Norman Mailer & Me

Apparently, Imposter Syndrome isn’t genetic.


There are two types of writers: Norman Mailer and me. Writers (and people in general) who fall into Mailer's camp are proud owners of a confidence that knows no bounds. Their Field of Dreams, "If I write it, they will publish" mantra is in direct opposition to the chant coming from Camp Imposter Syndrome.

This one goes, "Who am I kidding?" Our spirit animal is a shivering teacup poodle. Our days are filled with finding — and then losing — our Muse; falling down rabbit holes looking for just-on-the-tip-of-the-tongue words; and engaging in an epic amount of procrastination, the metaphorical equivalent of mowing the lawn while the house is on fire.

Or maybe that's just me.

And then there's Leo, my 8-year-old son, who somehow got the Mailer gene. Leo has already asked how he might land an agent, offered my friend and literary hero, David Shields, the job of his editor for one dollar a week, and has cast his book, Bert the Travel Man, for when Hollywood comes calling.

For the record, Harrison Ford, Leo's favorite actor, will get star billing.

Where does this bravado come from, I wonder, as I try to eke out the very column you’re now reading? (And loving; please tell me you're loving it.) When I was Leo's age, I was shy and studious. If only someone had told me that getting straight A’s in junior high doesn't matter in the long run, I may have eased up on memorizing the periodic table.

Because I was in my head so much, and an all-around terrible athlete, writing was a safe haven. But it was a private endeavor, shared with no one until I joined a writing workshop in my twenties. Having an encouraging audience back then is why you're now reading (and enjoying; please tell me you're enjoying it) this column.

When I was eight months pregnant with Leo, I decided to take driving lessons. I had my license, but I hadn't driven since college, when I sold my car and moved to Manhattan. Now, living smack in Georgetown, I walk and Metro everywhere.

But with a baby, I knew I'd need to start driving again — to the pediatrician, to playdates, and, eventually, to soccer practice. Back then, I remember asking my instructor, a supremely patient man from Nigeria, who was easier to teach: middle-agers like me or 16-year-olds.

"People like you," he said without hesitation. "Kids have no fear."

Adults, in other words, have experienced pain and loss and disappointment. As a result, we're the more cautious creature.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to how we handle rejection. Especially in the aggregate. Leo hasn't yet experienced many snubs, and when he does, they leave no chinks in his newly minted armor.

Oh, to be a young Norman Mailer. To move through life with the swagger of a prizefighter. I wonder, then, how Leo will take the news: David Shields has turned down his offer.

Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and the author of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.

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