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.



Sometimes life is just too damn puzzling.  There are pieces that you think should fit together but they don’t.  Some part of you wants to fit in but the place that’s allotted for you is too small.  Like Emilio and his piano.  He’s got two options: either break off bits of his piano so it can fit, or find a bigger door.

Crisis is Awful and Uncomfortable but not Necessarily Bad

I’ve been thinking a lot about crisis lately, both personal and societal.  Obviously it seems like a bad thing, because it’s so traumatic.  But maybe what’s really happening is that it shatters the myth that everything’s okay right deep within and that the foundation our world is built on is healthy and solid. 

A world that was built on beliefs about Right and Wrong, about what we have to do to be accepted, and about our non-deservability.  It wasn’t built on ultimate truth about our real value or the real values that sustain healthy human interaction.

The thing is, the beliefs were our parents’ and society’s beliefs, they weren’t ours, we weren’t born with them.  We just soaked them up unknowingly.  That’s what children do.  We learned to compromise ourselves, over-adapt, suppress emotions and needs, be unselfish, be practical, be in control, be spiritual, be nobody.   All for the greater good of humanity which never transpires, or to get to heaven which never happens.  As adults we acted on those beliefs, and created our world around us.

It stands to reason that any world constructed on that basis is going to be limiting.  You think?  It doesn’t let you to breathe, let alone listen to your heart and soul’s desires and follow your dreams.  It doesn’t even let you interact honestly with other people.  It forces you to deny your inner truth, on a day to day basis, moment to moment.

So here I am with my sacred part shut in a dark room somewhere in the recesses of a world I’ve constructed that complies with other people’s rules.  I’m stuck in a tiny little box.  I make the box very pretty and comfortable, and convince myself that staying in my box makes me a good person and that the comfort is happiness.

But all the while I’m forcing myself to do things I really don’t want to do.   I rationalize that I must do them because it makes me responsible, keeps me safe, protects my family, ensures my future…  Then bam! CRASH!  Crisis from out of left field.  The world I’ve constructed falls apart.

When my seemingly safe world gets shattered, scary as it may be, I believe the potential for something much, much better is in the wings.  Something that gives me more freedom, more love, more mobility, more pleasure, more joy, more creative expression, makes life more meaningful, makes me thrilled to be alive.

So the crash, the crisis, is about breaking new ground, sorting through the rubble, working out what beliefs I want to keep and which ones I want to toss out, what really makes sense to me and brings real value and what doesn’t.   Building a new foundation based on rules that work for me, and on which I can construct a world that lets me live a bigger life, where I’m the boss of me, and where my interactions with other people are real.   Where I value myself as an individual as well as you, and I value our roles in community. 

There’s bound to come a time when I’ll need more.  The world I’m constructing now will make way for something better.  But for now, I’m in a better place than I was, and with that I can be happy.  I think this holds good for big crises and tiny little ones, personal and societal.  Something has to die to make way for something to be born.

I don’t think anything happens for nothing.  I don’t believe in chaos, or that we make irrevocable mistakes and are doomed to eternal damnation.  I think we’re all on a continuous learning curve, whether we realize it or not.  We’re learning about how to experience real value in life.  The value that’s everybody’s birthright.

Life: “Seeing is believing? Believing is seeing, more like” Oprah says it, so do I

Oprah once spoke of how she loved blowing bubbles as a kid, and longed to do it again, but didn’t let herself do it.  Then one day she realized how much she really wanted to, and discovered that long ago someone had given her a bottle of the stuff which she’d stashed and forgotten about.  It was right there in her cupboard.

So she blew herself some bubbles and satisfied that longing.  Her point?   If we don’t let ourselves acknowledge the power and value of our longing, it doesn’t matter how many resources we have, it isn’t going to happen for us.  Then when we face the truth, sometimes we realize we’ve had the resources available to us all along.

I suppose lots of people said “oh please, she could have bought herself some damn bubble-blowing stuff any time she wanted”.   Yes, but she didn’t take her own desire seriously, because some part of her said she couldn’t.   It was her belief, that had the stranglehold over her.

Doesn’t matter how wealthy you are, ideas / beliefs have much more power than money.   Case in point: yesterday I got sound on my computer, da da da daaa!!   I can listen to as much music as I want.   Miracle city!

