What Henry Miller Teaches Us About Writing

It’s been too long since I’ve posted a blog here.  All apologies.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about Henry Miller.  I return to him frequently, not so much for his advice on writing–his famous commandments–or for his remarks on obscenity.  I think Miller’s work has much to tell us about the characteristics of successful writing, yet his biographical details often obstruct fair judgment.  As we know, much of Miller’s writing has been derided, criticized, and dismissed.  To be fair, sometimes the critics are right. Nonetheless, Miller was a serious writer–he took the writing craft seriously.  He didn’t write merely to produce sensationalism, and he didn’t write to maintain an iconic pose.  He knew that successful writing requires intrinsic or learned character traits, facts that make a person a writer.

Everyone writes and people write now more than ever.  Thus, it can be claimed that everyone is a writer.  But what qualities make writing successful and worth reading?  As we learn from composition teachers, rhetorical effectiveness matters a great deal–the speaker, occasion, audience, purpose, subject, tone.  Miller conflated these terms into a single goal–he wanted to hear the power of his own voice above the still whine of the philistine herds, the reductive labels, the simplistic genres.  In a Paris Review interview, Miller addresses the importance of asserting individual voice in writing:


Durrell speaks of the writer’s need to make the breakthrough in his writing, to hear the sound of his own voice. Isn’t that your own expression, as a matter of fact?


Yes, I think so. Anyway, it happened for me with Tropic of Cancer. Up until that point you might say I was a wholly derivative writer, influenced by everyone, taking on all the tones and shades of every other writer that I had ever loved. I was a literary man, you might say. And I became a non-literary man: I cut the cord. I said, I will do only what I can do, express what I am—that’s why I used the first person, why I wrote about myself. I decided to write from the standpoint of my own experience, what I knew and felt. And that was my salvation….


That is what you mean by the “literary” approach?


Yes, something that’s outworn and useless, that you have to slough off. The literary man had to be killed off. Naturally you don’t kill that man, he’s a very vital element of yourself as a writer, and certainly every artist is fascinated with technique. But the other thing in writing is you. The point I discovered is that the best technique is none at all. I never feel that I must adhere to any particular manner of approach. I try to remain open and flexible, ready to turn with the wind or with the current of thought. That’s my stance, my technique, if you will, to be flexible and alert, to use whatever I think good at the moment….

The surrealists make use of the dream, and of course that’s always a marvelous fecund aspect of experience. Consciously or unconsciously, all writers employ the dream, even when they’re not surrealists. The waking mind, you see, is the least serviceable in the arts. In the process of writing one is struggling to bring out what is unknown to himself. To put down merely what one is conscious of means nothing, really, gets one nowhere. Anybody can do that with a little practice, anybody can become that kind of writer.

The question is:  How do we as writers assert individual voice in a digital era of “collective individualism,” of networked interconnectivity, with its simulacra of autonomy?


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