Acts of Sedition

I wrote a new story that I read at the Fictlicious Protest show last Sunday that’s a bit snarky and (hopefully) funny, but also one of the scariest things I’ve ever written. And in researching it, I had to spend way too much time reading Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, so please appreciate the sacrifices I make for you, gentle reader. If you’d like to read it, the full text is below.

Big thanks to Natalia Nebel, Anne Calcagno, Ian Belknap and Amanda Goldblatt for reading and Stephanie Rogers, Rikki McRae and Wesley John Cichosz for the music, as well as all of you who came out to see it.

 

Acts of Sedition

The ground is frozen solid, and no matter how hard I jab the post-holer into the ground, all I have to show for my troubles are stinging hands and an insidious idea. My daughter, Emma, suppresses a giggle when I accidentally let a swear word slip out. I’ve tasked her with picking up the splinters and kindling that is left of the last mailbox, and she dutifully collects the pieces into a shopping bag. It’ll be my third mailbox in as many days, and the police have shrugged it off, saying someone’s just having fun with me like it’s a harmless joke. But I’ll be goddamned if these bat-swinging assholes think I’m going to plant a fourth.

I’ve spent the morning trying to figure out how to turn this whole ordeal into a teachable moment for Emma, but I’m not sure where to start. If I had a dollar for every time my mother warned me that my smart mouth was going to get me in trouble, I’d be able to afford the lawyers I’m going to need before this is all over, so maybe that’s the lesson. Or maybe it’s the obvious one: never engage in a Twitter pissing match with the leader of the free world. There was a time where that would have been an absurd piece of advice, but welcome to 2017.

I start towards the garage to find a regular shovel, but stop myself and call for Emma to come with me. She whines that she’s almost finished with her chore, but I put that “dad reigns supreme” inflection into my voice, and she drops her bag and races to my side. There was also a time when I wouldn’t have thought twice about letting her play alone in the yard.

Truth be told, I don’t even care for Twitter, but it’s a necessary evil to anyone in the comedy business. My style caters more to the NPR set: winding anecdotes and thoughtful chuckles rather than bon mots and belly laughs, so it’s hard for me to distill my wit into a handful of words. That fact is born out by the meager amount of friends and acquaintances who follow my @HarrisHaHaHa feed and occasionally click the little heart button under my daily tweets. No, I’m no comedian; I’m a humorist—and only in the evening hours when I’m not working my real job. But no one these days breaks out lacking a dedicated Twitter following, so I approach those 140-character witticisms like my own chore, assuming that if by some miracle my name ever does get out there, I’ll have an impressive history for people to look back on.

When I hit the enter key the evening before the inauguration that kicked the world right in the squishy parts, I didn’t even think about it. Just another mildly amusing shout into the echo chamber, another entry in a long line of disposable digital refuse that only served to make it look like I had a brand that was worth building. The tweet was one of dozens of easy shots I’d taken at the Mar-a-Lago menace: “How do you suppose the wingnuts who considered Obama’s golf schedule an impeachable offense will excuse the new guy?” But somehow it caught the sunken, spray-tan-protected eyes of the new leader of the free world.

He must have been too geeked up to sleep before his coronation, because the first retweeted response came in the middle of the night: “There will be plenty of time for golf once I #MakeAmericaGreatAgain!” That was followed up at 4:00 in the morning with “@HarrisHaHaHa is a failed comedian. No one’s laughing. Sad!” And finally, 20 minutes later, “Liberal elite comedians out of touch. Very unfair to me! Starting at noon, Real America will have the last laugh!”

By the time I left for work that morning, I had 2,400 new Twitter notifications, an unplugged land line and a shattered mailbox in my front yard.

Emma wants to go inside to play, but I’m going to need her help putting up the new mailbox once I get the base dug out, so I ask her to be patient. She chooses to argue the point. Lately, she has developed what is apparently a very presidential characteristic: the need to have the last word. She’s 8 years old, though, and has no command over B-2 stealth bombers or Minuteman III ICBMs, so it’s forgivable in her.

I let her hold the shovel and ride in the wheelbarrow atop the bags of concrete mix. She squeals and hangs on for dear life as I swerve our way to the curb. With a real shovel, I’m able to break ground easily enough, and it only takes me a few minutes to dig out a base. And while I’m doing it, I keep a mental tally of the cars that drive by. It’s a quiet neighborhood and the traffic is light, but I have to keep track. Call it profiling, but I’m not worried about the Priuses and the Odyssey minivans. It’s the pickup trucks rolling coal and the dinged-up SUVs with rebel flag front plates that have my attention. If I see any of them pass by again, I’m calling the cops.

