AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 9: DISCARD THE PROGRAM

Kind of a short one today—I have a long to do list ahead of me!

I’m getting close to the end of this long series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

Though meant as advice for writers, it’s struck me over the past few weeks that this list can just as easily be applied to any occupation, or as general life advice. This week, we’ll look at the ninth commandment in that light—not as how to write better or to be a more productive author, but to point us all in the direction of that elusive work/life balance, starting with Henry Miller’s advice to:

9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

The Program, as he described it, is broken down in Part 4 of this series, and you can click back to that here for a refresh, if necessary.

I am a to do lister, and pretty much always have been. Though I’ve read all the advice on why to do lists are bad, that they tend to be un-doable and so only provide a source of guilt, or contain too many little busy work/work avoidance task so that checking them off seems like “work,” but isn’t . . . I know all that. And in an effort to combat either unrealistic expectations or unreal work, I’ve massaged my to do list schemes over and over again until I’ve ended up with something that sort of works.

And let’s be honest, all you can really ever achieve is “sort of works.”

The Apollo program sort of worked. American democracy sort of works. Every computer on Earth sort of works. Why do I need to hold my to do list to a higher standard?

This is, I think, part of what Henry Miller is trying to tell us with this bit of advice. Though he had a fairly well thought through program, with things to be done in the morning, afternoon, and evening, here he’s telling us it’s okay if we occasionally fall off the wagon, or take a day off, or fail to get to an item or two. If there’s a day when we haven’t completed all the work (whether that’s writing or accounting or selling insurance or building houses) we planned to do that day, well . . . tomorrow is a new day. Get back up on that horse and get back to work.

My own to do list, which exists primarily as a Stickies window off to the left side of my computer screens, is a fluid thing. If I don’t finish all of the seven items on it for today that follow “FAH Post,” which I’m working on now, those items will be pushed to tomorrow, and so on, until I get to my standard weekend to do list item: “Catch up on any unfinished work.”

That having been said, I do beat myself up a bit when those items aren’t all completed, and sometimes end up revising the whole to do list somewhere mid-week, reprioritizing to shift maximum work to one urgent project that will clear the decks for other things next week. This process feels a lot like what Henry Miller was trying to say with:

Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

And again, this advice works just as well for my “day job” work as a consultant, ghostwriter, and editor as it does for my own writing.

In my own list of commandments, post-Henry Miller, I’d rewrite this as:

9. Give yourself a break and realize that sometimes you have to set aside the project at hand, but you can, and will, come back to it as soon as possible.

Boy, that feels easy. Almost too easy. But it really is that easy.

Every morning I like to pause, look at my to do list and calendar, and put a few minutes’ thought into what today’s biggest priority really is. Sometimes that’s multiple smaller projects, sometimes it’s one big desk-clearing uber-project. Whatever today brings, look at your version of this Program as an achievable goal, but in the same way that we can give ourselves permission to write a short, bad book, we can give ourselves permission to have a short, bad work day—to be revised with intent tomorrow!

 

—Philip Athans

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 8: DON’T BE A DRAUGHT HORSE

We’re rounding the final curve in this very long series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing, and if you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here. This week, Henry Miller proclaims:

8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.

On first glance, this feels like the same advice from his third commandment: Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand. But maybe not. In my run-down of that piece of advice I focused on the nervousness, if not outright fear, of facing that blank page knowing there are 90,000 words to be typed. Here, I think, the advice is more about how to write once you’ve broken past the fear of beginning or the intimidation factor a full-length novel can certainly engender in the best of us.

Having given ourselves permission just to do today’s writing today—and a novel is not written in one day!—and to think of our rough drafts as our “short, bad book,” let’s not forget that the act of writing itself should be fun.

True, there are some books that shouldn’t be particularly fun, or even pleasurable, to write. I once wrote an (as yet and very most likely never to be produced) screenplay that gave me nightmares—it was a very dark, dark thing I was making and not intended to be “fun” for anyone. I set that aside over and over again, but was always dragged back to the story and eventually finished it. I’ve also spent the last ten years or so telling myself I should rewrite it in the form of a novel (or novella) but I have yet to start that—maybe because it doesn’t seem like something that would be particularly fun to write—not like some of the definitely much more fun pulp stuff, or even the dark fantasy novel I keep semi-working on.

