Henry Miller on Writing

        Finally, back from our vacation trip, meandering the California coast from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. So wonderful to discover that some places, especially Big Sur, seem impervious to change and still resonate with the wild beauty I first found when hitchhiking along the coast in 1970 and during subsequent visits over the years.

        We stopped off at a few choice pilgrimage spots, including the Henry Miller Memorial Library, and found his ghost still lingering amongst the redwoods and within the funky bookstore cum library cum shrine that is housed in the former home of Emil White, Henry’s dear old friend.

        I felt re-infused and re-enthused by Miller’s exuberant energy, which I first experienced as a pre-adolescent boy, looking for “the dirty parts” in my parents’ copy of Tropic of Cancer, and later, when I inhaled several of his novels in my twenties.  I’ve always admired his vitality and enthusiasm; the way he seemed to live life as a bold experiment—merging the art of writing with the art of life itself.

        Here’s a quote that appears in the book, Henry Miller on Writing:

           “Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery. The adventure is a metaphysical one: it is a way of approaching life indirectly, of acquiring a total rather than a partial view of the universe. The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: he takes the path in order eventually to become that path himself.

            “I began in absolute chaos and darkness, in a bog or swamp of ideas and emotions and experiences.  Even now I do not consider myself a writer, in the ordinary sense of the word.  I am a man telling the story of his life, a process which appears more and more inexhaustible as I go on.  Like the world-evolution, it is endless. It is a turning inside out, a voyaging through X dimensions, with the result that somewhere along the way one discovers that what one has to tell is not nearly so important as the telling itself.  It is this quality about all art which gives it a metaphysical hue, which lifts it out of time and space and centers or integrates it to the whole cosmic process.  It is this about art which is ‘therapeutic’: significance, purposefulness, infinitude.

            “From the very beginning almost I was deeply aware that there is no goal.  I never hope to embrace the whole, but merely to give in each separate fragment, each work, the feeling of the whole as I go on, because I am digging deeper and deeper into life, digging deeper and deeper into past and future.  With the endless burrowing a certitude develops which is greater than faith or belief.  I become more and more indifferent to my fate, as writer, and more and more certain of my destiny as a man.”    — Henry Miller


It’s Okay Not to Write!

        Let’s get this straight: the world will go on just fine without your writing.  And writing is not going to save your life.  In fact, in many cases, for many writers, the  pursuit of the writing life is just about enough to drive you nuts.  But if you’ve gotta do it, then do it.  If you hear the calling, than heed the calling. But don’t feel like you have to.  Take the gun away from your head.  Throw away the should’s, the ought to’s, the wannabe’s.  Do it because you love it.  Do it because it feeds or amuses you. Do it because the process itself answers some deep, heartfelt yearning. Do it because you come back to it, again and again and again.

        Someone once asked Flannery O’Connor if she thought that MFA in Writing programs actually dissuaded writers, and she answered, “Yes, but not enough of them.”  Lorrie Moore once said in an interview that “you should become a writer only if you have no choice.  Writing has to be an obsession.”

        Now, I don’t think that either of these writers actually intended to discourage people from writing but, in a sense, they do set a litmus test that each aspiring writer must interpret for themselves, and the color shades can be very subtle.

        The simple rhetorical question here is, “Do I really want to write?”  The answer may not be black or white but the more unambiguous one can be, the better.  If the calling subsides, then go off and do something else. But if the itch persists, well, there’s only one way to relieve it. All obstacles to writing have the same resolution. It’s like standing at the side of a swimming pool, staring at the reflections on the surface of the water, waiting. You are the only one who can take that plunge. What better time than now . . .

Invoke Your Writing Benefactors

        Writing is essentially a solitary pursuit. Sure, there are exceptions, like when one works collaboratively on a screenplay, say, or does writing exercises in a group setting.  But basically, we write alone, whether we’re secluded in a room or sitting elbow-to-elbow in a crowded Starbuck’s.

        We write alone, but not necessarily in isolation.  I find it helpful, especially when I’m feeling stuck, dull or uninspired, to recall my many writing benefactors.

