Henry Miller on the Secret to Growth, in Art and in Life
By Maria Popova
It may be that creativity is just the name we give to how we awaken ourselves from the slumber of near-living.
While working on his semi-autobiographical novel Tropic of Capricorn, published at the outbreak of WWII and banned in America for a quarter century, Henry Miller (December 26, 1891–June 7, 1980) found himself deadened to an entire dimension of life — a dimension that came alive when he set down the pen and picked up the brush. Painting was always something he did in the margins of his primary calling, but it sprang from the heart of his being and made him fall in love with life anew.
Two decades before publishing the aptly titled out-of-print treasure To Paint Is to Love Again, Miller first began formulating his thoughts on art, life, and the dialogue between the two in the slender 1950 book The Waters Reglitterized (public library). Only 250 copies were published by a small press in Santa Barbara, on the occasion of his first watercolor exhibition in Paris, after twenty years of painting. The book had begun as a series of letters to his friend Emil Schnellock — the artist who opened his world to watercolor. In consonance with Miller’s conviction that good friends are a pillar of the creative life, the printed dedication reads: From Henry to Emil in moments of inspiration or perplexity, with gratitude for having put me on the right Path.
Living at the turn of a cultural epoch when humanity was growing increasingly afraid of being sincere, Miller holds sincerity as the most inviolable of “the canons” and reflects on the unselfconscious abandon with which children make art before they have been taught to be self-conscious — that supreme assault on sincerity:
The remarkable thing to observe, in children’s work…, is that the child gives the impression of having done it with his whole being. They surrender themselves completely to what is in hand. Whereas even the biggest artist has to wage a constant fight against distraction. He is conscious not only of the future opinions of the critics, the price it will fetch (or not fetch!), the value of his tubes, the nicety of his choice of color or line, but also the temperature of the room, the stains on the floor, the bath he forgot to take, and so on.
In his own practice, Miller finds that he can access this state only after his primary work, his adult occupation, has exhausted him into a kind of exhale:
How wonderful that feeling, as happens sometimes, when coming home about midnight, the place extremely quiet, the light giving just the right glow about my work table, my senses keenly alive, yet not so sharp as to push me on to further writing, (a sort of sifting-of-the-ashes feeling, the fire warm but dying), I sit down before the little pad, determined to do just one water color in peace and harmony. To paint in this way is like communing with oneself — and with all the world too.
Echoing Georgia O’Keeffe’s immortal definition of success in creative work, he reflects on one of his favorite moments in creative practice, wresting from it a fine metaphor for life:
After having done what I imagine to be my utmost, [I realize] that it won’t do at all. I decide to convert the quiet, static picture in front of me into a live, careless, free and easy thing. I strike out boldly with whatever comes to hand — pencil, crayon, brush, charcoal, ink — anything which will demolish the studied effect obtained and give me fresh ground for experiment. I used to think that the striking results obtained in this fashion were due to accident, but I no longer am of this mind. Not only do I know today that it is the method employed by some very famous painters…, but, I recognize that it is often the same method which I employ in writing. I don’t go over my canvas, in writing…, but I keep breaking new ground until I reach the level of exact expression, leaving all the trials and gropings there, but raising them in a sort of spiral circumnavigation, until they make a solid under-body or under-pinning, whatever the case may be. And this, I notice, is precisely the ritual of life which is practiced by the man who evolves. He doesn’t go back, figuratively, to correct his errors and defects: he transposes and converts them into virtues. He makes wings of his larval cerements.
In consonance with the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön’s insistence that “only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us,” Miller considers this self-annihilation as the key to self-transformation, in art as in life:
The greatest joy, and the greatest triumph, in art, comes at the moment when, realizing to the fullest your grip over the medium, you deliberately sacrifice it in the hope of discovering a vital hidden truth within you. It comes like a reward for patience — this freedom of mastery which is born of the hardest discipline. Then, no matter what you do or say, you are absolutely right and nobody dare criticize you. I sense this very often in looking at Picasso’s work. The great freedom and spontaneity he reveals is born, one feels, because of the impact, the pressure, the support of the whole being which, for an endless period, has been subservient to the discipline of the spirit. The most careless gesture is as right, as true, as valid, as the most carefully planned strokes… Picasso here is only demonstrating a wisdom of life which the sage practices on another, higher level.
There is something evocative of the Chinese notion of wu wei — that orientation of “trying not to try,” the effortless effort by which we arrive at the only places worth going — in the way Miller reflects on this truth in his own life. Four years earlier, he had contoured this idea in his exquisite letter to Anaïs Nin about how to control for surrender; now, he shades it in:
I see that my steadfast desire was alone responsible for whatever progress or mastery I have made. The reality is always there, and it is preceded by vision. And if one keeps looking steadily the vision crystallizes into fact or deed. There is no escaping it. It doesn’t matter what route one travels — every route brings you eventually to the goal… If one accepted that fully, one would get there so much more quickly. One should not be worrying about the degree of “success” obtained by each and every effort, but only concentrate on maintaining the vision, keeping it pure and steady. The rest is sleight-of-hand work in the dark, a genuine automatic process, no less somnambulistic because accompanied by pains and aches.
Perhaps Mary Oliver summed it up best in that perfect line of verse: “Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.”
Complement with Miller on the measure of a life well lived and Hermann Hesse’s little-known watercolors, then revisit artist Rockwell Kent’s wilderness-wrested wisdom on art and life, Keith Haring on creativity, empathy, and what makes us who we are, and the great nature writer John Burroughs on what artists can learn from naturalists.
Published August 23, 2022