11 Writing Tips from Henry Miller

Often I find myself pondering what has affected my ability to allocate specific time periods for my writing. After all, as much as I’d like to dedicate 24/7 to my writing, life has its other demands. Once I reach the point of sensing the tsunami-like after effects in my day, frustrations and emotions overwhelm any sense of remaining order in any so-called schedule.
Recently I’ve been reading about writing habits of some of our writing greats — Hemingway, Fitzgerald, King, Oates, and others.

Henry Miller, Author
Henry Miller, Author

Today I’m sharing the “Work Schedule, 1932-1933, –Henry Miller Miscellanea” I have strategically pinned above my computer.

His own writings in Henry Miller on Writing show Miller’s stringent writing schedule during the writing of the first of his many novels, Tropic of Cancer. Hoping to give momentum to his writing, Miller developed a writing schedule that included the following tenets:

(Image via Goodreads)

When I first came across this list of Miller’s “commandments,” I placed it in a prominent place near my computer hoping it would give similar forward progress for my writing. Most days, I glance at it more than once. Not all of Miller’s “commandments” are easily applied to my writing life, but some have made an impact on thoughts about my writing habits.

  • No. 1 — Write on one thing at a time until finished. I am notorious for beginning projects. If I grow bored, I’ll start another and another and another until I have several unfinished projects. This isn’t limited to writing. This proclivity for beginning multiple projects extends to quilting and knitting, and perhaps is the reason behind a habit of reading multiple books simultaneously. Note to self: Need to work on this!
  • No. 3 — Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand. Another of Mr. Miller’s commandments I need to heed. Often I sit down to write and it is not so much nervousness as fear that comes and sits on my shoulder. Like a harpie, fear sits there and taunts me with images of failure, mistakes, less than perfect work product and more. Another note to self: Stop it!
  • No. 9 — Discard the Program when you feel like it–but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.I’ve pondered what Mr. Miller means in this “commandment,” and I’ve come to the conclusion that “Discard the Program” doesn’t necessarily mean to walk away from your work, but to allow yourself the freedom to write, write, write and then the next day return to the plan initially drawn out for your book. Self, remember this!
  • No. 11 – Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards. Mr. Miller did not have email and social media calling his name first thing each day, so perhaps this was easier for him. However, I find myself drawn to checking our personal emails, then our business emails, and lastly Sherrey’s emails. Then I move to doing a little sharing of what my good writing friends have posted and shared. All of this before I’ve written a single word. One more note to self: I need discipline in this area.

Bottom line: No one writer has all the answers. No matter how famous, how prolific, how stringent his or her work method was.

Your work style and scheduling method is yours and yours alone, as is mine. However, some gems can be found in Mr. Miller’s “commandments.” It isn’t lost on me how my eyes fall to the same ones on his list each day. Somehow, however, those daily glances and self-admonitions don’t seem to be changing how I write or who I am.

How about you? Do you have set ways in which your day must play out? A daily writing schedule? Are you easily distracted by interruptions or can you allow yourself to float in and out of your writing?

Share your own thoughts on Miller’s “commandments” and share your own work style with us below.

Tips for Self-Editing Narrative Nonfiction

OWC header
OWC header

A few weekends ago I attended a workshop on “Creating a Movie in the Reader’s Mind: Self-editing for Narrative Nonfiction Writers.” The workshop was sponsored by Oregon Writers Colony with C. Lill Ahrens serving as workshop leader.

Initially the title for the workshop left me wondering what I would hear, see, learn in this single day. When I left after seven hours, I carried away a more information than I imagined possible.

Ahrens came ready to teach, and we came to learn.

I’ve impatiently waited to share some of the tips I learned. These may seem obvious to some readers, but often they slip my mind while writing.

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  • Attention to chronology. While your plot in narrative nonfiction may leap back and forth in time, a scene should roll in linear fashion like a movie from beginning to end. The use of chronology lends itself to the continual construction of tension. Something like a large rock gathering moss as it rolls downhill, or a skyscraper reaching into the sky.Once completed, your finished work provides effortless reading for the reader. Don’t make the reader continually back up to make a sense of your story.
  • Attention to Story Information. The writer’s goal is to keep the reader engaged in your movie (turning the pages) until the credits begin to roll. Misplaced or missing information important to the story confuses and distracts readers, and they may wander off to see what’s in the fridge or pick up another book.

Important components to check:

Transition Back story Back fill Inner monologue/running thoughts Setting/visual imagery Mood

Emotional truth: This component is so important, especially to those of us writing memoir, it needs to receive special attention. First of all, don’t confuse emotional truth with “emotional.” In a movie, emotional truth travels through the methods of the actors. In the written word, everything can have emotional truth–weather, setting, animals, inanimate objects, everything. The POV character’s thoughts and actions will be the most psychologically complex of all emotional truths shared.

Bottom line: Emotional truth gets stories and books published.

  • Attention to Theme. Have you ever walked out of a movie theater feeling, “Huh?” Do you ever wonder why? Likely, because that movie didn’t end on theme. Unfortunately, “theme” can be a problematic word with many definitions. In writing narrative nonfiction, theme is not the motif, not the moral, not the message. The theme in this case is the major emotional issue of the story.

