Winning idea was written on the back of a hall pass

At Rattlesnake Middle School in Missoula, Mont., Baird Harper was the cool sixth-grade special education teaching assistant, but he was also thinking, and listening, like a writer.

One idea, scribbled on the back of a hall pass six years ago, morphed over the years before it became the germ of his story "My Thoughts While Cooling on the Hotel Veranda," winner of the 2010 Nelson Algren Short Story Award.

James McManus, Harper's professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, linked to the story and high-fived Harper's victory on Facebook: "Here's one of the best short stories I've ever read, winner of this year's Nelson Algren Award, by the pride of the SAIC's writing program, Baird Harper."

In McManus, Harper wisely found a mentor who is an intense, passionate teacher and celebrated writer. Perhaps best known for his nonfiction work, "Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker," McManus is also a gifted writer of fiction, including a favorite novel of mine, "Going to the Sun."

Over coffee in an Edgewater cafe, a few blocks from home, where he moved after spending several years in Montana, Harper recalls drafting and redrafting stories for McManus, and his debt to the graduate school teacher who helped him advance his work. Growing up in Northfield, attending New Trier Township High School, Harper didn't feel an urge to write fiction until college and chafed at the preppy conservatism of Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio. "It seemed like everyone I knew was a business major," Harper recalls. "For me, walking into the English building for a fiction workshop felt like a revolutionary act."

These days Harper teaches fiction at StoryStudio Chicago, a writing center in Ravenswood, and writes in his home office in Edgewater. He reports that when his 19-month-old daughter, Garnet, comes through the doorway, she announces: "Daddy's working." This observation reminds him to work harder at his fiction, and that he's not just playing around. More specifically, he tells himself: "Put your butt in the chair, close your e-mail, and go cut out some adverbs."

In "My Thoughts While Cooling on the Hotel Veranda," the story's protagonist, Edward, isolates himself on a Las Vegas veranda during his honeymoon. He reflects on his life and recalls an episode from his childhood in which his pen pal died. Edward visited the grieving family of his deceased pen pal, and the circumstances of his death are not entirely clear, but Edward's impression is that he was killed by bees. In a highly original and moving meditative story, Edward ends up considering the final chapter of his parents' failed marriage, as he is embarking on his own.

Harper's habit is to write a first draft very fast, in just a day or two, he explains. On the third day, he reads it and hates it. "I become ashamed and depressed and move on to some more dependable project," he says. A few months pass as the story languishes on his computer's hard drive, and eventually he'll return when he thinks something is salvageable "Then I get re-obsessed for a while," Harper explains, "rewrite everything, change all the genders, the geography, and add some old beat-up cars, etc." Eventually, after he realizes he has been working on it for a year without anyone seeing it, he gives it to his wife, who helps him get the story finished.

McManus understands the significance of this last step. "He's also extremely lucky to be married to Anastasia," McManus explains. She is "a Cook County prosecutor fiercely devoted to making sure Baird gets sufficient time to write and change diapers. When your spouse is your biggest fan, it makes a writer's life a lot easier."

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