        By benefactors, I mean the long list of people and influences that have directly or indirectly benefited or supported my writing over the years.  And the more I consider these figures, the longer the list becomes: from the grade school teachers who patiently taught me to read and write, the hundreds of authors whose work has fed and inspired me, the accomplished writers I’ve had the good fortune to meet and befriend, the writing mentors who helped to hone my craft, the writing group companions who uphold the value in my writing, to my wife and close editor who continually urges me onwards.

        I’m sure you could easily come up with your own personal list of writing benefactors.  Maybe just reading this calls some to mind.

        As a child, I was enthralled with the touch, feel, and smell of books, and the transformative power and magic of story.  But there seemed a disconnect between the published page and the flesh-and-blood writers who had set those words to paper. It was hard for me to imagine that actual people had somehow constructed these literary worlds. Authors held for me the status of mythic, larger than life, beings. It was a transmission of sorts when I first started attending readings and literary events, meeting face-to-face, person-to-person, some of the authors who so profoundly affected me.  And then so helpful to work with teachers, who encouraged my own nascent writing efforts, and fellow writers, who empathized with the trials and tribulations of the writing path.

        I still find it important to call upon these benefactors, to maintain a connection with their presence, either physically or psychically. I always keep a few favorite books close at hand and snippets of quotes pinned to a bulletin board. I feel blessed to have worked with various writing groups over the years, and especially our current group that has met weekly, for over eleven years now, on a continuous basis.

        So yes, we write alone, but we are never truly alone. Don’t forget your benefactors—we can use all the allies we can muster. If you’re willing to make the effort, I’m sure you can easily invoke your own array of benefactors—seen and unseen, ready and reliable—to support and encourage your writing.

Weekend Writing Retreat in Ohio

I’m pleased to announce that I will be facilitating a weekend writing retreat near Columbus, Ohio this coming June.  You can see details about the retreat here on my blog at the page for:


June 6 – 7, 2009   –   9:00a.m – 5:00p.m

        This weekend will be a great opportunity to enhance your creative writing practice in a comfortable, beautiful setting. This will be a process-oriented retreat so we will emphasize generating fresh, new material in a supportive, nonjudgmental environment. I’ll be providing lots of prompts and techniques for invoking the creative voice. We’ll be doing some group exercises but there will be plenty of time and space for working on your own individual projects as well.

        The Cedar Hill Massage facility is located about 20 minutes from downtown Columbus, Ohio on 80 acres of rolling farmland and woods.  Registration includes lunch, snacks & beverages.  So if you’ll be around Columbus during early June, we’ll have the perfect time, place, and space for you to indulge in your creative writing.  Hope you’ll be able to join us!  Please check the page and contact me if you’d like more information.

The Deep Satisfaction of Writing

        This morning, on his daily radio show “The Writer’s Almanac,” Garrison Keillor quoted Gloria Steinem, who once said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”  This is a sentiment I’ve heard echoed over the years by many other writers and one that I resonate with in my heart and guts. Difficult as writing at times may be, there arises this deep sense of satisfaction that, for some of us, is uniquely reached through writing.  This type of resonance, this type of yearning satisfaction, seems to be one of the defining qualities that indicates whether your true calling is to be found in writing.

        I’m not trying to make “writing” out to be some sort of precious, lofty grail or some type of either/or, on/off, life-defining declaration of commitment.  In other words, don’t undertake writing in order to be saved; don’t look to writing to give “meaning” to your life. Actually, I find it more helpful to approach writing as a simple, common process.  Just write.  Keep it simple. You wanna write, then just write.  “Writers write.”  Very simple and clean.  And to become a writer, all you have to do is write. As soon as you enter into the process, voilà, you are a writer.  And if you get called away—to answer the phone or get lost in some years-long tangential sidetrack—that’s okay; the river of writing is always waiting for you to wade in again, always ready to sweep you away.

        Let other people worry about whether or not you’re a dilettante or professional, serious or casual, consistent or sporadic writer.  In the end, the only person who has the right to take that measure is you.  And I recommend that you be easy on your self.  But in the meantime, it’s reassuring to be reminded—writer speaking to writer—about the deep satisfaction to be found in writing.  And how it’s always so accessible, so close at hand.

Listen to the silence . . . then write.

Listening is one of the qualities that lies at the confluence of writing and meditation. In the practice of open awareness and mindfulness—the type of meditation where you’re not relying on a specific technique—part of the process is allowing the mind to quietly settle and be with whatever arises; to simply listen.  Not just with the ears, but with eyes, nose, body—all the sense-doors awake and open to whatever spontaneously manifests.

