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Henry Miller and writing

Jan 28, 2014

I’m here at the Hungarian Pastry Shop with a little book, The Henry Miller Reader, reading an essay Miller wrote about the process of writing. I’ve read this part before, but still get a kick out of it. He writes about letting go, writing freely without worrying what others will think. And he’s describing his friend, Van Norden who's the exact opposite -- self-conscious, cautious, stuck in his writing. He can’t even get started. I relate to poor Van Norden. Miller writes:

Take Van Norden. He’s another case. He’s been trying for two months to get started with his novel. Each time I meet him he has a new opening for his book. It never gets beyond the opening. Yesterday he said: ‘You see what my problem’s like. It isn’t just a question of how to begin: the first line decides the cast of the whole book. Now here’s a start I made the other day: Dante wrote a poem about a place called H---. H dash, because I don’t want any trouble with the censors’.

Miller continues: Think of a book opening with H-dash! A little private hell which mustn’t offend the censors! I notice that when Whitman starts a poem he writes: - ‘I, Walt, in my 37th year and in perfect health! ... I am afoot with my vision...I dote on myself...Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son, turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding...Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs...Here or henceforward it is all the same to me...I exist as I am, that is enough...’

With Walt it is always Saturday afternoon. If the woman be hard to describe he admits it and stops at the third line. Next Saturday, the weather permitting, he may add a missing tooth, or an ankle. Yes, I want to be more like Miller and Walt; less like poor Carl Van Norden. Miller continues: Whereas my friend Carl, who has the vitality of a bedbug, is pissing in his pants because four days have elapsed and he has only a negative in his hand. ‘I don’t see any reason,’ says he, ‘why I should ever die- barring an untoward accident’. And then he rubs his hands and closets himself in his room to live out his immortality. He lives on like a bedbug hidden in the wallpaper.

I understand Carl Van Norden. He is cautious, carefully guarding against loss, unable to take risks. Whitman and Miller on the other hand joyously seek out rewards, consequences be damned.

What really interests me in The Miller Reader is what Miller says in the preface. He says that he was asked to select pieces from his works over many years, and if he were to think much about the writings he’s chosen, he’d want to write about each one. More Miller expansiveness, creativity, fecundity. It’s like he’s identified a faulty brake system that’s always engaged in his car, in my car too. The brakes are constantly restraining the accelerator, and Miller and Whitman disable the brakes altogether to see where the free-flowing car takes them, joyously steering the automobile, effortlessly moving all around, waving to poor Carl Van Norden and me as we hide in our holes. Miller and Walt have no problem starting the flow, their only concern is when to turn off the tap.

I look out from my table at the pastry shop to the cathedral across the street. Miller’s now describing a conversation with a friend, then a book passage he’s excited about, now a woman with whom he’s rendezvoused. Finally, I read an excerpt from Black Spring where, riding his bicycle in France, he discovers a café and orders bread, cheese, and a bottle of wine. Maybe some ham for good measure. He loves sitting at this café. It’s the best café because no one told him to go there, moldy as the cheese may be. Or, as he puts it, The stalest, the wormiest, the lousiest Roquefort that was ever fabricated, saturated with the worms of Dante, of Vergil, Homer, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Goethe, all the worms that ever were and have passed on into cheese.

Reading Miller makes you want to write because he makes you want to live expansively. Even Miller wants to write when he reads Henry Miller.