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