William Styron in Letters, Part 3



William and Rose Styron.

To Norman Mailer

June 1, 1953 Rome, Italy

Dear Norman:

I note that you began your last letter: “I’ve been kind of depressed lately,” and by way of preface to this letter I should say that I’ve been both depressed and elated since you last heard from me—elated at having just married a most admirable girl (perhaps you’ve gotten an announcement) and depressed because for roughly your own sort of reasons—an inability to get going again at this writing game. To complicate the situation, a few days ago, barreling down the Autostrada in an effort to catch up with Irwin Shaw’s Ford convertible (we had been on a two-car picnic at Angio) I smacked into a motorscooter going full tilt and glued an Italian all over the front end of my car. The guy was made of brick and will survive with nothing more than lacerations, and fortunately for the legal end of the thing it was his own fault (he was a moron, for one thing, and for another had been driving with a glass eye) but such incidents always leave me spookily aware of just how vulnerable we all are. Perhaps they’re valuable as such from an ah-tistic point of view, but I doubt it.

At any rate, having descended from my earlier manic phase, I can easily appreciate your present difficulties. In waiting for my car to recover from its wounds (which were much more grievous than the Italian’s) so that we can go to Ravello, I’ve been futilely trying to get started on something—another novelette, I think—and the complications arising from the thing certainly support that old saw about the more you go along in writing the more difficult it gets. I admire your tenacity; at least in this book you’re doing you seem to be plunging ahead. As for me, if I don’t feel that my very first page is a real sockeroo then I tend to give up in anguish—which is an attitude that is fatal and will, if anything, if I don’t snap out of it, be my downfall. It certainly justifies your earlier comment about a peculiar tendency I have to invent and manner the style; indeed, I’m beginning to see that everything I write and my whole timorous approach to writing is of the same rough pattern of my day-to-day life—that being one of caution, trepidation and cowardly fears. No self-confidence. How do you beat it? Perhaps I’ll change some as I get older but it seems to me that life (and I wonder how closely it parallels the experience of other men) is a long gray depression interrupted by moments of high hilarity. No wonder Time magazine is forever complaining about young writers re-writing their own tangled neuroses. However, I should add (in a brief flicker of exaltation, and bugger Time) that any writer worth 10¢ has written out of nothing much more than his own neuroses; and I have no doubt that this summer—prompted by the absence of whiskey (most of us drink too much), a set of tennis each day, and wife who will rout me out of my slothful, womb-like sleeping habits sometime before noon—I’ll do that novelette somehow, cautious and fearful as it may turn out to be when it’s finished. Incidentally, while I think of it, I’m flattered about your supposition about reading my book; I reread part of it for the first time again not long ago, and while I’m certainly not ashamed of lots of it, I can realize why quite a few of the critics took it to task, for much of it is dreadfully self-indulgent, and cluttered up with all these fears and cautions I have.  Not that I’m going to start writing big, hopeful books for Harrison Smith, but there seems to me now to be far too much agonizing in it: Anyway, I shouldn’t feel timid about reading it if I were you, who, as I said before, are one of the tiny number of contemporary writers who have a solid, unshakable, recognizable style. By the way, these lousy war novels still seem to be coming out, don’t they? “Battle Cry.” “By a man who loves the Marines.” Jesus!

Your problem of point-of-view confronts me, too. You’re right about the 3d person and the world-view, yet I should think that after so effectively achieving a welding of the two in Naked that it shouldn’t be too rough on you now. I know too, though, how one’s attitudes change. Me, I’ve never been successful with 1st person, mostly for the reasons you describe. One gets to love-scenes, for instance, and if the “I” happens to be the hero-narrator, as is often the case, the result is: “I took her in my arms and felt her responsive belly scalding mine; she looked at me with adoration and desire and with a tremendous whimper of love said ‘Darling Bill,’ and slid onto my pulsating pecker.” Which seems self-centered. Anyway, Norm, I shouldn’t worry about the “fundamental poverty of imagination” you assign to yourself; that’s the kind of talk I indulge in. Keep at it, and let me hear how things are going. My address after the 10th will be c/o Hotel Palumbo, Ravello (Salerno) Italy. Best to you, and to all.


From Selected Letters of William Styron, edited by Rose Styron with R. Blakeslee Gilpin. Copyright © 2012 by Rose Styron. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House. All rights reserved.