I have fun writing horror—scaring people in that particular context can be fun as hell. For the record, that context is that no one is actually harmed in any way and it’s sold as horror fiction so people who don’t like to read scary books can just pass from the get-go.

But I feel as though we need to concentrate on figuring out how to write difficult, challenging, disturbing (etc.) material “with pleasure” while not feeling like some kind of psychopath.

I think it’s possible, and even healthy, to take a sort of pleasure in the crafting of very dark fiction, fiction that has a difficult political or cultural message, or is set against the backdrop of real world horrors like the Holocaust. But rather than the sort of feeling you might get from writing a really fun sword and sorcery fight scene or the funny bit where the cute little robot does something silly, the “pleasure” comes from the feeling that you’ve conveyed your message in a way that will touch people.

If you feel you’ve treated that difficult subject matter correctly, there’s pleasure in that. It doesn’t mean: “I had a blast writing Night,” said Elie Wiesel, “what a hoot that was!” But there had to be some release there, some sense that he said something that needed to be said in a way that people would hear and understand it.

Don’t take this commandment from Henry Miller as an indication that everything you write has to be fun and frivolous and silly—though, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, too!

This is one of those things that I sometimes forget, myself—and really need to remember, all day every day:

Writing makes me happy while I’m writing.

Even when I’m trying to convince you of something or scare the pants off you or reveal some horrifying internal darkness from within myself or that I perceive in the word around us.

Let’s not be draught horses or factory workers. Let’s, as Jane Yolen very eloquently taught us in her must-read book called, not coincidentally, Take Joy, take joy in the work itself, in that rush of a well-formed sentence, in discovering from the depths of your subconscious the exactly perfect word for that moment right there, in nailing the emotional arc, in being surprised by a sudden idea that remaps the trajectory of your entire story . . . all that stuff and more.

With all that in mind, I’ll make my version of this commandment a little simpler:

8. Rejoice in the act of writing itself.

It will keep you writing, and it will keep you writing better.

 

—Philip Athans

 

P.S.: I’m scheduling this to post on Tuesday, July 18, while I’ll be out on vacation. I’ve never done this before, so I hope I don’t screw it up. If you’re reading this on Tuesday the 18th, it means I didn’t screw it up, and I’ll take great pleasure in that!

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 7: KEEP HUMAN!

Ah, just about perfectly timed, this one. I wish I could say I was some kind of blogging mastermind and actually planned this, scheduling this long series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing to get right to this one the week before I leave for Las Vegas for my first proper vacation in five years.

But it just worked out that way.

If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here. This week, we’ll look at Henry Miller’s advice to:

7. Keep human! See people, go places,

drink if you feel like it.

Oh.

Hell.

Yes right now.

I’m not going to get into a whole whiny thing about not going on vacation often enough, or march out the same depressing statistics about how many vacation days American workers routinely leave on the table, or the generally probably more true than anyone wants to admit feeling that if you take a week off your boss will realize that everything was fine while you were gone and fire you when you get back . . . all those things plus the studies about how we’re murdering ourselves and each other with stress and people in Norway go on vacation every year and almost never shoot each other.

It’s especially difficult for me to take some kind of vacation-activist stance since I work for myself and get as many vacation days as I decide to give myself, there is no “team” doing my work when I’m gone or some other junior employee ready to back-stab his way into my job if I take a week off. And fortunately for me—and yes, I really do understand just how lucky this makes me—there are large portions of my job that entail doing things I’d probably be doing as a hobby on my time off anyway.

But still, even a really great job can back up on you after a certain amount of time, and though I edit happily, write (even ghostwrite, which has a package of joys all its own) blissfully, eventually any human has to stop doing the thing—whatever that thing is—and spend a week doing some other thing.

So next week, I’m off to fabulous Las Vegas where my wife and I will celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary seeing people, going places, and drinking if we feel like it (and I plan on feeling like it).

Still, I have this feeling that Henry Miller didn’t mean for me, or anyone, to “keep human” for four sun-filled days and three star-filled nights every five years then otherwise “work” if we can’t “create.” I’m willing to bet that when he wrote that he meant for us to keep human: see people, go places, drink if we feel like it, on a daily basis.

Though I often find myself in some very deadline-intensive weeks (or even months) and this week, sliding into that vacation, is one of those—when multiple projects all scream for immediate attention simultaneously—I hardly work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

I take at least partial days off fairly regularly.