That first morning, my initial instinct had been to strike back. “Better a failed comedian than a failed building developer, steak salesman, bottled water impresario, casino magnate, vodka peddler, magazine publisher, airline entrepreneur, board game creator, mortgage broker, university chancellor and, as I’m sure we’ll soon discover, president.” His response was to teach me what gaslighting was: “Nice try. All incredible successes. Made millions!” And then my Twitter feed started filling up with poorly-spelled rebukes and pictures of beady-eyed cartoon frogs. It didn’t take long for the media to catch on to the story behind Trump’s latest Twitter tantrum, and for a few minutes, I entertained thoughts of escalation. But there were death threats, too, and I remembered that in the story of David vs. Goliath, David’s outcome wasn’t the safe bet, but rather the exception that proved the rule. The line between petty pissing match and Acts of Sedition gets blurrier each time I see a black Suburban with tinted windows and government plates parked outside my office, and that’s not a fight I’m equipped to win.

So far, I’ve been able to keep Emma insulated from all this. She thinks the first mailbox was an accident and the second the result of my shoddy workmanship. But she won’t be going to school tomorrow, and I haven’t decided what to tell her when she asks why. Maybe that will be the teachable moment. A lesson about the first amendment that explains that freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences for the stupid shit that comes out of our mouths. Not for most of us, anyway.

Once the mailbox is stood up and the concrete base has set, I thank Emma for her help and release her from her obligations. This one is aluminum with our surname Harris stenciled to the side in white paint, but it’s attached to a black steel post that’s planted deep enough to stop a yacht. When she gets inside, I turn my attention back to the wheelbarrow, open another bag of concrete mix and begin stirring in water.

I pour this batch into a cast I’ve made, and feed a short length of rope into the middle for a makeshift handle. Once it’s hardened, I take it out of the cast and try to remember to lift with my legs.

As much as it pains me, I’ve taken the advice of the legions of foaming-at-the-mouth Twitter eggs out there and deleted my account. Really, it’s no big loss. 140-character homilies aren’t going to change anything in this world. I’m not interested in playing that game any more because that’s not where the real battles get won. That doesn’t mean I’m going to roll over, though.

All this is an absurdity that won’t be laughed away. Let the Jon Olivers and Saturday Night Lives have their fun with Trump and his alt-right ilk. The difference between being righteous and self-righteous is being right, but that’s cold comfort. It won’t change anything, because the bubbles we live in aren’t really breakable. But hands are. And wrists and arm bones.

After a struggle to get it positioned, the 120-pound concrete block I’ve made slides into my new mailbox almost perfectly, with only a slight sag under the weight. There won’t be any room for mail, but that’s ok, because I’ve canceled my delivery for the next few days. Swing, batter batter, swing. We’ll see who has the last laugh.

Posted in Writing | Leave a comment

Thanks, Obama

Nov. 4, 2008 doesn’t seem like such a long time ago. I was 30 years old then. I managed to score a pair of passes to the election night rally in Grant Park, just a few blocks from the condo I had just bought a few months prior in downtown Chicago. I had a relatively new job, a new girlfriend and just a little bit of optimism for the future.

Our tickets allowed us to walk right past the overflow line that stretched for blocks down Columbus drive along the length of Grant Park, and my girlfriend and I joined thousands of others to watch the expected election results roll in on the big screens they had set up. No hanging chads this time. No shocking midwestern losses. At about 10PM in Chicago, CNN called it for Barack Obama. An hour later, we watched him come out to deliver his victory speech. I don’t remember much from the text of his speech–we were pretty far back and just able to make out the figures on stage. There were screens to watch, but I’d seen him speak on TV plenty.

Instead, I was more interested in watching the crowd. This was no homogeneous group of “liberal elites,” the kind that I was used to bustling through in the bars and restaurants, concerts and ballgames. No, this was the same group you’d see packed to the gills on to a red line train in the waning hours of a weekday rush: young and old, man and woman, rich and poor and–without a doubt–as racially diverse a crowd as I’ve ever seen. America itself turned out in Grant Park that night.

