Brain Pickings

Henry Miller’s Reflections on Writing

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“Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery.”

Why do writers — great, beloved, timeless writers — write? George Orwell had his four motives. For Joan Didion, it is a matter of ego and self-revelation. David Foster Wallace, perhaps ironically in retrospect, wrote purely for the fun of it. For Charles Bukowski, it was an inextinguishable inner burning.

From The Wisdom of the Heart (public library) — the sublime anthology of Henry Miller’s short stories, profiles, and literary essays that gave us his insights on the art of living and the future of mankind — comes a fantastic, timeless essay titled “Reflections on Writing,” in which Miller examines the psychological, emotional, and social roots of the impulse to create literature.

Miller begins by relaying his journey of discovery, that essential and infinite process that helps us transmute information into knowledge and wisdom:

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 the 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, purposelessness, infinitude.

From the very beginning almost I was deeply aware there is no goal. … 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 man.

In describing his initial attempts to analyze and imitate the writing of his literary heroes, but failing to produce “good” writing himself, Miller depicts failure as a kind of creative catharsis, an essential prerequisite for discovering one’s own purpose:

My huge failure was like the recapitulation of the experience of the race: I had to grow foul with knowledge, realize the futility of everything, smash everything, grow desperate, then humble, then sponge myself off the slate, as it were, in order to recover my authenticity. I had to arrive at the brink and then take a leap in the dark.

He goes on to make the case for a “condition of sublime indifference,” nestled with the Bradburyesque insistence on writing with joy — a necessary antidote to the “tortured genius” myth of creativity, one Bukowski has also famously debunked. Miller writes:

On the surface, where the historical battles rage, where everything is interpreted in terms of money and power, there may be crowding, but life only begins when one drops below the surface, when one gives up the struggle, sinks and disappears from sight. Now I can as easily not write as write: there is no longer any compulsion, no longer any therapeutic aspect to it. Whatever I do is done out of sheer joy: I drop my fruits like a ripe tree. What the general reader or the critic makes of it is not my concern. I am not establishing values: I defecate and nourish. There is nothing more to it.

[…]

Paradise is everywhere and every road, if one continues along it far enough, leads to it.

On words vs. language:

I do not believe in words, no matter if strung together by the most skillful man: I believe in language, which is something beyond words, something which words give only an adequate illusion of. Words do not exist separately, except in the minds of scholars, etymologists, philologists, etc. Words divorced from language are dead things, and yield no secrets.

In arguing for the value of making peace with mystery, Miller echoes Rilke and John Keats’s concept of “negative capability” with a sentiment later articulated by great scientific minds as well, including Richard Feynman and Isaac Asimov. Miller puts it beautifully:

Understanding is not a piercing of the mystery, but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it, through and by it.

He zeroes in on the quintessential purpose of the writer with breathtaking poetic precision to convey an ethos reminiscent of his once-lover Anaïs Nin’s:

It is the stuff of life, the very sign of livingness. One gets nearer to the heart of truth, which I suppose is the ultimate aim of the writer, in the measure that he ceases to struggle, in the measure that he abandons the wills. The great writer is the very symbol of life, of the non-perfect. He moves effortlessly, giving the illusion of perfection, from some unknown center which is certainly not the brain center but which is definitely a center, a center connected with the rhythm of the whole universe and consequently as sound, solid, unshakable, as durable, defiant, anarchic, purposeless, as the universe itself. Art teaches nothing, except the significance of life.

Miller adds to history’s keenest definitions of art:

I believe that one has to pass beyond the sphere and influence of art. Art is only a means to life, to the life more abundant. It is not in itself the life more abundant. It merely points the way, something which is overlooked not only by the public, but very often by the artist himself. In becoming an end it defeats itself. Most artists are defeating life by their very attempt to grapple with it. They have split the egg in two. All art, I firmly believe, will one day disappear. But the artist will remain, and life itself will become not ‘an art,’ but art, i.e., will definitely and for all time usurp the field. In any true sense we are certainly not yet alive.

On the fluidity of facts:

Between subjective and objective there is no vital difference. Everything is illusive and more or less transparent. All phenomena, including man and his thoughts about himself, are nothing more than a movable, changeable alphabet. There are no solid facts to get hold of.

Contributing to other famous writerly meditations on truth vs. fiction, Miller notes:

Fiction and invention are of the very fabric of life. The truth is no way disturbed by the violent perturbations of the spirit.

Thus, whatever effects I may obtain by technical device are never the mere results of technique, but the very accurate registering by my seismographic needle of the tumultuous, manifold, mysterious and incomprehensible experiences which I have lived through and which, in the process of writing, are lived through again, differently, perhaps even more tumultuously, more mysteriously, more incomprehensibly. The so-called core of solid fact, which forms the point of departure as well as repair, is deeply embedded in me: I could not possibly lose it, alter it, disguise it, try as I may. And yet it is altered, just as the face of the world is altered, with each moment that we breathe. To record it then, one must give a double illusion — one of arrestation and one of flow. It is this dual trick, so to speak, which gives the illusion of falsity: it is this lie, this fleeting, metamorphic mask, which is of the very essence of art. One anchors oneself in the flow: one adopts the lying mask in order to reveal the truth.

Putting the routine of writing in wonderfully introspective and soulful terms, he stresses the generative role of what William Gibson has termed “personal micro-culture,” attesting to the notion that creativity is merely the combinatorial expression of one’s lived experience:

Just as life begins at any moment, through an act of realization, so the work. But each beginning, whether of book page, paragraph, sentence or phrase, marks a vital connection, and it is in the vitality, the durability, the timelessness and changelessness of the thoughts and events that I plunge anew each time. Every line and word is vitally connected with my life, my life only, be it in the form of deed, event, fact, thought, emotion, desire, evasion, frustration, dream, revery, vagary, even the unfinished nothings which float listlessly in the brain like the snapped filaments of a spider’s web. There is nothing really vague or tenuous — even the nothingnessses are sharp, tough, definite, durable. Like the spider I return again and again to the task, conscious that the web I am spinning is made of my own substance, that it will never fail me, never run dry.

He echoes the Japanese ethos of wabi-sabi, a philosophy of finding beauty in impermanence and decay:

In an age marked by dissolution, liquidation seems to me a virtue, nay a moral imperative. … I have always looked upon decay as being just as wonderful and rich an expression of life as growth.

Miller ends with a poignant, poetic meditation on authenticity and the life of purpose:

I had to learn to think, feel and see in a totally new fashion, in an uneducated way, in my own way, which is the hardest thing in the world. I had to throw myself into the current, knowing that I would probably sink. The great majority of artists are throwing themselves in with life-preservers around their necks, and more often than not it is the life-preserver which sinks them. Nobody can drown in the ocean of reality who voluntarily gives himself up to the experience. Whatever there be of progress in life comes not through adaptation but through daring, through obeying the blind urge. ‘No daring is fatal,’ said René Crevel, a phrase which I shall never forget. The whole logic of the universe is contained in daring, i.e., in creating from the flimsiest, slenderest support. In the beginning this daring is mistaken for will, but with time the will drops away and the automatic process takes its place, which again has to be broken or dropped and a new certitude established which has nothing to do with knowledge, skill, technique or faith. By daring one arrives at this mysterious X position of the artist, and it is this anchorage which no one can describe in words but yet subsists and exudes from every line that is written.

The Wisdom of the Heart is an absolute treasure in its entirety. For more timeless wisdom on writing, revisit Miller’s 11 commandments and complement with Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, Joy Williams on why writers write, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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