        Likewise, one can access the creative in writing through simply listening—by quieting the chatter of discursive thought, of cutting through the surface of what you already know or think you know, and dropping down a few notches deeper, into the unknown.  Resting in silence invokes the freedom to be fresh, receptive, newly attentive to subtle images, to the quiet voice that may have been hovering and waiting for some spaciousness in order to appear.

        Sure, this can be scary.  The mind likes to be busy with people to see, things to do, places to go. And in writing as well, we tend to be more comfortable when we know where the story is heading, what’s the next step on the outline, who’s on first.  And isn’t it great when we’re immersed in a project and it’s almost like dictation—the words flowing, images popping, characters talking, ideas taking shape and form.

        But don’t forget to occasionally leave room for the space to just stop and listen to the silence.  And let me ask you this:  “Is there ever really silence?”  Or do you find that there’s always at least a background hum to the universe. That there may be a word, a voice, an image, a fragment from a long-forgotten dream, just waiting to emerge from silence.  So don’t forget to listen to the silence . . . then write.

On Being an Ambivalent Writer

         Okay, I’ll admit it:  I’m an ambivalent writer.  And the chances are—if you are reading this, if you aspire to write, if you want to “be” a writer, if you are attracted to “the writer’s life” but feel that, for whatever reason, you haven’t fulfilled your potential and agonize over mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about your writing—you also are an ambivalent writer.

            “Do you have a new idea almost every day for a writing project? . . . Do you begin sentences in your head . . . so crisp and suggestive that they make perfect story or novel openers, only you never manage to write them down? . . . Do you blab about your project to loved ones, coworkers, or strangers before the idea is fully formed, let alone partially executed? . . . Do you snap at people who ask how your writing is going? . . . Do you fear that you will someday wonder where the years went?

            “If you can relate to the above, you certainly have the obsessive qualities—along with the self-aggrandizement and concurrent feelings of worthlessness—that are part of the writer’s basic makeup.  However, you also have so many conflicting thoughts and feelings about writing and about yourself as a writer you are unable to choose one idea and see it through. . . Just as you settle on one idea, another voice pops into your head.  Or just as you sit down to write, you suddenly and inexplicably fall asleep.  You are what I call the ambivalent writer.”  Betsy Lerner

         Cheer up!  One of the first steps out of this morass is to recognize and acknowledge the state of your ambivalence and draw comfort from realizing that you are not alone.  Many, if not most writers suffer from a similar predicament. And the fact of the matter is that writing is just damn hard work!   No wonder we avoid it.

         Thankfully, we have a great ally in Betsy Lerner, who has written a wonderful and insightful book: “The Forest for the Trees; An Editor’s Advice to Writers.”  Betsy is educated as a writer, has worked many years for a major publishing house and is now a literary agent and author.  She really understands the writer’s state of mind and offers practical and encouraging advice for those of us who—despite the push-pull of ambivalence—recurrently feel compelled to follow the path of writing.

         Betsy’s advice is encouraging and empathetic:

         “. . . the only real difference that I have been able to quantify between those who ultimately make their way as writers and those who quit is that the former were able to contain their ambivalence long enough to commit to a single idea and see it through.”

            “Chances are you want to write because you are a haunted individual, or a bothered individual, because the world does not sit right with you, or you with it. . . The more popular culture and the media fail to present the real pathos of our human struggle, the more opportunity there is for writers who are unafraid to present stories that speak emotional truth . . . I suggest you stalk your demons.  Embrace them.  If you are a writer, especially one who has been unable to make your work count or stick, you must grab your demons by the neck and face them down.  And whatever you do, don’t censor yourself.  There’s always time and editors for that.”

         Yet also blunt and coolly realistic:

         “Writing demands that you keep at bay the demons insisting that you are not worthy or that your ideas are idiotic or that your command of the language is insufficient . . . this is my advice to you: stop altogether and see how long you can go without writing . . . Writing is a calling, and if the call subsides, so be it. . . I assure you, you will never make yourself write.”

 Forest for the Trees        I’ll be doing more posts inspired by ideas from Betsy’s book but I strongly urge investing in “The Forest for the Trees.”  We need all the allies we can gather!  Best wishes for your writing.