Notes on “The Floatplane”

“Write what you know” is a mantra that writers hear all the time. I hate it. I don’t write autobiography, my characters aren’t paper-thin fictionalizations of people I know and if I set every story in Chicago where I’ve lived for the past 20 years, I’d bore myself to tears. “Write what excites you” is better advice.

In a couple of weeks, my story “The Floatplane” will be published in issue #44 of Salamander, and I’m so proud that it’ll finally find a home. This is a story that had a long journey to print, as I wrote the first draft in a frenzy at the end of 2012 after honeymooning in Tofino, British Columbia. While there, we took a chartered nature cruise in the Clayoquot Sound, chasing whales and sea lions around the rocky inlets and hoping to catch a glimpse of a black bear on the shorelines. It was there that the boat captain motored us past the shores of Opitsaht.

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He talked about his friends who lived in the village and how they depended on the natural resources of the area for their livelihoods. He spoke of how the Canadian government had been distributing payments for the logging rights they had seized in the area and how those payments were about to end. And he said something that stuck with me, about how some of the people on the island were stocking up on guns. While I don’t think he was talking about assault rifles, there was definitely an implication of survivalism to his words.

When I got home, I set out to write a story about the competing notions of freedom to choose one’s own destiny versus obligations to one’s heritage. In researching the story, I learned of the logging protests in the 80s and 90s: nonviolent resistance to the clearcutting of forests in the First Nations’ land that lasted for entire summers, where people blocked the roads in and out of the logging sites and succeeded in protecting their land. Now, similar action was happening at Catface Mountain, this time in the form of a proposal to do mountaintop removal mining which would inevitably poison the ecosystem around the mountain.

Having seen the area with my own eyes, it was easy to understand the consequences at stake. This wasn’t environmentalism for the sake of protecting a bunch of trees or some endangered species of muskrat. This wasn’t some theoretical “within the next century” kind of threat. It was right now, a direct threat to a way of life.

“The Floatplane” is clearly a work of fiction, and the setting, the characters and the subject matter are far removed from my own experience and culture. But the beauty and fragility of the Clayoquot Sound captured my imagination and stirred my interest. I wrote not what I knew, but what excited me, and I’m grateful to the editors at Salamander for putting it out in the world. If you want to read it, please head over to their subscription page to order your copy so you can get it when it ships in mid-June.

The threats to the ecosystem in Clayoquot Sound are still very real, but fortunately there are organizations like Clayoquot Action and Friends of Clayoquot Sound who are fighting (nonviolently) to keep the area pristine for generations to come. I encourage you to visit their sites if you’re interested in learning more about their conservation efforts or donating to the cause.

And if you ever get the chance, visit Tofino and see for yourself.

 


 

One more note: I’ll be teaching a 4-week class called Scene Workshop at StoryStudio on Tuesdays beginning July 11. We’ll be delving into what it takes to create compelling scenes in an intense craft-oriented workshop environment. I’m told it’s filling up, so sign up if you’re interested and join me this summer.

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The Director

For months now, the literary community has been eagerly anticipating the publication of a new work from a beloved short story author. This week, it was finally released to near universal acclaim. That’s right, my short-short story “The Director” is online at Chelsea Voulgares’ dope new flash fiction lit mag, Lost Balloon. Check it out.

What, you thought I was talking about George Saunders?

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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.

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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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