Fellow Mortals

MahoneyFellow Mortals
Dennis Mahoney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2013
288 pages

In the wild, there are plants whose seeds lay dormant for long stretches of time, passive and unchanging, until scarified by a fire hot enough to breach their outer layers—and to ravage the landscape around them—so growth can begin. It’s a fascinating and ironic botanical evolution, and a potent metaphor that weaves gracefully through Fellow Mortals, a debut novel by Dennis Mahoney.

The narrative is set in motion when mailman Henry Cooper carelessly but accidentally ignites a blaze in the course of his delivery rounds, burning down or damaging several houses on a cul-de-sac. Even as he rushes into one burning house to rescue a woman trapped inside, a second woman burns to death in another.

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From the Slush Pile: Readers Speak

PillsIf there was a magic pill—you know lose weight, no exercise—to beat the slush pile and warm the hearts of editors straight to publication, I’d eat it and then dole it out to all of you. But we all know you have to do the work, show up every day and keep putting it out there in the world. There is no way around it: our readers are diverse and your stories will speak differently to all of them.  So, I thought I’d go directly to the source. Today, our editors and readers give insight on what works for them and what rubs them the wrong way.

Ladette Randolph, Editor-in Chief, writes to our readers on nonfiction (though her thoughts are important across all genres):

As an editor, I try to stay open minded about what I’m looking for in literary nonfiction. I’m guessing the same is true for all of you. I appreciate what I can only describe as authenticity in a writer, and obviously, since everyone is different, authenticity is distinct to each writer. I can appreciate a lot of different styles and a variety of subject matters, but if the voice doesn’t feel genuine, it will usually throw me out of an essay before I can finish it. Conversely, a writer with authority will keep my attention even if I thought I couldn’t possibly be interested in the mating habits of wasps or the story of a failed artist. In other words, nonfiction is just as much about storytelling as fiction is.

Margot Livesey, Fiction Editor, writes to our volunteer readers on the topic of subjectivity:

If you feel that you are not the right reader for a story, that there’s something there but you’re just not getting it, then you should send it back to the editorial assistants and ask them to send it to another reader.

(I take great solace in this editorial tidbit.)

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The Crush Problem

crushIn my last post, I wrote about the Lonesome Dove Problem—i.e., my lifelong struggle to find a girthy novel as totally absorbing as Larry McMurtry’s masterpiece—and attempted to identify some common denominators shared by Lonesome Dove and a few other totally absorbing novels, so that I might be better equipped to analyze future selections based on their potential Lonesome Dove-esque-ness.

In the process of addressing the Lonesome Dove Problem, however, I realized that I have other Problems—i.e., other books or groups of books which, for seemingly inane reasons, I’ve elevated onto impossibly specific pedestals that inherently resist new entries (see also: “Lonesome Dove-esque-ness”). Which brings me to…

The Crush Problem.

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Episodia 1.8: Bromantics

I Love You ManCall it phileo, call it friendship, call it brotherly love—any way you slice it, I’m a sucker for a good bromance. After my most recent post (which dipped a toe into the treacherous territory of love triangles), I started thinking about the other kinds of love available for us writers to explore, whether it be familial or friendly. Too many writers rely on tired love triangles for their work’s sole dramatic emphasis. But behind every good romance lurks an even better bromance, and if we play it right, they can provide all the necessary elements of a good story: drama, conflict, climax, and sometimes even a happy ending.

Allow me to take you on a tour through the countryside of manly love, taking note of the important thematic underpinnings along the way. In other words, it’s about to get bromantic.

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"The Mother and Sister of the Artist," Berthe Morisot

“The Mother and Sister of the Artist,” Berthe Morisot

In retrospect, I did everything wrong when I opened Emma Donoghue’s excellent story collection Astray. I didn’t check the author notes explaining the origins of each piece. I didn’t note the time: midnight. It didn’t occur to me that in a collection chronicling historical moments, there might be violence, even atrocity.

