Some thoughts on Writing by Norman Mailer.
A strange chain of reading took me to Norman Mailer some months ago. I was reading an anthology of book reviews by Martin Amis, 1972 to 2000 I think. Amongst the writers reviewed were Norman Mailer; the review was probably ‘Harlot’s Ghost’, which I have now read. Though not well written, I read an enjoyed a biography on Norman Mailer. About this time one the English Broadsheet newspapers, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ serialised ‘The Spooky Art’ so I bought it.
I’m offering up some quotes here
Here are some early comments on the first 100 pages. Once I’ve got to through the hundred pages I’ll do this again. It’s already served its purpose – I’m preparing to write again, to get a novel finished. Do add your thoughts on what Norman Mailer has to say. I’ve added page references in the expectation that you’ll buy the book too and we can share notes.
‘Writing a novel is like learning the piano.’
I like this thought because if said with conviction it might deflect conversations that imply that any of us could, with ease, add the writing of a novel to our hectic lives. Few people are selfish enough, confident enough, patient enough or desperate enough to attempt to write a novel; just as few adults who failed to learn the piano as a child and likely to stick with it as an adult. Strangely we have a piano, bought two weeks ago. I may pick up where I left off, I’m beginning to get some crude right hand sight reading back already.
‘A good skier rarely worries about a route. He just goes, confident that he’ll react to changes in the trail as they come upon him. It’s the same thing in writing; You have to have confidence in your technique. That is the beauty of mustering the right tone at the right time – it enables you to feel like a good skier, nice and relaxed for the next unexpected turn.’
I like this because it knocks flat the premise of a year’s effort and some expense writing, illustrating, designing and photographing the ‘routes’ or as my family call them ‘pistes’ (using the French term) of one of the world’s greatest ski resorts, Val d’Isere and Tignes in the French Alps. I have thick files that map and annotate the 77 or more ski runs. Yes! I enjoyed the excuse of spending months on skis up a mountain, it happened to coincide with my pursuit of someone who had taken a year out (quit a city job) to work the ‘Season.’ We’ve been married a few months short of ten years and hope to spend our Tenth Wedding Anniversary, as we spent our Honeymoon, 2000m up a snow-covered mountain. I digress. The writing analogy works for me and ties in with this ‘writing from the hip’ concept that Ghanima has picked up on; just as skiing would be no fun if you stopped every few yards to figure out what to do next, so writing cannot be fluid, consistent or fun if it is done mechanically. The difficulty is having the confidence, or as Mailer would put it, a large enough ego, to pull it off (as well as basic writing skills, something worth saying and a compulsion to write). Talent is nothing more than a product of these. Mailer continues in a similar vain here:
‘Describe what you fell as it impinges on the sum of your passions and your intellectual attainments. Bring to the act of writing all of your craft, care, devotion, lack of humbug, and honesty of sentiment. Then write without looking over your shoulder for the literary police. Write as if your life depended on saying what you felt as clearly as you could, while never losing sight of the phenomenon to be described.’
My mistake is to take big breaks between writing; I get lost. I lose myself, I lose track of what I am doing, I have new ideas. As I have said on these pages many times I need the discipline and exacting conditions of two three hour written exams a day – I perform under that kind of pressure.
‘Unless your literary figures keep growing through the event of the book, your novel can go nowhere that will surprise you.’
I put this in as a note to myself. I have a character in ‘JTW’ who bobs along, unchanged, muddle headed and too like me to be convincing or compelling. The other novel, something I started on a decade ago and forget about, let’s call it ‘Form Photo’ may be more sustainable because the protagonist is a debased shit, a contemporary ‘Flashman,’ a sex obsessed Humbert for whom incest, rape, casual sex and necrophilia become part of his crazed purpose in life. On vera. As Mailer puts on the back cover of ‘The Spooky Art’ and all the best books on writing state emphatically, ‘writers write.’ I just have to sit down and do it, consistently, every day ideally.
First Person versus Third Person
(More on this later). The first exercise of this Montparnasse thing has produced some useful thoughts on the qualities of writing in the first or third person.
Real Life versus Plot Life
‘One could make the case that our love of plot – until it becomes very cheap indeed – comes out of our need to find the chain of cause and effect that often is missing in our own existence.’
This I find repeated in the books on writing I admire the most, such as Steven Pressfield’s ‘The War of Art’ and Ben Okri’s book, the title of which alludes me. Offering reasons and meaning is the simplest way to make a reader feel empathy for the predicament that the characters face.
‘I look for my book as I go long. Plot comes last. I want a conception of my characters that’s deep enough so that they will get me to places where I, as the author, have to live by my wits. That means my characters must keep developing. So long as they stay alive, the plot will take care of itself.’
I like this for the emphasis on character, the ride you give them and how they develop. Where I have a character that is convincing, the next step is to toss at them ever larger loads of shit and see how they deal with it.
Working on a book where the plot is already fully developed is like spending the rest of your life filling holes in rotten teeth when you have no skill as a dentist.