Sometimes this makes me feel guilty, sitting on my butt watching Game of Thrones (again, but the new season starts this Sunday, so . . .) instead of working, but sometimes my brain just shuts down. Frankly, setting a project aside for a few hours while I’m out there being human (or in my living room being Dothraki) is better serving my clients (and my readers) than forcing my way through their projects while my brain is actively trying to push me elsewhere.

Binge watching TV shows aside, though, I do need to be more human than I have been lately. I need to leave the house more often.

One of the things they don’t tell you when you decide to work from home (or that decision is made for you) is how often that means you don’t actually walk outside. I’ve been afraid to track it and, y’know, observing it will alter the outcome, but there have been stretches of at least three days in a row where I have not stepped outside at all—even to take the dogs for a walk. Maybe five days. I might have gone a week in here, as if I were under house arrest.

I’m wearing pants right now, though, and drove my wife to work this morning, so good day so far!

Forbes contributor Sunday Steinkirchner touched on this in her article “The Pros and Cons of Working from Home”:

It can also be a personal issue, as most people view the separation of work and play as a good thing. A physical separation from your work can provide a mental or emotional separation. When spending long stretches at home without business trips, it’s our first inclination to spend every waking hour working. It can be hard to take a break and impose structured hours on ourselves, but sometimes the only way to relieve stress is to get out of our apartment.

I’ll say that Henry Miller is telling us, on a day to day basis, not to be mad, cloistered monks. To get out there and see people and function as something other than a Writer for a portion of every day. I’m adding that watching TV doesn’t really count.

My bad there.

Or, anyway . . . does it count?

In his Atlantic article “The Case for Vacation: Why Science Says Breaks are Good for Productivity,” Derek Thompson wrote:

The more we learn about human attention, the more limited it seems. Overtime binges lead to bursts of output that exert a hangover effect in later days. Study after study indicates that short bursts of attention punctuated with equally deliberate breaks are the surest way to harness our full capacity to be productive. Literature on teacher research at universities—a notoriously grueling enterprise—showed that faculty are more productive when they work in brief stints rather than all-consuming marathon sessions. Another study published in the journal Cognition found that short breaks allow people to maintain their focus on a task without the loss of quality that normally occurs over time.

And this after quoting a study that says some amount of “work time” spent poking around on the Internet (or, I’ll add myself, watching Game of Thrones) is actually good for you—is a version of “keeping human” Henry Miller couldn’t have foreseen.

How then, should I revise this for our new century?

How about:

7. Keep human! Interact with other humans everyday in whatever way you can, and from time to time, take a full week off.

I’m going to.

And we’ve also promised each other the next one will come before 2022!

 

—Philip Athans

P.S. And don’t be surprised or call me a liar or hypocrite if you see a post here next Tuesday. It means I wrote it this week and scheduled it to post on Tuesday the 18th. See how technology actually enables time off?

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 6: CEMENT A LITTLE EVERY DAY

We’ve come to what I think is the most difficult of this series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

What makes this difficult—for me—is that I have to admit I’m not 100% sure what he’s talking about when he says:

6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.

David Caolo, in “Productivity with Henry Miller” thinks, “number six goes back to number one: Don’t start (fertilize) ‘Project B’ until Project A is complete.” But if that’s true, then, so far, four of the first six commandments essentially say the same thing: “Work on one thing at a time until finished,” and the other two tell us to do that happily, whether we want to or not—which is weird when you put it like that.

But that can’t be—there needs to be something new here, something I’m not getting in the distinction between “cement” and “fertilizer.”

“It is better to have a few solid words than the promise of many different ideas that may take shape or not,” Michael Edmondstone added in “Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments for Writing Well.” “Keep your writing focused and stable. Once you have the right foundation, the rest will come.”

I think that gets us closer.

In my mind, the word “cement” means to finish something, to complete it. Then when I hear “add new fertilizers” I think of somehow working to strengthen something you’ve already started. If you’re growing plants, you plant the seed or seedling first then add fertilizer, right? And you keep adding fertilizer as necessary to keep it healthy and growing.

So this is Henry Miller saying: “End up with a little bit of finished text every day instead of adding notes and bits and revisions and edits to existing text.”

