Henry Miller’s Advice to the Young Writer

Henry Miller at Big Sur

In his book Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, Henry Miller shares a lot of interesting stories and interesting characters he met at the Big Sur, and overall drops his usual wisdom backed with his experience of life.

One of the characters that Miller introduces is Harvey, a cook and battle-washer. He was obviously a well read guy, able to tell good stories by himself and deconstruct and comment on all the classics of world literature. But he was struggling to write on his own, even though Miller believed he was well equipped for it.

Here is the advice Miller gave to Harvey:

What few young writers realize, it seems to me, is that they must find—create, invent!—the way to reach their readers. It isn’t enough to write a good book, a beautiful book, or even a better book than most. It isn’t enough even to write an “original” book! One has to establish, or re-establish, a unity which has been broken and which is felt just as keenly by the reader, who is a potential artist, as by the writer, who believes himself to be an artist. The theme of separation and isolation—”atomization,” it’s now called—has as many facets to it as there are unique individuals. And we are all unique. The longing to be reunited, with a common purpose and an all-embracing significance, is now universal. The writer who wants to communicate with his fellow-man, and thereby establish communion with him, has only to speak with sincerity and directness. He has not to think about literary standards—he will make them as he goes along—he has not to think about trends, vogues, markets, acceptable ideas or unacceptable ideas: he has only to deliver himself, naked and vulnerable. All that constricts and restricts him, to use the language of not-ness, his fellow-reader, even though he may not be an artist, feels with equal despair and bewilderment. The world presses down on all alike. Men are not suffering from the lack of good literature, good art, good theatre, good music, but from that which has made it impossible for these to become manifest. In short, they are suffering from the silent, shameful conspiracy (the more shameful since it is unacknowledged) which has bound them together as enemies of art and artist. They are suffering from the fact that art is not the primary, moving force in their lives. They are suffering from the act, repeated daily, of keeping up the pretense that they can go their way, lead their lives, without art. They never dream—or they behave as if they never realize – that the reason why they feel sterile, frustrated and joyless is because art (and with it the artist) has been ruled out of their lives. For every artist who has been assassinated thus (unwittingly?) thousands of ordinary citizens, who might have known a normal joyous life, are condemned to lead the purgatorial existence of neurotics, psychotics, schizophrenics. No, the man who is about to blow his top does not have to fix his eye on the Iliad, the Divine Comedy or any other great model; he has only to give us, in his own language, the saga of his woes and tribulations, the saga of his non-existentialism. In this mirror of not-ness everyone will recognize himself for what he is as well as what he is not. He will no longer be able to hold his head up either before his children or before his neighbors; he will have to admit that he—not the other fellow—is that terrible person who is contributing, wittingly or unwittingly, to the speedy down-fall and disintegration of his own people. He will know, when he resumes work in the morning, that everything he does, everything he says, everything he touches, pertains to the invisible poisonous web which holds us all in its mesh and which is slowly but surely crushing the life out of us. It does not matter what high office the reader may hold—he is as much a villain and a victim as the outlaw and the outcast.

Who will print such books, who will publish and disseminate them?

No one!

You will have to do it yourself, dear man. Or, do as Homer did: travel the highways and byways with a white cane, singing your song as you go. You may have to pay people to listen to you, but that isn’t an insuperable feat either. Carry a little “tea” with you and you’ll soon have an audience.

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