EXIT STRATEGY

Thinking on an appropriate farewell to Provincetown—the Mailer Center and the idyllic writing life that I found by the bay—as I enter the zero hours of my time here, I gravitate to that somewhat famous goodbye—the one to all that—in which Joan Didion tells us, It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. Often times, this is true. But, try as I did to pretend otherwise, as soon as I slipped the key to my nautically themed condo into my back pocket four weeks ago, I knew: I was not entering an era with ambiguous boundaries. My stay was book-ended after all, a clear arrival time and departure date. A check out procedure. Nothing vague about throwing the dirty sheets and towels in a pile on what is no longer my bedroom floor, leaving the key on the kitchen counter that is no longer my own, letting the screen door slam one last time, and rambling down the slatted walkway with my rolly suitcase.

A month is a good chunk of time away from home. Long enough to allow the illusion that the city life that tends to keep me in some measure of crazy shriveled and died when I cut the cord, hit the sea, cracked open a beer on the fast ferry, and watched dry land fade against the horizon. In fact, I’ve felt more at home in Provincetown these past weeks than I have lately in Brooklyn, where I’ve been living for twelve years. At home, in this case, I will define as a certain type of ease. Desires are radically streamlined when you remove jobs, pets, friends, rent, and bills from the equation. Even the absence of the seventy-three stairs that lead to my charming six-floor walk up has allowed me a degree of increased spontaneity. Here, I just open my door and…I’m outside! Amazing!

And so it was. My usual scramble was de-scrambled. With a clear head, and lungs full of salty sea air teeming with negative ions, I managed to get a rather serene and consistent writing life on lockdown almost immediately upon my arrival. Preparing to head home, I know the little annoyances mentioned above threaten to coax my attentions away from my desk, and like most writers, if I’m not working regularly, I get a little nuts. I was concerned.

Anticipating the sudden, ripped-away-too-fast Band Aid method of bolting town, en masse, with hundreds of other temporary residents was making me feel like a junky whose supply was about to be cut off. Fortunately, I’ve found a way to make the transition easier. I’m sneaking out of town behind my own back, as it were. Turns out, a New York friend is here—one of many, actually. (How long have you people been coming to Provincetown and why didn’t anyone tell me sooner?) This friend is sneaking out too, twelve hours early, to avoid the hysteria induced by widespread 10 am checkout times and sold out ferries. So I’m hitching a ride, ducking out, as I dodge my most recent and troubling reality: I don’t actually live in Provincetown, and I will, very soon, have to screen my calls, cling to my desk for dear life, and, sadly, wear actual shoes. So my goodbye will be a sly slip of the hip, not the one I expected, and because of that, my illusion-prone mind can pretend things are otherwise, and maybe I can keep a bit of all that for a little longer. Later Provincetown, and thanks. It hasn’t been real at all.

Sara Nelson is at work on her first book, the story of an atypical American family: her father is a death row survivor and her mother is a former Catholic nun; their story of origin hinges on a sensational 1959 murder trial. An excerpt from the book appeared in Ploughshares. In addition to being a Mailer Fellow, she holds an MFA from Hunter College, and her work has also appeared in Tottenville Review, where she is a senior contributing editor. She lives in Brooklyn, where she writes, plays bass, and bartends.   

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GIRLS GUIDE TO WAR

You’re not large enough
for a whale
and much too fat
to be a shark
said I to my love.
Porpoise
was her reply

Sleek pig
thought the mind
of my eye

Sleek pigs
are porpoises
said she
and began to cry.

I found this poem in Mailer’s book Cannibals and Christians. I would not have expected such tenderness from the boxer and knife wielder who, as Carolyn Forche told us, greeted young pretty girls (including her) on Provincetown’s streets with the flirtatious taunt: Are you a feminist? But then so much of my month at the colony was not expected—like the story of Mailer’s plaintive explanation to his last wife when she complained that all of his adulterous lovers were such ugly dogs: “Sometimes I need to be the pretty one.”

I arrived convinced I’d leave with a novel at least half finished. Each morning I dropped Nanoush at her favorite beach, “the norman mailer house beach,” as she called it, where she made her stories in the sand with scallop and mussel shells and hermit crabs and her new friend Jewel. And each morning I went to my kitchen table.

Monday. Chapter I. In a clipped voice. “I’m a professional Islamist, by accident, as most people’s lives tend to proceed. I had a crush on a long-haired biker whom I’d met one day on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, and turned out to be an Israeli and an Arabist. My life’s obsessions have always been conceived in the cradle of a crush.”