This would seem to match up with Heinlein’s third rule: “You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order”—a rule that, at least as interpreted by Dean Wesley Smith, I take some exception with.

But at the same time, I think it is important to avoid a trap that too many of us fall into, which is the myth of perfectionism—the need to revise and revise and revise again and again and again until the act of “working on my novel” replaces the creation of the novel itself—the process becomes a circular end to itself and it’s never done, it’s never read by anyone, including people who might not like it.

Dean Wesley Smith gets into this idea of fear as a motivator to keep revising, and it’s one of the points he and I agree upon.

You do have to, eventually, “cement” the damn thing. You have to send it out to agents or editors or publish it yourself. Writing demands to be read, and readers demand finished writing.

Okay, then, so how do we “cement” (read: finish) a little every day?

Here’s a process that’s worked for me, and I offer it here as a suggestion—it’s at least worth a try.

I tend to think in terms of chapters, but you can break that down into scenes if you like. Go back to the third commandment: “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.” There we got into the idea of “chunking,” or breaking large tasks into smaller component tasks. Assuming you took that advice, you’re now writing, in ecstasy, some “chunk” of text—a scene, a chapter, however you want to split that up, every day. I often but not always tend to finish a chapter at a time.

So, yesterday you finished a scene, writing in joy and without nervousness and not caring if you spelled everything right or if it’s any good at all, regardless of the mood you might have been in. Today, then, go back over that chunk of text and cement it.

What I do is start a day’s writing by editing yesterday’s writing. This is at the very least a clean-up pass but might be a pretty severe rewrite, based on last night’s sleep. Did some logic gap, some plot point I forgot, or some better idea keep me up? In any case, now I go ahead and cement that, editing with intent. At the end of that short process I now have a rough-done scene (or chapter, etc.) and the story is fresh in my head so I can then move into the next scene and write it in ecstasy.

Eventually, then, revising Chapter 1 then writing Chapter 2 on Monday; revising Chapter 2 then writing Chapter 3 on Tuesday; and so on, I build the book one chapter at a time.

And here’s where—ah . . . it’s as if the clouds have parted even as I type this—Henry Miller and I match up again. I cement that chapter, joyfully write the next, but then add no new fertilizer . . . until the full revision pass.

When I say “full revision pass,” I mean once I’ve gotten to the end of the rough draft and have the (mostly) finished book, from the first chapter to the last. I can then start at the beginning and read it as a whole, revising the beginning in accordance with new ideas and left turns I’ve taken along the way, and revising the ending based on a fresher recollection of the beginning, which I may have written in ecstasy and edited with intent some months ago.

But other than that one pass on each chapter as I go, I don’t add more fertilizer to the previous chapters while I’m still barreling through the rough draft. I make copious notes—reminders to go back and fix this scene, add that character, cut something, and so on—but I don’t actually do any of those revisions until I have the full rough draft done. Then that full revision takes me from rough draft (only I ever see it) to first draft (time for an editor or at least a trusted first reader to start offering good advice).

Okay, how do I rewrite this for my own list of commandments?

6. Clean up yesterday’s writing then write the next section, which you’ll clean up tomorrow before adding tomorrow’s new text. Do no further revision until the rough draft is done.

I bet there’s a leaner way to say that. Something like, “Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.”

 

—Philip Athans

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 5: CREATE vs. WORK

This series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing continues with the fifth of eleven commandments. If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

Having learned to work on one thing at a time (sort of), not spend our lives rewriting the same thing over and over again, to write with some sense of joy, and to develop some kind of reasonable program to keep ourselves on track, we’ll look at what to do when the muse abandons us.

Henry Miller says:

5. When you can’t create you can work.

He’s not alone in offering this advice, of course. We’ve all heard something similar from lots of authors, including Harlan Ellison, who said: “People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.”

This has tended to be an issue with me. I’ve always felt as if I had to be inspired—at least a little. I had to be “in the mood” before I could really sit down and write. “What has mood to do with it?” Gurney Halleck asked in Frank Herbert’s Dune, “You fight when the necessity arises—no matter the mood! Mood’s a thing for cattle or making love or playing the baliset. It’s not for fighting.” And, yeah—writing is like playing the baliset!

