I Have a Favor to Ask


Is there anything more head-smackingly awkward than asking favors of other writers? You might never have experienced writer’s block in your life, but sit down to compose a 200-word email to the friend you need something from, and find yourself twelve hours later with nothing but a vacuumed carpet.

And yet it’s totally necessary. And anyone you’re writing to has definitely been there, wondering how they could possibly ask something so huge from such a busy person, and wishing they’d been to that one magical conference that would have hooked them up with all the contacts and favors ever. You know, the one everyone else went to.

Lucky for you, I’m here to help. Simply use the following form, and you’ll never be pen-tied again.Continue Reading

How to Win AWP


I’ve always felt that AWP* could be livened up by a conference-long game of Paintball Assassin. Until that happens, here’s some other stuff to try:

The Book Fair Bartering Game:

Start with free swag. Something cool, like a box of matches with a chapbook cover on it. Find the bored grad student tending another booth. (A booth with better swag, preferably swag that costs something. Like magnets. Magnets always cost more than you’d think.) Trade the matchbox for a magnet, then trade up your magnet for a hat, and so on. There is at least one booth with a bottle of bourbon. You win the game if you get the bottle when it’s still half full.

The Start-Your-Own-VIP-Party Game:

You don’t have to be a VIP. You just have to convince all the VIPs that the real VIP party is in the back room of Potbelly’s. Then you lock them in there and don’t let them out until at least five of them have written you blurbs.

The Intentional Misidentification Game:

Approach any writer who is clearly not Junot Diaz but could maybe, in a dark alley, pass for him, and excitedly shout that you loved Drown. You win the game when someone goes along with it. Bonus points if he signs your nametag as Junot Diaz.Continue Reading

Calisthenics for Writers

exerciseWriter’s Butt is a real and tragic thing. You might be making great progress on that novel, but is your seat getting wider with every word count goal? Is your back so tight that when you stand up your arms are permanently locked in that T-Rex typing position? Time to stretch out and get the blood flowing with these specially designed exercises. (As always, consult your physician before starting any vigorous training regimen.)

Bind together seven copies of literary magazines that rejected you, and impale them on the end of a sharp stick. Now do the same with seven more mags on the other end of the stick. Now it’s time for the free lift! That thing must weigh at least ten pounds.

Sitting in your rolling chair, use your feet to propel yourself away from your computer in disgust. The sudden motion and rush of oxygen might give you a new idea. If it does, tiptoe-crawl your chair back to your desk, because you’re too far away to grab the edge of it with your hands. This uses your abs more than you’d think.

Switch to an old-timey manual typewriter. After a few weeks, your fingers will be strong enough to curl your own ironic handlebar moustache.Continue Reading

Ten writers to watch for. No, seriously, watch the hell out for these writers.


There are writers to watch for, and then there are writers to watch out for. A sampling of the latter, for your safety:

10) Jack Hogue is a great guy, but if you listen to him for more than five minutes, you’ll believe the publishing world, if not the world itself, has come to an end. Do you know how much he made on his last collection? Negative seven thousand dollars, because he tore his ACL carrying around bags of his own books to conferences his publisher wouldn’t pay to send him to, and also our insurance system is broken. He’ll probably never write again, but at least he has tenure now, so he can pretty much just drink all day in his office. Here, let him buy you a gimlet. Follow him into the abyss.

9) Warby Graham is kind of shocked that you haven’t heard of all these incredibly important twenty-two-year-old writers who live in his building in Williamsburg, but then maybe that’s because you’re super old. No offense but aren’t you, like, thirty? Yeah, that’s probably why. They’re all into something called Metaflarf, which it’s amazing you haven’t been following, because it’s probably the most important literary movement since that thing where you make paper hats out of David Foster Wallace’s endpapers.

8) Denise Cuhaj has no boundaries. She will put your hand on her tattoo and make you feel it with your eyes closed. She’s a close-talker, which wouldn’t be so upsetting if she weren’t telling you how you were in her dream last night, carrying her around in a blanket. Continue Reading

An MFA for the Rest of Us

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Needless to say, we will all dress like this

I’m in that small and shrinking group of writers who don’t have MFAs. Which I think makes me uniquely qualified to start my own MFA program. Haven’t most education reformers come from outside the system? My program will, for starters, involve napping and swimming pools. And the course offerings will be much more practical than “Problems in Modern Fiction.” We’ll cover the things you need to know. (The writing part you can figure out on your own.) I herewith present my 2015-2016 course catalog.Continue Reading

AWP Award Series: Lucas Southworth’s Everyone Here Has a Gun and Joan Naviyuk Kane’s Hyperboreal

I wasn’t expecting my friend D to smash the green anole with a rock. But he did, and the lizard’s insides smeared red against the concrete driveway. Its eyes, black and bleeding, sunk into its tiny skull. We were nine.

