The 11 Commandments of Writing (Courtesy of Henry Miller)
Advice on writing and notes on the creative routine of an American novelist, they reflect, above all, the importance of discipline in any writer’s work.
Many great writers, at some point, have devoted some words to the craft of writing (Faulkner, Poe, Hemingway and Nietzsche may be counted among them). In 1932, while writing Tropic of Cancer (the novel still considered his crowning achievement), Henry Miller planned and recorded a creative routine to divide his daily activities according to a schedule. He also reflected on some of the rules to follow when writing a work of literary fiction.
In both lists, one finds what Miller referred to as the “Program,” a term which refers to his previous planning of the chapters and sections of the book to be written, and at what times, ultimately reflecting the deep order within the writer’s head. Implicitly, he recommends such an organization when writing a long work like a novel. Such order is considered not only in the strict work schedule (in fact, Miller was flexible in this regard). He also implies a mental order, for example in recommending that he dedicate himself to writing only one book at a time until it’s finished and that books he intends to write be put aside. Thus, one is dedicated exclusively to the book being written.
Miller’s commandments —collected in an anthology of his writing texts, Henry Miller on Writing (1964)— pay tribute to one of any writer’s most important characteristics (according to Miller and many others): discipline. The very act of writing every day, even when the muses have not visited, incites inspiration and exercises the expressive capacities.
It’s perhaps curious that this brief guide should have arisen in parallel with what would become Miller’s most recognized work, and that fact indicates that his recommendations were born of the deep, daily knowledge of the life of a novelist.
Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery. The adventure is a metaphysical one: it is a way of approaching life indirectly, of acquiring a total rather than a partial view of the universe. The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: he takes the path in order eventually to become the path himself.
His path, replete with creative successes, might be intuited through these two simple lists:
Work on one thing at a time until finished.
Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
When you can’t create you can work.
Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
* * *
If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.
If in fine fettle, write.
Work of 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.
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