Life and Writing: Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments


Cover of "Tropic of Cancer"

Cover of Tropic of Cancer

In the early 1930’s Henry Miller was living in Paris and writing his first novel that would be published, Tropic of Cancer.  He was a law unto himself and wrote what he wanted to the way he wanted to, doggedly pursuing his writing even though it didn’t bring him any money for a long time.  He looked for financial support when he needed it and got it.  A determined rebel with a cause: he wanted to include explicit sex in his books.

Tropic of Cancer was printed in France but banned in the US for being obscene.  Two of his other books followed suit.  But they were smuggled into the US where they had a big influence on writers of the Beat generation.  In the end Miller got his way, although not without a fight.  Tropic of Cancer was published by Grove Press in the US in 1961 and sued for publishing obscenity but in 1964 the Supreme Court over-ruled the findings and declared the book a work of literature.

Times change.  Conservatives always lose out in the end.  People who don’t give up in the face of big challenges eventually succeed. That’s life, although it’s hard to keep going when evidence seems to point to the useless of whatever you’re pursuing, hard not to be controlled by emotions or to just let yourself be distracted, lose focus.

Speaking for myself, when that happens I feel so disempowered.  Because I am!  But it’s a slippery slope that can easily turn into what’s the point of writing anything or even trying.   Having a plan helps; a reminder not to be controlled by external things.  Henry Miller had a great plan when he was writing Tropic of Cancer.   It’s not draconian and there’s room for flexibility, but it’s a pretty good practical guide.

  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 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.

                                                                                        (Source: Henry Miller on Writing)

I guess it’s about focus and a balance between being disciplined and kind to yourself. Being the boss and the employee.

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3 thoughts on “Life and Writing: Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments

  1. Hi Jennifer – I haven’t been around the blogging world for a while and I’m not really sure why but I decided to take a peek at yours today and found well, the perfect post for me! What a flippin good list! I’ve found myself scattered somewhat over the last while in terms of writing particularly so you had me at number 1! I particularly like 10 too. In my cycle of ‘house, job, life’ I’m on ‘job’ now and this seems like a great way to focus – thanks for this 🙂

  2. Hi Penny! It’s great to see you again 🙂 I also love number 1. I was working on too many projects at once, and I had no sense of achievement. Also, everything started feeling a bit stale. I recently finished one and it really felt good. Also, it’s great to be done with it.

    What’s your job?

  3. Pingback: What I’ve learnt so far (a list) « phd with kids

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