Listening has got to be the easiest thing in the world, right?   Not for me.   I stopped doing it in my teens.   Total shut-down.   Spent most of my life completely blanking that part out.   I didn’t know I was allowed to have the thing I loved the most in the whole world, so I shut it down.  Too bloody painful is why.

When I got this computer, the speakers didn’t work.   I thought it was the plug, so I tried two others.   Nada.   I presumed my computer needed a sound card and that I’d have to wait until I could afford to buy it, which was never-never land.

But I’ve started taking this desire to sing and play and listen really seriously.  And I’m saying okay, you can have this.   Yesterday I was sweeping the floor by the plug, and heard this strange buzzing sound coming from it.   I took it out and stuck it in the other way round.   Bingo.   Have music, can fly with the wind!

I wonder what else is in my world that I can’t see because I believe it’s not there or I believe I can’t have it and it’s out of my reach.

Well, it’s a good thing I’m so spiritual and believe I get another shot at this plane of existence.   Next time I’m going to start listening when I’m in the womb!   As for this life, now is what I’ve got.    I’ve always preferred to get the horrible stuff over with first.   Now it feels like Christmas in While You Were Sleeping.

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Life: is it about one size fits all?

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I counted up the money I’ve got for the next 6 weeks and have decided to spend some of it on a month’s worth of singing lessons.   I always seem to be up against this, I have money to live on pretty minimally, and I can do stuff at home – sing, play piano, write.   But I don’t have resources to take what I do into the world.   If I want to spend money on those things it comes out of food money.

Well, I’m doing it anyway.  I’m going to a jazz singer/piano player, Amanda Tiffin, if she’ll have me.    Ask her to help me put together an appealing repertoire of standards – the kind of stuff Michael Buble sang when he started, as it happens!

Hard to sing yesterday, just couldn’t get my voice going.   Had this inner collapse thing going on.   Terrifying.  I did my exercises and sang along with Sarah Vaughan anyway, Black Coffee, Button up your Overcoat and others but my heart wasn’t in it and I didn’t know how to engage it.

I posted one of my blogs on Searchwarp, about yesterday, today and tomorrow and got 16 great comments, great ratings, one not so good comment – “…I’m not sure you’re as focused as you should be to achieve all that you wish for, but I wish you luck with your efforts.”    My first reaction was to think she’s right, there’s something wrong with the way I’m doing it.   Doooom, I’ll never get it right.   Ad nauseam.   It created a storm, and had a whole lot to do with that inner collapse thing.  So I did my tantrum, and was left with this:

So long as we want to be loved and supported – pretty natural human desire, I’d say – it’s going to hurt when somebody says you’re doing it wrong and doesn’t offer any helpful, constructive advice.   It’s going to switch on all your Las Vegas neon light inner messages about not being enough.   So that’s good, you get to see them and ask the question is this the truth?

You get to look at your life and what you’ve accomplished; figure it out for yourself.   No, it’s not the truth. So next time somebody says something less than supportive you’ll be stronger within, you won’t find yourself lying on your back in the dust bloody hell, how did they knock me down so easily? Most of all, you don’t let it stop you.

Whatever our reaction to other people’s opinions, we can’t define ourselves by them.   We’ll just be tossed about in the winds and storms of their beliefs and unresolved issues.   One will believe one thing, the next will believe the opposite.   What they say speaks about them, not about you.   If we take it on we lose your own compass and give up.

Henry Ford said you get what you accept. It sounded so trite when I first heard it, until I looked at it the other way round.  What you have is what you’ve accepted. Not just in physical things, in absolutely everything.

I don’t believe life is about one size fits all, one way to fulfill dreams, one way to focus.   I think it’s more that each person has their own size.   One person one size – like one person one vote.   This I do know: everybody who’s ever made it has had scores of people – and some very authoritative ones – tell them they’re doing it wrong.   So a comment like the one I got must mean I’m on the right track, heading in the right direction.   Yeah, yeah, maybe.

Maybe, though, the commentor just meant I don’t really understand what your focus is and expressed themselves clumsily.   I know my focus is spread between singing, writing a blog, a script, a novel, an autobio, work, playing piano.   Am I spreading myself too thin?