On Writing: Henry Miller Made Me Do It
I became a writer after I read Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller when I was 22. I couldn’t believe somebody wrote that book.
James Frey is the author of A Million Little Pieces, My Friend Leonard, Bright Shiny Morning. He has written extensively about art, and has published texts for catalogues with Richard Prince, Damien Hirst, Ed Ruscha, and Richard Phillips, among others. His latest the Final Testament of the Holy Bible iwas published by the Gagosian Gallery. His work is published in 39 languages. He is originally from Cleveland, and lives and works in New York City.
I became a writer after I read Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller when I was 22. I couldn’t believe somebody wrote that book. I couldn’t believe somebody said what he said and lived how he lived and wrote this book. I was just blown away by it.
And after I had finished it, I said to myself, “I want to do what he did. I want to make some punk kid somewhere feel what that book made me feel.” And from then, that’s all I tried to do. I moved to Paris. I read a lot of books. I sat along in rooms for hours and hours and hours, just trying to write. I came to be a writer because I looked over the course of literary history, very few sort of writers who made it into the canon went to school to be taught to write. You know, before 1970, that idea didn’t really even exist. So I wanted to do it sort of the old fashioned way. Sit in a room; try to figure out how to get what was in my head on to paper.
And then it’s just a long process of building confidence. For years, I couldn’t do it. And then I started to be able to do it. And when I started to be able to do it, I did it more. And you know, it took me about 10 years from the time I wanted to write a book to publish a book. And it was hard. It wasn’t easy. I think you have to devote a lot of time and energy and dedication to doing it, to learn how to sit in a room by yourself without ever losing faith in being able to do it at some point.
I think that’s one of the big traps young writers get into as well is they’ll work for a month of two months or three months. And they’ll say, “I’m never, I can’t do what I want to do. I’m never going to be able to do it.” So they give up. I just never gave up.
When I decided to become a writer, I wanted to do things in very specific ways. I wanted to write in a way that nobody had ever done before, I wanted to use my own system of grammar; my own system of punctuation. I wanted to lay words out on a page in very specific ways. I wanted to sort of obliterate the ideas of fact or fiction and whether they mattered and sort of do things in some ways that come out of the art world, where genres don’t really exist and where you can do a self-portrait and make it look however you want or you can take something and call it whatever you want. You can appropriate something from whatever source you want.
It took a long time. Just me sitting in a room by myself working. I always say to people, “If I can do it, anybody can do it.” I didn’t have any special gift or any special talent; I just wanted to do it and was willing to sit there until I could.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
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