Saturday, August 21, 2010

Norman Mailer Writers Colony

I just returned from Provincetown, Cape Cod where I attended a weeklong workshop at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony.

After getting my rejection notice from Sewanee in early March (thankfully they rejected me rather quickly this year) I went looking for another summer opportunity. I saw an ad in Poets & Writers for the Norman Mailer Writers Colony that had workshops and fellowship opportunities throughout the year.

I checked out the website and it looked pretty cool, a small group working out of Norm’s house right on the Bay. I figured it was worth a $20 application fee. I wasn’t clear what the tuition cost, but I figured they would let me know if I got accepted.

A month later I found out I had been accepted and the big surprise was that they don’t charge tuition – everyone accepted is a scholarship student. They charge a $250 administration fee and they don’t provide meals – which are not cheap in Ptown, but they put the students up in very cool, spacious condos (mine had wireless and cable and a kitchenette and I could see the beach from my front porch.)

During the summer months, they have one workshop each week at the Colony with 8 or 9 attendees. My workshop leader was Marita Golden, a novelist and essayist. ( I highly recommend her novel, “After” – a story told from the perspective of a cop who mistakenly shoots and kills an innocent man.)

Marita ran an excellent workshop. Everyone submitted thirty pages (a short story or novel excerpt) in advance by email so we could all read the work before arriving. Each morning we met for three hours and Marita set up a schedule to review two of the manuscripts each day.

Marita was very well prepared. She did not run a typical workshop where everyone comments on what they liked and didn’t like about the story. Instead she had each writer read specific sections that she selected and then she helped us to analyse the pieces using as a framework the tools available to the writer: plot, narrative, character, dialogue, atmosphere. She led the discussion through a Socratic approach – i.e. she asked questions of the class. She maintained control of the discussion – but not in a controlling way.

While she was focused on the specific writer’s piece she was able to draw lessons from the writer’s work to help us see things in our stories that could be improved. We only spent about an hour on each ms but I think everyone felt that their work was given adequate attention.

Marita also assigned published stories for us to read. We discussed those stories before moving on to the participant manuscripts. Breaking down a successful story helped us to see why the story worked. For example we read one of the Olive Kitteridge stories as an example of how to use narrative voice effectively.

Narrative was Marita’s big issue. (The N word as she described it. ) “Narrative informs the reader of the weight of something. It allows you to tell something from the inside of your character.” (She said a lot more about narrative, but I’m not a great note-taker.)

This narrative lesson was especially helpful for me. I have sort of a minimalist approach with “Show don’t Tell” beaten into me. As a result my writing suffers in places from a serious narrative deficiency.

I’m starting to understand how I can use Narrative more effectively. For one of the writing exercises, I wrote a prologue that was all narrative – no dialogue – and I think it worked well. I’m going to now revise / revisit all of the work I’ve done to date on my novel with a fresh perspective.

On the last day of the workshop we all read five page pieces that we had written during the week from prompts Marita had assigned us based on our writing excerpt. Listening to everyone read their pieces was my favorite part of the week.

During the week we also had a one on one hour with Marita to discuss our work and career aspirations. And because Marita was the only instructor on site – unlike the large conferences where sometimes I get the feeling the primary reason the instructor is there is to re-connect with old friends and fellow workshop leaders - she was quite accessible – joined us a couple of times for wine and beer on Norm’s deck.

Provincetown and the House is a great venue for a workshop. They gave us bikes to tool around the area – it is not easy to drive – not many places to park. The swimming in the bay was great – but I was the only student to take advantage of it. And the woman next door liked to swim topless, but that wasn’t why I swam ever day.

Happy Hour was fun too.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Steelhead Ironman 70.3 - The Results

As we pulled into the parking lot for the Steelhead Ironman 70.3 at 5:30 AM it began to rain. The parking lot was a mile from the race site and neither Suzanne nor I had an umbrella. Suzanne is not what I would call a morning person, but she didn’t really complain about the bad weather, perhaps because she was still asleep.

