This stage named Provincetown is fantastical. It hums with electric energy—so many emotions, turmoil, grief in-betweens have been left here. Mine too will be left and when I return, if I return, Provincetown will be recalled from bodily memory as a place of magic and warmth, a calm embrace of someone wise, someone who has known tumultuous grief and has endured it all and let me enjoy the grace of the in-between; the utter calm, the ocean breezes, storms, warm or hot sun, the wooing of the Atlantic waves, the lulling of the bay tides, the shifting of the sand dunes that display a different landscape from each mound. I am standing there changing too, not realizing the constant shift that is occurring, so subtle like the fine grains of sand that rotate a quarter of a quarter-inch to offer a dance of land playfully, playfully.Soojin Kim is a translator and writer from Seoul, Korea. She has been artist-in-residence at Ragdale, I-Park and Ox-bow as a fiction writer. As a translator she enjoys collaborating with visual artists. She is exclusive translator for visual artist Jamie M Lee among others. At the Norman Mailer Writers Colony she has been revising a novel told in the collective voice of four sisters growing up in Korea.
I was moved to be staying at the Norman Mailer house because of what he meant to me early in life, by which I don’t mean to say that I was a Mailer fan early on; in fact I was not. My response to him was in a way deeper than simple admiration or enjoyment. He was perhaps the first author, certainly the first socially engaged author who made me aware of my own ambivalence, and, by extention, the ambivalent nature of truth. The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote about Norman Mailer which was published in A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, and published by Harvard Press:
I first encountered Mailer at the age of 15 when I read Kate Millet’s feminist polemic Sexual Politics. In a special sexism-in-literature section, Millet quoted at length from Mailer’s novel An American Dream, a luscious comic-book story of society, magic, music, murder, love and sodomy which in Millet’s censorious context seemed even more thrillingly dirty than it actually is. At fifteen I had a complex streak of practicality which was both cheerful and dour, and which allowed me to retreat into my private cave to thoroughly enjoy Mailer’s fantasy as presented by Millet, only to momentarily emerge full of righteous outrage at it; I saw nothing questionable about this.
When I heard that Mailer would be appearing on The Dick Cavett Show to discuss feminism with Gore Vidal, I watched, anticipating a full complement of outrage and enjoyment. To my surprise, I was surprised: watching Gore Vidal was like watching a snake in a suit, all piety and fine manners, standing up on its hind tail to recite against the evils of sexism. Before this fancy creature, Mailer was nearly helpless, lunging and swiping like a bear trying to fight a snake on the snake’s terms. At one point he spluttered “You know very well I’m the gentlest person here,” which made the audience laugh while Cavett and guests made ironic faces—but (horribly enough) I sensed that this was quite possibly true, even if Mailer did head-butt Vidal in the dressing room, even if yes, he did stab his wife in the dim past of a drunken party. For a gentle person who has been stung by clever, socially armored people adept at emotional cruelty may respond with oafish brutality; it is precisely because he is gentle that he can’t modulate his rage or disguise it the way a naturally cruel person can. I watched the bear-baiting spectacle with a painful sense of cognitive dissonance dawning in me, both sides of my peculiarly American schizophrenic self finally present and blinking confusedly. The only other person who had aroused such feelings in me before was Lyndon Johnson, whose ugly, profound, helplessly emotional face had made me feel like crying for reasons I could not understand….
Such “cognitive dissonance” is for me a precursor to union and watching Norman Mailer at that moment was more powerful for me than watching/hearing any number of people I might more naturally have agreed with at the time. That experience deepened as I read his work later in life. It was of great value to me and I am honored to stay at his house.
Mary Gaitskill is an author of fiction. Read her full bio on our Visitors and Guest Speakers page.
I’d like to write, but can’t find the words.
Even though I know a lot of them, they hide.
Webster’s Dictionary is there to help, but will I use it? Will I consult Thesaurus.com?
discombobulated, unctuous, scintillating, castigate, discountenance, extrapolate, obsequiously
do come to mind, but I don’t use them.
confused, sucky, witty, criticize, embarrass, estimate, dutiful.
On a good day (cliché) I might move beyond pretty, bad, human, thrill and job to lovely with blue eyes, mean streak, animal with two legs, dizzy with excitement and career.
