Norman Mailer’s writing rule: Don’t stiff your unconscious

Norman Mailer has strong feelings about his rule

Here’s what Norman Mailer says in his book about writing, The Spooky Art: “The rule is that if you say you are going to write tomorrow, then it doesn’t matter how badly you’re hungover or how promising is a sudden invitation in the morning to do something more enjoyable. No, you go in dutifully, slavishly, and you work.”

Mailer couches this rule within his conception that a writer relies on his or her unconscious mind to write well, and that when you invite your unconscious mind to a writing session, your body better show up. Otherwise, that writing genie within you may refuse to come when you call in the future.

As you can see from the title of his book, Mailer views writing as a quasi-mysterious activity that is a collaboration between our conscious will and hidden sources that are beyond our ken. As a creative writer, Mailer may have a different perspective than say, a journalist or academic, but there is something of potential value for all writers in the idea that being a writer requires a commitment. Whether you view that as a commitment to one’s unconscious, one’s self, one’s inner desire to write, or one’s advisor is immaterial.

Mailer self-discloses a lot about his own resistances and agonies as a writer. Resistance, confusion, laziness, fear and resentment all arise in the course of a writer’s life, and at certain points your commitment will be tested. Mailer may state his rule in more macho terms than some writers might, but at the heart of it is an understanding that being a serious writer demands an enormous amount of dedication and willingness to persevere in the face of adversity.

Mailer’s rule also implies that a writer should be open to inspirations arising from sources that defy explanation because these give a unique vision and energy to one’s work. He notes that one reason why writing blocks are so frustrating and demoralizing is that they are frequently driven by forces outside our awareness. His prescription to writers is that they should develop trusting agreements between their conscious egos and the unconscious mysteries from which writing springs forth.

Actually it’s simple. Show up. Write. Something will happen.

About David Rasch

Author, psychologist, speaker, teacher, consultant, workshop leader
This entry was posted in Common Writing Block Problems, Famous writers, Tips for overcoming writer's block and procrastination and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Norman Mailer’s writing rule: Don’t stiff your unconscious

  1. I just received and began reading your Book of the Dead, and while reading the chapter on procrastination I realized that reading your book (at that moment) was a form of procrastination. So as soon as I finish typing this I am back to writing my current chapter. When I’m done, I’ll reward myself with the book! What a life….

    • Jonathan,
      Yes…that is the dark underbelly of books like mine. They can be a way to avoid that makes you feel like you are addressing the problem. Your plan of rewarding yourself with a book about procrastination as a way to not procrastinate fascinates me. If it works, you won’t have to bother reading the book!

  2. In fact it did work, and I finished writing my Introduction (for an academic monograph) just before lunch. Before I settle into marking papers, I have a question: as a contract faculty member, and both an academic and creative writer, my teaching schedule and writing projects tend to vary greatly from month to month and term to term. In the past, I have had problems instituting and sticking to a regular writing schedule for this reason. I’d like to write daily at the same time, but it seems that there is never a regular daily time, and it’s hard to ingrain a habit when the scheduled time varies so greatly. Is there a simple way around this? As absurd as it sounds, would it make sense to set a musical alarm to cue myself into “writing mode” at disparate times of day? Is there any dependable way to establish a daily writing routine at disparate daily times, or is it better to set a regular time, and just keep retraining myself to new daily times as the terms change?

  3. Thanks, will look forward to it.

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