The Spooky Art made less scary

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Norman Mailer by Kieran Guckian, Creative Commons

The best book I’ve ever read on writing comes from one of my favourite authors of all time.

Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing was published in 2003 as he neared 80 years old, and finds him in a reflective mood.

It’s packed full with decades of hard-earned experience, snippets from essays and interviews through the years, stitched together and expanded on.

There’s plenty of very good insight on the basics, such as first person versus third person narrative voices – first person gains you immediacy but you lose insight, because you can’t move into other people’s heads without using a few devices, usually dubious – and he’s good on finding your own voice and maintaining tone.

Also, he’s superb on re assessing his own landmark books, such as The Naked and the Dead, and The Deer Park.

Here are 10 things Mailer wrote in The Spooky Art that rang true and that I try to apply:

  1. Don’t go into your protagonist’s thoughts unless you have something to say about his or her inner life that’s more interesting than the reader’s suppositions… To jump in and offer banal material is fatal – the worst of best-sellerdom.
  2. The problem of experience… I would argue that your material becomes valuable only when it is existential – by which I mean an experience you do not control.
  3. There may be too much of a tendency among young intellectuals to think if one can develop a consciousness, if one is able to brood sensitively and incisively on one’s own life, and on the life of others for that matter, one will be able to write when the time comes. That assumption, however, may not recognise sufficiently that the ability to put words on a page also come through years of experience, and can become a skill nearly separate from consciousness and bear more resemblance to the sophisticated instinct of fingers that have been playing scales for a decade.
  4. I seemed unable to create in the first person a narrator who was not over-delicate, over sensitive and painfully tender… it seemed to paralyse me, as if I had a horror of creating a voice which could be in any way bigger than myself.
  5. I saw so much in some sentences that more than once I dropped in to the pit of the amateur: since I was receiving such emotion from my words, I assumed everyone else would be stimulated as well, and on many a line I twisted the phrase in such a way that it could read well only when read slowly, about as slowly as it would take for an actor to read it aloud.
  6. A man lays his character on the line when he writes a novel. Anything in him which is lazy, meretricious, or unthought-out, complacent, fearful, overambitious, or terrified by the ultimate logic of his exploration will be revealed in his book. Some writers are skilful at concealing their weakness into an acceptable mannerism of style. Nonetheless, no novelist can escape his or her own character altogether. That is, perhaps, the worst news any young writer can hear.
  7. A large part of a novel is to keep your tone… 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.
  8. Over the years I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. It’s a simple rule: if you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material.
  9. Paranoia? It is either the centre of one’s sanity or the edge of one’s psychosis. You never know when it’s devoted to your safety or to your ultimate breakdown.
  10. The selfishness of the artist is often there to protect the part that is generous. To the degree that artists give of themselves to all people, they don’t want to give anything at all in other ways. There’s an economy to generosity. And very often the people who are the most generous are not the most talented. I think the inner sanction that artist give themselves is that they’ve got to be selfish – absolutely! – or nothing will get done. Such thoughts are not happy, but the evidence – if the biographies of artists and writers are at all reliable – does support the notion that it is best to revere painters, poets and novelists for their talent rather than their character.
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