Honestly, that’s the best I can do.
A paragraph about pine trees described in three-syllable words flowing together without pretention brings tears to my eyes (other cliché) and I wonder why I can’t muster the depth, craft or insight to write about pine trees any way other than towering green things that stand like soldiers.
Poetry and profound works on nature, torture, death and emotional devastation impress me. I cringe at the drunk cowboy I’ve chosen as the protagonist of my book. Surely I am missing the essential qualities and skills of a writer.
But… the story must be told. The desire to tell it, the inability to tell it and the commitment to figure the damn thing out consume just about every minute of every day. My discombobulated mind refuses the scintillating words that I castigate regularly, and with much discountenance, extrapolate to be obsequious. Scribbling common everyday gibberish, I slog on. The words aren’t enough, but they’re all I’ve got and despite their simplicity, the only ones that sound right.
Today, they will have to do.
Norman, I wrote on your porch, in your bar, your living room and at your dining room table and your spirit did seem to hover and dare me to break out, bust loose (oh, dear) and use some big words to express some big ideas.
I did try.
Bev Magennis is from New Mexico. She stared writing late, after 35 years as a visual artist. She received the Pen USA Emerging Voices Fellowship in 2010 and was selected for the Iowa Writers Workshop Summer Graduate Class in 2009. Her work has appeared in two anthologies and will be published in the October issue of r.kv.r.y.
Bev is also a Mailer Fiction Fellow. She is using the month of residency to work on a novel, getting further acquainted with a tricky protagonist.
Saturday, July 2nd, I spent the night in Providence, RI.
The next day, I drove the last hours up the Cape’s curl,
Mind burning with the Waterfires I’d seen lit
In braziers where College Hill sloped to the river.
At the Mailer Home I received my key, was oriented
And escorted, with smiles, to my home for the next month.
My roommate and I found common ground in favorite writers
And fell quickly to the task of lolling about the different rooms
Of the generous, pastel Rubix Cube we’d been appointed,
Filling it with our scent: marking it our own.
An Opening Reception at the Mailer Center,
A savage blitz on the Stop And Shop, drinks,
More drinks, and innumerable pool matches—
In near dark—beneath Governor Bradford’s Tavern,
The floorboards above our heads sagging
Under the weight of drag-karaoke.
I slept, woke, drank, woke,
Sun through the skylight casting a rainbow
Off me in the shower. I climbed
The hills behind our condo, collecting scratches
In those same woods an earlier generation
Ascended to find love and pick fights
In the dark, after the bars had closed.
Where I thought I’d see the Atlantic, and clear my head,
I saw only more hills, rank upon rank.
God help you when you wake up after days like that:
When nothing you’ve written was worth waking up for,
And your body treats with you suspicion.
When the high school’s been shipped to Eastham,
The fisheries and saltworks shrinking to a footnote,
The Portuguese packing up their language and slipping away,
The bartender at Old Colony seems overly familiar,
And your feet hurt where you took your shoes off
To dance the fool,
Just pray you’ve enough hope and character
Saved away to redeem and outlast the stale day
When flat light on Commercial reveals it a studio backlot
—empty of all who hazard to love you.
Scott Dahlie holds an MFA from the New School where he was prose editor for LIT Magazine. He was recently awarded the Hauser Prize for prose and is featured in Chautauqua Literary Journal. He is thirty years old and will be moving to London after the summer.
Scott is also a Mailer Fiction Fellow. He is using the month of residency to work on his first novel.