Tuesday. Chapter I. In a suspenseful voice. “I saw Ali’s form through the white slip curtain. I had his pistol. The berretta he couldn’t find two days ago. Don’t play games, he’d shouted. I denied playing games so vehemently that he began to worry—one of the hotel cleaners? Were they plotting something?”

Wednesday. Chapter I. In a breathy voice. “It was a warm night, a soft wind through the palms, the gunfire had receded. I wondered what it would be like to be with such a man. I took his arm, and washed my hand along its curves. Outside was the smell of dripping petrol and the generator exhaling and panting.”

Thursday. Chapter I. In a child’s voice. “Tahir bought me a saraj today, a little bird with an orange face and yellow wings. He put a string around its neck and though I’d like to let it go, I’m going to keep it.”

Friday, Chapter I. No more voice. “You see a narrative was forming. It was a good one. And the Afghans began sticking to it. If you were a Tajik commander you could be smug about the narrative. Like Baba Jan the old communist. When the two Arabs posing as journalists (the ones who would kill Massoud) showed up to film his ammunition sites he told his guard to send them away. ‘Tell them that Allah has sent many messengers to the Arab people, but the Arabs still haven’t got the message.’ Everyone blamed the Arabs for infecting their land with terrorism, for occupying Afghanistan, for their pan-Islamic designs, for stealing their women. Some blame the Arabs for bringing Islam to Afghanistan 1400 years ago. But those are rare. And have short hair.

Saturday, Chapter 1. “The Italian doctor told me, Your blood pressure is really shit. But I was stuck in the Hindu Kush with no way out. I took medicine and moaned through the night. Occasionally I felt Alberto stroking my head with pity and I’d drift back into dreams of dragons, turbans, burkhas, bullets, and canaries. I was going to be sick again, and dragged myself to the walled in hole in the courtyard. I had nothing left to puke but something fluttered into the hole and I pinched my matchbook flashlight to see. Ten feet below was a mountain of shit. Years of it. And atop it all were the last of my crisp green Ben Franklins. A nasty metaphor of our enterprise in this forsaken land I thought, and went back to bed.”

Sunday, Chapter 1: “If my notebooks were better they could tell you exactly what it was like, they could tell you about Dunn’s screeching voice when we got hit, and the crackle of leaves under my palm, and the smell of Connecticut woods, though they couldn’t tell you what was going on in Dan’s head who was further up the Korengal mountain. If I had sat like a spider inside the head of the Colonel, of Razzaq the smuggler, Abdullah the Taliban, Clinard the soldier who watched his bestfriend die, 12-year-old Sweeta raped by the commanders, the kind nurse who thought I must be pregnant when I wretched in the hospital from the smell of burnt flesh, then maybe I could deliver a kaleidescope of what went on this past decade.”

Monday again, Chapter 1. “I’ve started a book about an American girl who went to Iraq to find out why another American girl was killed only to find out the American girl who was killed had fallen in love with an Iraqi and only to fall in love with an Iraqi killer herself. I’ve started a book about another American girl who fell in love with a warlord and was the object of affection of a Taliban commander and caused an assassination that changed the course of one province’s war. American innocence abroad. The story never ever changes. I may not finish this book either.”

Tuesday afternoon notes. “Everyone here is writing about war. Internal, external, foreign, familial, psychic.. There is always an enemy, a fight against dying and entropy or there is no writing.”

Nanoush asked me if she could bring the hermit crabs in her bucket from the norman mailer beach back to our house on Race Road. I told her they would die. One by one she let them crawl onto her hand and then into the ocean.

Elizabeth Rubin is a writer who lives in Brooklyn with her 3 year old daughter Nanoush. She has spent the last decade and a half covering conflicts around the world. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Harper’s Magazine, and The New Yorker.

Elizabeth is also a Mailer Nonfiction Fellow. She is using the month of residency to work on…well, see above.

BREAKWATER

During my first week in Provincetown, I spent three afternoons at Breakwater, the path of broken stones that stretches for 1.2 miles, curving slightly, through the salt marshes towards a lighthouse on the distant shore. The Breakwater’s broken granite stones are

jared gruenwald via photosfordays

piled more than ten feet high (mice live in the spaces between the boulders. I heard and saw them scurrying and fighting when I walked partway across Breakwater at 11 PM one night and my flashlight shined on them) and the pathway is relatively flat and walk-easeful because the biggest, flattest faces of the boulders make the path.

