Henry Miller’s Commandments

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence


A photo of a page from a yellowed book has been going around Facebook: it’s Henry Miller’s commandments, just a note he jotted to himself while living and working in Paris, c. 1932.  It’s collected in a New Directions paperback called Henry Miller on Writing.  And he was a guy who had a lot to say on the subject.  [here’s a great interview with him in The Paris Review]

I revered him in my twenties, living with friends in a loft in SoHo, reading, reading, reading, writing a little, too.  He wrote a lot about sex.  Opus Pistorum, which he wrote on commission for some rich pervert, is almost disgusting.  What an imagination.  Or at least we hope it’s from his imagination!

Miller's studio at Villa Seurat

He would paint pictures for his keep in Paris.  If you gave him lunch, he made you a painting.   Imagine what those paintings–if any are extant–would be worth today.  He even kept a schedule of meals, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, all at friends and acquaintances houses, a whole month’s worth, to be repeated.

I learned that in The Books in My Life. Also that he didn’t keep books, but made a point of giving them away.  So I gave my books away for a few years there.  I miss some of them a lot.  Including The Books in My Life.

In any case, if you haven’t seen them lately:


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 the 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 the 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.

Going around Facebook


If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus
If in fine fettle, write.

Work on 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 cafes.
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 cafes and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library references once a week.



  1. Sara Williams writes:

    Where did you get the interior photograph of the studio at the Villa Seurat? It first appeared in the early 70s in a French publication called Magazine Littéraire in an article written by Miller’s wealthy neighbor at the Villa Seurat, a Swiss man who called himself a photographer, Arnaud de Maigret. That’s actually Maigret’s studio, not Miller’s. Photo’s of Miller’s studio and his own descriptions of it reveal a tall high chair and stacks of books. Maigret was most certainly paid for his photos and used this one as Miller’s to get more money.

    • Bill writes:

      love it. Another example of how bolloxed history can be by primary documents! Photo was among a dozen or so in a presentation on studios that someone (a former student?) sent me a link for, long lost. Thanks, Sara.

  2. It’s interesting how young writers and non-writers tend to believe that great writing is driven by inspiration. This just goes to show that writing is hard work, a lot like any other profession.

    • Bill writes:

      Inspiration has its place, in plumbing as in writing! But mostly it’s carrying pipe and remembering that water flows downhill. Tell us more about Superstition Review.

      • Peter Peteet writes:

        In explaining electricity,medicine and system failures of all sorts I am inevitably driven to plumbing analogies-but I had not thought of the need for inspiration in plumbing till you mentioned it Bill.Having re-designed the spring-fed plumbing system at my family cabin in the woods many times over my life I will say that inspiration which enables a long hot high pressure shower is right up there in my book as far as satisfying things I have done in my life.As to work,I like to think of Johnny Cash asking his wife as she died”what will I do”-and her reply-“Keep working”.

        • Bill writes:
        • Tommy writes:
          • Peter Peteet writes:

            Yes,the cabin is nestled in a north facing cove(now filled with greying hemlocks being slowly sucked to death by adelgids)that is steep enough to generate lots of pressure in the system.Before I was born three families built the spring house with cinder block and tin;cut back to living rock at the base of a drop where the water first comes to the surface it has two tanks and outlets ,about 20 yards down there is a little splash dam with pipes dropping down from it as well.I’ve often wondered if that was the original catchbasin or just an extra for irrigation of the raspberries and apples my Father always tried to grow.
            In any case the drought ,continued development and wells have dropped the water table, the old men who designed and built the system passed on ; the other houses have been sold to folks who had wells drilled-those funny fiberglass rocks by the road are tombstones for them. My ritual upon arrival is to climb the slope and check the water;it’s always ice-cold and in need of some tweaking or cleaning.
            I have an annotated map in the cabin which tries to lay out the current set-up for other family members who may be using the place.There is no phone line there now but the map sits by the phone book where the phone once was;to call out you have to climb the mountain or go out on the lake to get cell coverage-the calls always put me in a trance as I talk through the wind and poor reception of where to look for clogs or leaks;how to change a filter.
            The feeling coming back down the mountain,knowing water is flowing through pipe buried under your feet and pressure is building against faucets and fixtures with no outside power needed is a fine one.The water heater is grid-dependent and ancient,it’s elements have been stolen and replaced with ones modified to fit the old tank.Would like to have it hooked to solar and with a wood fired one in-line like the one in a cabin I used in Alaska-of course I’d prefer they blow the dam and let the river run free out front too.They have the lake drained to repair the dam now and the power still goes out some in the winter-wish I was there right now I could do some work and imagine all my dreams coming true for the place.
            There’s plenty to work on here though,so “calmly,joyously and recklessly “I’d best go to it-I’ll have to get Black Spring and read it;would be a good title for a February photo essay.As for what words are on my walls the most recent are from Howard Zinn “Be skeptical of governments and their attempts through politics and culture to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest”. Gravity and flow;yep,at some level it’s all plumbing.

