It's a Thursday evening, downstairs at the Providence Athenaeum. Hardwood floors, white bookcases, a bit of sunlight still coming through the windows.
In the back, pizza, strawberries, and Matthew Lawrence — tall, nearly 30, and not overly impressed with himself. "Right now, I'm a marginally employed dog walker," he tells me.
Perhaps, but he's also the man behind Not About the Buildings, a nifty literary events outfit.
He hosts a spelling bee at AS220. He's staged group readings of Edith Wharton's bleak and clever Ethan Frome. And with the Athenaeum's Christina Bevilacqua, he conceived of the event that draws some 35 amateur writers this evening.
It's called Micro-Memoir and it's about what you might expect: personal histories in 200 words or less, written in half-an-hour and read aloud by those who are willing to share.
It is, in a way, a trendy sort of enterprise. In her introduction, host Karen Donovan acknowledges the recent bloom of "microfiction," "nanofiction," "flash fiction," and, inevitably, Twitter fiction ("twiction," for those who can't bear two full words).
But Donovan's experience with the form runs quite deep. For 20 years, she co-edited Paragraph magazine, a small ode to brevity. And tonight, she is running her fourth Micro-Memoir session.
So the advice she offers the assembled, before we begin, carries some weight: don't be afraid to tell what really happened; use detail; a good beginning and a strong finish can blot out a middling middle.
"It is six o'clock," she says. "Ready, set, go."
We each open an envelope and find one of four prompts: the story of my tantrum, the story of my midnight, the story of my hat, the story of my adventure with insects. I get "tantrum." And it's a bit ill-fitting; I don't believe in histrionics. But I press ahead anyhow.
The collection of writers surrounding me looks a bit like you might expect: white and older and a little balding in places. But the organizers make an effort to attract some young folk. And there are four teenagers — two girls and two boys — in the rows ahead of me.
Lawrence says one of his favorite micro memoirs came from a teen who, asked to describe the best culinary experience of her life, managed to excite the palate of the entire room before delivering the kicker: "it turned out her favorite meal was at Fire + Ice ," he says, "at the mall."
Donovan rings a bell. The pencils scratch for a few moments more. One writer whispers that she's put 216 words on the page. And then a little break before the readings.
The youngest writers don't disappoint. One of the boys turns an insect he once pulled away from a group of screaming, grateful girls into his "wingman."
"The story of my midnight," says one woman, "is my mid-life": a husband dumps her, a father slips into dementia.
Another writes of the waterbugs in the New York apartment of her youth, Sid Vicious murdering Nancy Spungen upstairs, and secret meetings with her father after her parents split.
A third tells of the hats she stitched, sold all over the world, and traded during an "annihilating divorce" — for a VCR, vintage jewelry, and psychiatric treatment for her cat.
Lawrence reads near the end. "This is really terrible, by the way," he says. But it isn't. It's funny. Just a little incomplete.
Something about long hours watching Are You Being Served? and a reference to the bad kid in his class — you know, the one who always talked about sex and whose sister was a raver.