AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 11: WRITE FIRST AND ALWAYS

Well, we’ve finally made it to the eleventh and last of this long series of posts examining Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want a last look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

It’s come to the end, and here I finally disagree with Henry Miller on general principle when he says:

11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

If that was meant to say: Write first thing in the morning then get to everything else . . . and based on his Program, it may well be, then okay, maybe—but then there are people, like me, who don’t tend to write particularly well in the morning and for no particular reason, though I suppose I could probably teach myself to write in the morning.

Instead, what I think Henry Miller means here is bigger than a day’s schedule. He means prioritize writing (and as with most if not all of these commandment, we can sub in any career for writing) over all other things, no matter what—“first and always.”

You know what?

Nope.

After all, this is the same guy who warned us not to be a draught horse, to “keep human” and maintain our connections to the people and the world around us, and now he seems to be telling us, “Yeah, do that, but work always takes first priority.”

Sorry, Mr. Miller. I refuse to live like that, and I refuse to encourage other people to put work first—even if that work is creative writing.

Think about this with “write” switched out for other occupations:

Sell insurance first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Hang drywall first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Trade stocks first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Design user interfaces first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Again, nope.

I know a lot of people who put a lot of things before whatever job it is they do, no matter how much they love that work: kids/family, friends, pets, faith, even hobbies . . . all come before work.

It’s an interesting coincidence that this morning I happened upon Stephen Moore’s article “What the Fuck is Work-Life Balance?” This has been a concern of mine for a long time, but especially since I’ve been out on my own as a freelancer. Let’s start with Moore’s definition of work-life balance:

This balance is the ability to seamlessly juggle the responsibilities of work, with the responsibilities of life. Work all day. Party all night. It is being able to contain your work hours, allowing other hours to free up, so you can cook nice meals at home, watch movies, meet friends, spend time with loved ones and maintain some form of social life. In an ideal world, we would all live with a perfect work-life balance, and no one would have a single grumble.

This is tough for a lot of people, in a lot of circumstances. When, like me, you work from home and your “company” has an employee roster of one, and your office is in a little nook in the upstairs hallway, your commute is up a single flight of stairs, this concept of work-life balance can be almost impossible to understand, much less achieve. How do I leave work at work when I live in my workplace? If I shut off my “work” phone, well, that’s the same as my “home” phone.

And all this even assumes that everyone reading this is writing full time.

I know that’s far from the case.

Most of the people I know are writers, and maybe three or four of them do it full time. So then at some point a “day job” can come between you and your writing—especially if you’re a reasonably responsible person and have a family that at least in part depends on you, you have rent or a mortgage to pay, student loans hovering over you, or indulge in other crazy luxuries like electricity, food, or internet/phone service.

If you’re not 100% sure you’re in a position to quit your day job—don’t quit your day job!

If your kids are hungry and you haven’t written yet, feed them, get them off to school, then write. But at the same time, yes, we do need to find time, make time, even insist on time to write. Stephen Moore wrote:

A hugely important part of finding this balance is having periods of time completely switched off from work. One way to do this is to set work day hours for emails/calls. (This will probably be ignored if the matter is important). Make clients and colleagues aware that you will respond within said business hours. There is nothing wrong with that.

And I think this matches up with previous advice from Henry Miller to set aside some writing time, but to balance that with other activities—being a human out there in the world. So can you work with your family, one way or another, to provide you with some uninterrupted hour for writing? I bet you can—even if your kids are home for summer vacation.

And then how about this idea:

Who says we have to confine our lives to a set list of priorities?

Things change—sometimes on a day to day, even hour by hour basis. I often go through busy periods where I’ll pretty much stop everything to get one project done, but that doesn’t mean I’m putting that project always and forever at the top of my priority list. It doesn’t mean I even have a “priority list” to begin with.

Honestly, I think in order to achieve any kind of work-life balance, any sort of balance in our lives at all, we need to remain awake and flexible and ready to change on a moment’s notice. I said above that maybe I could train myself to write in the morning, and maybe I could—but why? I think it’s better to train yourself, especially if you have a day job, a family—any other important components to an actual human life—to write any time, anywhere, however you can fit it in. Can you write for twenty minutes on the bus in the morning? On the two hour flight to and from a business trip? While your kids are at school or at night when everyone else is asleep, or, for that matter, early in the morning when everyone else is asleep?

We might not be able to put writing first and always—let’s try to put writing in there somewhere.

I’m going to leave the eleventh commandment off my own list, since I think this is all covered under:

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.

So, yeah . . . write. And parent. And work at whatever other job(s) you have. And play games. And go to museums. And read. And pay bills. And mow the lawn. And . . .

 

—Philip Athans

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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, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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