But then there were those deadline driven novels I wrote, to deadline, even on days when I wasn’t particularly “feeling it,” where the muse was more like an accountant or taskmaster than a giver of precious creative nectar. And here I am, on a Tuesday morning, writing my weekly blog post, which some Tuesdays feels like work to start off, but I (almost) always get to the end of the post and think, Okay, that’s not bad at all. That’s postable!

So maybe what we’re looking for here, to explain Miller’s distinction between “create” and “work” is more related to that idea that on a good muse day, when the bovine mood to create is there, we can explore our amazing flow state and live in the story. But on those other days we can at least grind something out.

Dani Shapiro wrote in Still Writing:

Don’t think too much. There’ll be time to think later. Analysis won’t help. You’re chiseling now. You’re passing your hands over the wood. Now the page is no longer blank. There’s something there. It isn’t your business yet to know whether it’s going to be prize-worthy someday, or whether it will gather dust in a drawer. Now you’ve carved the tree. You’ve chiseled the marble. You’ve begun.

It may not be perfect, but there they are: words. Words are the result of work, of the act of typing or piloting a pen. Perfect? Impossible! Publishable? Maybe . .  eventually. Destined to be deleted en masse? Possibly, but you can learn as much from your mistakes as you can from your successes. Or as Ray Bradbury taught us in Zen in the Art of Writing:

We should not look down on work nor look down on the forty-five out of fifty-two stories written in our first year as failures. To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then. All goes on. Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work done and behind you is a lesson to be studied. There is no failure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous and therefor destructive of the creative process.

So then what if, today, that precious and elusive muse has fled and there is no looming deadline, no agent or editor expecting this thing to be done in two months? Not feeling it today? Okay, don’t create, then. Work instead.

For me, this means sit down and write . . . something. Anything.

Do you have a blog? Write a blog post. Write a poem—try to write the worst poem ever! Find a writing prompt and just start writing as if that were some kind of work assignment and you have this hour or two set aside in your program and you need to just keep exploring this idea until time’s up.

At the end of that hour or two will you have one terrible poem, one good one? One short story that forever remains unfinished? The beginnings of a new novel? A completed short story that, with some work, will actually be good? Maybe you’ll end up with something that surprises you. Maybe there’s one single line in that otherwise awful prompt-driven short story that really sings—and you can find a place for it in your novel. Maybe all this does is add to your pile of failures.

So what?

You have written.

You have worked.

And as Jane Yolen wrote in her brilliant, must-red book Take Joy:

There is a big difference between the wannabes and the worker bees. The worker bees are the ones who get published. The wannabes just want to be published, they don’t want to write.

You have to write, and so do I. We have to be worker bees or we’ll never get in the necessary practice to ever get the slightest bit good at this.

But as I’ve found in my deadline-driven work, and in these weekly posts, getting started can feel like work, can feel like drudgery, but once I get going—and that moment can come one sentence in or right before the last sentence—I find that the work has turned into joy. That ecstasy we’re all looking for is there—at least in a small dose. And through that work, I’ve managed to create. That being the case, I’ll rewrite this commandment to read:

5. Write something . . . anything . . . but write!

There.

I have written.

 

—Philip Athans

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 4: WORK ACCORDING TO PROGRAM

Continuing with this series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing we’ve arrived at the fourth of eleven commandments. If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want a second (or third, or fourth) look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

This week, we get into much more specific process stuff, bringing in Henry Miller’s own work “program,” beginning with the command to . . .

4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!

I have to admit I have the worst problem with both parts of this: working according to any “program,” but also stopping at some “appointed time.” I tend to keep going when I get going, but getting going can be tough.

But before I get into my own whining—and I promise it won’t be all whining—let’s look at Henry Miller’s to do list template:

 

MORNINGS:

If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.

If in fine fettle, write.

AFTERNOONS:

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.

EVENINGS:

See friends. Read in cafés.

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 cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week.

 

Whew—sounds like a full day!

Actually, sounds like a fantastic day.

Let’s break it down a little, compared to my own version of a work “program.”

Fresno Bob and Ripley, aka Intrusion and Diversion

First of all, I never write in the morning and I never have. Maybe once or twice . . . maybe, but we’ll say effectively never. As is I tend to my consulting business in the mornings, which is when I go through emails, respond to clients and prospective clients, manage my online courses, and handle various bits of personal business like paying bills, handling my simple accounting, and I try my damnest to exercise. But my exercise bike broke and now I need to figure out what else to do. Summer is here, so this is a good time for me to find some alternate exercise program. Maybe Miller’s evening stroll through “unfamiliar sections” could actually work for me. No more morning exercise would actually help me get my butt in the chair earlier and get through all those morning business things earlier, so maybe I could actually write for an hour or so in there somewhere.