During that election, the idea that Barack Obama could be our first black president was always in the back of my mind, but I admit I didn’t attach as much significance to the weight of that outside of a vaguely proud feeling of progress given the historical context. I came to him late, voting for Hillary in the primaries because at the time, I saw Obama as more of a long shot candidate who I’d rather see stay in the senate and build his political chops. But as he gained momentum, I became excited for his candidacy. I liked his intelligence more than anything else, especially in reaction to an administration that seemed to wear anti-intellectualism like a badge of honor. His oratorical skills were obvious and his politics aligned pretty closely with mine. He didn’t feel like the “black” candidate to me as much as he felt like the best candidate.

I remember an elementary school teacher once telling my parents that I was going to grow up to be president, and while that seemed like a long shot to me even at the time, it didn’t seem out of the question. But saying that to someone who wasn’t a white male in the late eighties would have seemed a little more far-fetched. The most vivid memory of that night for me was seeing the tears in the eyes of the people around me who, for the first time, were able to get a first-hand look at a president-elect that didn’t look like me. When Obama closed his speech with that familiar campaign chant, “Yes We Can,” it didn’t feel like sloganeering that night. It felt like gospel.

None of this would have made a difference if he didn’t live up to the “hope and change” platitudes of his campaign, though. Many times in those next few months, I’d see his motorcade rumble by as I walked home from work. I loved watching people stop on the sidewalks at Clark and Van Buren to cheer and wave as he headed to his home on the south side. My girlfriend’s Christmas party that year happened to be at the home next door to the Obama’s house in Kenwood (which gave her the peace of mind of knowing that her new boyfriend could pass a Secret Service security screen) and everyone passing by a south-facing window during the party couldn’t help being distracted as we tried for a glimpse of the new first family coming home. It was more than just celebrity. I think we had a much loftier set of expectations for what this man could do than we had ever been willing to afford a president in my lifetime.

In the eight years since, I think it’s safe to say that Obama was not the liberal savior some of us had thought he might be. There’s still a war on terror, universal health care didn’t quite happen, the wealth gap hasn’t narrowed and the earth is getting hotter and hotter. But he’s been the man I voted for back in 2008: intelligent, reasoned, measured and honorable. He and his family brought a dignity to the highest office in the land that should be the gold standard for anyone who has the honor and the burden of serving in such a role.

The classic election question is, “Are you better off now than you were eight years ago?” Well, you can try to twist the numbers any way you want, but he did his job with the economy. Unemployment is low, the markets are way up, and wages are slowly starting to improve. Marriage equality is the law of the land. For now, at least, millions of Americans can get health insurance that couldn’t before. We’re not fighting wars for the sake of needing someone to bomb. When I travel abroad, I don’t have to memorize provinces and prime ministers so I can pretend I’m from Canada. I can’t help but wonder how much better these years would have been if he hadn’t been faced with a congress that somehow conflated moderate liberalism with socialism and publicly pledged to adopt a platform of obstruction. Regardless, the Obama years were good for America.

And for me, too. I’m coming up on the 10-year mark at my current company where I’ve been able to carve out a rewarding career path. I’ve gotten serious about writing, and, as a Facebook notification reminded me, had my first story being published in the Chicago Reader five years ago last week. And though I no longer own a condo in Printers Row, it’s because I married that girlfriend, and we’ve moved to a slightly roomier condo in Lincoln Park. Am I better off now than I was eight years ago? You’re goddamn right I am.

Thanks, Obama.

Posted in Ranting | Leave a comment

Blogging the BASS pt. 3

On Sunday, Jan. 22, the next Fictlicious show will take place at the Hideout. While I’m not quite ready to announce the lineup, I definitely recommend marking your calendars, as the theme of the show is going to be “Protest.” The fact that it takes place two days after the inauguration is not an accident, so mark your calendars and show up to burn off some righteous indignation with some talented writers and musicians.

Back to the BASS…

The Great Silence – Ted Chiang

This is, to my recollection, the first piece of flash fiction that I’ve seen in the BASS anthology, which is exciting to me, though I’m not sure it’s one I would have picked for the honor. That’s not to say I didn’t like the story, because I did, but it didn’t really feel like a story to me. Nor is it the best story I’ve ever read with a parrot narrator.

It’s more a rumination, a stylistic choice I see a lot of new writers take in their stories. Navel gazing is the popular term for it. The content is interesting and the author has something to say, but there’s no narrative behind it. It’s just the philosophical musings of the author hidden behind a thin veneer they think of as “fiction.” It’s a technique that rarely works. This is one of my pet peeves about flash fiction. Too much of it that I read is more accurately described as a prose poem or it feels half-formed, like a story fragment.