That’s Norman Mailer’s writing desk y’all—and more about where I was going with that in a minute. When the Guardian asked writers to provide “rules for writing,” several of them had bracing advice. For instance, Anne Enright: “The first twelve years are the worst.” But the rule for writing that seared itself into my brain was the following one from Jonathan Franzen: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” Which raises the immediate question: why am I doing this instead of writing my novel? Why am I writing a blog entry when I should be working in the quiet privacy of my page-in-progress? Franzen is of course famous for practicing a form of sensory deprivation so extreme that it was later imitated by CIA interrogators at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Indeed, so acute was his regimen that the writer’s permanent contribution to the English language has been the use of the phrase “to pull a Franzen,” as in stripping your equipment of anything extraneous, wearing earmuffs and, if possible, a blindfold, etc. But I’m really, really opposed to torture anywhere. So, I’m inclined to exchange the image of the dull study above with the view, below, available from Mailer’s bar. The two spaces are divided by two flights of stairs, but the latter opens to an incredible vista. No more the naked and the dead, no sir. If you were to sit at the bar, inspiration would come in unending waves. New ideas lapping against the edge of your imagination, a stray thought rising to kiss your page. Or so I think. I intend to find out for myself as soon as I have finished this blog, unplugged myself from the internet, and sat down at the bar with an empty page. Nothing between me and the blue ocean except for a short stretch of sand and a pleasant drink.
Amitava Kumar can be found rather easily on the internet: enjoy his blog and follow him on twitter @amitavakumar. He has written about real torture in his last book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb.
Amitava has also written widely in nonfiction, fiction, and academic work. As a Mailer Fiction Fellow, he is using the month of residency to work on a second novel.
The first person I spoke to in the United States was the dour, glass-eyed official who stamped my passport. The second was a man called Prophet. He and his wife sat beside me on the second part of my train journey from JFK Airport to Chinatown. I had been in the air seventeen hours, with a five-hour layover, so I was feeling heavy with sleep as the train whisked through the underbelly of the city. To stay awake I stared out the window, I eavesdropped on the couple’s conversation. The man had a loud, friendly voice, an explosive laugh. I heard the woman’s words only when her husband—leaning forward, his voice gruff with impatience—urged her to speak louder.
We disembarked at the same station. Dank, underground, faded graffiti on the walls and pillars, the floor puddled with urine. Despite the stories I had heard, I knew it was unlikely I would be robbed on my first day in New York, but if that were to happen, this was the place. I glanced around, saw the man and his wife—two heads I recognised in a crowd of strangers—heading up the stairs, towards daylight. I was to catch a train in that station. I grabbed my bags and ran up the stairs.
After introductions and welcomes and weather chitchat, I asked Prophet for advice on how and where to buy a cell phone. He was friendly, as I knew he would be. He and his wife walked me to the store, chatting all the way. They intermediated between me and the storekeeper, who had trouble with my Nigerian accent. When I expressed reservations about the cost of the phone plan, Prophet, in a move that surprised his wife as much as it did me, stuck his hand in his pocket, pulled out a phone and pushed it at me. It was only his second phone; I could use it for the four weeks I was around; he would accept my word that I would return it before I departed the country.
That was how I got a phone. For free, on trust, from a stranger. In the Big Bad Apple, world-famous for its hard-boiled, inhospitable residents.
A. Igoni Barrett of Nigeria is a winner of the 2005 BBC World Service short story competition, the recipient of a Chinua Achebe Center Fellowship, an Ebedi Residency, and a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Residency. Listen online to his short story “My Smelling Mouth Problem,” published in The Drum. His first book, the story collection From Caves of Rotten Teeth, was published in 2005 in Nigeria. A new collection is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2013.
Igoni is also an International Mailer Fiction Fellow. He is using his month of residency to work on a novel.
I am an inveterate worrywart. I try and fight it, but it can’t be helped—it’s in my blood. Could be the Latino’s innate sense of impending doom; could be a deep awareness of the problems of the universe; could just be that I’m a paranoid loon. Can’t take my niece to the playground because the thought of her tumbling off the monkey bars and splitting her little skull are all too real (and I suspect that the little demon would fake a mortal injury just to give me agita). Can’t enjoy myself at parties because I tend to agonize over how my breath is holding up (“Did you see the way her nostrils flared when I said, ‘Heh-lo?’ I’d ask my bemused and long-suffering girlfriend). Like Hamlet’s Horatio, I have intimations of stars with trains of fires and dews of blood, disasters in the sun. You see, I often have a special knack for depressing folks. I once drove a poor homeless man into such a state that he gave me a dollar. Hey, it’s a gift.