So, after the story narrated by Jumbo the Elephant’s charming keeper, and the complex piece about a Dickens-era mother turning tricks while her child naps, I turned to “The Hunt.”  Set during the American Revolution, the story follows a German boy forced into military service where he’s urged, over several days, towards a horrific attack on a girl. Later, in my fiction-writer and professor modes, I would marvel at Donoghue’s technique, the ways she builds the action to a devastating shock. The story is masterfully paced; I could, theoretically, teach it.

But to do that, I’d have to switch off my other, newer mode of reading—the Mother-Reader—which at 1 a.m., after closing the book, directed me to curl up in my six year-old daughter’s bed and keep vigil until the sun rose.

Parenthood has changed my life in all the expected ways. But an unexpected change has affected the way I read. Where I once read and taught writing in terms of its construction—How is this thing made? How is it working? Who is it for? Why did the writer make this choice? —I now often find myself inside the building itself, checking the locks on every door.Continue Reading

Writing Lessons: David Bersell

In our Writing Lessons series, writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from David Bersell, a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire. David’s work has also appeared in Soundings ReviewVolume 1 BrooklynThe Good Men Project, and Carry On. You can follow him @DavidBersell. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

David Bersell_HeadshotAfter “Same Again” from Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Fynn.

What’s working? we say. Voice we say. Attitude. Wit. Image. Description. Physical description. We say killed me. Punched me in the face, then hugged me. Literally cried. Beautiful, I mean it. I’m jealous. I’m in love. I want to know more. Laughed so hard my stomach hurt. A jump. A step. We say genre. Memoir. Essay. Literary Journalism. Lyric. We say post genre. Collage. Montage. Braid. Quilt. I don’t know what it means, but I like the way it sounds. Gross, but not too gross. The goat. That lip ring. I hate him, but that’s a good thing. What if we didn’t know your background? Sorry, what if we didn’t know the writer’s background. It reminds me of something we say. Didion. Woolf. We say Fourth State of Matter. Like a song. A fairytale. A dream. We say what’s not working? We say I know it must be hard to write about. We say but. Maybe. Unbalanced. Undeveloped. Uneven. The title. The section titles. I don’t mean to sound mean. A moment I wasn’t sure what to do with. Too many trees. We say unearned. Twee. Ham-fisted. Beach read. Blockbuster. Racist? American clown. It begs a question we say. It made me work for it we say. Not in a good way we say. What’s another way to say it? Break it down. Structure. Square one. What’s the word? I don’t think I’m explaining myself correctly. A quest. A journey. A shift. A change. Unresolution is resolution. Everything is a choice. You can’t go wrong with a list. We say cut. We say rework. I know it’s not the way it happened but. Don’t apologize. Don’t try to write pretty sentences. Character we say. No villains. Love him like a friend. We say dialogue. Action, action, action. What if? Another way to take it. Add on. Or. And. Also. It’s a fine line. Wait, I changed my mind. Just an idea. An option. One last comment we say. Don’t fall in love with the semicolon. Publishable with revision. Six more hours. A few more days. Keep pushing. We say bar? We say happy hour. The cheaper the better. The waffle fries. Not the place that smells like feet. We say pitcher? We say what do you have on draft? That’s what I needed we say. Ahh we say. What did you think of class? What did she mean? What’s your revision plan? We say last writing question. Submission. Query. Elevator pitch. One more we say. Success we say. One day.

To submit your own essay to Writing Lessons, read our guidelines here.

Social Media in a Literary World


The happy Spadab brothers,” used by the Swedish Savings Banks Data Centers Company to promote public acceptance of computers.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Although the Irish playwright wasn’t aware of social media at the time, one could argue that his observation is even more valid in a time where we think more and more in public. Instead of allowing strains of thought to saturate, seeds are thrown out to the public eye hoping to grow—or wither. Like your Twitter and Facebook newsfeeds, information is filtering through every millisecond and as easily as a thought can drift into view it can as quickly drift away.

For a newsroom, social media is the perfect platform to distribute content: news is constantly changing and article summaries can easily be slimmed down into a hundred and forty characters—just enough space to draw in a reader and “convert” them to the organization’s website. Additionally, news content is quick and easy to ingest, allowing just enough time to catch up on the next breaking news update.

