A Love Story Inspired by Norman Mailer

It’s 10.20 a.m. in Provincetown and 3.20 p.m. in Lagos. I’m 33000 feet in the air and many miles from home. I’ve been flying nine hours: I’ve eaten two airline meals, watched three onboard movies, read too little and slept too much. Now it’s time to work, time to turn my confinement, my boredom, into creative uptime. So I’ve opened my laptop and I’m typing this post and saying to myself how ironic it is that this is the first I’ve written in weeks. Between the town I spent the last four weeks in and the city I’ve lived in for six years, between the place where I tried to write and the place where I write, that’s when I find time to write about not writing.

I’m returning home from a four-week fellowship at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony. Before I arrived at the Colony I had just completed a short story collection and sold it to Graywolf Press, so I was hoping to use my time in Provincetown to start work on the novel I’ve been gestating for years. I had it all worked out, tightly scheduled. There would be time to explore the town. Time to play, to breaststroke in Cape Cod waters. Time to catch up on my reading. Time to attend readings by Mary Gaitskill and Greg Curtis and Carolyn Forché, among others. Time to attend seminars with the Colony’s brilliant fiction director, Jeffrey Renard Allen.

And, of course, time to write.

What I found was that I had time for everything except writing. I explored the town and the surrounding countryside. I went whale watching and clam hunting. I hung out nightly in dive bars and beachfront restaurants and gay nightclubs (there isn’t one straight nightclub in the whole of Provincetown). I attended readings every week at the Norman Mailer house and the FAWC. I attended seminars twice a week and — sitting in Mr. Mailer’s dining room or standing at his bar — discussed writing with other writers. I even found time to read one small book, which I finally finished — after three long weeks — while waiting at JFK Airport to board my flight.

There’s no denying that I faced several distractions during the fellowship, most of them caused by me. Too much time spent on the internet. Too many hours wasted on American TV series. On big screen movies, jukebox music, drag shows, and dining out. Nourishment. Firsthand experience. I came, I saw, I gorged myself. I walked the streets of that bubble town and met all stripes (bears, Bulgarians, bellicose barmaids) and gathered stories. Stories I hope to process into fiction someday.

How I do this, how I make out time to write, doesn’t worry me overmuch. Proust found his way, as did Flaubert. Franzen rejigged his computer to arrive at his. Soyinka, while in prison on charges of sedition, wrote the first draft of The Man Died on rolls of toilet paper, in secret, at the risk of punishment, of losing what few privileges he had. Mahfouz, despite holding a job in the Egyptian civil service for nearly half a century, made out time to write every day. Anne Frank found space to write despite her deplorable living conditions. Kafka wrote in spite of the debilitating effects of depression and tuberculosis.

My point is, writers write. However, despite whatever. If I call myself a writer and yet can’t make out time to write — because the internet is too distracting, because I’m addicted to Netflix, because I have to hold a real job — then I should accept that I’m something else: a failed writer.

Hours later. It’s 2.06 a.m. in Lagos and I’m one storey above the ground. A rainstorm started minutes ago and the electricity is gone. I haven’t rested since my flight landed. My eyes are heavy, my muscles ache, my head is throbbing, but I can’t sleep because of the noise from the neighbours’ generators. I open a book; the strain of reading by candlelight is too much to bear. I rise from bed and sit at my laptop. My internet service is down. My laptop battery is at 63 percent — enough power to watch an hour of The Man from Earth, or to write for two hours.

I think I’ll start a story about a long-legged, Chinese-American woman who falls in love with a dark handsome stranger on a Cape Cod whale-watching boat.

Thank you, Norman.

– A. Igoni Barrett’s fiction has been published in AGNI, Kwani? and Guernica. He was a 2011 Fiction Fellow at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown. His second book is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2013. Visit his blog.

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