“I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.”
– Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
What an obscene author taught me about writing
For a couple of weeks I have been burnt out from on writing. Actually, that’s a lie. I haven’t had a lot of fun writing since February. Spending 45 minutes a day crafting blog posts is fun. Spending all day grinding out articles for other people is a slog. Writing for personal amusement is fun. Writing for money is just like any other job.
For whatever reason I was focused almost entirely on working for other people. It wore me down. My personal projects took a backseat until, one day, they were gone. I’d pick up a pen and it would feel too much like work. I was always half expecting someone to send me an email asking if I could turn their project in early.
Last week I was sitting in a cafe eating when I realized that I didn’t have a single personal writing project left. They’d all died out so that I could accommodate clients. This thought really shook me up. I ended up going home and modifying my schedule. Two hours a day were dedicated strictly to my own endeavors.
In the evenings I sit down with a piece of cake and type away. So far I’ve knocked out a short story and am about ten percent of the way finished with a full-length book.
While I did, ultimately, motivate myself to pick up the pen once more, I got a lot of help from the late Henry Miller. Once considered to be among the most shocking and obscene authors of his time, Miller’s work was banned in the United States until the 1960’s. Even after it was cleared for publication there was all kinds of outrage and people filled lawsuits. By today’s standards Miller is pretty tame, modern music is more graphic and explicit than any of his works, but books like Tropic of Cancer were incredibly edgy when they first came out.
Henry Miller, like Charles Bukowski or Delicious Tacos, is one of those rare authors who managed to transform a refuge in audacity into something beautiful. While Miller does get a bit flowery at times, his artistic style makes stories feel like artistic vulgarity. There are very few people who can make a story about getting drunk and having sex with hookers into something hailed as “a momentous event in the history of modern writing.” After reading several of Miller’s books, I’ve picked up five different lessons that have helped me to become a better writer:
1. Have your own projects.
Before quitting his job and concentrating on his writing career Henry Miller worked for Western Union. For three consecutive years he worked without ever taking a vacation or making time to seriously focus on writing. Eventually Miller quit. While he had to struggle and experience a lot of stress he eventually became one of the literary greats.
2. Make a work schedule and stick with it.
A fun job is still a job. It’s easy to sit down to write only to spend the whole night watching YouTube videos and goofing off. By having a plan for your day you can avoid this issue completely. Sitting down and getting your work done saves you from having to be surprised when you look at the clock and realize that you’ve wasted the entire night.
3. Set aside time for other activities.
This has always been a big problem for me. I’ll get so engrossed in working that I forget to go out and have fun. Miller used to plan ahead for doing things like socializing, going to museums, and riding his bicycle. He even noted that it was important to cut down on things like movies so that he could go out and get some real experiences. If you aren’t having fun it’s pretty hard to stay focused on your projects.
4. There’s nothing wrong with offending people.
Being unable to sell your books within the United States probably sounds like a terrible fate. There have been tons of authors who were blackballed and ended up withering away in obscurity. Henry Miller was not one of them. If anything Miller’s career was boosted by the fact that his writings were considered to be taboo. There are great writers and there are writers who sell a lot of books. James Patterson is not exactly a groundbreaking writer, but he puts out books that lots of people read. A story about detectives and action is always going outsell something that’s more personal and abstract. By creating an uproar Miller was able to gain a following and attract a lot more attention than he would have received otherwise.
5. You have to go out and try new things in order to actually write.
Early 20th Century fiction was almost always autobiographical. Guys went out and did crazy stuff. Then they made up a few fake names to stay out of legal trouble and published their escapades. In contrast modern literature kind of sucks. The most of the writers have never actually done anything and it shows. Socially awkward East Coast dork struggles with daily life has pretty much become its own genre now. In contrast Miller went on adventures abroad, was married multiple times, lived as a vagrant, and did all kinds of other crazy stuff. Even if you don’t necessarily enjoy the subject matter, you’ll have to admit that he was never boring.
I’ve learned a lot about writing from Henry Miller’s various books and essays. The importance of writing for yourself, making goals, and not worrying about who gets upset. Despite the fact that I’ve picked up quite a bit of good stuff, there is one thing that Miller, and other writers like him, can never teach. Unfortunately I think that this deserves its own special post, which means that I’m going to be discussing it in full tomorrow…