Monday, June 24, 2013

Making A List to Live By - Henry Miller Did It

Black Spring - Henry Miller

A couple of weeks ago I made myself a serious "To Do" list.  This is nothing new for me but these lists are usually of a daily nature.  This one is the most depressingly long one I've ever made and could not be accomplished in a day or even a week.  I even color coded it for things like: Red for Urgent, Green for Leisure and Bright Blue for Completed.  

I lived "by and with" the list for at least 3 days, making daily lists which included items from the BIG list plus time to work in my studio, exercise, meditate, practice my piano, eat, dress, a little social time etc.  By the third day I was ready to kill myself.  I never even bothered to list household duties such as tending to and careing for my pets, cleaning house, doing laundry etc. and never mind activities such as Facebook, twitter, Linked-In, or Pinterest.  No wonder we're all tired.

I'm still a fan of lists but I don't think I can stay on such a tight schedule.  I have a friend who wants me to make her a list of all the jobs I've had in my life because I've had many starting from age 12 when I worked in my uncle's grocery store as a checkout girl.  I'd better put this on my BIG list or it will never be written.

So what does this have to do with art you may be asking.  I received a nice newsletter this week from Joan Schultz who I greatly admire.  I admire her obvious work ethic and her willingness to venture away from the middle path.  She included in her email a list made by the famous writer Henry Miller which he identified as his Work Schedule, 1932 - 1933.  I think creative people are especially prone to making lists so as to ensure there is time set aside to do their work.  I appreciated most of the things Miller had on his list but I was very aware of all the things he didn't include or perhaps he didn't have to include them.  

Here is Miller's list with my notations:

COMMANDMENTS  ---Oh dear, I'm in trouble already.

 1.  Work on one thing at a time until finished.  I like this one as it fits nicely with most of the materials and process I use but it wouldn't work for everyone.  My husbands current work allows him to work with several pieces at once and he usually has 4 pieces "cooking" at one time.  I'm jealous.

 2.  Start no more new books, add no more new material to "Black Spring." --- Black Spring was one of Miller's books which was divided into 10 sections according to Wikipedia.  It isn't a long book but evidently he needed to remind himself not to make it more complex and not to start writing a new book.  I believe he was saying "don't start another book until you finish this one".  I'll bet he was already thinking about the next book and he needed to reinforce rule #1 by writing rule #2.

 3.  Don't be nervous.  Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.  --- I love this one.  It's especially meaningful if you remember Miller made this list for himself.  When people become famous it's hard to think of them as ever being nervous but in truth they likely are more nervous because there are huge expectations for them to meet or exceed what they have already done.   I'm going to put this one on my wall, not because I am or ever will be famous but I like the part about joyously and recklessly.

 4.  Work according to Program and not according to mood.  Stop at the appointed time.  ---  It sounds like he set aside specific hours to be at his writing desk.  Most of us are "better" either in the morning or evening.  I've never heard anybody say they are most creative from 1-3 pm have you?  I do hear people say they stayed up all night working on something.  Not me.  I've never been able to do that.  I work hard but usually know when to stop. 

 5.  When you can't create you can work.  ---  I certainly believe in this rule.  Waiting for the Muse can cause you to miss the bus.  Just go ahead and catch a bus, any bus and you are more likely to get to your desired destination than waiting for the perfect bus.

 6.   Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.  ---  My interpretation of this is experimentation is great but at some point you have to make a commitment and he's suggesting you do that daily.

 7.  Keep human!  See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.  ---  Trust me, Miller had no problem doing this.  He was a well know womanizer and evidently he also gave himself permission to imbibe when he liked.  I do agree that you need to be with other people and "have a life" just remember that restraint can be a very good thing.

 8.  Don't be a draught-horse!  Work with pleasure only. ---  Yep. There are days you will be better off taking a break, relaxing and having some fun.  This does not have to include "drinking" or cheating on your spouse.  Take a walk, read a book (Tropic of Cancer perhaps) go visit an art museum.

 9.  Discard the Program when you feel like it - but go back to it next day.  ---  If I'm going to do this I will have to write a new Program.  I do agree with him however.  You just have to keep working.

