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The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing by…

The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing (2003)

by Norman Mailer

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“Just as a fighter has to feel that he possesses the right to do physical damage to another man, so a writer has to be ready to take chances with his readers’ lives.”
― Norman Mailer, The Spooky Art

With The Spooky Art seasoned novelist Norman Mailer, by certain accounts “the American Tolstoy,” a fact he doesn’t mind repeating in these pages, offers his hard won wisdom and sage advice on writing and everything else that touches on the literary; correction, make that touches on subjects as broad as world history, philosophy, psychology, religion and, last but hardly least, life and death. Perhaps to be expected, Norman Mailer being Norman Mailer, an enormous spotlight is also cast on America and the American dream.

And a very up close and personal book it is – Norman, age eighty, doesn’t hold back in revealing oodles of his professional life as a writer and a good measure of his personal and social life. But he is clear about one thing in particular: if you are a novelist (or aspiring novelist), this book is best read if you have a fair amount of experience and success in publishing under your belt. He acknowledges that he simply says too much about the drawbacks and pitfalls of being a novelist to benefit the beginner. Some things are better discovered on one’s own.

Rather than making any overarching or general observations, below are a number of juicy quotes from the book specifically addressing the business of writing (I'll leave it to others to comment on Norman's ideas on life, death and various other big topics). Keeping in the spirit of Norman’s very personal slant, I will share my own personal experience as part of my accompanying comments.

“So I learned to write by writing. As I once calculated, I must have written more than half a million words before I came to The Naked and the Dead, and a large fraction of those words was in the several drafts of this novel.” ---------- Half a million words is roughly one thousand pages. The big first lesson for any would-be novelist or would-be writer, for that matter, is lots of practice. This amounts to at least an hour or two a day. In his book On Writing, Stephen King says much the same thing. For myself, when I began writing reviews five years ago, I made the commitment to read and write every day, finishing at least one or two reviews each and every week. Turns out, this was easy – and for a simple, clear-cut reason: I love reading and I love writing reviews! Love is the key. Without passion, real passion, a fire in the gut, sitting down at your writing desk quickly becomes an uphill battle.

“Every now and again I would have the nightmare of wondering what would happen if all the reviews were bad, as bad as for Barbary Shore. I would try to tell myself that could not happen, but I was not certain.” ---------- What surprised me is how Norman Mailer put such an emphasis on reviews and reviewers of his books - all his emotion anticipating the reviewers waiting for his next published book “on the other side of the hill.” He admits his constant battle with celebrity and fame and concern for what reviewers would say resulted in large measure from the tremendous success of his first published novel The Naked and the Dead, a book that made it to the best seller list when he was a young man of twenty-five.

Norman Mailer wanted to be the next Leo Tolstoy or Thomas Mann. He really only has time and energy for novelists and novels that aspire to such great heights. One thing that came through in the book: Mailer values the novel far over other forms of literature such as poetry, drama, short story and essay. As far as Norman is concerned, the novelist is king of the hill, way out in front of writers working in any other form. However, according to Norman, the price a novelist pays is great in terms of personal health and the grind involved in such a long-term literary project. Poetry and other shorter forms appeal to writers who are more aristocratic in temperament; novelists, on the other hand, require a work-a-day, grind-it-out, blue-collar mentality. He then goes on to say how poets and writers of short stories have a Muse but a novelist has a Bitch, or rather, the Bitch. Perhaps this is why I stick with writing reviews - given the choice, I’d much rather be an aristocrat inspired by a muse than a blue-collar drudge slugging it out with the Bitch.

"A few weeks later we came back to the city, and I took some mescaline. Maybe one dies a little with the poison of mescaline in the blood. At the end of a long and private trip which no quick remark should try to describe, the book of The Dear Park floated into mind, and I sat up, reached through a pleasure garden of velveted light to find the tree of a pencil and the bed of a notebook, and brought them to union together." ---------- Mailer writes about his own experience with alcohol, tobacco and various drugs. Three quick strokes about his experiences with these various substances: at one point, his quitting smoking was a real challenge since he felt his whole writerly self was a tobacco-fueled self; he discovered marijuana expanded his senses but contracted his mind; he concludes drinking liquor while writing is a practice best avoided. As for my experience, I’ve never been a drinker, smoker or user of drugs but I do have a suggestion for a loss of writerly energy: a good night sleep! And then take advantage by hitting your writing desk first thing in the morning.

“Being a novelist, I want to know every world. I would never close myself off to a subject unless it’s truly repulsive to me. While one can never take one’s imperviousness to corruption for granted, it is still important to have some idea of how the world works. What ruins most writers of talent is that they don’t get enough experience, so their novels tend to develop a certain paranoid perfection. That is almost never as good as the rough edge of reality. (Franz Kafka immaculately excepted!)” --------- I didn’t start writing until I was in my late thirties - no problem with enough experience. And when I wrote my one-and-only novel (published by a small press, long out-of-print), I quickly discovered, in my case, novel-writing was a most unsatisfying creative project. My advice: life is short – it is best to find the literary form that really works for you and go with it. For me, years ago it was prose poems; nowadays, writing reviews.

