Sunday, August 22, 2010

Provincetown: Thoughts, Snippets, Recollections

No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better. (Fail Bigger).

"Prepare to make the imaginative leap. But you must be prepared to work and in particular to research. It is all about desire, stamina, perseverance."

For Gogol,  the true, unwritten last line of every story is: "And nothing was ever the same again."

Argh! Novel Panic! Beware! Beware!

Find the most obscure detail and make it yours! Find the small detail that reveals the wider world.

No ideas but in things. For example, what is "joy?" Joy is an idea (or an emotion). But how to represent joy? What "thing" might convey joy? How about a table of writers singing Irish drinking songs and show tune classics around Norman Mailer's dining room table on a Friday night in summertime after a week of hard workshopping? Yes! Carouse and tumult, song and toasts.

"I came home on a Tuesday night, as drunk as drunk could be ..."

"Is that bottle nailed to the table down there?!"

"Art is a way of coping with the world by bringing it under the microscope of detail."

"The specific must reveal the grand canvas."

What is the moment of the story?

Reflections on Colum McCann

Imp grin, eye twinkle, mirth and high jinx (he pick-pocketed a stranger's wallet because he could ... and then gave it back). Broad smiles, shouts, the wisdom of enthusiasm, an enthusiasm for wisdom.

Surfeit of empathy. The result of creating such realized characters? Because he can put himself in the shoes of his characters, it follows that he's able to put himself in the shoes of those with whom he interacts - workshop attendees, university students, friends, other writers, reference librarians.

Always send a thank-you note! The power of expressed gratitude.

Vast reading! A deep knowledge of the work of others. All week referencing particular works to illustrate a given discussion. He was familiar with just about all the authors & novels we brought up in discussions. Astounding! A small list:

Michael Ontaatje Coming Through Slaughter
Ann Michaels
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Malantes
Peter Carey
DeLillo, in particular Underworld (he considers it the most important novel of the last 25 years)
Stoner by John Williams
Redemption Falls by Joseph O'Connor
Aleksander "Sasha" Hemon
Toni Morrison
Annie Dillard
Roddy Doyle for dialog

A force at the table! Songs songs songs. Fill the glass, raise your glass, give us a song! A poem! Give us a poem! Read the poets. When you're stuck, read the poets. As research for place/time/setting, read the poets.

Read Read READ. There is no substitute, no alternative, no shortcuts.

Standing on the street in front of the Mailer House waiting for the Gay & Lesbian Carnival Parade to come down Commercial Street, we talked. He rode a bicycle around the United States in 1986, from Massachusetts to Florida to New Orleans and into Mexico. This was before he'd published any fiction. He kept journals of the ride but has no intentions of publishing from them. He threw away scads of early written work as worthless, embarrassing. He admitted to doing the Kerouac thing - he actually bought a huge role of paper that he fed into his typewriter a la "the Scroll." His view on Kerouac today? Relevance has diminished with time. His favorite Kerouac is "The Dharma Bums." He called it "kind."

"I came home on a Thursday night, as drunk as drunk could be ..."

Firm handshake. Eye contact. No guile there. The glow of the Wide Embrace.

From Let the Great World Spin: "Good days, they come around the oddest corners."

Provincetown: Friday

Personal lesson of the week - even the wild improvisational Blow of Plenty requires quiet consideration.

Singing Each Other's Praises

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Notes on Norman

Michael Lennon, Mailer biographer and close Provincetown friend, dropped by the workshop and gave an informal talk while leading us through the house. Following are some of the anecdotes and snippets of personal history he told.

Michael Lennon (r) and Peter Alson
Norman bought the house, one of the very few brick houses in Provincetown, in the early 80s. Lennon suggested that 3/4s of Mailer's books were written here.

Norman hated plastic and refused to drink wine from plastic cups.

Norman often ate dinner at Michael Shay's Rib and Seafood restaurant. He enjoyed oysters on the half shell and would generally order a dozen. The odd thing was that he saw the faces of ancient Greek warriors in the oyster shells. He would take the shells home with him. He gave serious consideration to making a book of the shells, perhaps a coffee table book.

He sometimes drank merlot and orange juice.

Front Door, 627 Commercial St.
He enjoyed pot in the 50s and 60s but gradually stopped using it.

He watched TV as a means of staying in touch with contemporary culture - but he hated commercials and always muted them. He liked to watch sports.

He habitually read an enormous amount of magazines and newspapers, all kinds, left & right.

