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!


I have written.


—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Adam says:

    Well said!

    I think as a culture we tend to extol victory and success a bit too much. Most of the time we are working to try and achieve success, but success without setbacks, without struggles and hard times, is mute and lackluster. What truly gives us a sense of accomplishment is how hard it was.

    Besides, if someone wants to be a writer, they should enjoy the process of writing, because that’s how they’re going to spend most of their time. Someone who only values the success at the end of the long road is not going to fare well on such a journey.

    Also, love the Gurney quote. He is one of my favorite Dune characters, along with Leto II, and I thought Patrick Stewart was the perfect actor to bring him to life.

  2. Pingback: AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 7: KEEP HUMAN! | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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