The wisdom of a writer’s writer: Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer, left, with Truman Capote. Photograph: The Norman Mailer Center

Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing.

Norman Mailer was one of a kind, the kind of writer every generation needs as its literary standard bearer.

As The New York Times pointed out, “At different points in his life, Mr. Mailer was a prodigious drinker and drug taker, a womanizer, a devoted family man, a would-be politician who ran for mayor of New York, a hipster existentialist, an antiwar protester, an opponent of women’s liberation, and an all-purpose feuder and short-fused brawler, who with the slightest provocation would happily engage in head butting, arm-wrestling, and random punch-throwing.”

Always outrageous, Mailer left behind these words of wisdom:

  • Writer’s block is only a failure of the ego.
  • One thing I’ve learned in all these years is not to make love when you really don’t feel like it; there’s probably nothing worse you can do to yourself than that.
  • Any war that requires the suspension of reason as a necessity for support is a bad war.
  • You don’t know a woman until you’ve met her in court.
  • Ultimately, a hero is a man who would argue with the gods, and so awakens the Devils to contest his vision.
  • Every moment of one’s existence is growing into more or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit.
  • There is a no-man’s land between sex and love, and it alters in the night.
  • Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing.
  • If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.
  • The desire for success lubricates secret prostitution in the soul.
  • You never do find out what makes you tick, and after a while, it’s unimportant.
  • The function of socialism is to raise suffering to a higher level.
  • Obsession is the single most wasteful human activity, because with an obsession you keep coming back and back and back to the same question and never get an answer.
  • With the pride of the artist, you must blow against the walls of every power that exists the small trumpet of your defiance.
  • It’s not a good idea to put your wife into a novel, not your latest wife anyway.
  • Alimony is the curse of the writing class.
  • The difference between writing a book and being on television is the difference between conceiving a child and having a baby made in a test tube.

Norman Mailer was a writer obsessed with his craft. As he told the Paris ReviewOne of my basic notions for a long, long time is that there is this mysterious mountain out there called reality. We novelists are always trying to climb it. We are mountaineers, and the question is, Which face do you attack? Different faces call for different approaches, and some demand a knotty and convoluted interior style. Others demand great simplicity. The point is that style is an attack on the nature of reality. 

In his time, Norman Mailer became known and revered as the heavyweight champion of American letters.

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  • ‘Obsession is the single most wasteful human activity, because with
    an obsession you keep coming back and back and back to the same question
    and never get an answer.’

    ‘With the pride of the artist, you must blow against the walls of every power that exists the small trumpet of your defiance.’

    Agree with the second – not so sure about the first. Obsession is a magnificent driver if there IS an answer.

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