Andromeda, reposted: Henry Miller’s Commandments

ONE THING AT A TIME: This has been the direction I’m moving toward in 2016, and as so often happens, every time I think I am arriving at a new epiphany, I stumble upon something from years past that shows me I ask the same questions and find the same answers again and again. With that in mind, I decided to repost this item from way back in 2013.


Last month, when I was staying at a writing retreat in Virginia, I saw Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments framed and hanging in a pantry. Perhaps you’ve seen these circulating online. For me, they were a Rorschach test for identifying which productivity rule I break most often. (See below — and is yours the same?)


1.Work on one thing at a time until finished.

2.Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”

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

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

5.When you can’t create you can work.

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

7.Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.

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

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

10.Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.

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

The commandments that jumped out at me in a flash? #1-“Work on one thing at a time until finished” and #2–“Start no more new books” and #10–“Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.”

Three of the eleven commandments all boil down to this same rule: that one must stay focused and true to a single project, and give it one’s fullest attention. On this particular trip, I had days upon days of glorious solitude, including lots of driving time: a 10-hour drive from Akron, Ohio down into rural Virginia, via small, winding roads, past horse farms and plantation houses and wooded hillsides. An evening drive through foggy Appalachian country. And the days that followed: more drives past vineyards and lavender farms and the past the James River and up mountains to wonderful trailheads (good hiking and trail-running country, in addition to good writing country).

All those drives gave me lots of happy time to think, and when I’m happy, book ideas multiply. On the 10-hour drive to Virginia alone, my brain was so occupied dreaming about two separate new book ideas and one new idea for an abandoned-novel revision that I had to keep forcibly harnessing my mind and pulling it back to the novel I am currently working on, the one I had come to Virginia to write. (Once I was at my desk at the retreat, it was blessedly easy to focus. It was only once I hit those winding roads again that my polygamous brain wanted to start new relationships with more new book ideas.)

I don’t start daydreaming about other projects when things are going poorly. It’s not a way of turning my back on a current book that is ailing. Instead, I daydream when things, including the current book, are going well. Suddenly, everything seems possible, and every idea triggers another, and my love for the books I’m reading for pleasure only feed the yearning to be writing in multiple styles on multiple subjects.

Many times in my two decades as a professional writer I’ve wondered whether I should work on multiple projects simultaneously, and I’ve posed that question to other writers, without getting firm responses. Since my interests range to nonfiction and screenwriting, and even to areas I haven’t tried, like YA fiction, I sometimes think that working on parallel projects would be a good strategy, creatively and professionally. I have no choice but to do other small-jobs, including occasional articles, but it’s the idea of working on several big things that intrigues me, making me want to believe that if I only tried harder and juggled better, I could do more.

But there’s a voice in the back of my head — the Henry Miller voice, as it turns out — that says this isn’t so. “Work on one thing at a time,” he tells us. And he finds other ways to repeat the mantra. One thing at a time. This book. Nothing else.  

Thanks, Henry. I needed that.  

Do any of his other commandments speak to you?

2 thoughts on “Andromeda, reposted: Henry Miller’s Commandments”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Yes, focusing on one book/project is a big thing. I also needed the part about being human and letting yourself socialize, etc. (after you've done your writing time). Balance is a good thing.

  2. 7.Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.

    I'm not a big drinker, but I totally agree with this one. It mimics advice from an old mentor of mine, Bill Kittredge, (or, I guess by historical precedent, Bill mimics Henry): "Do other stuff. If all you do is writer, your writing and your life will be boring." Amen.

    Thanks, Andromeda.

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