I came across Henry Miller’s “11 Commandments of Writing” in a review of a book of his essays. The book was written around the time he wrote Tropic of Cancer. The commandments seem to be a bunch of Edicts To Self to remind the writer to not lose sight of what life is meant to be about when engaged in the angst of being creative.

Commandment #3 struck a chord:
Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

Here’s the full list, however:

Henry Millers Commandments of Writing

  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.

I think many of us do this thing where we fling nervously into our work, especially big projects. And so we lose sight.

Thing is, it can, and should, be calm and joyous. We need only choose, or command ourselves to view it this way. It’s a choice.

When I write, I try to catch myself when I start to dial up. I observe myself seeking distractions – eating, toggling – starting to panic, then shutting down from life. I become a “draught-horse”, as Miller puts it.  My frenzy creates “a story” that I don’t have time or space to “keep human” (again, as Miller puts it).

Here’s what I try to do now (and it’s particularly pertinent now because I’m on FO book decline):

  • When working on a big project a carve out space. No meetings until after 10am (so I have a chance to set the tone of my day with exercise and meditation and a good hour of calm prioritising in my notebook), no new projects, and being unavailable by not responding to emails so fast and reliably and letting others “work it out” for themselves.
  • I lead by example. I repeat to team members that we stop and abort if things get unfun. My very instructing of this ensures I do same. It sets a flavour all around.
  • I choose. I choose joy. Miller is right to treat it as a command. We truly do have to force such a choice.

Hope you can take this post as a “command”, or at least a trigger…

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