Get Out of My Garden

Henry Miller’s Nexus is, above all, the story of Miller’s own development as a writer.

He says he is learning to read between the lines. It is difficult for him to explain what he means by this: “How could anyone, unless he hugged me like a shadow, know the myriads of waste places I frequented in my search for ore?”

He is searching for “the mysteries hidden in pebbles, twigs, fleas, lice and pollen” and the meaning of “secret codes” and “night messages.”

What is strange is that Miller says that learning to write meant learning to resist the temptation to try to write poetry, where poetry is literature, and literature, as Paul Valéry describes it, is something that has value only according to its law:

“What is of value to us alone (meaning the poets of literature) has no value. This is the law of literature.”

Meaning that, for Valéry, literature is communication, and so the ultimate aim for poets is to find the form to fit the idea, so that the idea can be communicated to others, to non-poets. The way that a poet plays with the poetic tradition she has inherited is not an end in itself: the poet, in honing her craft, is trying to find better and better expression for her ideas.

According to this line from Valéry, your written work is like a public garden, made beautiful for all to enjoy. The more people can enjoy it, the better it is.

The problem with thinking of your work like this is: it becomes very difficult to get started. You have to think like a salesperson, do your market research: what kind of person reads a book like this? What do they want? And you might kid yourself into thinking you have found the answer.

For Miller, this is all too complicated and unreliable. It is better to keep things simple, and follow your own instincts. The creative process begins with following your own desire just to make a sound. “It is enough and more to stretch, yawn, wheeze …”

Following Valéry’s advice means worrying too much about what you should be saying, should be writing: worrying about your “ideal reader.” Miller tells us that he found freedom as a writer when he decided his ideal reader was himself, and anyone like him. He didn’t have to worry about the public:

“An absent-minded gardener I was, who, though tender and observing, did not attach too much importance to the presence of weeds, thorns, nettles, but craved only the joy of frequenting this place apart …”

If you’re writing in order to escape, why would you create a public garden in your work? Better to stay between the lines, in the secret and dark places, where you can find your own enjoyment.

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