“Some talented people feel they still haven’t read enough to sit down and write. That is paralyzing.” ---------- Mailer expands on this, how, after a certain point, a novelist is best keeping away from other novelists, especially contemporaries. I can appreciate how overexposure can be paralyzing. Fortunately, as a reviewer, one can’t read enough - the more books a reviewer reads the better. I would never want to be the type of writer where I would have to limit my reading in any way whatsoever.

“Among the authors discussed, some in reasonable depth, others in no more than passing comment, are Hemmingway, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Updike, Cheever, Roth, Doctorow, Capote, Vidal, Bellow, Heller, Borges, James Jones, Styron, Chekhov, James T. Farrell, Henry Adams, Henry James, Garcia Marquez, Melville, Proust, Beckett, Dreiser, Graham Greene, William Burroughs, Scott Fitzgerald, Nelson Algren, Kurt Vonnegut, Dwight MacDonald, Toni Morrison, Thomas Wolfe, Tom Wolfe, Jean Malaquais, Don DeLillo, Henry Miller, John Steinbeck, Christopher Isherwood, William Kennedy, Joan Didion, Kate Millett, Jonathan Franzen, Ralph Ellison, Joyce Carol Oates, John Dos Passos, D. H. Lawrence, Mark Twain, Freud, and Marx.” ---------- Norman analyzes and passes judgement on many writers and their novels, many literary schools and their historical influences and many of the ups and downs on the American literary scene, past and present. Quite entertaining and informative. I highly recommend reading Norman's book.

Special thanks to Goodreads friend Mark Hebwood from London for pointing out this fine Norman Mailer book to me.

“Metaphor reveals a writer’s true grasp of life. To the degree that you have no metaphor, you have not yet lived much of a life.” -- Norman Mailer, The Spooky Art ( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
Reading Mailer's letters—and none of his other books as yet—was enough to convince me that he was a writer of rare talent, so the idea of reading his thoughts on writing was attractive. But "The Spooky Art" is a meandering tome that collects Mailer's conversationally presented thoughts not just on writing, which only represent about a third of the book, but on any number of subjects topical and universal. Most are essays that were published elsewhere, abridged and revised with prefaces and afterwords. And the pieces on writing are quite straightforwardly about his particular experiences instead of about the common problems writers might experience, and what to do about them. This is not to say that the book isn't interesting. But it's the kind of interesting that any book featuring the thoughts of an old, smart, boldly nonconformist man would be. I would have been better served moving directly from his letters to his most noted works. I bought his collection "The Time of Our Time" for excerpts from those. ( )
  john.cooper | Jun 5, 2015 |
Mailer’s insight to the spookiness of the “work” of writing is, at times, meandering and kooky, but ultimately hits home on some major points. Avoiding his digressions on films and other topics, this book was extremely helpful in making me feel comfortable about taking risks with my writing in order to tell the best story possible. The book seems to offer more insight than advice, but it definitely touched upon many of the aspects of writing that are difficult to explain to those outside of the literary life. ( )
  JosephJ | Dec 16, 2011 |
Pretty good. Mostly enjoyable. I've not yet read any of Mailer's novels (and how odd that I would finish this mere days after his passing!), but I figured a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author would probably have a lot to say about writing. He did, as well as having a few really sharp insights into Life.

Less enjoyable were times went he went off on other tangents, like the chapters on journalism (not very interesting, and rather dated) and film (his thoughts on which are somewhat INSANE). His writing about sex always felt "off" and uncomfortable - in part because he clearly seemed to have some significant unresolved gender issues. Then again, I suppose the shockingly casual reference to "the time I stabbed my second wife" in the middle of one chapter kind of made that plain, eh?

Still, even if I was nearly skimming it near the end of the book, there was a lot of other wisdom to be gleaned throughout. ( )
1 vote duck2ducks | Sep 4, 2008 |
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I am tempted to call this section Economics, for it concerns the loss and gain (economically, psychically, physically) of living as a writer.   
Writing is spooky.  There is no routine of an office to keep you going only the blank page each morning, and you never know where your words are coming from.  page 70
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812971280, Paperback)

In The Spooky Art, Norman Mailer discusses with signature candor the rewards and trials of the writing life, and recommends the tools to navigate it. Addressing the reader in a conversational tone, he draws on the best of more than fifty years of his own criticism, advice, and detailed observations about the writer’s craft.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:19 -0400)

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In [this book, the author] discusses with signature candor the rewards and trials of the writing life, and recommends the tools to navigate it. Addressing the reader in a conversational tone, he draws on the best of more than fifty years of his own criticism, advice, and detailed observations about the writer's craft. [He] explores, among other topics, the use of first person versus third person, the pressing need for discipline, the pitfalls of early success, and the dire matter of coping with bad reviews. While [the book] offers a ... preview of what can lie in wait for the student and fledgling writer, [it] also has a great deal to say to more advanced writers on the contrary demands of plot and character, the demon writer's block, and the curious ins-and-outs of publishing. Throughout, [the author] ties in examples from his own career, and reflects on the works of his fellow writers, living and dead -- Twain, Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, Updike, Didion, Bellow, Styron, Beckett, and a host of others.-Dust jacket.… (more)

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