Still, if you aren’t groggy, and don’t have some kind of “day job” that intrudes on your morning, try Miller’s morning writing program and let me know how that works for you.

Afternoons . . . now that tends to be my Achilles heel.

I work like a madman most afternoons, switching between a number of projects in any given week—edits, ghostwriting projects, courses . . . not a lot of my own writing, though. I have, on the other hand, had some solid success with a “program” of my own, not at all dissimilar to Henry Miller’s. I’ve started blocking out time on my calendar to help keep myself on task during the day.

It’s been working for me—increasing my productivity by leaps and bounds. To do this, though, first you have to have a solid sense of how long things actually take you. How many words can you write in an hour? How many words can you revise or edit? Or, I suppose, you can set your goals by time rather than words: Write continuously for an hour. If that gets you 800 decent words on Monday and 1200 on Tuesday . . . fine! I do have a good sense of the relationship between words and time, though, so I know I can write a reasonably solid, if rough, 1000 words in an hour. I also know that I can actually carve out an hour in any given day to do anything—even at times like right now when I have a particularly robust workload. So I need to, if in fine fettle, write for an hour every afternoon!

I hereby add that to my calendar in the name of Henry Miller!

His advice to stay on task in your afternoon writing session goes back to the previous commandments. I’ll let my revisions of those stand and say work on the novel if you want to, a short story if you’d prefer, and so on, as long as you’re, y’know . . . writing.

Still, this is Henry Miller, full time writer we’re hearing from, so what about the 99%+ of us who have other work responsibilities—even people like me who’s “day job” often is writing, if not full time fantasy novelist sort of writing?

If you need to pay bills like a grow-up and need to keep your job at the law firm or the library or the pizzeria . . . can you still write everyday on that one (or small set of) current projects(s)?

I feel good about being able to carve an hour of writing out of every afternoon because with a few exceptions I tend to be in charge of my own schedule anyway. I’m very rarely expected to be at certain place at a set time. So if I write from, say, 2:30 in the afternoon to 3:30 and that means maybe I need to work an extra hour later in the evening to finish up an edit, or better yet, sit down to work an hour earlier in the morning . . . I can do that. But if you have actual office hours, work a set shift, you won’t be able to stick to Henry Miller’s plan, or mine, with my blocks of time on a Mac calendar so reminders push me from task to task like a virtual project manager.

Where is that hour to be found then? On the bus or train on the way in and the way home from work? Do you get an hour for lunch? Or do you shift this writing time to the evening, when gentlemen of leisure like Henry Miler are wandering the streets of Greenwich Village, scowling at the local hooligans? Or do you get up an hour earlier in the morning and fight through the grogginess? Give up an hour of evening TV viewing and let the DVR hold onto Better Call Saul for a bit? Wherever it comes from, you’ll have to find it on your own.

As such, I’m going to revise this commandment to read:

4. Work according to the best program of your own devising, built honestly and sincerely around the realities of your individual life, which can and should—even must—include writing.

Honestly, Henry Miller’s whole evening plan just sounds great to me. My evenings? Fight with my family over dinner I’d rather skip, cook it anyway, eat it joylessly, then watch TV while feeling guilty about not working for a couple hours before falling asleep sitting up at 8:30 pm. I used to write at night, but I don’t anymore. I used to have hobbies (not painting, per se, but hobbies), but I don’t anymore. And I never allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride.

Shit.

This Miller guy might be onto something here.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 3: DON’T BE NERVOUS

I’m just going to keep going with this series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. If you haven’t been with me from the beginning, or want a second (or third) look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

This week, we get to the third of eleven commandments, in which we are cautioned . . .

3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

I’ve covered this before, in various forms.

In particular, I exhorted you to Write in Ecstasy, Edit With Intent, and to joyously, recklessly approach every new novel project as a short, bad book. But I don’t think I’ve ever addressed this idea of being “nervous.”

Writing a book can be scary proposition, which is what Dani Shapiro was hoping to help us with when, in her book Still Writing, she described this idea of starting out with the goal of writing a short, bad book. It takes some of that nervousness away.

