"When you can't create, you can work"

By Carol / March 26, 2012 /

How do you write? Do you have a system for writing? Someone asks these questions almost every time I speak. As though there might be a magic formula.  As though if you do just the right things in just the right order, words will flow out of your fingertips. Don’t I wish!

I came across the 11 Commandments of Writing and Creative Routine –words of writing wisdom from Henry Miller, written in 1932-33 when he was working on his first novel, Tropic of Cancer. Apparently he was struggling with the same challenges all of us writers face.


  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  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—but 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.

Miller’s advice is to himself is practical and realistic. It recognizes creativity and how the pleasure can be encouraged or lost.

The commandment that resonates most with me at the moment is #5 – When you can’t create, you can work. I write new material in the morning. When my creative energy lags–as it does around 3 every afternoon–then I can edit, work on my website, Tweet, add to a marketing plan. In other words, there are many ways to be productive. And success often comes from keeping at it.

 Thanks Henry Miller!

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  1. Mariam Kobras on October 13, 2013 at 7:21 am

    My publisher likes to give these two writing advices:
    “Butt in chair, write!”
    “Write, finish, submit!”
    I think my favorite here is #10. Sums it up!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on October 13, 2013 at 9:43 am

      Your publisher hits on one of my favorite pieces of advice – Butt in chair. I buy butt glue by the gallon! Henry Miller did have it right with #10. It’s so easy to get distracted. Thanks for commenting, Miriam!

  2. Jessica McCann (@JMcCannWriter) on March 16, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Great advice, every point. Right now for my novel in progress, #6 really resonates with me. Need to cement the story and finish the first draft. Then I can go back and add the fertilizer in the places where it is bare. Thanks for this. It was just what I needed this morning!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on March 16, 2014 at 1:00 pm

      So glad Miller’s tips resonated with you, Jessica. Since my novel is complete, #10 is working for me. I really need to ramp up marketing to launch my novel in July. Once “Go Away Home” is up and running, I can think about new projects. Thanks for joining the conversation and good luck finishing that first draft!

  3. Sherrey Meyer on April 29, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    I love Miller’s 11 Commandments of writing! They used to be hanging somewhere near my computer but I cleaned and took a lot of stuff down. I’ll have to find them or I’ll never get this book done!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 6, 2015 at 10:54 am

      In a ‘misery loves company’ sort of way, it’s encouraging to know that those authors who’ve made it struggle as we all do. Good luck with your writing.

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