I’d caught the green anole in the tree down the street. We caught brown ones all the time, and sometimes giant Cuban anoles, bumpy and long as our forearms. But the finger-length green anoles—those were something to celebrate. They were what we deemed rare. Before D smashed the lizard, we sat, he and my brother and I, passing the anole around, letting it slip over our browned knuckles. It was beautiful: bright green, white-bellied, soft. And then the rock came down. D broke the squirming lizard in one swift move.

Lucas Southworth’s short story collection, Everyone Here Has a Gun, the winner of the 2012 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, packs a similar punch. The stories are tense, gritty, and dark, full of sons raised to kill fathers and boys nailing chipmunks to walls. These characters hover at the edge of disaster. They exist in the unsettling shadows between innocence and violence.

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AWP Award Series: Julian Hoffman’s The Small Heart of Things and Andrew Ladd’s What Ends

Recently, I put cream cheese, Nutella, and orange zest between two pieces of bread and cooked it up like a grilled cheese. A little butter, a hot pan. Grilled cheese is tried and true. It doesn’t need improvement. But I saw the recipe (though for grilled cheese, I’d call “recipe” a stretch) in this book and had to try it.

I was skeptical. But, you guys. That sandwich was so good. It was warm (duh) and melty (duh) and bittersweet. Perfect for chilly weather, which we are getting plenty of here in Iowa.

Julian Hoffman’s essay collection, the small heart of things, and our blog editor Andrew Ladd’s novel, What Ends—both 2012 AWP Award winners—are a lot like that toasty sandwich. The two seemingly different narratives—also warm and bittersweet—cross the 3,664 kilometers of land and sea between their settings to tackle the complex, emotionally hefty topic of “home.”

(I’ll be discussing the other two winners of the 2012 AWP Award, Joan Naviyuk Kane’s poetry collection Hyperboreal, and Lucas Southworth’s story collection Everyone Here Has A Gun, in a later column.)

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Author-Spotting for Amateurs

It’s summer! Time to get out those binoculars and spot some writers. If you are unable to find writers, a simple whiskey trail should suffice to lure them to your backyard. Be on the lookout for these newly identified species.

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The dead foreign writer who wrote eight 6,000-page recently translated novels that everyone but you somehow has time to discover and read and talk about over the course of one summer, and what the hell, don’t you people have jobs?

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The writer who’s famous only among writers. And not necessarily for his work, good as it may be—but for rustic fashion sense or scandalous antics at writers’ conferences in the ‘80s or his charming southern drawl. You realize, to your shock, that your non-writer friends have never heard of the guy. You try to explain: but at AWP, he’s like Elvis! They don’t get it.Continue Reading

The Courage For Compassion

At AWP 2013 in Boston, author Melanie Rae Thon read the following during the panel “The Literary Legacy of Andre Dubus.” Ploughshares founding editor DeWitt Henry attended the panel, and thought the piece was so beautiful that, with Melanie’s permission, we are reproducing it here. —Andrew Ladd, blog editor


In the introduction to Fires in the Mirror, Anna Deavere Smith asks: Does the inability to empathize start with an inhibition, a reluctance to see?

When I first encountered the work of Andre Dubus, I was arrested by his bold lack of inhibition, his willingness to imagine and render the inner lives of all his people. His stories reminded me that everyone has his grief: the murderer knows despair; the rapist has been wounded. Goethe said, “There is no crime of which I cannot conceive myself guilty.” In Frank Bidart’s poem, “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” the dancer confesses: “I know people’s faults / because in my soul, / I HAVE COMMITTED THEM.” I believe Andre Dubus was a man who understood this kind of intimate turmoil, the fear that his own impulses made him both vulnerable and dangerous, the conviction that a man who witnesses an act of violence and does nothing is as much to blame as the one who commits it.

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From the Slush Pile: Don’t Leave Me Hanging


The_End_BookMonday morning, two days post-AWP, your 2013 Boston Tote Bag filled with literary swag: postcards, pins, temporary tattoos, and journals. You have a renewed energy. Yes, this is the year. You will submit—over and over again if necessary—and you will get published.

For those of you who have never been to AWP or have no idea what it is, it’s the nation’s largest literary conference, sponsored by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and this year it took place in Boston. (For all who attended, I hope you stopped by the Ploughshares booth and introduced yourself—and then raced home to polish up your entry for the Emerging Writers Contest.

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