Jumping from stone to stone is easy except for certain sections where the boulders are set at an angle, so I have to lean forward, grip the top of the boulder, stick my ass out, and tippy-toe up the rock. It is painful to watch middle-aged ladies climb those boulders (there was one black-haired lady who, when she bent a knee, would/could not unbend that knee until ten seconds later). The granite pathway is littered with broken clam shells and every now and then, a crab with all its meat satisfactorily sucked out. Overhead, sea gulls ride on the breeze. I haven’t seen a sea gull drop a clam on the path, so I cannot say from what height the clams fall, but I wonder which first sea gull it was that, millions of years ago, dropped that first clam for the first time on a rock.

When I arrive at the Breakwater at 1-ish during this week, it is low tide, so the tide is a half-mile out from the salt marshes and I can climb down from Breakwater and walk on the moist sands next to shallow streams and pools and large stands of wild grasses. It’s possible to walk barefoot in the salt marshes except in large areas where thousands of broken and unbroken mussel and clam shells dig into your feet. I’m horrified sometimes when I remember that I’m hiking through mussel and clam slaying grounds.

In the streams and pools, especially in the ones at the bend of the sea grasses, there are baby crabs, hermit crabs, and schools of small pale gray fish. These were my first sightings of wild crabs in the wild (my only sighting being panicky crabs in Asian grocery store tanks that will be scrubbed off and popped into slowly boiling pots in a few hours) and I was delighted to see how easefully they can scurry sideways, backwards, and forwards, and finally quickly bury themselves. They are the most natural sideways scurries in the world, I am sure.

I did not notice the schools of small pale gray fish the first two days because these fishes are so much more darting shadows than fishes; they blend so well with the glinting of sunlight on the shallow waters and pale rocks. The most fun I had my first week in Provincetown was standing still and then stepping quickly into the shallow pools. The schools would dart trying to escape from me and at the same time trying to stay together.

By 4, the tide lazily rushes in, its edges gray with scum and pollution from the yachts and boats in the harbor a mile from the salt marsh. Perhaps it’s not a good idea to swim in these stinky waters (especially since I am a beginner swimmer and still swallow mouthfuls when I panic and forget I am in three feet of water), but someone desperate to swim will swim anywhere (but not in sewers of course). I swim in the rising tide, moving with it as it moves further inland, until we arrive at the Breakwater path and it’s time for me to scramble up, sit on the boulders for awhile to dry off, and then go home.

Minh Phuong Nguyen holds undergraduate degrees in English and Nutritional Sciences and is a current MA candidate in Creative Nonfiction Writing at the University of Missouri, where he holds the David R Francis Fellowship.

Minh is also the winner of the Norman Mailer Center – National Council of Teachers of English College Student Writing Contest. The Mailer Nonfiction Fellowship is part of his award. He is using the month of residency to work on a book project encompassing the themes in his winning entry, “Suffering Self,” an excerpt of which is forthcoming in the next issue of Creative Nonfiction.

GRIZZLY MEN

They have emerged out of hibernation and descended upon a small fishing village in Massachusetts Bay.  Once again, it’s Bear Week in Provincetown. Out of all the theme weeks, Bear Week is a favorite among locals.  The bears, despite their rough and rugged exteriors, are the jolliest.  They are less neurotic than the Circuit Boys (too much haughty preening and calorie counting) and more festive than the broods of Family Week (children).  Hairy, stocky, and bearded, they have made the annual pilgrimage, waving a banner of orange and brown, a paw print emblazoned in the top left corner. This week, we live in the Bear Flag Republic.

Many Bears kicked off the bacchanalia this past Saturday by stocking up on bear necessities, such as bacon, beans, burgers, and buns.  A rumor swept through town that the Bears had eaten all the grocery stores out of food. The local Stop and Shop’s shelves were indeed barren by the evening. “It looked like Supermarket Sweep,” said John, a Bear who migrated from San Francisco, recounting the feeding frenzy.  “They were just running down the aisles, knocking anything into their carts!”

The great ursine appetite is a significant trait in the Bear community.  “Being a Bear is an attitude,” explains Don from Brooklyn, who counts this as his eleventh annual jubilee.  “It’s more relaxed, more accepting, and less body conscious.”  I noticed Bears are quite fond of parading around shirtless, their vast, fuzzy bellies bulging over cargo shorts.  “It’s a pride thing.”  Of course, one need not be a total grizzly to fit in.  There are Otters (hairless bears) and Cubs (diminutive bears).  When I asked what he believes to be the best part of Bear Week, Don looked at me dumbfounded, because I had asked the most obvious question in the world: “The scenery!”  Duh!