Caution: Theme is not to be confused with genre. Any love story can be classified true story, memoir, fiction, horror, mystery, historical fiction, etc.

Using narrative nonfiction, your true story can explore different aspects of theme, most importantly its opposite. Think of your theme paired with its opposite. Using my memoir as an example, my theme is forgiveness; therefore, I pair my theme of forgiveness with childhood cruelty inflicted by my mother.

Theme in any writing is with you in the beginning of your story, then is sprinkled throughout, and your story closes with your theme.

Of all the writing tools we have at our disposal, theme is likely the most important. Theme adds depth to our stories. Theme is the connector in our stories, tying all the parts together. In this way, our readers come away from turning that last page feeling satisfied.

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Represented here are just a few of the most important ideas covered during this daylong workshop. I hope that something here has resonated with you in respect to whatever project you are working on currently.

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Biography for C. Lill Ahrens:

C. Lill Ahrens is the contest director for Oregon Writers Colony, an editor for Calyx Journala creative writing instructor for Linn-Benton Community College in Linn and Benton Counties, Oregon, and a freelance editorial consultant and writing coach with award-winning, published clients and students. Her own award-winning stories are published in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including Best Women’s Travel Writing(Travelers Tales).

Ahrens’ website is brand new and still a work in progress, but you can still visit at C. Lill Ahrens.

Tips for Participating in Writing Challenges

On the first day of the new year, Jeff Goins’ 500 Words A Day Writing Challenge began. Jeff’s posts on this challenge had entered my inbox. I read them, and I thought: “I already have goals set. Probably shouldn’t sign up.”

With each post I read, I was tempted. Jeff makes a good case for his challenge. You’ll note in his post at the link above Jeff shares the following:

Here’s what I know about writing: It happens in small bites. Step by step. One little chunk at a time.

This sounded easier. I pondered the possibilities for three days and on January 4th I began the challenge.

I talked with friends who had signed up. And Jeff’s rules for the challenge made it seem like a reasonable challenge to help shape a new habit of writing daily. After all, Jeff’s own philosophy of 500 Words says it all:

My 500 Words is a 31-day challenge designed to help you develop a daily writing habit and become a better writer.

I will be the first to tell you that I didn’t write every day. This is obvious since I didn’t begin until January 4th. But there were other days where life did intervene, and I didn’t write. A longstanding rule in our home before and after retirement, Sundays are reserved for family time and to honor the Sabbath. I knew those days I wouldn’t be writing.

At the end of January 31st, I had written a total of 16,011 words, many more than I had written per month when I started the challenge.

And the challenge goes on even with Jeff in Africa and February underway. A strong community has grown on Facebook where we gather to record our successes and not so successful days. With January’s success, I intend to stick with the challenge in February.

No matter the context of the writing challenge you choose to take part in, the following tips may be helpful to you:

  • Set aside a time each day specifically for writing, hopefully away from distractions.
  • Do not edit as you write–free write. There’ll be time later for editing.
  • Remember: This is to help develop the habit of writing every day.
  • If you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up. Life intervenes, and there’s always tomorrow.
  • If you don’t make the goal each day, at least write something.
  • Hopefully, your writing will be on a specific project but perhaps it won’t. That’s OK too.
  • Allow yourself freedom to write and let the words flow.

My takeaway:I now realize I can sit down and write almost every day, and I can forgive myself on the days that I don’t. And I finished the 31-day 500 Word Challenge!

My goal now is to write every single day. Writing is my passion, and my passion feeds the rest of my life. 

And for you, why not consider coming along with us in February to get a feel for how this challenge works? You just might like it!

Memoir Writers’ Resources Series | A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

This is the fourth post in this series, which has an infinite number of parts. Therefore, there is no “Part 1 of a #;” it will simply continue until the well dries up. Previous posts are listed below.

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Much discussion exists over past decades and even today among journalists, critics, reviewers and yes, writers, about whether Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is fact or fiction, autobiography or memoir. Say what they might, my copy has landed in the middle of my memoir writing resource books on my desk.

And rightly so, in my humble opinion, for a number of reasons:

  • If for no other reason, Hemingway’s writing may always be turned to as a beautiful example of writing at its best. A Moveable Feast offers no less. Lyrical, poetic, evocative and crisp, Hemingway’s writing transports you to Paris in the 1920s. The best reason to include this volume in your writing resources is best said by Hemingway himself:

“No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean
and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.”

