Henry Miller on Finding Your Writing Voice*

*Some contents from this reflection are unsuitable for younger readers.

Henry Miller is the author of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. Both are semi-autobiographical novels, which Miller wrote while living in Paris. Both were banned from the US and UK for decades. 

In an essay about writing ("Reflections on Writing"), Miller describes finding his voice. His voice, it turns out, is a mixture of free association, self-expression, aphorism, and empirical description. It is alinear, and it takes awhile for a story or narrative to take shape. I imagine it is a bit like following a deer trail through the forest—several lines draw together and apart and you have trouble seeing where they’re leading until you’ve been at it awhile and get a feel for the departures, etc. It reminds me of the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. I don't think I am a fan, although I cannot help but admire Miller's courage to write the world as it seems to him. I suppose this is the most precious thing a writer can do: share their view of the world. [But it also seems a bit irresponsible. Isn't it the duty of the writer to make their understanding of things as easily accessible to the reader as possible? To this end I find Vonnegut to be the clearer writer.]


One thing that stuck out to me from Miller’s essay about writing was how he abandoned the idea of being a writer. He had to let it go. Miller tried out all sorts of voices, including Nietzsche’s or however it’s spelled, and eventually let all the voices go, and he made the resolution that he would stop being a writer. Instead of write, he said that he would simply eat and go poo, and if the poo nurtured the land and helped crops to grow, then so be it. Figs grow and ripen and are easily picked or they’re stolen by squirrels and birds. Nobody rushes along their growth. [I realize that this opinion is at odds with the advice of Neil Gaiman, William Zinsser, Stephen King, and many others who have written about writing. They explain that sometimes writing is a chore, but this in no way minimizes the quality of the writing that there occurs.]

I have had to do something similar with my creative writing and nonfiction. When I sit down and imagine that I'm some brilliant writer waiting to be discovered, I freeze up. I can't do much of anything. I'm writing for an audience of critics and, wanting to please all of them, I fail to please anyone at all. So I have started calling myself a hack poet. Poet in its original Greek (poiesis, which means to create) sense, as one who creates something. I am not a creator or inventor; I have nothing new to share with the world. My observations have been stolen from others. When I let all of this go, then I am free to write. I can have a good time with writing after all.

I think this is what Miller did when he moved to Europe. The person who wrote the introduction to TOCancer made a big deal about perspective and genealogy and religion, but I believe that Miller simply passed along whatever his bowels had prepared, and it just happened to be what the crops needed.

I'm not sure I can overcome my doubts and allow my GI to work its own natural magic. I doubt that the result will be anything other than garbage, essays and stories useful only for lining the bottoms of bird cages. But Miller was able to let this doubt go. He gave up the idea of being a writer. And then it came to him. Wu Wei at work.