living room. Please, take a seat in the living room—the couch is really comfortable, or the rocker—have a seat and peruse a magazine.”

“You’re trying to get rid of me.”

Julie does not answer. She keeps writing. “Of Phyllis’s first three business partners, Helen chose to retire after she made a hundred thousand dollars, since her husband is independently wealthy and they decided to move to their summer home in Martha’s Vineyard” (is it in Martha’s Vineyard or on Martha’s Vineyard? that’s a question for the second draft, Julie)

“What the hell kind of magazines are these? You don’t have anything with people on the covers. What’s that about? Not even National Geographic! What kind of magazines do you write for? What are these magazines that just list a bunch of titles?” Lydia is up in Julie’s face.

“Lydia. I need to work.”

“Where’s your TV?”

“I don’t have a TV.”

“You don’t have a TV? Then how do you know about anything at all?”

“Please wait on the porch.”

“I’m not waiting on the goddamn porch.”

Julie doesn’t even think about it—if she thought about it she probably wouldn’t have done it. She clocks Lydia, hard, with her arm which is not in a cast, but she doesn’t back-hand her, it’s a full out fist. She doesn’t think she ever did that before. Lydia’s nose starts bleeding. Julie raises her fist again. “Get out of my house before I call the police.”

Lydia backs toward the door. She spits at Julie and turns and runs.

Julie wipes the spit off with her sleeve, and goes back to her computer.

© 2010 Elissa Nelson

Elissa Nelson is a writer and teacher, currently completing her first novel. She has published fiction and nonfiction in publications including The Sun, Slate, and Seventeen magazine, in addition to making zines since the early ’90s, and she just finished her first zine since 2006: The Hundred Most Influential Writers in My Life to Date, As Best I Can Remember and Mostly Not Including Zines #1.

Mini Sledgehammer: July 2010

This month’s Mini Sledgehammer landed between this year’s odd bouts of heat and rain, so the group took advantage of an evening outside, writing on Blackbird & Atomic‘s front patio. Check out our Facebook page to see photos. This month we also encouraged people who couldn’t make it to the event in person to participate–those stories are also on our Facebook page. We hope you’ll join us, in Portland or elsewhere, at the next Mini Sledgehammer, August 10. July’s winning writer will be one of the guest judges.

Prompts included:
a character with a unibrow and one eye
the action of using a plastic milk crate
the phrase “thanks a bunch”
the setting of behind a picture
Here’s July’s winning story!

***
Behind the picture she’s just pulled down from above her dorm room bed, the wall glistens with the sickly sheen of left-behind poster tape, its residue gunky and clotted. She rolls her own frayed poster up, and stuffs it into the bright purple milk crate on the floor, nestling it inside so that it joins a stack of CDs and a pile of books she will not return to him. Let him discover their absence, when he reaches up onto the bookshelf in his faculty office, ready to pull some obscure tome down, eager to recommend it to some freshman girl who needs her horizons “expanded.” She pictures him scrambling to preserve his air of avuncular-yet-flirty cool, and utterly failing, his five-hundred-dollar words baroque and overcompensating as a one-eyed man with a unibrow. His fingers will fumble, fishing out his back-up bibliographies; he’ll pass them to the provincial newbie with a flourish. “Thanks a bunch,” she’ll breathe, before she knows better, before his own breath will enter hers, before she winds up rolling her posters, and stacking her milk crates, educated now, but utterly weary.
© 2010 Jenn Crowell
Jenn Crowell is the author of the novels Necessary Madness (Putnam, 1997) and Letting the Body Lead (Putnam Penguin, 2002). She is currently a student in the low-residency MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, and is at work on her third novel.

Mini Sledgehammer: June 2010

We shattered our record of participating writers at this month’s Mini Sledgehammer. Thirteen stories had our minds whirling with fantastic metaphors and surprising plot turns. Thanks for hosting us, Blackbird Wine Shop!

The winning story was “Unspelling,” by an anonymous writer who, in the author’s words, was “responding to four very fun prompts.”

Prompts included:
a hippie
a doctor’s office/clinic
“a pretty clear case of…”
correcting spelling

Unspelling

This place, man, it’s like the primordial soup of civilization. It’s the place misspellers wash up. It’s the place where words really matter, but only the words in your head, see? Because these guys – these differently abled, word-decoding challenged girls and guys (excuse my political incorrectness, but hey, isn’t this just one planet we’re on?) couldn’t spell to save their lives, and they’re here to save their lives. Keep that in mind, okay? They came here; they weren’t drafted. These muscley young men in their late 20s to their 40s—plus that guy with a cane and a scruffy beard, a Vietnam vet and a classic unschooled human being; and yes, these dedicated future nursing assistants, always female and often recovering—they came here of their own accord, their own volition, and I, the mere MFA-holder, the no-better-than-they student of the world, hired for $10 an hour, am not responsible for their well-being. Just, I am told, their ability to spell. That is all. Not to say I don’t live for my job, sabotaging the multiple offers I get from Wall Street moguls, high-tech company presidents, and community newspaper editors all the time to work for them… and make maybe $14 an hour. Instead, I choose the Portland Community College Writing Center.