This piece is the rare exception of a non-story piece of flash fiction that worked for me. In fact, it’s a piece that I would kill to have written for Fictlicious. Part of it is the fact that, in the liner notes, Chiang mentions that it was written as part of a multimedia installment, which makes sense. Writing a story to be read aloud or digested in a manner other than the traditional words on a page requires a different approach. I thought this was a great read, it’s just not one I would have picked amongst the 20 best short stories of 2016.

The Flower – Louise Erdrich

Now here’s a story that has some plot, some brilliant character development, a unique and transporting setting and–a rarity in award-winning literary fiction–some action. It’s the story of a young man who sets off to make his fortune in 1839 at a trading post in the frozen frontier of the upper midwest. He is a clerk who is faced with the decision to hang on to his humanity and rescue an Ojibwe girl who has been sold into a life of abuse and servitude by her people.

It’s a story that feels like an instant classic, freely fiddling with the “damsel in distress” trope. The author displays tremendous skill in using the setting to augment the stark violence of the story. This one will probably make it into the rotation of stories I use for class.

The Letician Age – Yalitza Ferreras

Leticia is one of those characters who we readers instantly find ourselves rooting for. We learn about her family and her upbringing, her interests and dreams, the triumph and striving that compel her and we can’t help ourselves. But we also know that these characters do not make for riveting fiction unless they face conflict. Yalitza Ferreras is well aware of this concept, and uses it to break our hearts as this story goes on.

It’s one of the best in the collection, and perhaps one of the most difficult.

While I don’t want to give away the ending, there is a bit of artistic license taken with the plausibility of the situation, but the rich characterization and strong narrative arc make it work. As writers, sometimes we have to be merciless and cruel to our characters. Especially when we like them.

For the God of Love, for the Love of God – Lauren Groff

I had mixed feelings about this story. While I enjoyed it at the sentence and paragraph level, I’m not sure the whole of the story worked for me. If I can be indulged an analogy, it felt like a long, pleasant fall road trip where, upon reaching your destination, you say, ok, now what? There is nothing to do but turn back and head home.

I think part of it was that the characters didn’t change so much as they devolved, so that by the story ended with a shrug. The narrative focus shifts to a new character at the end who almost literally states the thematic takeaway, but I just wasn’t there with her.

The characters were unlikable in that Jonathon Franzen sort of way that I like–selfish, prone to poor decisions, but nuanced and empathetic–but I wasn’t able to get invested in them over the course of the narrative.

That said, this also feels like a story that would benefit from a second reading, and Lauren Groff is no slouch, so I might revisit this one next time.

We’re at the midway point, and coming to a good run of stories in the anthology….

Posted in Writing | Leave a comment

Tribulation

I’ve got a new story up on Hobart today. It’s a slightly revised version of Tribulation, a story you might have heard me read at the Fictlicious Shitshow earlier this year.

Check it out on the front page of Hobart today!

Posted in Writing | Leave a comment

Blogging the BASS pt. 2

What better way to keep the nerves at bay while waiting for Game 7 of a Cubs World Series than to offer up unsolicited critiques of writers far more talented than I who have earned one of the highest honors in the short story world?

Garments – Tahmima Anam

One of the things I don’t love about the BASS series is its strict adherence to alphabetical order in its story sequencing. Back in my Infrasonics days, we’d spend a lot of time debating track order whenever we put out an album. Even for instrumental music, we wanted an order that made sense, and strove to balance the long songs with the short ones, fast against slow and made sure we didn’t have four in a row in the key of D. In so doing, ideally we’d come up with an album that felt like a complete, coherent work.

“Garments” is one that, coming directly after “Ravalushan” feels a little like a retread. Some of that has to do with the foreign setting and the cultural elements, but it’s also because some of the craft decisions that didn’t work well for me in the previous story were more successful here. Most importantly, “Garments” has developed characters with interesting arcs. That goes a long way toward making the “humanity is brutal” thematic beats more compelling. There are stakes here for Jesmin, and while this wasn’t my favorite story of the collection, it resonated a bit more for me because it actually told a story.

