The book of each of us
The courage to be bad

And I call it breathing

Paris cafe life between the wars (a National Geographic photograph, photographer unknown)

 Here are the rules Henry Miller made for himself while working on Tropic of Cancer in Paris in the early 1930s (with the support of his writing colleague and lover, Anaïs Nin):

  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.

Henry Miller's typewriter

Henry Miller Paris notebook

We write, said Anaïs in her famous Diaries, "to heighten our own awareness of life. We write to lure and enchant and console others. We write to serenade out lovers. We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection. We write, like Proust, to render all of it eternal, and to persuade ourselves that it is eternal. We write to be able to transcend our life, to reach beyond it. We write to teach ourselves to speak with others, to record the journey into the labyrinth. We write to expand our world when we feel strangled, or constricted, or lonely...When I don’t write, I feel my world shrinking. I feel I am in prison. I feel I lose my fire and my color. It should be a necessity, as the sea needs to heave, and I call it breathing."

Anais Nin

Anais Nin and Henry Miller

I owe a huge debt to Anaïs Nin, because I fell into her diaries, essays, and collected letters in my twenties and thirties like a fish falling into water. She was, in some ways, a deeply flawed human being, and perhaps she makes a strange kind of hero for someone like me, committed to the ethical and spiritual dimensions of my craft as well as to the technical ones, but a hero and strong influence she remains nonetheless. I grew up at a time when feminism hadn't yet made much of a dent in the curriculum at my university, and in course after course the texts I studied were by men, men, men. I also spent my late teens and much of my twenties in a relationship with an older, better educated man who was very much the dominant partner...and when I came out of that at age 27, I was determined to be my own woman, both in life and art -- but I didn't yet know who that woman was. I knew little about the work or lives of the women writers and artists who had come before me; I had no role models.

So I did what I always do when facing the unknown: I turned to books to guide me. I read every biography, autobiography, diary, or collection of letters by a woman in the arts I could lay my hands on. By happy chance, Anaïs's Diaries were among the first, and they completely captivated me -- for here was a woman asking the same questions that I was, trying to forge a creative life for herself as I was, and although she didn't always do it in ways that I entirely approved of (by which I mean the many lies and evasions she depended on to manage her dizzying number of relationships and affairs), still, I admired her determination to live life as fully, sensually, and intellectually as possible. Throughout her diaries and letters, passages like the one I've quoted here would stop me in my tracks, speaking across the decades from the cobbled streets of Paris to the cobbled streets of Boston (where I was living then).

Anais Nin and Hugo Gulier

Later, I would follow in her footsteps in Paris: searching out the places where she had lived, the cafes where she'd written or talked long into the night with writer and artist friends. But then, in Boston, it was simply her words I needed. The knowledge that another woman had asked these same questions, and found answers to them. And that somehow I would too.

"The role of the writer," she mused in the 5th volume of her Diaries, "is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say. Most of the writing today which is called fiction contains such a poverty of language, such triteness, that it is a shrunken, diminished world we enter, poorer and more formless than the poorest cripple deprived of ears and eyes and tongue. The writer's responsibility is to increase, develop our senses, expand our vision, heighten our awareness and enrich our articulateness."

That was a responsibility I shouldered gladly at age 27. I carry it still all these many years later.

Portrait by Jill Krementz

Anais' writing desk in her last home in California

Images above:  A Paris cafe, in Montparnasse, frequented by writers & artists in the '20s and '30s; Henry's typewriter in Paris; one of Henry's Paris notebooks; Anaïs in Paris; Anaïs and Henry in their later years; Anaïs with her husband Hugh Parker Guiler; and Anaïs's writing desk in California, in a house designed for her and her, um, second husband Rupert Pole (it's complicated) by Eric Lloyd Wright (grandson of Frank, and Rupert's half-brother).

For a taste of Anaïs, go here to listen to her reading from her work (discussing writing with Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell), recorded in 1966.

Comments

Hello Terri and good morning, I do not start work today until 11 so I have had time time to check blogs etc. This is an amazing treat to read, strangely I took home from work a book by Joanna Hodgekin otherwise known as crime writer Joanna Hines about her mother Nancy and Lawrence Durrell. She is Nancy's daughter by a later husband. It is called Amateurs in Eden and charts their love affaire and marriage. They were involved with Miller and Nin. I met Joanna a few times here in Cornwall socially and did not at first realize that she was Nancy Durrell's daughter. I am enjoying it greatly and a wonderful biog of Samuel Palmer too! Why do you find several good books at once!! I did the same type of thing as you, George Sand was and still is my heroine, although she is one of many she is the most enduring and like you I have visited places where she lived and worked. I will be doing a piece on my birthday visit to the Musee de la Vie Romantique in Paris where I found some great stuff about her. Have a great day, love Angela

I didn't know about "Amateurs in Eden," which sounds wonderful. I must go seek it out now! George Sands is another one of my heroes, and I love the Musee de la Vie Romantique. 'Sending you a hug from Dartmoor to Cornwall this morning.