            • Tommy writes:

              Solar, in a North facing cove?? Look elsewhere, my son, for power.

              • Peter Peteet writes:

                Your son?Me?,older than you(by days if I recall);my offspring older than yours too!
                Still,I am childishly rebellious and will rejoice in your intimation of my youth.
                On the banks of that river, in the floodplain that is covered most of the year by waters which push patiently against the dam,there sits a house of boats that catches the morning sun as it rises over the eastern ridge.The metal roofing panels I put there a couple of years back sit at a good angle to catch light and /or heat and store it as hot water.
                Power, I am thinking I look now to escape ,more than find;the avalanche of forces wielded by humans all around me to subjugate and destroy what is wild and free-I’ve a belly full of that.These scarred and calloused fingers have loaded six-inch mortars,fired weapons and twisted throttles to the point that my ears are literally ringing always with tinnitus-though happily the sound is like crickets.
                Power,I do see it elsewhere now;in sounds and symbols that can change forever the folding of the prions of thought and remake a planet as though they were ice 9.Like Toad in The Wind in the Willows I sit beside my canary colored cart of self-sufficiency in the ditch and stare after the machine of modern civilization and mutter “poop-poop”. I am a tinker yet but with dreams of enduring enjambments and mind binding rhymes rather than mere passing pyrotechnics.The indignities of washerwomen and judges notwithstanding I believe I will ,through the grace of my friends,be taken to the river again.There Mole will restrain me till the enchantment of the sea-faring rat wears off and with luck I’ll get to hear that piper at the gates of dawn one more time.

  3. monica wood writes:

    I love these commandments–had never seen them. They are now on my wall. I am a big fan of Encouraging Words on Walls.

  4. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Well, he certainly seems to have covered all the bases, including all moods. But the guy sure did get the work done. What’s really heartening about this is that it’s Henry cheering himself on. He probably wrote it in a moment of inspired clarity and never looked at it again.

    • Bill writes:

      Right–it’s the kind of thing you tape on the wall over your desk to get through a bad stretch and then there it is on the wall for years unseen. My favorite part is urging himself to go out and have fun. Note the writing high on the wall in his studio. Can anyone see what it says? I had that photo taped above my desk in SoHo (c. 1979, age 26-27) and dreamed of such a place, not realizing I was in one!

  5. john lane writes:

    Had never seen these. Like many of them, especially 3, 5, 8, and 11. I’m a juggler of many projects at a time, so not so crazy about the hard focus ones. Wish some of my friends who seem to hate writing (and are writers) would read these and practice this joyful craft. Good to see this after the downer review of the Miller book yesterday morning in NYTimes.

    • Dave writes:

      I’m going to link to that piece in the NYTBR. Thought it quite lame and it certainly didn’t offer anything new. Henry Miller is sexist! There’s some breaking news. DG

      • Bill writes:

        He is worse than sexist–there’s real sexual violence there. But he was born in another era–1891. In his mid-twenties for World War I and late twenties for the flu pandemic, horrible stuff that just kept coming. Despite all there is something sweet about him–especially the elderly him. When he died, in 1980, I cried. But I was in my mid-twenties. And if he speaks for anyone, it’s men in their mid-twenties.

    • Bill writes:

      I both hate and love writing. The joy, sometimes, comes in being done. But not always. Haven’t seen the Times. In fact, haven’t looked at the NYTBR for probably a decade.