Serial Sunday: Henry Miller’s Commandments for Young Writers

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence

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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 purported 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, back in my twenties.  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. Susanna writes:

    I hadn’t seen the second part. Not that Henry Miller is my role model, but seems like good advice. I often only have a couple morning hours, and this is a fine way to put it:
    If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus
    If in fine fettle, write.