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.

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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….

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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!

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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!

 

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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:

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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.

 

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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.

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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

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