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):
- 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.
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."
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).
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.
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.