My efforts to follow any kind of treatment, for a screen play, TV series or book, have invariably failed. I have used software such as Dramatica Pro ad nauseam, I even bought some ‘New novel’ software on impulse the other day that is pure crap. It, with folders from ‘The Writer’s Bureau’ and ALL the DIY books I Have on writing should be binned. Instead of helping me find a path to the end of a story they toss up cul de sacs and diversions. They force you to create a road map and in doing so, implying that you must stick to this one road, hundred of alternative routes are indicated.
Instinct and Influence
‘If you find some theme that keeps you working, don’t question it. Let that theme be sufficient to fuel you work. If you start using the value judgments of others, you’re never going to get much done. If I find something is stimulating to me and arousing my energy, that’s fine; I’ll trust it. No matter what you find yourself writing abut, if it’s giving you enough energy to continue, then the work bears a profound relationship to you at that point and you don’t question it.’
This is what I prefer; like a leap off the ski route, into powder, risking a trail no one has taken since the last dump of snow. Sometimes this gets me into trouble, often the experience is personal, intimate and exhilarating.
‘It’s as difficult to become a professional writer as a professional athlete.’
I’m glad he says this, like learning to play the piano. It explains why so many successful writers never produce novels: they are journalists, non-fiction writers, broadcasters or write screen-plays, but the novel alludes them.
‘The sad truth is that a would-be novelist possibly has to start a few books that do give out, or even crash, before a sense of the difficulties is acquired.’
All the more reason to get the first few novels done while you’re a student or living alone in digs – not in mid-life, burdened by debt with a family to keep.
‘A large part of writing a novel is to keep your tone.’
Were I to write a novel in one sitting, day after day, for a number of months, then I could probably deliver a consistent style and tone. The way I currently work, in bits, plays on my worst trait, I am inconsistent and indiscriminate.
‘I love starting a book; I usually like finishing one. It’s the long middle stretches that call on your character – all that in-between! – those months or years when you have to report to work almost every day.’
This is where I fail. Steven Pressfield lists all the reasons why a book might not be written, he calls it ‘Resistance.’ I am guilty of doing anything BUT write. Anything. I invite distraction, create distraction, or enter a cave of drink, TV, DIY, entertaining the kids, taking them on trips, ironing – even ironing! I don’t need a shed at the bottom of the garden (I enjoy gardening too much), I need a shed up a mountain in summer: no phone, no TV, no newspapers, no people.
‘You don’t write novels by putting in two brilliant hours a week. You don’t write novels if you lose too many mornings and afternoons to a hangover.’
This is what stopped me drinking this time round. I realised that 2003 is not lost; I made a reasonable start, lost it for a few months, but could still make it up by the end of the year. We’ll see. I find denial of any kind tough.
‘Sometimes, when you’re in a bad period, you must in effect contract yourself for weeks running. “I’m going to write tomorrow,” you have to declare, and, indeed, show up at your desk, even though there’s nothing in you, and sit there for hours, whatever number of hours you told yourself you were going to put in. Then, if nothing happens, you still show up the next day and the next and the next, until that recalcitrant presence, the unconscious, comes to decide you can finally be trusted. Such acceptance is crucial. The unconscious expects that what it has prepared for you in your sleep should be expressed, ideally, the next day. We live, you see, in an arm’s-length relationship to our unconscious. It has to be convinced over and over again to believe in you. Sometimes when you’re writing a novel, you have to live as responsibly as a good monk. That does get easier as you grow older.’
Here we go. I need to be re-institutionalised. School worked for me, I was at boarding school for over nine years, it was possibly the best thing for me. I knew when to think, when to practise, when to eat, play and wipe my arse. I didn’t need money, to cook, to supervise children, or take responsibility for anything other than me.
‘Writing is wonderful when you talk about it. It’s fun to contemplate. But writing as a daily physical activity is not agreeable. You put on weight, you strain your gut, you get gout and chilblains. You’re alone, and every day you have to face a blank piece of paper.’
I liked this thought because it reminded me of a writing group to which I temporarily belonged; when we stopped loving each other we realised it was shit hard work, no one could take the negativity, and only a few could accept that it would be painful.
‘Professionalism probably comes down to being able to work on a bad day.’
‘When I’m writing I am rarely in a good mood. A part of me prefers to work at a flat level of emotion. Day after day, I see hardly anyone. I’ll put in eight to ten hours, or which only three or four will consist of words getting down on the page. It’s almost a question of one’s metabolism. You begin, after all, from a standing start and have to accelerate up to a level of cerebration where the best words are coming in good order. Just as a fighter has to feel that he posses the right to do physical damage to another man, so a writer has to be ready to take chances with his readers’ lives. If you’re trying for something at all interesting or difficult, then you cannot predict what the results of your work will be. If it’s close enough to the root, people can be physically injured reading you. Full of heart, he was also heartless – a splendid oxymoron. That can be the epitaph for many a good novelist.’
This will be hard. I’ve tried to fit writing in around housework, around the children, around holidays to no avail. I did best when I sat down for a few hours during school term week days to write in a café; perhaps the best I can expect from now. It will take a publishing deal before I can buy, let alone justify, going at it all day long. I looked at an office the other day; a space away from home where I could write in peace having dropped the children at school. Ten years ago I would have committed myself to the place, but too many financial errors have left me nervous and inclined to listen to my wife’s advice. If I cannot act on impulse then I cease to be me.