A remarkable old black and white photograph of Henry Miller, taken when he was living in Big Sur, California, shows a small room, almost a shack, fairly tidy, with books and a few of the simple staples of the writer’s life — paper, pen and ink. But something else in that room has always made me curious. I wonder if you can find it?
It’s curious because I’ve had the same thing hanging up in all my own studios since my teens. I bought it in a junk store. It made me smile. It appealed to my feelings of power and my secret desire to control things. It’s still here. Just now I dusted it off. It’s a nightstick — a truncheon — I call it my billy club. I’ve never actually hit anyone with it.
I always suspected Miller had it as a weapon to fend off the demons that often beset creative folks. I’m happy with that idea.
Miller gave his fellow writers a set of commandments — eleven of them. Here they are, only slightly abridged:
1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
2. Start no more new books.
3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
4. Work according to Program and not according to mood.
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 — 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.
For painters, I’ve always liked Miller’s commandments except the first two and the last. In the first two, I’m a believer in multitasking — maybe multitasking is easier and more valuable in painting. But in the last, I think he would have approved, in our case, of putting painting above writing. Passionate people always put their main passion first, and he knew that. Goodness, he knew that. Even if we have to sometimes hit ourselves on the head with a billy club.
PS: “The world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.” (Henry Miller, 1891-1980)
Esoterica: Miller told writers to “keep your exclamation points under control!” “Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose,'” and “leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” Miller was an intense guy who didn’t care for boredom. When bored with writing, he painted. Because paintings are “read” in a glance, the viewer can skip with ease over the boring parts and get to the good parts. Flat, uninteresting parts of paintings are, in fact, a ruse to get the viewer to see what needs to be seen.
Here’s another letter I wrote about Henry Miller: Die Happy.
Found the ‘Billy stick’
by Rad MacKenzie, Gravenhurst, ON, Canada
I was curious about your mystery item and had to see what I could discover – that teaser got me searching around until I spotted an odd item next to the window, a mystery until l saw a similar thing on the wall behind you in your picture — A Policeman’s “Billy” or nightstick. When I looked over your page again and saw a reference to “Billy” I was embarrassed to think how thick I was not to have made a connection earlier. Anyway, it was an entertaining challenge, thanks for the bit of fun. I was also surprised to recognize the desk. I suppose it was a common enough style, but had its twin in my room as I grew up — called “Mission Style.” It was partner to a “Morris Chair.” which is also still in the family, from about the same time period (1920’s) but not exactly of the same design style.
Inspired or not
by Carol Reynolds, Honolulu, HI, USA
I especially agree with Henry Miller’s commandments 3, 4, and 8. I also like the quote: “The road to success is always under construction.” Artists need to work no matter how they feel or whether they are inspired or not. Paint regardless, and enthusiasm and inspiration will occur while you work. All artists are familiar with how, while working on one painting, it will often times inspire you to create another painting or a whole series. Pablo Picasso said it well: “Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.” After over thirty years of painting professionally, I am sometimes nervous about a new painting but, as Miller says, I need to “work joyously and calmly” and just enjoy the process. And I agree with you, Robert, about multitasking, particularly because I work primarily in oils and there is a need to have 4 or 5 paintings in various stages going at the same time.
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The value of the club
by Kay Paget, Wellington, New Zealand
I wonder how many others also have a ‘billy club’ or truncheon? I have one which my late father-in-law gave me many years ago, just in case I needed it! Tom Paget was a policeman — a village bobby in a small NZ country town — and the truncheon was part of his police equipment. I still have it; today it resides under the seat of my car, just in case I need to break a window to get out of the car in an accident, or more likely, to break a window to rescue someone else in trouble. (I was an active member of St John Ambulance Brigade for many years and the truncheon became an accessory to my first aid kit — still is, just in case!) Perhaps I should threaten myself with it when I procrastinate about starting a new painting.
(RG note) Thanks, Kay. What surprised me was the number of artists who wrote personal emails to confess they had a billy club in their possession — according to my assistant Sarah, more than forty and still counting. What’s going on? Are we secret pugilists? Or, like Kay, do we intend to do good someday with our club? For some artists, it seems to be their only club.
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Squeeze out one more
by Shirley Delaet, Troy, OH, USA
I also have a billy club in my studio and it has been there for more years than I can remember. It belonged to my Dad and I confiscated it from him when I was a child. It has always added a sense of security to my studio, my safe (and sacred) place.
I can relate to Henry’s eleven commandments but I have had the feeling lately that I should disregard the 1st and 2nd commandments and start working on multiple pieces at a time. It is just too hard not to think of the next painting! I won’t live forever so the “next” painting will never exist. I prefer to think that I can squeeze just one more it before it’s all over! I guess I am saying “Paint like there’s no tomorrow.” Commandment 6 has me a bit confused. Does it say the same thing as #1 and #2 but in a different way? What is your take on it?
