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.
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!