Wonders of the Shore – Andrea Barrett

I thought this was an interesting story about a woman and her friend engaging in a bit of passive-aggressive rivalry during a summer getaway to a 19th century New England artists’ retreat. It’s a long story that takes a while to get going, but once it does, has genuinely engrossing moments. The divergent fortunes of protagonist Henrietta and her friend Daphne provided a nice undercurrent of tension throughout. I’m also a sucker for characters that make bad decisions, or at least, ones that they know will make their lives more difficult, and Henrietta is a good example of how to use character flaws to propel a narrative arc.

This was also a long story, which–as someone who often writes stories in excess of 6500 words in a literary environment that wants to set a 5000-word cap–leaves me both jealous and glad to see that some of the best stories are still the longer ones. More on that in my next post.

The Bears – Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

Another bit of odd sequencing here, as this story also starts out at an artists’ retreat, though this time, the story is far more wrapped up in the narrator’s head. In this instance, the protagonist is using the retreat to recover after a miscarriage.

Truth be told, this story didn’t do much for me. While the prose is rich, there was also a strange academic sterility to it. The end of the story shifts into summary language, moving forward over the span of several years, and the sense of resolution there is feels to me quite disconnected from the main part of the story. Perhaps this one might require a bit more effort on my part to unpack (and it came from Glimmer Train, which has a pretty high success rate for me in terms of stories I enjoy), but I’m not sure I’ll be compelled to give it another spin.


 

In other news, I’ll be back at StoryStudio after the new year with an 8-week class on world building. It’ll be about capturing the look and feel of the times and places our stories inhabit. This is an interesting topic to me, as I tend to do a fair amount of research for my stories and expend a great deal of mental energy in trying to find harmony between those lived-in details and serving the story itself. Sky Boys is probably the best example out of the stories I’ve had published, but I think they all rely on some element of world building as a crucial component toward feeling finished.

The class runs on Tuesdays starting Jan. 24. Check it out at StoryStudio’s website if you or someone you know might be interested.

Ok, time for the game. Deep breath…. Let’s go Cubs!

 

Posted in Writing | Leave a comment

Blogging the BASS pt. 1

It’s no secret that I love the Best American Short Stories series. In the classic Simpsons episode, “You Only Move Twice,” Homer confesses his secret goal to his kids. It gets a predictable response:

149849

 

My secret goal as a writer has always been to get a short story in BASS. As such, I always look forward to this time of year when the anthology is released. I love scanning the list of 100 distinguished stories for names I recognize. I always try and fail not to skip ahead to the contributors’ notes so I can glean some insight into how the process works for these fabulous successes. But most importantly, I love reading the stories.

Sure, the collection draws a little too heavily from The New Yorker, but it’s also how I discovered great short story writers like Roxane Gay, Stephen Millhauser, Rebecca Makkai, Steve Almond, and Adam Johnson. It’s how I found lit mag gems like Hobart (who you should definitely check out on Nov. 4, when they’ll be publishing my story “Tribulation”), Fifth Wednesday Journal and One Story.

Every year, when I read BASS, there are some stories I love and some I can’t imagine how they got selected. There are some I feel are within reach of my talents, some that showcase literary skill I couldn’t ever hope to attain and some that make me feel like they should have taken one of my stories instead. So I figured it’d be fun to blog each story in the collection and see what we can learn.

Introduction – Junot Diaz

I’m a big fan of Junot Diaz’s writing. He has such a kinetic style. It’s slangy and hip, but never strikes me as solipsistic or too clever for its own good. His introduction is a love letter to the short story form. “Give a short story a dozen pages and it can break hearts bones vanities and cages.” Goddamn right.

Apollo – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Coincidentally, I’m also currently reading “Americanah,” Adichie’s much-lauded novel about Nigerian students and the dichotomy of influences in America and their homeland. “Apollo” has a similar feel of the early chapters of “Americanah” in that they present a land with a strictly composed social hierarchy that always asserts itself into the lives of the characters who inhabit it. I really liked this story for its brevity (a trait that “Americanah” definitely lacks) and Adichie’s ability to conjure such fully developed characters and plot into 12 short pages. The relationship between Okenwa, the protagonist and Raphael, the houseboy is immediate and intense, anchored around love of kung fu and a bout of pinkeye. Yet the thematic elements are never overstated. It’s exactly what I love to see in a story: let the reader do the work, but don’t allow for excessive ambiguity. Great start to the collection.