Bear Week is more than a feast for the eyes, but also for the senses. The line for Tea Dance, a favorite crepuscular Bear activity, stretches blocks down the street, as the Boat Slip ticks past capacity around five p.m.  Bears tend to occupy a greater surface area on the dance floor.  Throbbing bass beats pulsed at Classic Disco Night at the A-House through a thick mélange of fuzz and sweat as the Bears danced the night away.  The balance of hyper masculinity- some of these guys look like body builders recently released from prison- with pop diva flourish was dizzying and delightful.  The cloud of body odor emanating from the dance floor was dizzyingly pungent.

embroidery by Rebecca Levi

This week, the Four Eleven Studio features a lively Bear-themed exhibition entitled “Grisly.”  I was riding my bike past the space on Commercial Street Friday night, and couldn’t contain my elation.  “Bears!” I whispered in awe, before a wall-sized painting of two burly men in flannel by Liz Carney.  A strapping young man eating ice cream sauntered over.  “You can feed a real Bear inside,” he told me.  “Really?  Like some kind of performance art?”  I said ingenuously, expecting to see some kind of Abromavic-esque human installation.  “Sure.”

I popped inside, and while I admired Rebecca Levi’s whimsically sweet embroidery sampler of a bear in his underpants preparing eggs sunnyside up, I witnessed no such interactive opportunity.  I walked back outside, basking in the providence of such an homage.  A large man followed behind me.

“Here he is!,” strapping ice cream guy exclaimed, thrusting his cup of melting pistachio in my direction.  “You can feed the bear!” It turned out he was playing a practical joke, as he urged me, a total stranger, to spoon-feed his unassuming boyfriend.  It was weird, but I did it.  And the boyfriend, puzzled, let me.  He was a total Teddy Bear.

Elizabeth Greenwood is from Worcester, Massachusetts.  As a New York City Teaching Fellow, she taught English as a Second Language in the Bronx and Manhattan.  Writing on culture, her work has appeared in The Atlantic and The New Yorker.  She is working toward an MFA in literary nonfiction at Columbia University, where she teaches undergraduate writing.  Visit her blog.

Elizabeth is also a Mailer Nonfiction Fellow. She is using her month of residency to write about people who fake their own deaths, which is her current obsession.

ADVENTURE IN MISSISSIPPI

I like visiting writers’ houses. You see the spaces that enveloped their imagination day by day. You see the furniture they sat in and the paintings and photographs on the walls. You see the dishes in the kitchen. You see the books on their shelves and the bed they slept in. It’s possible to assume too much from all this, but what’s the point of going at all if you don’t make some conclusions from what you see?

So, driving to the Mailer house in Provincetown from Austin I stopped along the way to see William Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Mississippi. I awoke early in Oxford the morning after the long day’s drive from Austin. Armed with the excellent pamphlet of walking tours from the Oxford Visitor’s Bureau, I parked my car near Faulkner’s house at 9am, an hour before the house would open, and set out to walk around the neighborhood. The sky was overcast and threatening, but I left my umbrella in my car anyway. Why? I walked about five blocks to the house where Faulkner lived as a boy. It was one story but shapeless and rambling in all directions. There was a huge, verdant lawn and thick trees and bushes and a car and yard tools here and there but no one around. Dense woods came right up to the back porch. A doe emerged from between two trees. She regarded me intently before turning calmly and disappearing into the woods.

Just a short walk away I found a large Greek revival mansion set way back from the road. The walk to the door was lined with immense trees that obscured the front of the house. Otherwise, the huge, grassy lot was empty. The house stood in splendid isolation. According to the visitors’ guide, this house may have been the inspiration for the house in “A Rose for Emily”. It certainly fit the description. I thought of her in the living room telling the delegation from city hall, “I pay no taxes in Jefferson.”

I felt a few drops of rain. Now the sky was almost black. I began walking back to my car, but the rain came harder and then harder still. Lightning flashed and thunder boomed from just a block or so away. I took shelter under a pine.

Just up the block I saw a carpenter’s van and a pickup with a load of lumber parked in a driveway. That house had a long front porch that curved around from the side to the front where three workmen had taken refuge. It appeared that they were renovating the empty house. “Can I come up there?” I shouted to them.

“Shore,” one said. “Come on.”

I ran to the porch without getting too wet. Two looked to be twenty-five or so. The third, at least twice their age, sat on one of the porch rails. He was slack, expressionless, silent. One of the younger two, with a chubby, round face and a stomach that pushed out a little over the belt of his jeans, looked me over, not in an unfriendly way, trying to place just what a stranger was doing there out walking along the street in the rain. “Are you visiting your children at the University?” he asked, nodding his head as if he were kindly offering me this way to account for myself.