10.  Write first and always.  Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.  ---  Miller enjoyed painting watercolors and had a number of  extensive correspondences including his VERY prodigious exchange with a playboy bunny named Brenda Venus which included 1500 letters.   I'm thinking this indicates you will have time for something besides art.

OK... Just having a little fun myself.  I need to go clean up my studio.  I'm taking a short trip and I promised to clear the work tables so Tom can have a go in the back studio.

Thank you Joan. 


And thank YOU!
Please comment as I love
hearing from you.


  1. I've read these types of lists before and find them interesting. I think I even printed out Henry Miller's list at one time. The thing that comes to mind when I read about how fabulously productive these (male) artists are, is that they have probably never done laundry, or shopped for groceries, or cooked a meal, etc etc etc. A bit of a gripe, admittedly, but largely true, nevertheless (IMHO) :-)
    Perhaps that's what you meant when you said, "things he didn't include."

    1. You are exactly right. Miller was married at least a couple of times. I'm not sure if the wives took care of the household or if they hired help but I feel confident he didn't do the dusting. I didn't mention the "man" thing because it do think this has changed at least a little. If not, maybe in a few hundred more years. Thanks Martha.

  2. This was very interesting; his list was new to me. My favorite is also "Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand." I think starting nothing new is the hardest thing for me. I need to learn to sketch it and then go back to the work at hand. I know for me there will always be multiple works in progress, I can't imagine it being otherwise. Oh, and by the way, you ARE famous, at least in this little fiber art world, but don't be nervous!

    1. Hi Sharon. Thanks for commenting. If an artist can't work joyously then she/he needs to do something else!!! Reckless is more difficult for many people, too afraid of losing what they have so far in a piece that they like. I love the idea of reckless which for me translates into "going for IT". Thank you for your generosity about being know. Real fame would make me very nervous. xo, T

  3. I stopped making lists like that a few years ago. I'm much happier now. I'm moving forward, following my muse, doing whatever comes up for me to do. I.E., I don't have goals, per se, any longer. I have project lists, short ones, but they're just to keep me moving on a daily/weekly basis. I don't feel bound to adhere to them like glue.
    The BIG change for me that guided me to this goalless place was deciding not to show/sell my work any longer. The competition and cost got to me, plus the fact that I realized I had so much ego invested in the "art with a big A" game.
    I'm just me, I'm creative every day, I do it for myself mostly. If it doesn't get done today, maybe it will tomorrow. I don't stress over it.
    Life is better, I'm calmer, more at peace with myself.

    1. Hey Connie. I totally understand the decisions you are speaking about. Selling, showing, promoting, and all that goes with these endeavors is demanding and time consuming. They can also be energy consuming. Finding the place where you feel happiest is "the goal" I think is worthwhile. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. xo, T

  4. I really enjoyed this post.....I'm constantly making lists, but rarely follow them. The lists just help give a little order to my fairly chaotic brain. I laughed so hard when you said you'd had it after following your for three days.....I can so relate. Thanks for making my day.

    1. Thank you! So glad you enjoyed the article. It only occurred to me just now that the figure on the cover of Black Spring has chains on his wrists. That's how I felt trying to follow my list. xo, T

  5. Henry Miller was quite a do not be too hard on yourself. I did enjoy the advice..but in my present studios... I am just one step ahead of the next move. Peace, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart

    1. Hi Mary Helen! Yes, he was a real stinker. I saw that you were moving into a different studio. It will be excellent...when you are finished! xo, T

  6. Hi Terry,
    I got a good laugh when I saw this. The timing is perfect. My to-do lists are overflowing as well right now. It is so bad, on my main to-do list I have "get a better to-do list software program". Optimist that I am, I always think a new method of organizing will somehow allow me to get it all done.

    1. Hey Leslie! Isn't it crazy. We are so overloaded. After I published this article I realized that the man on the cover of Black Spring is in chains.....A software program for a to do list? Really ;-)

      I saw your piece at QN and was totally surprised and happy for you. Keep it up!!! xo, T