Naturally, before setting off for my sojourn at Provincetown, I expected the worst. I already knew that I was going to get lost on my way from New York— even with a GPS— because I’m an idiot, so that was no big surprise. But what, exactly, did I think was going to happen? I guess I envisioned an endless stream of glitter-happy beefcakes on Atlantean stilts hurling grenades, a ramshackle cottage with acid dripping from the rafters and seething with vicious mice, an ocean full of hungry viperfish. Of course, none of this materialized (except maybe the beefcakes—all those walking slabs carting bulbous pectorals and mounded muscle, moving as if their spines had been ironed with pure starch, guilted me into committing to red-faced push-ups and crying crunches every morning). Instead, this wayworn, reeking scribbler—who dragged himself over the threshold of the Mailer household like a whip-scorned sackcloth saint—was greeted warmly by Anna and Jessica, two lovely, smiling young ladies who generated nothing but beneficence, and all of the dark and doom of this sackcloth scribbler instantly sloughed away.
After all, who can maintain a stormy mood in this miraculous paradise?
Not me! Not after I was shown into my writerly quarters, which contained an amazing Escher-like staircase and a bed big enough to ensconce a harem. Not after I could hear the ocean and smell the salt-spray in the air. Not after I saw the melonmuddled evening sky, so much like California wine, and then the brass-butter moon melting against the horizon. The prodigies of penumbra that pluralized my mind! I could feel the energy coursing through my veins, my blood shook, my heart stammered, my head nearly exploded.
Thus began the first flashes of inspiration that begged to be bottled, and then uncapped, so lightning could strike the page.
The rage of ransacking creation made depredations upon the brain.
My first Provincetown sun soon climbed, the same color of gold that the sea dreams. The ocean received me with a gentle hiss. And the yipping array of dogs on the beach, how they skipped and skerfuffled, rebounded, resounded! (making me a little wistful for my dogs and my girlfriend back home). I floated beneath the marbling blue, fantasizing about bobbing for octopus and jigging for squid. I’d have to settle for a beer at the Old Colony instead, bellied up to the mast beside tawny fishermen.
Having broiled myself unevenly beneath the sun, my skin had turned a bizarre combination of pink, white, and brown. I looked like a Brachs Neapolitan coconut sundae candy, the kind my father used to cajole me into eating whenever I had a loose tooth as a kid, just so he could save on an expensive trip to the dentist. A few chews on that and your tooth was bound to suck away from the socket. Hell, it beat the shit out of the old string-and-a-doorknob technique.
Still, no matter how unsightly I was at the time, I wasn’t going to hide away.
On the night of the fourth of July, after tucking into a delicious basket of fried clam strips and a mouth-watering, eye-boggling lobster roll from Burger Queen (overt product placement! Hope you’re reading this, Burger Queen), I stepped out of my backwater dwelling and strode past the clumps of knotweed and the dangling bloom of orange roses. A steep-stoop bird squawked beneath the eaves of a frame house, seeming to follow the same celebratory concussions as me. My shoes flattened the spuds of sand as I moved down an alley toward the shore and I watched with fascination as the flares illuminated the shambly dance of the crisping sea. It was a night reminiscent of first-blush kisses, with couples clasped and tender promises issuing. But as much as I enjoyed the arch geometry of that dread dazzle in the sky, I couldn’t linger, because the flies or mosquitoes or sand fleas—buzzing hopping stinging things— practically devoured me. I was convulsing so bad you might have thought I’d eaten a live wire. Needless to say, if you come out here, bring your can of bug-death.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Too many thoughts and ideas rumbling through this once-barren head. At the sign of first light, I once again emerged from my dwelling. Underfoot, a plush radiance like summer fruit fresh off the vine; just above, the song of sunrise shooting its striations across the sky; and I couldn’t help thinking, even though I realize now that my old morbid habits were creeping back, It’s a goddamn shame that a man has to die.
I think I just might finish something worth the doing in Provincetown.
Edwin Rivera is a dollar mug of Budweiser. He’s bald knuckles on a scarred wood bar. He’s a cigarette burned down to the nub. He ain’t nothing but a goddamned writer.
Edwin is also a Mailer Fiction Fellow. He is using the month of residency to work on a novel called Sun Street, Moon Street, about a fictional town in New Jersey and its Latino community. Read an excerpt published in White Whale Review.