Ravalushan – Mohammed Naseehu Ali

This story did not quite click for me. It’s about a village in Ghana during a coup d’etat. The townspeople who aren’t beaten or killed are cowed into submissive passivity by the brutal dictatorship. I think my problem is that the story is told in first person plural, and this was a case where that didn’t work for me. The POV is necessarily distant, and I never quite latched on to a narrative arc. While the prose was vivid and richly detailed, the narrative arc felt too inevitable to me. War is bad, humanity is brutal. As callous as it is, that extreme amount of narrative distance means I can’t help but shrug my shoulders. That’s humanity for you–we’re collectively a bunch of assholes. I didn’t feel what was at stake, so the story left me cold. That said, the last few pages focused on a town outcast in charge of cleaning the latrines, and while the symbolism felt a little too on the nose for me, I’ll admit it was an image that stayed with me.

 

Posted in Writing | Leave a comment

A Dubious Writing Milestone

A couple weeks ago, I got my 200th rejection letter. Thanks, Redivider!  It’s an odd thing to celebrate, but almost every writer I mentioned that to responded in some kind of congratulatory manner. And for some strange reason, it felt like a celebratory milestone to me, too.

Those 200 rejections are spread over 10 short stories over the course of 5 1/2 years, and 8 of those stories were eventually accepted for publication. That translates to a batting average of .038, which would probably get me kicked off a little league team. So why feel good about such persistent failure?

Well, for starters, rejections are par for the course. Even Raymond Carver got form rejection letters. There are too many stories out there and not enough lit mags, even for the best of them. At some point, even the best stories out there have to play the numbers game when they’re in the slush pile. Peruse the listings on duotrope.com and you’ll find acceptance ratios of many of the MFA-program lit mags at well under 1%. Makes that 3.8% look pretty good, right?

For another, getting rejected doesn’t always mean your story sucks. As Bartleby Snopes‘ editor Nathaniel Tower shows us in his essay, their are many different tiers of rejection. I once got what we in the biz refer to as a “personal rejection” from McSweeney’s that said they liked my story and hoped I’d continue submitting. That felt almost as good as an acceptance. They’re few and far between–lit mags can’t respond personally to the 1000 submissions per month that some of them get–but they feel pretty good when they hit your inbox. Those “nice rejections” are the “it’s not you, it’s me” of the writer’s world, except we totally believe it this time.

But above all else, I think it’s simply that 200 rejections makes me feel more like a real writer. Hopefully there are hundreds more to come (though it’d be nice to raise that batting average a bit).

 

Other things:

I’ll have more details later, but the next Fictlicious will be Sunday, Apr. 10 at the Hideout. The theme is “chemistry” and we’ve got a great slate of writers and musicians lined up.

Donald Trump? Really? I imagine a movie from the late eighties/early nineties that offers a satirical take on the not-too-distant future where Pepsi-Cola has branded the moon, music is performed entirely on digital synthesizers and all restaurants are Taco Bell. In that movie, Donald Trump is the president, and it’s supposed to be a joke.

My next class at StoryStudio Chicago is going to be a really unique one: Radical Revisions. We’ll be approaching our work from all sorts of different angles with an eye toward exploring the myriad of different craft choices we make in the construction of our stories. If you’ve ever wondered, for example, “What would be different if I changed from first person to third in this story?” or “How would things change if I only relied on dialogue?” then this is the class for you.

Posted in Ranting, Writing | 1 Comment

Creature of Habit

I am very much a creature of habit, so the pressure around the New Year to set and achieve lofty goals always feels like walking north through a southbound crush of people. As an example, I’ve got three short stories in various stages of completion. Last month, I gave myself a Jan. 20 deadline to complete them. I’ve finished one, I’ve got quite a ways to go on another, but the third is so, so close. Part of me wants to say, “Good enough,” and start submitting.

But here’s the rub: I know it’s not perfect.

I re-read it for the hundredth time, and I like it at the paragraph level. The writing is good, the verbs are crisp, the characters are complex and interesting, it’s a unique premise. It doesn’t need line edits or major structural changes. But there’s something that’s not quite there yet in terms of the narrative arc, and while I can articulate what it is, I can’t figure out how I want to change it to make it right. It’s the kind of thing that’s going to take some time to wrestle with.

This goes against my instinct as someone who likes to get things done. I’ve told my classes before that you can’t lie to yourself on the page. If you aren’t sure if something is good enough, you can bet readers, editors and publishers will be.

