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."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.