It took me about half hour to arrange my gear in the transition area – it takes longer when it’s raining and still dark out – and then Suzanne and I started to walk to the swim start. In this race, the old guys were scheduled to go off first (well right after the pros) so my wave started at 7:04 AM. It was a mile walk to the swim start and I made it there about thirty seconds before the start. No time to get nervous.

I had a pretty good swim – kept a steady pace and was out of the water in 39:21 – close to my goal of 38 minutes. It was raining, but that was only a problem for the spectators.

The transition area was twice as long as Musselman, and so even though I pushed it, my transition time was 4:42 – well above my goal of three minutes.

I mounted the bike and then ran into my first problem. I had inadvertently pushed the shift lever when I was getting out of my wetsuit and when I bega to pedal the chain fell off. I dismounted, slipped it back on and then remounted and but it fell off again as soon as I started to pedal. I finally realized that I needed to push the shift lever back to the right position. After I did that the chain stayed on. That glitch cost me about four minutes. I’m not too good at the mechanical aspects of this sport.

It was raining lightly, but soon let up and the weather was actually great for riding. Cool and not much wind. I tried to maintain a speed of more than 20 mph and, with the exception of some of the hills, rode consistently between 19 and 22 mph. I finished the bike segment in 2:59:26, which was just one minute and 26 seconds short of my goal. If I hadn’t lost the time with the chain I would have been on goal. I averaged 18.7 mph on the bike and it would have been 19.2 if not for the chain snafu.

Again it took me over 4 minutes for the transition, but as I headed out on the run I felt good. I had completed the first two legs in 4 hours and forty-eight minutes so I still had a good chance of achieving my goal of 5 hours 47 minutes. And if not that, at least finishing in under six hours.

I started out at a nine minute mile pace, but then a half mile into the run, as I was figuring out what my overall time would be if I kept at that pace – my left quad started to cramp and then as I slowed to try and work that out, I got a severe cramp in my right hamstring. I came to a stop. I pushed hard on the muscle, but the cramp persisted. I stared down at the ground, somewhat in dismay. Not sure what I should do.

It was a short walk back to the race site. I didn’t want to quit, but I didn’t want to try to fight through leg cramps for thirteen miles. It would take hours. Suzanne had the car keys. I’m sure she would have waited. Pretty sure.

I started to walk back. I didn't cramp up, so I turned around and started to walk the other way. Then I started to run, expecting the hamstring to immediately spasm. It didn’t so I kept running. I was slow. I don’t know if it was the effect of the cramp, or pushing it on the bike or because I had only had three weeks since the last Ironman 70.3, but my legs were heavy. Tired.

The good part of being in the first wave is that you get to start before everyone else. The bad part is that most of those younger folks catch up to you. On that run I felt like I was passed by everyone in the race, maybe twice. But I ran the whole thing – even up the hills where lots of folks walked. And in the end, as bad as my run time felt to me – it was five minutes better than my time at Musselman. I finished the run in 2:21: 46 – well short of my goal of 2 hours and five minutes.

My total race time was six hours, nine minutes, twenty six seconds. Even though I failed to achieve my goal, I’m somewhat encouraged. I have made some strides in both swimming and biking and I think I can continue to improve my times in both of those areas as I become more skilled. On the run, I need to build my endurance for the longer distances – right now I’m sort of unraveling at this half-Ironman distance. I know that I can run much faster than the times I have obtained in the last two races.

Now I have to decide what to do as far as training and / or races for the rest of the year. But for the moment I’m just looking forward to a relaxing week. Just a few easy workouts.

            Musselman       Goal     Actual
               ----------          -----     ------
Swim          41:43            38:00      39:21
Transition     2: 50            3:00         4:42
Bike         3:07:26         2:58:00    2:59:26
  mph        (18.0)            (19.0)      (18.7)
Transition     4:07              3:00         4:14
Run         2:25:34        2:05:00     2:21:46
Min/mile   (11:07)          (9:32)      (10:50)
---------     -----              ------        -------
Total       6:21:40      5:47:00     6:09:26