The day for him generally started around 9:00 when he would come down to breakfast and read the New York Times and Boston Globe, work the crosswords, then play a few rounds of an invented solitaire game before heading up to the third floor writing studio. He generally worked in shifts, two shifts a day: 10:30 or so until lunch around 2:00; then again from 3:00 or 4:00 until 8:00, sometimes 8:30.

In his early writing years, he worked Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday but in the latter years he worked six and sometimes seven days a week.

He wrote longhand.

He was impetuous. According to Lennon, he believed in "spontaneity in all things."

The dinner parties, of which there were many, were not infrequently contentious affairs. Mailer liked to instigate, provoke, argue. It was often loud. Food or wine was occasionally thrown.

Mailer the Drinker was an early career incarnation. He drank less as he grew older. Lennon dismissed the idea of Mailer as an alcoholic. There were periods of his life when he drank heavily but on the whole he was a social drinker. At one point he had a serious passion for single malt scotch and, as with any subject that interested him enough, he researched the hell out of the topic. Which, in the case of single malt, meant having on hand a huge variety and learning the nuances of each.

He was relentless, he "tried to dominate Reality with his mind."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Provincetown: Carnival

The Carnival Parade started at 3:00 and came right down Commercial St, from the East End to the West End. We stood in front of the Mailer House radiating good vibes. And taking the good vibes in.

Five Writers Waiting for a Parade

Colum and Caitlin

Galt, Sasha, Hercules, Hades, Ignu, Crepe and an Elephant

Derrida, Zydeco and Francois
Electric Craniums of Paz

Witch Bollocks

Assignment: Manifesto

Colum wants us all to write a manifesto. That's our assignment. He insists upon it. It's vague. He's given us quotes. It's about writing. A manifesto. By Friday. Tomorrow.

Provincetown Manifesto

Don't just look; see. Don't just see; feel. Don't just feel; understand.

Embrace gorging but be prepared to fast.

Remember that you're alive! Run amok! Then calm down and consider why it feels so good to run amok.

Be amazed by something everyday. Every fucking day. Reject boredom as a failure of the imagination. Consider boredom.

Question culture.

Never lie.

Remain intact.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Provincetown: Days 3 and 4

Back Deck, Mailer House
Time gets away. There's so much to do, conversations to have, quirky Provincetown streets and galleries to stroll, writing to be done. SO much writing to be done! You're here, you're 100% here, you can go to the Mailer House and sit in chairs that Mailer sat in and BE in the space that housed the Uncontainable, the Mailer Life Force. You exchange work with fellow attendees, discuss phrases, words, sentences, you exult about favorite writers, favorite books, you jot down names and titles that others love, you listen to Colum McCann like you're listening to Miles Davis or Thelonius Monk or Frank McCourt, you cannot NOT listen, you're rapt, mesmerized, awed, you absorb every word, every Irish-brogued pronunciation, you suddenly (or maybe gradually, but eventually) realize embrace admit the most important thing, the thing you've been avoiding, the thing that has terrified you and paralyzed you and daunted you and taunted you - you declare yourself a Writer.
All the attendees live in different types of quarters; small rooms in guest houses, or B&Bs on Commercial St or, in my case, in a three floor condo across rt. 6 (a shared condo). Voila - my workspace.

Condo Bedroom Office, #1 Seashore Park

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Provincetown: Day 2

            From the Mailer Deck at Low Tide, August 18, 2010

Details! Details! Details! "The specific must reveal the grand canvas." And I think "No ideas but in things." 
Blakean minute particulars. "You are a guide in a foreign land."

And character. What did your character eat for breakfast? What did they want to eat for breakfast? And so on. The need to know each character. To really know them.

                Norman Mailer's Deck Chair, August, 2010

Monday, August 16, 2010

Provincetown: Day 1

Outstanding opening workshop, candor, Irish charisma, rules for writing, the Basics Who What When Where Why and How and what they Mean for the story the novel the Work. Perceptive reader commentary, individual insight proffered heard received. We sit around the large square table that is poorly lit. One whole wall of the room is glass and looks out onto Provincetown Bay. Colleagues sitting across the table are silhouetted against the window's light pour, become shadows, outlines. No lamps to fill the room's confines or suffuse the room from above. Though no matter finally. Everyone's engaged, no blather, bluster, blah. There is the Master, Colum McCann, and there are the nine of us, and we are all assembled in the home of the megalomaniac himself, Norman Mailer, the Colossus, the novel's Champion, our benefactor. We're walked upstairs to the third floor by Guy Wolf and shown Mailer's attic writing studio, a room in situ, an artifact placement, a preserved moment when Norman Mailer actually sat and wrote at this desk in this chair alone for the last time, that's what we see. The last throes of the Master's vibe in a room of his own. The papery shards of evidence, his handwriting. An animal skull of some kind. A toy soldier, Napoleon-like, standing defiantly, one leg on the ground and one propped on a miniature drum. A stone-carved rhinoceros figurine.