~ from Hemingway’s Midnight in Paris

  • Hemingway’s stories from his days in Paris make us a part of an inner circle which included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach and likely I have left someone out. These writers were geniuses! Some of our greatest literature came from their pens. An education from this inner circle via Hemingway’s stories and yes, the juicy gossip, is not to be dismissed easily. Nor is Hemingway’s influence on these men and women, and theirs on him.
  • One chapter stands out in my mind and is an interesting inclusion–“On Writing in the First Person.” A rather strange choice for someone who wrote novels, most often in third person. However, in A Moveable Feast Hemingway chooses to write in first person as a memoirist does. This chapter also provides a look at the process of writing, a definitive resource in any writer’s library.
  • An additional argument for selecting A Moveable Feast as a memoir writer’s resource is its format drawn from what Hemingway originally called “The Paris Sketches,” based on typed pages, notebooks on The Sun Also Rises, newspaper clippings and more. These items were in two small steamer trunks Hemingway had left at the Ritz Hotel in Paris in 1928. Hotel management convinced him, finally in 1957, to take possession of his belongings. It was in the summer of that same year when he began to work on the “sketches.” And this is how the chapters seem to the reader–vignettes, sketches, scenes not organized in any particularly chronological order but as scenes from one man’s life.

From this, perhaps it is easy to see how A Moveable Feast could be considered a memoir writer’s resource. Personally, I found it one of Hemingway’s most enjoyable works. If you have not read it, I encourage you to do so for no other reason than pure enjoyment of good writing.

“But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going,
I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges
into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made.
I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry.
You have always written before and you will write now.
All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest
sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence,
and then go on from there.”
~ Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Previous Posts in the Series:

  1. The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith
  2. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
  3. The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story by Linda Joy Myers

Memoir Writers’ Resources Series | The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story by Linda Joy Myers

This is the third in this series, which has an infinite number of parts. Therefore, there is no “Part 1 of a #;” it will simply continue until the well dries up. The first two posts can be found here and here.

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Image via Goodreads
Image via Goodreads

Linda Joy Myers’ book, The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story, is among the first books I turned to when I recognized the desire and yes, even the need, to write my story.

When I sat down to read through it, Myers’ writing style mesmerized me. Myers shares not only writing tips and guidelines, but as a psychotherapist she has helped others through pain and has worked through a great deal of emotional pain herself.

Comfortable and sensitive in her choice of words, Myers made me feel as if I were the only one she was talking to as we worked our way through this how-to guidebook on memoir writing.

Found between the covers of The Power of Memoir Writing are resources going beyond the mere writing of the manuscript. Here are a few examples:

  • A Useful Disclaimer
  • Tips for Making Ethical Decisions About Your Memoir
  • Preparing to Publish Your Memoir
  • Finding a Professional Editor
  • The Opinions of Friends, Peers, and Writer’s Groups
  • Building Your Platform
  • Book Publishing Options

Recently, I read a blog post by Myers, Tips for Your Memoir Writing Journey. The post begins with language that I feel sums up beautifully the message in The Power of Memoir:

Writing a memoir is like finding yourself on a journey: you thought you knew where you were going, but eventually you are lost! We all experience several stages that lead up to your journey: As you pack your suitcase, you think about the thrilling and interesting moments you will encounter. And as you start your journey, you are still excited and moving forward with great energy. Then reality sets in. Life still presents challenges. And it is this way when we write our memoir.

If you are just beginning or have already begun writing your memoir, The Power of Memoir should be on your list of resources to find and add to your writing library.

Perhaps you have a favorite memoir writing resource or resources.

If so, I hope you’ll share them in a comment below.

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Linda Joy Myers’ books are available on Amazon, where you will also find a short author’s biography. Myers is also the founder and president of National Association of Memoir Writers, another incredible resource for the writer working on memoir. Additionally, Myers blogs at Memories and Memoirs.

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Memoir Writers’ Resources Series | The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith

Today’s post begins a series bringing you a sampling of the memoir writing resources I have uncovered as I write my memoir. I hope what I share will be helpful and perhaps help you in finding a resource that makes a difference in your journey as a memoir writer.

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Early in my digging for helpful resources to begin writing my memoir, I came across something called The Memoir Project in a Google search.

I clicked on the link and began my investigation of The Memoir Project site. I discovered that the site is an aggregate of memoir writing tips and tools from the site’s owner, Marion Roach Smith. Additionally, I found that Smith is the author of a companion book by the same title, The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Standardized Text for Writing & Life.

To be honest, I always research a book I’m tempted to purchase by checking it out at my local library. And I did so with The Memoir Project. The book intrigued me enough that I bought it and keep it on my desk.

What I found as the premise for Smith’s teachings and personal beliefs about writing is best summed up in the following quotes taken from her introduction:

So let’s begin together, literally on the same page, and with a tacit agreement that from this moment on, we will write no exercises; we will write for real. With a goal.

. . .

When you write memoir, you’ll be writing what you know.

. . .

From this minute forward, your intent is to write with purpose.

A short book at 112 pages Smith provides, I believe, a good overview of writing memoir. For me both the website and book have become meaningful resources for my writing.

In addition to being an author and teacher of memoir writing, Smith also maintains a blog and provides a manuscript editing service.

I encourage you to check out The Memoir Project site and the varied resources available as well as taking a look at the book, which is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound, or perhaps your local library shelves it.

There are many valuable resources available for memoir writers. The Memoir Project is just one. So I urge you to find resources that feel like a good fit for you. There is no one perfect resource that fits every writer.

Do you have a favorite memoir writing resource or resources?

If so, I hope you’ll share them in a comment below.

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