 

Why a January 20 deadline? Glad you asked. My next class at StoryStudio Chicago starts that day: Junk Drawer Workshop. It’s going to be quite timely, as it deals with perfecting those drafts that have been languishing in our desk drawers and hard drives. The ones that aren’t quite right.

I get the feeling that the struggle I’ve gone through on this story will be a valuable resource for this class.

One last thing: starting with our next show, I’m going to be co-hosting Fictlicious with Micki, and our next show is coming up fast. Jan. 10 is the Fictlicious Shitshow and features readings from GQ of Q Brothers fame, Maria Vorhis, Chelsea Voulgares and Mike Devens as well as Micki and I. Liam Davis is leading the musical portion with Diana Lawrence and Molly Callinan. Come join us at the Hideout on Jan. 10 at 7pm. $10 cover gets you in. It’s going to be filthy (and fantastic).

Fictlicious_Shit-01

Posted in Writing | Leave a comment

New Story at Bartleby Snopes

This week, my story “Easy Street” is featured at the online lit mag Bartleby Snopes. I wrote this to be read at the Fictlicious Easy Show a couple months ago.

This story is unique in that it got accepted at the first place I submitted it to. For shorter stories, I really like the idea of online lit mags, since everyone has the chance to read them and they remain available as long as the site does. Bartleby Snopes seemed like a great fit for this story, as they seem to curate their work with care. The stories I’ve read there are ecclectic in both style and subject, but consistently interesting. They specialize in shorter stories and flash fiction, and it’s a great site to check into frequently for a quick shot of literature (they post two new stories per week). They also have a blog that is full of interesting writing tips, and their submission guidelines are refreshingly straightforward.

If you’re so inclined, please take a few minutes to check out “Easy Street.” It’s short and sweet, but still felt very full to me. And if you’d be so kind, go back next week when the story of the month voting opens up and give me some love.

p.s. While you’re there, check out Jim Powell’s “Toyland” from a few weeks ago. Nice piece of writing, that one.

Posted in Writing | Leave a comment

Where Does It All End?

One of the most surprising things to me about aspiring short story writers is how few of them actually read short stories on a regular basis. Outside of a subscription to the New Yorker, it’s not uncommon for people in my workshops and classes to admit that they don’t really read a lot of lit mags, story collections or even the annual anthologies like the O’Henry Awards, Pushcart Prizes and Best American Short Stories.

I love anthology season, and I just finished the latest edition of the O’Henry Awards. As usual, there were a few that weren’t for me and many more I absolutely loved. Lionel Shriver’s “Kilifi Creek” made my jaw drop. But I was a little surprised by how many endings left me hanging. Some confused me to the point that I thought the copy I bought had an error in cutting off the final pages of stories (perhaps the Sycamore Review made me sensitive to that sort of thing…).

I’ve found this to be a common complaint about modern short fiction: the stories just end with no resolution, or I have to really go digging to explain the reasons behind how a story wraps up. Students of my writing classes will attest to how much stress I put on narrative arc, identifying climaxes, inciting incidents, focusing on causality and connectivity between the beats in a short story’s plot. When I manage to get personalized rejections on my own submissions, the most common feedback I get from the editors is that the ending just wasn’t right. Believe me, I take that to heart.

I’ve been focusing on endings a lot lately. I just changed one for a story that I’ve been tinkering with for a couple of years now. It’s a story I love, but it’s one of those that readers say “feels like the first chapter in a novel.” That’s a sure sign that the end failed.

Another story I’m working on has an ending I love, but I haven’t earned it yet. Sometimes, that means the end of the story isn’t wrong, but the path I’ve taken to get there is. I sometimes equate it to finding a route. If you know where you’re going to finish up, it’s easy to chart the course. If the ending turns out to be the place where you eventually wind up, then perhaps the way you got there is full of wrong turns, detours and side trips. Time to straighten out the directions.

So I’ll make you a promise: When one of my stories finally appears in BASS or O’Henry or the Pushcart Prizes, it’ll have an ending that feels like a real ending.

Speaking of endings, my friend Angela Taylor Hylland is coming to the end of her journey as she gets ready to release her children’s book “The Denim Jungle.” She wrote a blog post today on the mixed feelings she has about setting her book free at her My Castle Heart website that’s worth a look. I never considered the idea that one might feel anything but relief at finishing a book, but there’s something to ponder about putting your heart and soul into something for so many years, then letting it go out and take on a life of its own out of your control.

Posted in Writing | Leave a comment