Opinion
11:32 am
Thu December 1, 2011

Not Quite Norman: Living Up To A Literary Legacy

Originally published on Thu December 1, 2011 4:02 pm

Alex Gilvarry is the author of the forthcoming novel From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant.

Ah, the writers colony. A place where solitude is sacred, and writing is prime. Nature, peace and quiet, drinking, casual sex, a respectable meal plan — to me, this is what the very word "colony" promises. My first experience at such a place was at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown, Mass. Unlike the more established colonies — Yaddo, Macdowell — the Mailer colony offered something additionally enticing: Work where he worked. Live where he lived. Suffer how he suffered.

I was midway through my "prison novel," as I referred to it because of its setting and how it made me feel (imprisoned). A month at the Mailer colony would do me some good. I could learn how to live like a career writer, if only by Mailer's example.

I did have some reservations. Since Mailer had been called one of the "most transparently competitive writers of his generation," I was dreading any competition I would feel among the other writers at the colony. As far back as I can remember, I've hated competing. When I was a kid on Staten Island, my mother would send me off to day camp where I would train for hours in various athletics. It was there, competing, that I discovered my unwillingness to take my shirt off during "lap time" in the pool, my inability to throw a baseball on target, and my assuredness to always come in dead last.

Mailer's home was a brick three-story house with bay frontage. Adorning the walls inside were pictures of the literary giant in his various guises: a boxer leaning against the ropes; the older, somber Mailer fighting a New England gust in his windbreaker. His writing room was exactly as he left it, and it had all the signs of a top competitor. There were dents in the floor where his chair had worn down the wood from so many hours seated in battle. Dumbbells and a weight machine with pulley to train his body so that it would be in sync with his taut mind. A small bed for power naps.

I took to the school of Mailer, reading him by night, imitating his work habits by day. But as I built up some stamina for the days ahead, I suddenly found myself in a competition. Not with my fellow writers, but with the giant Mailer legacy that surrounded me.

Each morning, I wrote with the dirty little secret to leave Mailer in my dust, to be better than him, maybe for all the childhood memories where I endured defeat at the hands of children more athletically coordinated. And one night, my own ambition took me to a place that tested my limits. I was alone, and in his kitchen I made one of Mailer's signature cocktails, an equal mixture of red wine and orange juice. As I swilled the one-part shiraz and one-part OJ in my mouth, I could barely hold it down. The contrast of the beverage's two ingredients sobered me enough to take a good look at myself.

Living like him was exasperating.

I gave up the race before my time at the colony was through. I couldn't beat Mailer. Indeed, when Mailer passed, he seemed to take an entire tradition with him. That's how big a giant I was dealing with.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Every writer needs a little inspiration, not only at the beginning of a project, but also when stuck in the middle of one. Writer Alex Gilvarry got his inspiration from the literary giant Norman Mailer - at least, from Mailer's house. Gilvarry has this essay on his time at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony.

ALEX GILVARRY: Ah, the writer's colony. A place where solitude is sacred, and writing is prime. Nature, peace and quiet, drinking, a respectable meal plan - to me, this is what the very word colony promises.

My first experience at such a place was at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Unlike the more established colonies - Yaddo, MacDowell - this one offered something additionally enticing: work where he worked, live where he lived, suffer how he suffered.

I was midway through what I called my prison novel because of its setting and how it made me feel: trapped. A month at the Mailer colony would do me some good. I could learn how to live like a career writer, if only by Mailer's example. I did have some reservations. Since Mailer had been called one of the most transparently competitive writers of his generation, I was dreading any competition I would feel among the other writers at the colony. As far back as I can remember, I'd hated competing.

When I was a kid on Staten Island, my mother would send me off to day camp, where I would train for hours in various athletics. It was there that I discovered my unwillingness to take my shirt off during lap time in the pool, my inability to throw a baseball on target, and my assuredness that I would always come in dead last. The colony was located in Mailer's home, a brick, three-story house with bay frontage. Adorning the walls inside were pictures of him in his various guises: a boxer leaning against the ropes; the older, somber Mailer fighting a New England gust in his windbreaker.

And upstairs in his writing room, exactly as he left it, were all the signs of a top competitor: dents in the floor where his chair had worn down the wood from so many hours seated in battle; dumbbells, a weight machine with a pulley to train his body so that it would be in sync with his taut mind; a small bed for power naps. I took to the school of Mailer, reading him by night, imitating his work habits by day. And as I built up the stamina for the days ahead, I did find myself in a competition - not with my fellow writers but with the giant Mailer legacy before me.

Each morning, I wrote, hoping to leave Mailer in my dust, to write better than him, maybe for all my childhood memories where I endured defeat at the hands of children more athletically coordinated. And one night, my own ambition took me to a place that tested my limits. I was alone in his kitchen, and I made one of Mailer's signature cocktails - an equal mixture of red wine and orange juice. As I swilled the one-part Shiraz and one-part O.J. in my mouth, I could barely hold it down. The contrast of the beverage's two ingredients sobered me enough to take a good look at myself.

Living like him was exasperating. I gave up the race before my time at the colony was through. I couldn't beat Mailer. Indeed, when he passed, he seemed to take an entire tradition with him. That's how big a giant I was dealing with.

BLOCK: Alex Gilvarry is the author of the forthcoming novel "From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.