Thanks Terri, I am off to the library now. We also went to The Musee de Montmatre, another lovely small and interesting place with stuff about the artists who lived and or painted there, Utrillo, Valadon, Renoir etc. Bye, Angela.
Hugs from chilly, overcast Truro.

I also discovered Anais Nin and her diaries in my 20s. Although I am not a professional writer, her diairies influenced me and provided fuel for my love of journals.

Thank you for the wonderful post.

I felt that way about the Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for some reason. So liberating that i moved from the city way out into the country and loved my life and myself...one day i lost confidence faltered and moved back to the city....i have been longing to go back ever since..that's why i love this blog so. Journeying out is what i long for. Deep reminders everyday here!!!!

I found Anais Nin's diaries in the 1970s, at a time of public success icing a cake of profound loneliness. She was inspiring and uncomfortable to read, but she was most definitely Her, formed and expressive, and I admired that very much.

I think I can sympathize with trying to blaze your own trail, artistically-speaking. The fact that you did this (and continue to do so), Mrs. W., makes you a role model along the lines of Anais Nin. Every day I remain in awe of your work--and the fact that you still do so much blogging!

If Nin had had an internet connection, she would have been proud. ;-)

Clarifying: the success and loneliness were mine. I think I need another cuppa.

I love Henry Miller's 3rd rule: "Don't be nervous. Work calmly, joyously and recklessly on whatever is in hand." This calm, rooted abandon is exactly how I feel (when at my best) in the early mornings with a cup of tea, fountain pen and notebook. I'd like to keep that line in mind.

I'm so deeply inspired by the work you have done and continue to do in the realm of the mythic arts, Terri. Since I was a little girl my love has been stories of magic and myth, the strange and the earthen varieties my favorites, the ones that involve animals and elements and stones. Your work reminds me how vital it is to hold onto these sources of passion and wonder, that they are as important as any other form of storytelling.

Thanks so much, Sylvia. Your own work is lovely, and your blog is a delight.

Oh Laurel, I know precisely what you mean (in your first comment above) about Anais Nin being "inspiring and uncomfortable to read" in equal measure. I'm glad I read the edited versions of the Diaries first. The unexpurgated editions published later, after her husband died, are fascinating (confirming her relationship with Henry, for example), but also make for some distinctly uncomfortable reading (the troubling sections about her father, for example). A deeply complex woman.

It's interesting to hear you say that the period of your huge success with Manhattan Transfer was also a period of loneliness. A lot of young writers/artists/performers think that if they reach a certain level of success, all life problems will be solved...and then, when they finally publish that first novel, or get that first big show, it's a shock to discover that the laundry still needs to be done, the cat box still needs to be emptied, difficult relationships are still difficult, etc. etc.; life doesn't instantly turn into a feel-good movie with a golden glow and all the hard edges turned misty.

My long-time friend Ellen Kushner and I, back in our 20s, referred to this as the "beautiful boys with champagne" issue, as in: You publish your first book and it's great, yes, but it doesn't entirely transform your life (in most cases); the drudgery side of life still goes on as usual and your days aren't suddenly filled with beautiful boys pouring you champagne!

Of course, then one is tempted to think that if only one was *really* successful (and at each stage of success you raise the bar on what *really* successful means), *then* problems would finally magically melt away. And that is a pernicious idea, for you put off living fully until that elusive "success" is achieved, instead of living richly in the here and now.

In that respect, it's interesting to hear you speak of loneliness during a time of a huge professional success. Particularly as we live in a culture where we're constantly sold the idea that happiness comes from pursuing fame and fortune...rather than from creating a solid life of community, creativity, and commitment to ethical ideals.

Am I making any sense? I think I need another cuppa too...

Awww.

I love that book too, Janette.

You're very welcome! It's good to know there are other Nin fans out there.

There is so much to digest here in the comments as well as your original post. I have seen Nin quoted frequently but have not read her work myself. I am now intrigued to do so. I also was caught by Miller's rule that started out "don't be nervous" as I often am when I sit down to write, afraid that my writing will be awful or won't come at all. I like the picture of working joyously and especially recklessly instead.

I'm smiling at Henry's list because there are so many rules that essentially boil down to "don't get DISTRACTED", and that is one of my greatest bad habits!

Hello Terri,

Fabulous post! I found your blog while surfing the net around my long-time fascination for Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller and Anais Nin. As a writer myself, I like the way Miller's words always cut to the chase.

With your permission, I would love to reproduce some of this on my blog - with full credits and links, of course. How do you feel about that?

All the best,
Deborah Lawrenson

That's fine, Deborah. Thanks for asking!

The comments to this entry are closed.