Henry Miller on the Secret to Growth, in Art and in Life

“The reality is always there, and it is preceded by vision. If one continues to look, the vision will become a reality or deed. It is impossible to escape it. It doesn’t matter what route one travels.”

Henry Miller on the Secret to Growth, in Art and in Life

Perhaps creativity can be described as the way we wake up from our slumber of non-living.

While working on his semi-autobiographical novel Tropic of CapricornThe following was published by the American Legion at the start of WWII, and then banned for 25 years in America. 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. Although painting was something that he had done in his spare time, it became his main calling and made him fall in love again with the world.

Miller’s thoughts on life and art were first expressed in his 1950 publication, The Waters Reglitterized. This book was published two decades after Miller had written the intriguingly-titled, out-of-print masterpiece To Paint Is the Love Again. A Santa Barbara small press published 250 copies of the book to celebrate Miller’s first exhibition of watercolors in Paris after 20 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: Henry to Emil, in moments of inspiration and perplexity. With gratitude that you have put me on my 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. The child is completely open to whatever the situation demands. Even the greatest artist must fight to avoid distractions. The future opinion of critics and the eventual price of his work (or any other) are all things he is aware of. It is not fetch!(

Henry Miller Young BoyTo Paint Is to Love Again.

Miller found in his own experience that Miller can only access this state after his primary job, which is his adult occupation has exhaust him and he feels like he’s exhaling.

It is amazing how wonderful it feels to come home at night, with the lights dimming, the room quiet and the heat on my desk. My senses are keenly awake, but not sharp enough to drive me to write further. I then sit down in front of the pad determined to accomplish what was asked. OneWater color is harmony and peace. 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 I have done everything that I can imagine, [I realize] that it won’t do at all. It is not going to work. 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 thought that striking results like this were accidental. But, I’m no longer of the same 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. This, I see, is exactly the life ritual that evolves. He doesn’t go back, figuratively, to correct his errors and defects: he transposes and converts them into virtues. He takes his larval cerements and makes them into wings.

Henry Miller Man and the HatTo Paint Is to Love Again.

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:

Art is at its best when you are able to grasp the medium in all of its fullness and then you decide to let go in order for you discover a hidden, vital truth. This is the highest joy and greatest triumph. It comes like a reward for patience — this freedom of mastery which is born of the hardest discipline. Then,You are right, no matter what your opinions or actions may be. Nobody can challenge you. I sense this very often in looking at Picasso’s work. Picasso’s great spontaneity is a result of his impact and pressure. The whole being, which has for an infinite period been subservient the discipline of the mind, gives birth to this freedom. 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:

My steadfastness is evident. desireOnly I was responsible for any progress and mastery that I made. Reality is all around us, but vision is what precedes it. If one continues to look, the vision will become a reality. It is impossible to escape 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. All the rest is trick-of-hand, an automatic process. This can also be somnambulistic if it comes with pains or 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.

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