Henry Miller is a writer known mostly, it seems, for writing explicitly about sex. He struggled to get his books published, especially in his native America; he moved to Europe in the 1920s, and settled in Paris, where he found society a little less repressed, though eventually he returned home. The first book of his I read was Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch because the title intrigued me, especially as an art historian specialising (in early days back then) in the art of the Northern Renaissance. It’s a very engaging account of Miller’s life in California, and far from the reputation he has, it was to me a book full of wisdom and beautiful writing. My first encounter with him was as an undergraduate studying Modern Languages, many moons ago, through a university lecturer who taught French Renaissance literature and compared Miller with Rabelais. I have since read several of Miller’s works – including those explicit ones! – and find him simply a wonderful writer. I always feel very close to his creative spark – which is why I find a list like the following fascinating. These are his tips for writing – and they evoke a system that might seem to be at odds with the creative dynamism I experience when reading his work.
I think these principles also have some value in life in general, not just for writing. And what I particularly love is the inconsistencies – as one who makes lists and sets routines and regimens and never quite follows them…in writing, in thinking, in organising my day, in setting up a bookshop… Number 7, for example, seems contradictory with number 11 in this list – but that is instructive in itself; clearly he wants to focus on his writing, but Miller was also a hugely sociable chap and wanted to create some kind of balance. Black Spring, mentioned in number 2, is a novel he was writing in the 1930s.
Miller was a friend of other great writers of the twentieth century, notably Lawrence Durrell (whose Alexandria Quartet is one of my absolute favourites, in my top three novels of all time) and was also in Paris at the same time as George Orwell was writing Down and Out in Paris and London – two very different temperaments, not least in that Miller was apolitical, he felt there was no point in getting involved in politics. That period in the middle of the twentieth century is probably the period that interests me most in terms of literature, much as I love the great era of novel-writing in the nineteenth century; Modernism produced, for me, some of the best European writing (and Henry, despite being American, had European stirrings in his writerly soul), and from the 1920s to the 1950s or early 60s is a golden age for the novel. (Also a great era for art – painting and sculpture.)
Anyway, here are Henry Miller’s tips for writing, which, as I say, I think are interesting in terms of living life generally, not just as a writer. Miller’s writing is beautiful, moving, earthy and dreamlike (hence the appeal of Hieronymus Bosch, no doubt), wonderfully crafted yet seemingly impressionistic, always personal. I doubt if it is possible to feel neutral about his writing. He is a writer’s writer, but was also a warm, life-loving person, which is conveyed in every sentence he wrote. I find him inspirational on various levels.
1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
2. Start no more new books, add no more 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.