Later, after the afternoon session ends, cycle to Race Point and all around the dune roads and bicycle paths. The day started with rain but cleared as the day progressed. We're surrounded by the sea. This is the very tip of the peninsula, the last little lanes and mews on this eccentric spit of landscape. The dune wash. The shifting sands and light spill and vision games.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Arrival in Provincetown

Arrived in Provincetown this afternoon and checked in at the Norman Mail House at 4:00 to get my condo assignment and meet Jessica Zlotnicki, the liaison for the Norman Mailer Writers Colony workshops. Unfortunately for me, because I have a car, I've been slotted into a big condo on the other side of rt 6, at least a couple miles out of downtown. What's worse, I have a condo-mate, a guy named Paul from NJ. Not what I'd bargained for. I'd been imagining a quaint little writer's studio apartment where I'd cook delicious meals for myself, spread my stuff all over, keep odd hours, make mail art, and, most importantly, write. Instead, I'm in a summer condo rental, big yes but just more space to be shared. Being hyper-considerate, now I'm hesitant about making dishes, being too much in the kitchen, am self-conscious about drinking a beer (or more), about leaving my stuff around, etc.

BUT ... the workshop. That's the point of my being here at all. Tonight the nine attendees gathered at the Mailer House and met with Colum McCann. There are some very interesting people among us, accomplished ones as well, people who've published books, who work in publishing, who have literary resumes. I'm in the deep water now and need to remind myself that I can swim pretty well myself and not to worry. Among us is a UN international aid worker; a Black guy from Philadelphia who reminds me for all the world of Walter Mosely; a psychologist from Northampton; a gay Indian guy who works for HarperCollins. We all went around the table and talked a little about ourselves. At Colum's behest, we all noted who/what we like to read. When my turn came, I said I recently enjoyed reading Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives, that I'm reading the Ginbserg/Kerouac letters (just released), and that I was considering having a go at Infinite Jest (a comment that brought sighs and expressions of recognition, as if others had either read it or tried to).

Then there's Colum. Instant good vibe from him. Strikes me as very intelligent but with a round, sort of quilt-like intelligence, soft, not like, say, a whip smart debater's honed intellect. Colum has depth, intensity, is well-spoken, confident, obviously skilled at what he does, comfortable in the workshop setting (he teaches at a college in NY too). Really looking forward to listening to him this week. When he looks at you, he really looks right at you and talks right to you; no whiff of posture or pretense; sleeves rolled up, he has strong forearms.

Sunday night's first session is about an hour, mostly we decided who gets workshopped when. I'm up on day two. The schedule is: 2 stories worked tomorrow, 4 on Tuesday (of which I'm one), and 3 on Wednesday.

Oh, and I'm not the only one who brought an excerpt from a novel, I think two others have as well.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Sands Shift Beneath the Empire of Armstrong

A friend of mine sent me the following links and expressed his disdain for doping in cycling, for what he sees as the fraud of Lance Armstrong, and for willing to believe for so long that Armstrong raced clean.

ESPN story recounting Tyler Hamilton's subpoena

Floyd Landis on ABC News nightline

Then today of course the New York Times ran a major front page story indicating that former friends and/or teammates of Armstrong are now testifying against him.

What's to be done about doping in cycling? I suggest a libertarian approach - forget banning, forget trying to find cyclists using performance-enhancing drugs, it's as futile as the endlessly futile "war on drugs" (meaning, the illicit kind). Forget them both. Legalize their use.

In cycling's case, I suggest requiring riders to register with racing authorities as users and provide lists of what they're using. Everyone using performance enhancing drugs would then be "docked" minutes so they would start a race in arrears. Clean riders get the legitimate time. Dopers have minutes added to their time.

Would this eliminate cheating? Probably not. But it might potentially end the charade we're now witnessing.

My friend wrote:

Never failing a drug test means very little when the testing itself has been corrupted by all those, inside cycling and inside the business cabal, who stood to profit by the industry that became LA.  I find the whole thing disgusting and shameful...including shame on me for being willing to suspend my disbelief.

I took off the yellow bracelet long ago when another cyclist quipped," Ah, I see you dope too."  Haven't we all taken enough 'junk?'

Did Armstrong dope? I don't really care anymore. "It's Not About the Spike." I just like to watch those maniacs ride all over France, I don't care what they're on in addition to two wheels.