Building on that is a concept you can find in all sorts of pursuits, and that’s breaking a big project up into smaller pieces, each less intimidating than the whole, and stressing those smaller, shorter-term goals over the bigger, longer term whole they’ll eventually make up. It’s pretty much the heart of Agile and Scrum project management, breaking down big software projects into “stories.” Self-help guru Tony Robbins refers to it as “chunking”—breaking down big tasks into smaller, less intimidating chunks. You don’t have to write the book today, just Chapter 1, or any thousand words, or whatever sized “chunk” works for you. Then you take on the next chunk. And as I’ve said before, you don’t even have to write those chunks in order.

When one chunk is “done” in rough form (don’t worry about pesky details like spelling, grammar, manuscript format, quality . . .) move on to the next short, bad chunk. Keep doing that, one chunk at a time, until you get the whole story told—in it’s rough form. With that rough draft in hand, you can then begin revising, more slowly, more carefully—but you can’t edit text that doesn’t exist. First, get it down on paper (or, y’know, in your computer . . . you know what I mean).

That concept of breaking big tasks into a series of smaller tasks has always helped me overcome the nervousness of facing down the daunting task of a 90,000 word novel. It can be a good reason to outline, for you nervous “pantsers” out there. An outline can help you delineate the “chunks.”

But the act of writing—typing, writing by hand, dictating, etc.—the actual words might not be what’s making you nervous. It isn’t always what makes me nervous.

I keep having trouble making progress on what’s become kind of a perpetual work-in-progress because I’m nervous about the story itself. I have doubts. Is there any action in it? Is my big surprise ending just awful? It might be really predictable, and it might feel like a cheat. I’ve written part of that ending already and I like it . . . ish. It seems to work, but then there’s no way to know for sure until I’ve written the huge story that leads into it. I’m also nervous that the whole idea is too passive, that it puts my hero on an impossible quest he isn’t actually equipped to do, and some earlier version of the outline did have him being more or less pushed along by other characters, which does tend to make for a disappointing hero . . . But then I saw that and had some interesting ideas to lessen it, to make him more active. That’s a good thing, right? But now I’m nervous about that. What else is wrong with this idea that I just haven’t noticed yet?

I’m nervous as hell, actually, and that might explain why I’ve been spending more writing time on little flash fiction pieces and poems than this novel.

But as nervous as I am about specifics, as often as I’ve written some version of an outline, I actually think I have this book in my head. I have the mood of it. I have a way around the passive hero disease. I think the ending will work, and not because it’s some kind of gimmicky M. Night Shyamalan thing, but because it’s the right emotional close point and has something to say. So what’s wrong?

Now I think maybe I just have residual nervousness—some kind of post-nervous stress disorder.

Maybe this is why Henry Miller drank.

Alcoholism is about the last thing I need in my life right now, thanks, so how do we do this sober? How about I do the same thing I advise authors I work with to do. After all, I have been challenging myself to take my own advice, to try my own exercises. What I’d tell an author I’m working with as an editor is:

Just write it.

Maybe it will suck. But that’s what Dani Shapiro was saying, too, and Ray Bradbury, and Robert A. Heinlein, and now (or actually before any of the others) Henry Miller. They’re saying, and so am I:

Write the damn thing.

If the hero is still passive when I’m done with the rough draft I’ll revise him to be more active. If in the rough draft the ending lands with a thud I’ll revise it so it ends with a bang. I’m not live-broadcasting here. I don’t have to show the thing to anyone until I’m happy with it.

Once I get going I know I can write joyously, especially by hand in one of my trusty cheapass notebooks. I wrote a few scenes of that novel already and it was joyous. I was calm. I didn’t care if any particular word was spelled wrong. I recklessly wrote scenes way out of order and only pieces of chapters. And that’s me writing. The nervousness only happens when I’m not writing, when I let other projects and just other things in life intrude on my precious writing time. Maybe “nervousness” is an excuse for not making time to work on the thing.

Hell, I feel better already.

And taking another look at the rest of Henry Miller’s commandments, they all seem to hang on this one idea: Write the damn thing. This thing. Now.

For my revised list of commandments, I’m going to fall back on this:

3. Write in ecstasy, edit with intent.

I think that about covers it.

 

—Philip Athans

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