But what about a literary magazine, whose ultimate goal, arguably, is for readers to take a break from the world around them, however long, to simply sit down and read? How does social media fit in here?

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Ploughshares Fantasy Blog Draft Round 1 – Leave it to Cheever vs The Mighty Duck Palahniuks

leave it to cheever

Editor: Robert Silvers
Fiction Writer: Donald Barthelme
Philosopher: Iris Murdoch
Nonfiction Writer: Marguerite Young
Poet: Paul Carroll
Ghostwriter: Emmanuel Bove

mighty duck palahniuks

Editor: George Plimpton
Fiction Writer: Kurt Vonnegut
Events Coverage: Emily Dickinson
Nonfiction Writer: Werner Herzog
Poet: Melissa Broder
Health and Living Columnist: Hunter S. Thompson

It’s Round 1 of the Ploughshares Fantasy Blog Draft! At long last, the teams take the court. In this case, however, the court is probably just whichever empty classroom the English Department has free. The commissioner strolled down the hall earlier in the hour and saw a free room…a lot of the others are taken. Let’s just stand here for a minute and see if any of the conference rooms free up at the top of the hour. They have more comfortable chairs.

…At any rate, imagine yourself inside an English classroom at your average university. It’s either too hot or too cold, a little muggy or has air dry enough to suck the juice from your brain. The teams sit in a line of desks facing each other, and one at a time, genre-by-genre, they stand and battle! With words!

You get to decide how this fight ends! This week Justin Alvarez’s Leave it to Cheever takes on Benjamin Samuel’s The Mighty Duck Palahniuks. And to give you the talking points on the match-up, the commissioner is joined today by the Ploughshares blog editor, Andrew Ladd.

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Roundup: Is a Literary City in Your Summer Travel Plans?

In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines and websites, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.

Summer has finally arrived, so start making your travel plans. Intending to do some literary-themed vacations or road trips this year? Here’s a list of places where you can get your bookshopping, writing inspiration, and literary geekiness on:

From Ploughshares:

A while back we did a “Literary Boroughs” series of book-ish and book-y places around the US and the globe. Here are some destinations (in the form of a helpful itinerary):

  • 2036277618_912f1fcdacSince Ploughshares is based in Boston, we’ll start off with our lovely Beantown’s rich literary history (in two parts here and here!).
  • Head down to Baltimore, the self-named “The City That Reads,” tour its many bookstores, and brush up on your Poe history.
  • Fly out to Denver, where there are some great book events and nonprofit writing centers.
  • Head up to Portland and visit Powell’s, home to over a million used and new books.
  • End your trip in Seattle spending time writing at the many (many!) coffeeshops.
  • Need someplace further afield? Head to Berlin, Prague, Dublin, or Madrid.

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Writing By Ear

The Sultan Forgives Scheherazade

The Sultan Forgives Scheherazade by Arthur Boyd Houghton (1836-1875).

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Margaret Atwood, during which, in response to a question about introducing students to literature, she emphasized the importance of storytelling. Not story reading. Storytelling. Stories are, she reminded us, “scores for the voice.” All those little blank markings we call writing? They are intended to be read out loud.

She’s right, of course, and not just because she’s Margaret Atwood. Storytelling predates written language, to a time when it was used to pass on traditions, make sense of the world, and promote survival chances for the next generation. By telling the children a story about why they should avoid a certain dangerous area, say a big cave with a grumpy bear, the family was imparting wisdom to keep their children safe. They, like living Scherazades, told stories to live.

The oral tradition lives on in poetry, audio books, and even those websites that feature recordings of their writers reading their works. Probably the easiest place to find it is in bedrooms around the world in the form of bedtime stories. As Caitlin O’Neil wrote in her thoughtful post a few weeks ago, there is much to be learned in those tales for children, just as there is much to be learned from reading out loud. Even if your work never leaves the lips, there are a number of writing tricks for the aural that can enhance the page.Continue Reading