Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments

With gratitude to Maria Popova, from whose February 22 article on Brain Pickings I pilfered the following (and to George Spencer, who turned me on to the wonderful Brain Pickings), here is some priceless wisdom from one of my literary heroes, Henry Miller.


"Tropic of Cancer" was banned in the U.S. for almost thirty years, yet Henry Miller wrote it while living like a monk.

(What I love about these notes is that they’re aimed by Miller only for himself—without a glimmer of self-consciousness, nor even for a moment intended for public dissemination. Here is a writer lashing himself to the mast, though not too tightly, as he bears down on what would become his first published novel, Tropic of Cancer.)


1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.

2. Start no more new books, add no new material to Black Spring.

3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!

5. When you can’t create you can work.

6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.

7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.

8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.

9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it the next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.

11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

[Maria’s Brain Pickings post continues:]


A boy from Brooklyn

Under a part titled Daily Program, his routine also featured the following wonderful blueprint for productivity, inspiration, and mental health:

If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.

If in fine fettle, write.


Work on section in hand, following plan of section scrupulously. No intrusions, no diversions. Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.


See friends. Read in cafés.

Explore unfamiliar sections — on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.

Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.

Paint if empty or tired.

Make Notes. Make Charts, Plans. Make corrections of MS.

Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week.

Three things leap out at me from these Notes To Himself:

One, Henry Miller was a pure pro. His commandments would work equally well for a diet, training for a triathlon, starting a new business or planning to invade (or decamp from) Afghanistan.

Two, how different the product of this regime is from the regime itself! Tropic of Cancer is gloriously obscene, mad, chaotic, hilarious. Reading it, you might imagine the author pounding in out in the backroom of a Place Clichy brothel, or dictating it into whatever recording devices they had in 1932 while weaving through the lanes of Montmarte, plastered on absinthe and retsina. Instead Miller is living the life of a monk (or a grad student).

Three, I love the balance of his Program. Henry Miller cuts himself abundant slack. “See friends, drink if you feel like it.” “Stop at the appointed time!”

And the deepest wisdom of all: “Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.”


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

do the work book banner 1


A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Steve Lovelace on May 2, 2012 at 5:11 am

    I love how his first commandment is to work on only one thing at a time. Too many people try to multitask, and when it comes to creative pursuits, there is no such thing as multitasking.

    • Chris Duel on May 2, 2012 at 6:09 am

      Always enlightening to learn the method to the madness of great artists.

      Miller’s commandments remind me of Pressfield’s opening chapter “What I Do” in The War of Art.

      Thanks so much for sharing this.

    • A.J. on May 9, 2012 at 9:54 am

      This first commandment saved me on so many levels. I was thinking of all the things I want to do, but are afraid of and was wondering how I was going to find the time to do it all. Upon reading this, I thought,” Thank God!” I’m so glad I found this site when I did!

  2. Joe B on May 2, 2012 at 6:16 am

    Jim Collins calls this a SMaC recipe: A SMaC recipe is a set of durable operating practices that create a replicable and consistent success formula. SMaC stands for specific, methodical, and consistent. Several successful corporations have used SMaC recipes to remain at the top during good times and bad. Thanks for sharing-It works!

  3. Steve on May 2, 2012 at 6:24 am

    His instruction to “cut the movies!” would be possible for me if I could just find a Betty Ford Clinic for Netflix addicts. There’s so many tv shows I’m hooked on also, but if I want to go pro…

    Anyway, though, I like the commandments, especially:

    “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.”

    and 5.) “When you can’t create you can work”, which to me would mean, if I can’t think of a new feature for a S/W app I’m working on, I can always “work” on creating scripts that automate my programming work, macros that make coding faster, etc.. and then “creating” could return the next day.

    Thanks for another profound Wednesday post, Steven

  4. basilis on May 2, 2012 at 6:59 am

    Everyone of us has lived (and most probably continues living) every commandment on his/her skin. I understand every single word of them because I’ve already seen their consequences in my life and writing work.

    (Too bad there’s no recipe how to truly keep the correct balance of them when Resistance comes in game!)

  5. Chris on May 2, 2012 at 7:52 am

    “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.” Love this.

    Thanks for another great Writing Wednesday! I look forward to them every week!

  6. John H on May 2, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    What I want to know is how did Hemmingway work with all those cats? Mine get very jealous of the attention I give the keyboard rather than them. They walk over the keys, lie next to me and claw my sleeve and generally make me nervous by jumping up and down and feigning moves in my direction. I’ve been to his house in Key West (you can see it in the Bond movie ‘Licensed to kill’) and most of his cats had extra toes/ claws to paw with!
    It’s a mystery.

  7. dagautier on May 2, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    Thanks for these reminders.
    focus focus, take a break and focus again. Day after day.


  8. Roger Ellman on May 3, 2012 at 2:56 am

    Wonderful modus operandi. Thank you – this ia a good gift.

  9. Jeremy on May 3, 2012 at 8:14 am

    This is too perfect. I have a devotee of Henry Miller since I got to page 6 of Tropic of Cancer and to learn of such a grounded method of creation is so so inspiring. Like you said, his program does not reflect in the work itself and is another nice reminder that beautiful romantic work can come from stable, reasonable artists.

  10. Texanne on May 13, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    Rules 1, 10, and 11 are most pertinent to me because they are the ones I break. My friend Cat-Gerlach is a writing machine! Her philosophy of work is remarkably like Miller’s. So the plan still works.

    Thanks for presenting this. :)TX

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