HENRY MILLER, A Writer’s Writer



After reading a feature on how a writer applied Henry Miller’s “ten commandments” on writing to rather pedestrian projects, a dismayed friend emailed me . . .

… the vast all-consuming mediocrity has turned a great anarchist writer into … a muse for writing press releases.

Sadly, some who read that feature will miss the richness of Miller’s work. They may try to apply his advice, never having read it in the context of Henry Miller on Writing. They might not know his work or anything about his life.

I have to admit that I didn’t pay much attention to Miller until my son began reading him. Miller wasn’t required reading at school. I had not yet come of age when the “obscene” Tropic of Cancer was finally published in the U.S., a scant thirty years after its original publication in France. Miller became a cause célèbre, but was still disdained by many for his obscenity.

Miller is not obscene. Raw sometimes, but not obscene and what was scandalous in 1961 is nothing now. I have seen a few articles where his name is referred to in the same fetid breath as that of  E.L. James. E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Grey) is obscene because she is not a writer, not a good writer however much she sells to “the vast all-consuming mediocrity.” If I sound like a bit of a literary snob here, it’s probably  because I am … or, at least I can be depending on the situation. Listen: if you are serious about your writing, serious about yourself as a writer – and I hope you are – remember that your own writing will only be as good as the material it feeds on. Spend your time with writers who give you something to live up to. Henry Miller is a writer’s writer. His writing is solid and soulful. Look at this honest, perfectly constructed and soul-filled Henry Miller sentence: “What’s a fuck when what I want is love?”

Check this out. It could have been written by a Buddhist Monk or by John of the Cross:

The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome indescribably magnificent world in itself.

Henry on the writing experience:

I had to learn to think, feel and see in a totally new fashion, in an uneducated way, in my own way, which is the hardest thing in the world.

And this from The Tropic of Cancer:

I need to be alone. I need to ponder my shame and my despair in seclusion; I need the sunshine and the paving stones of the streets without companions, without conversation, face to face with myself, with the music of my heart for company.


This flat, cumbersome obscenity quoted online from E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey:

Sometimes I wonder if there’s something wrong with me. Perhaps I’ve spent too long in the company of my literary romantic heroes, and consequently my ideals and expectations are far too high.


As for the eleven “commandments” (I’m not sure that’s how he referred to them in the book) from Henry Miller on Writing:

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.

… and thus we begin another work week …

“Our destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

Henry Miller

© 2016, essay, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved; Henry Miller portrait and signature are in the public domain