(RG note) Thanks, Shirley. Yep, six is redundant. He was reminding himself again. He had a mind like a grasshopper.
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by Lindell Stacy-Horton, Oregon, USA
I have a wonderful shillelagh I picked up in the woods near Mendocino, California when I lived there long ago. It fell into the path right in front of me, so I figured it must be mine. I’ve had it ever since. I used to carry it in my car, an old ’63 VW bug, discreetly under the front seat, for “protection,” though I never actually had to use it. It is the dead part of a branch from a large old rhododendron tree, which had developed a condition known as “witch’s broom,” causing a gnarly growth at the end of a branch, which gradually causes the branch to wither and die, becoming very hard and dense. I have it leaning up against the wall right by the doorway to my house, and have encountered it accidentally with my bare toes while vacuuming. Thought I’d die! It is truly a weapon. Maybe I should move it to my studio?
(RG note) Thanks, Lindell. Other studio weapons reported were baseball bats, cricket bats, fish bonkers, wooden mallets and knitting needles. One tomahawk was reported.
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The risk of creativity
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
Being a painter, I find that when inspiration isn’t there, I write. I’ve been writing short stories, lengthy stories, playlets, and poetry for years. I even wrote a full length movie that I took to a producer. It was rejected. I have been writing a screenplay for years now between working on my painting career. I find it helps take my mind off the problems I may be having in painting.
I believe all creative people use other outlets to relieve the mind. Some artists cook, others fly planes, some do the simplest thing and walk it off.
Miller determined that being an artist is difficult. Not just the painting side of it, but the creative side along with public and business sides. The two sides of the brain, while feeding each other, seem to me to be anathema. It’s hard to say in words, but being artistic puts me at odds with society. How I work, the hours of thinking, doing nothing in the service of art baffles others. Working for hours to get a work right, reworking and discarding much, throws my friends into a tizzy. They like it, so it has to be good. I do believe in the tormented artist mind and I don’t mean the Van Gogh way. Creativity is risking everything you are with the knowledge that most won’t get it.
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A single painting is a love affair
by Deborah Elmquist, Port Orange, FL, USA
Miller’s first and second statements resonated with me hundred percent. When you said you disagreed with it, I had to chime in on the discussion. Brain function, nurturing issues, or maybe personality, not sure what causes it, dictates whether you can work on one project at a time or you can have more than one project going at a time. Obviously, working on more than one painting may be more productive and a diversion when stuck and you need a break to gain insight. However, for me, a single painting is a love affair at the time I am creating it. To leave it and focus on a different one would be like leaving a passionate lover to go and be with someone else. Graphic but you get the idea. For me, it has always been that way. When I was younger, I sewed. I never could go and buy lots of different fabrics that were great deals or particularly beautiful. Nope, I picked out one piece of fabric at a time, cut it out and made my garment before buying another piece of fabric. One thing I am sure about is that when I begin a painting I can’t wait to see my envisioned image come to fruition. That is a momentum that stays with me caring me to work through the highs and lows of each creation. As an amateur writer, I get it. Could you go to a movie, walk out in the middle, and go to a different movie next door, and maybe do it again, not seeing the ending all in one sitting?
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Manage your current easel
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
This one rang loudly to me today:
“10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.”
The stuff that is bursting to get out sometimes freaks out the thing that is on the easel, and the snowball of disasters starts to form. Here is another good quote that I read yesterday. It connects me to all those thousands of people who have for centuries been standing in front of a painting with a hesitant brush and talking themselves through a difficult passage:
“Exasperated by certain people’s photographic and inane perfection… for Christ’s sake, were the mountains blue, then chuck on some blue and don’t go telling me that it was a blue a bit like this or like that, it was blue wasn’t it? Good — make them blue and that’s enough!” Paul Gauguin according to Vincent Van Gogh (in letter #805)
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Enjoy the past comments below for The thing on the wall…
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Irene Chaikin of Israel, who wrote, “It is amazing to me that some of those drawings of Henry Miller’s could be worth $20,000.00. They remind me of Picasso and others. I am one of 4 sisters, all artists, in painting and in ceramics. We used to joke that we should set up a webpage called The Weird Sisters.”
And also Patty Cucman of Calgary, AB, Canada, who wrote, “When we lived in Houston, we had a fish bonker behind the door in our bedroom. All our neighbours had guns. We still have the fish bonker but it is now in our garage. There seems there is no urgent need to keep in close to hand in Calgary and perhaps in reality there was no need to keep close at hand in Houston but it made us feel safer. Now other things make me feel safer like the comfort of friends and the fruits of creativity. If I can keep cultivating these two things I will be safe — I am sure of it.”