Norman Mailer died yesterday.
Mailer spoke at the New York State Writer’s Institute this past May. He was physically rather weak; he used a cane in each hand as he gingerly approached a table on stage and sat behind it. But his voice was still strong, deep and resonant, as if it was coming from the deepest part of the bass clef. There were a few hints of the old braggadacio in his presentation, and I remember him challenging some of the questioners from the audience.
As is usually the case at these author forums, someone asked Mailer what advice he would give an aspiring writer. He responded by saying that there had to be some mental element that would punish an author who did not write. Every evening, an author has to schedule a certain number of hours that he or she will write the next day. You need to end the day by saying, I will write for three hours, or five hours, or some rational target, the next day. If that schedule is not kept, you will fail – you will never develop the necessary discipline to succeed at the craft, no matter how skilled you are at using the language. To Mailer, writing was a discipline triggered by guilt. You need the internal nag.
I have someone who acts as my nag. She consistently reminds me of the gaps in my writing. She recently pointed out that I might be writing, but if I’m not posting it, she can’t read what I am writing.
We all need champions, someone who identifies our particular skill and encourages us to use them. We need an angel to bring the message. The true incentive, however, has to come from our own mind, our own soul, our own hearts. It has to be an internal need – an itch to be scratched, an ache to be soothed, a craving that requires fulfillment.
From there, comes the discipline to succeed. The angel can remind and push us, but the true desire comes from inside.
Norman Mailer may not be the best of models. Much of his life was loud, impetuous, audacious, and deliberately confrontational. He was much older before he confronted his own stability and the satisfaction he gained solely from his written creations.
But his writing will certainly outlive him. His admonition – to listen to our internal nag -- is one for all writers to heed.