I'm thinking just now of Norman Mailer, one of the Literary Lions of the second half of the 20th century. He was a wildcat, a brilliant thinker, whether you loved him, or hated him. He wrote brilliant books like "Advertisements for Myself," "Fire On the Moon," (Pulitzer), and "Ancient Evenings," an Egyptian epic that few critics or readers understood, but somehow we knew it was brilliant. I loved reading him because he always shocked me into new realizations about the human psyche, about how pain has a purpose, about how, if we are born to write, it is a sacrilege not to.
It is true, Mailer stabbed one of his six wives, fathered nine children, squandered his talents on self-made vanity films, and publicly belittled and tormented legendary Feminists like Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem. But he was also a loving (though philandering) husband, a devoted father, supporting all his kids through college, and - a little known fact - he was incredibly generous and patient with younger, up and coming writers. To my knowledge he answered every note he ever received.
I had the privilege of knowing Norman Mailer as a teacher and mentor. In long, instructive letters, he scolded me about over-writing, warned me about using too many adjectives as scaffolding. And constantly reminded me to always ALWAYS respect my readers, because they are generally more intelligent than we are! Mailer died two years ago and the media was chock full of his notorious life - his drinking, his fistfights, his women, his love of giving the world the finger - and most of all his enduringly brilliant mind. But no one talked about his doubting side, the side of the author who was often hurt, even ignored by book reviewers.
Recently a writer-friend who was also mentored by Mailer sent a me letter he wrote her in his later years, trying to console her when sales of her book were lagging. Its a wonderful letter that ALL writers should read, and maybe readers should too, because it talks about the pain and loneliness of writing, and how that pain and loneliness can be transformed into beauty, and how - no matter what - we must soldier on.
That was a fine and lovely letter you wrote on "Harlot's Ghost" [one of his novels about the CIA] and came on just the right morning, since I'd just finished reading a couple of dull and dumb and snide reviews about my book and was sitting on my anger, so you saved me from one of those days of gloom and inner wrath.
I know the results of your book have been disappointing, and all I can tell you...is that on nine out of ten works for all of us, it's like that. We never get what we put into it, and the only way we can keep going is to tell ourselves that the reward, ironically, is in the writing, in all those bad awful days of hating the book, being lost in it, knowing the limitations of one's talent - and all those depressions.
But nonetheless, we do have the experience. We write the book. That's probably the only reward we're going to get. We get published, there are hassles, and it never turns out the way you hope. But then over the years it's all right. The books are there; people occasionally read them, and we can feel halfway decent about ourselves. Such is the wisdom of the part of me, a small part, I hope, that has turned to stoicism in my later years."
It is a wise and beautiful letter that encourages us writers to press on, no matter the sacrifice, no matter the cost. No matter the loneliness. And it's a valuable reminder that even Literary Lions get the blues.
Thank you, Norman Mailer!