Wednesday, June 27

Henry Miller's 11 Writing Commandments

I love learning from the greats how they worked, how they thought of their art/craft, this thing we call writing (such a drab name for an act so often fraught with terror and yet having the power to create ecstasy).

Courtesy of Brain Pickings, here are Henry Miller's 11 Commandments:
  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.

I find (1) and (10) the hardest. It seems as soon as I begin work on one book I can think of at least 2 others I want to write more than the one I happen to be working on.

My favorite is (5), "When you can't create you can work." I wonder if Henry Miller ever woke up  up feeling like cotton batting had replaced his brains and he just wasn't up to stringing two coherent words together. It's strangely comforting to think he may have.

But that's not all! Here is Henry Miller's daily schedule:

- 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.
I think that's a great schedule. As always, the trick is sticking to it, as Mr. Miller did. I think there's a lot of truth to the saying, "Success is 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration".

I hope Henry Miller's schedule/work ethic inspired you to write, it has me!

Cheers, and keep writing.

Other articles you might like:
- Stephen King: 15 tips on how to become a better writer - Penelope Trunk Discusses Time Management
- Pixar: 22 Ways To Tell A Great Story


  1. Very Interesting. I'm going to add it to my list of--well not inspirations exactly, but encouragements.

    Along the same lines, here are Robert Heinlein's rules:

    Heinlein’s Business Rules

    1) You must write.
You must finish what you write.
    3) You must not rewrite unless to editorial demand.

    3a) Harlan Ellison's addition: And then only if you agree
    4) You must mail your work to someone who can buy it.

    4a) If Indie publishing: substitute "publish" for "mail"
    5) You must keep the work in the mail until someone buys it.
a) Indie publishing: Keep it for Sale

    I first ran across Heinlein's Rules in a blog post by Dean Wesley Smith here:

  2. Hi Paul, thanks! Love your list, especially the way you integrated self-publishing. And thanks for the link to Dean's post, I remember that one.

    I also like Robert J. Sawyer's version of Heinlein's rules:

  3. Thanks Karen, for the reminder!

    In my late teens and early twenties in Los Angeles and Strasbourg, I was inspired by Anaïs Nin, and read all of Henry Miller's books. Ten years later, I was a 30-something woman in Paris, still reading Nin (among others of course), living by their example and pretty much Henry Miller's rules, following his footsteps.

    And now it dawns on me, the thing that's missing from the list is: send out your work.

    Thanks to Paul Baughman for adding Robert A. Heinlein's rules, and the link to Dean Wesley Smith's site. Heinlein's "You must mail your work to someone who can buy it," may be golden for me.

    1. Hi Judith, thanks so much for your comment. :)

      I love Nin's writing, so much like poetry. It is easy to become lost in it.

      Agreed! Mailing out one's work (or publishing it oneself) is probably one of the hardest, and most important, steps.


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