The Situation and the Story- A week in Provincetown

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We started Amitava Kumar’s nonfiction workshop at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown with a bottle of Irony and Vivian Gornick:

Every work of literature has a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot;the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.

There were six of us- three New Yorkers, two Aussies and our trusted guide, Ami. We sat in Norman Mailer’s living room discussing voice on the page. That was the situation. Feminists in Mailer’s house. Perhaps that was the Irony.

Sometimes the situation changed, the setting changed, the sky changed. We’d walk along the beach and discuss each other’s work. Ami shared with us a practice Ken Chen, head of AAWW, adopted, taking the advice of his writing mentor: “If you run 10 minutes a day, you will become a poet.”

In Provincetown, I opted to swim. A body in motion leads to clarity in thought. In New York, I write on the subway. I’ve previously said, “Who needs a writing retreat, when you have the G train?” But as my feet pressed onto Provincetown sands (where the Pilgrims first did land), another argument could be made.

After a night of reading Janet Malcolm, Edwidge Danticat and James Baldwin, Ami sent us Kurt Vonnegut’s writing rules and asked each of us to write one rule based on something we’ve observed from these writers. Here’s what we came up with:

  1. Notice everything and then apply the crap detector- B.R
  2. Stand Back- E.C.
  3. Life is Messy. Admit contradictions- A.K.
  4. As a writer, remember your role is to entertain-A.K.
  5. Advance the story with not only what you know, but what you do not know-S.I.
  6. Give your readers a story they could hold as if they were in the trenches.-MBK

Our conversations were enriched by the great diversity that exists within nonfiction. As David Shields notes in Reality Hunger: “The roominess of the term nonfiction: an entire dresser labeled nonsocks

So that was the situation. The story was a group of writers learning from each other, discovering their voice, their aesthetic, their lens, the thing they have come to say, and how they will come to say it.

Onwards with gratitude and excitement.

Wag Wag Wag.

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