I said that I had just stopped in town to see Faulkner’s house.

“They say that place is haunted,” the second young one said. He was average height but handsome and athletic with short, dark hair and a bit of stubble on his chin. “I don’t know myself. I’ve never been there, but that’s what they say.”

“Could be, I guess,” I said. It could be. Why not?

By now the rain had slackened just a bit. “Got to get my bird,” the dark-haired one said and dashed off the porch.

The chubby one was shaking his head. “If that…,” he said, but he didn’t finish his thought. In a few moments the dark-haired one returned at a run carrying a yellow shoebox which he set gently on the floor of the porch. Inside were some strips of torn newspaper and a tiny black-gray ball of down with a – relatively – immense beak open wide.

“It’s hungry again as usual,” he said. He dropped a few bits of bread into the chasm formed by the beak. Then the beak closed and disappeared somehow into the murky down. “I found it in the road,” he said to me.

“That is the ugliest thing,” the chubby one said. “You couldn’t pay me to touch that thing. He picked it right up.”

“You’re supposed to put them back in the nest,” the dark-haired one said, ignoring his partner’s comments. “I think I can find it. That’s not true that the mother leaves if you touch the nest. That is false information.”

A small, sporty car turned into the driveway. A stocky, teen-aged girl got out and ran up on the porch. Ignoring all of us, she went to a bench, which I hadn’t even noticed, around the curve of the porch where another young girl, whom I hadn’t noticed either, was lying. She was fleshy and curvy, barefoot, wearing shorts and a halter. Eula Varner! The two girls conspired in whispers and laughter. Then the stocky one ran back to her car and drove off, leaving Eula’s avatar – to use a Faulknerian word – lying on the bench as she had been all along.

Well, the rain stopped and that was about all of that. I thanked all four – in recognition, the impassive older man raised a single finger of his right hand, which was resting on the porch railing – and walked on thinking I’d learned a few things about Faulkner just by the proximity, even before I got to his house.

Gregory Curtis is the former editor of Texas Monthly and the author of Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo and The Cave Painters: Probing  the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists. Visit his website for more on his work.

Greg is also the mentor for the Mailer Nonfiction Fellows. This is his third year mentoring the Mailer Fellowship.

ROSE DOROTHEA

On the eastern coast of North America lies an intricate assembly of beaches, islands and crooked strips of land narrowed by the unrepentant embrace of the Atlantic Ocean. It is called Cape Cod. The outstretching peninsula of this coastline was described by Norman Mailer as a disagreeable arm of an elderly man, whose hand curled round extending a bony middle finger to the south. On the curving, fleshy palm sits a town called Provincetown (or P-Town as the locals call it). Despite its small size it boasts the second largest harbour in the world. Its streets are full of art galleries and many writers (like Mailer) have lived and worked here.

In the centre of the town stands a large wooden building with white painted horizontal slats and a two tier bell tower. Originally built in 1860 as a Methodist church, it now houses thousands of books and functions as the town’s library. As such it is a hub of the community and the service it provides is well-loved and fiercely defended by the people who live here.

I was told that the library had a ship inside that was worth a look. For some reason (I like to put it down to my own creative imaginings) I expected the ship to be in a bottle. I was wrong. As you walk up the stairs to the second floor the bow of the ship looms before you. Her name, the Rose Dorothea, is ornately painted in gold against the black wooden hull. She is a magnificent sailing ship. And quite clearly, far too big to be imprisoned in any bottle. The library and its books are dwarfed by her majesty. Two holes have been crafted into the ceiling to accommodate her masts and the oval-shaped reading room at the east end of the library is penetrated by her bow sprit. The main boom hangs ominously over the readers at the other end who turn their pages and tap their laptops, unthreatened by the enormity of her structure and un-struck by her prominence. But when I look at her, this ship amongst the books, I can’t help but feel that in the thread of her sails and the grain of her deck, she has more adventurous tales and more workings of history than any of these pages would care to impress upon the patrons of P-Town.

Sue Stout is forty, a mum of two from Liverpool England, studying for a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, England. She has been a primary school teacher for eleven years and is currently hooked on training for triathlons, which she’s completely rubbish at but getting better.

Sue is also the winner of the British GQ Norman Mailer Writing Competition. Judged by British GQ senior editors and contributors and other distinguished literary and publishing figures, the competition is held annually and carries a Mailer Nonfiction Fellowship as part of the prize. To find out why Sue is training for triathlons, look out for the forthcoming piece in GQ (sneak preview here).