Enough about me. Because hey, on Tuesdays this is a clinic, and I have reflected on my role here in this helping environment. Yes, I correct spelling; it is my responsibility to get these eager beaver community college students fully vested at PCC Rock Creek campus, on their way to a two-year degree and no longer dumped into developmental ed. I correct their spelling, but really, isn’t that just code for the canon, for supporting mainstream writing and thinking, for fucking these already marginalized young minds? Isn’t that morally bankrupt and just plain wrong? I think so. In fact, I know so, and I have an MFA to prove it. Haven’t you, like, ever heard of “unspelling, “ also known as “invented spelling” in the little kids’ schools? This, man, is what I secretly pursue: the truth behind the letters. Believe me when I tell you, I’m the most subversive thing in the Writing Center clinic on Tuesdays from 11 to 4 at Rock Creek campus in Hillsboro.

Take Judy, for example. I know from previous encounters she’s living in a place called Jessica’s House, where recovering addicts learn to spell “addict.” Ha ha. Sorry. I am being terrible. But Judy, she’s a pretty clear case of the unschooled writer. Her spelling of “convalescent,” as in “the contrast between convalescent homes and assisted living facilities for CNAs working in the field today,” was so frightening, man, I had to take a lude. Which I hadn’t done since, like, 1980. I took the lude, then I studied Judy, with her gaping mouth, her crooked teeth, her insatiable volubility, including interrupting me every millisecond, and I said, “You are going to have to break through this wall you have, Judy, of always relying on spell check. Isn’t that what your people call a dependency, Judy?” She looked up from the little end table there in the Writing Center clinic seating area, a scared and scarred 35-year-old woman who had been misled to think all she needed to be complete was good software. “You have so much inside you, Judy”—I meant that, man, I really did. I mean, with my MFA, all I’d gotten was a lousy $10 an hour job with no reimbursement for mileage, very few tax breaks, and retirement as distal as nirvana—and did I say I am 40, and thinking about these things, finally? Becoming more and more like my blessed goddamn parents? Sorry. Anyway, Judy broke into a wide, toothy, genuinely peace-loving grin. “You really do,” I continued, “and you can’t let this broken down heap of civilization codified in rules and regulations make you small, Judy. Spell “facility” for me, Judy!”

She put her head up like a wolf.

“F A S I L I T Y,” she said, kind of loud, kind of wolf-like.

“Not so loud, girl. But that’s fine. Don’t you ever stop writing just because you can’t spell. You hear me?”

She leaned in close. “Sure do. But I have to ask you about something.”

“Proceed,” I said.

“My COMPASS score? My placement score?”

I pulled out the keyboard tray from my PCC-regulation PC. My fingertips started dancing on a few of those keys.

“I’ve got powers, Judy. I’ve got ways of making the numbers look good. You’ll be in Writing 101, for college credit, next term, baby. I promise you.”

Judy smiled uncertainly. She rose and left our table, leaving her horrifically misspelled missive on top.

© 2010

Flash Sledgehammer

We got creative with our 36-themed writing contests at the Write to Publish conference May 22-23 and offered Flash Sledgehammer, a 36-word contest. Fifteen writers submitted flash stories, and we found them all inventive and fun. Truth be told, we deliberated for quite a while and finally came to the conclusion that this contest and its submissions warranted three winners. Each will receive a free copy of Ink-Filled Page Red Anthology and a 30 percent discount on entering the Sledgehammer 36-Hour Writing Contest in September. Congratulations!

***

Date number three.

She looked up at me from flat on her back.

“Close your eyes,” I said. “Imagine hippos.”

A peach-scented breeze carried us from the banks of Savannah to the waters of the Nile.

© 2010 Vinnie Kinsella

***

Off on the savanna, out there one lion among lions, chewing satisfactory fills of suffered tasty meat once more, contented, he sighed, rolled over, hands lifted–little paws holding pieces of–something, something like…Jeannie.

“Jeannie!”

© 2010 Paula Friedman

***

The closeness of tanned skin holding the scent of coconut oil ignited our starving young passions. A balmy night and warm ocean breeze blessed the joining.

We smile when asked, “Why is her name Savannah?”

© 2010 Bob Ferguson