Delusions of Grandeur

No. 18 Villa Seurat [1]

It must be almost 40 years since I first read Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller; a book that had a profound effect on my life, not in the least because deluded me into believing that I could become a professional writer. I use the qualifier, “professional”, intentionally to distinguish between the professional writer who earns an income from writing – something that I have never done – and the amateur who enjoys the luxury of being able to write what pleases him, even though it might please no one else. And as one reader who commented on one of my posts pointed out, (and here I paraphrase) there is much more to becoming a professionalwriter than having the ability to arrange words in a cogent and entertaining order.

So, some 40 years ago I read Tropic of Cancer, and have re-read it many times since; and it has taken me most of those 40 years to even begin to understand what Henry Miller meant when he wrote at the beginning of the novel:

“A year ago, six months ago, I thought I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am”.

At first, I dismissed this statement as an extravagant piece of hubris. How dare he say he is an artist when modesty and humility lie at the foundations of all greatness? To give him the benefit of the doubt, however, I rationalised it as a venting of all the anger and frustration that had built within him as he’d struggled to find his literary voice; and believing that he had finally found it, he was simply thumbing his nose at all who had doubted him. But in recent years, I have gradually come to another opinion; and whether or not it is what Miller, himself, meant by his statement, it is what I choose to believe at the moment.

Henry Miller can claim to be an artist because in a broader sense we are all artists, telling our stories in our own, particular way. Some of us use words to tell our story, some use images, and others, like the lady in red in the picture I posted recently, use actions. In that captured moment, the unidentified lady is telling us about herself: that she is kind hearted, protective, caring and compassionate. Yet, based on the response it generated when I uploaded it to Flickr, that photograph was not one of my most popular. And to paraphrase Henry Miller: A year ago, six months ago, I would have been devastated by that response; and it would have lead to much analysis and soul searching on my part, perhaps even an essay here on my blog as I struggled to understand why I had failed to communicate to others, what I had so powerfully felt. But now, I no longer think about it. It is enough for me to know that I like the image, that it has meaning for me, that it touched me enough to want to record and keep it. And that brings me back to the question of whether I ever really wanted to be a professional writer.

Back then, being a writer meant being a celebrity, travelling the world, writing in cafés and hotel rooms and having entrée into the circles of other celebrity writers and being adored by legions of unknown fans. It all looked so easy too. As someone once said: All the words are already there. You just have to get them in the right order. But in reality, that is only a small part of being a professional writer. The rest of it is simply business, and whether you are peddling books or clothes or surgical equipment or cars, you are obliged to become concerned with marketing and publicity and sales and profit and loss and taxes. And in the end, I have realised that what I really wanted was not to be a (professional) writer with all that that entailed. It was simply: to write.

Now, whether this is nothing more than a rationalisation of my own failure; or whether it is evidence to suggest that, after 40 years in the wilderness, I am finally getting some wisdom, I don’t really know. What I do know is that I enjoy writing; and I’m grateful that the Internet gives me a chance to solicit feedback on what I’ve written because, for me, there is nothing worse than standing still; and feedback, whether positive or negative, makes it impossible for one to stand still.

Do I still want to become a professional writer? The short answer is: not if it takes the fun out of writing. But I do want to grow, to become a better writer, and not just a better wordsmith but be able to acquire and convey a deeper understanding of the world I live in, the world of my experience. So feedback is important; both positive and negative; for while positive feedback provides encouragement, criticism provides direction.

People sometimes say to me: What is the point of taking photographs and writing when hardly anyone sees your photographs or reads what you have written, and you don’t make any money doing either of those things? My answer is this: Behind me, I have sixty years of a life that I can remember; what was the point of that if I don’t do something with it?

For me, photography and writing are simply two vehicles I use to journey into myself in a quest to discover where and how I am connected to the universe; and if sharing the experiences, the discoveries and even the false trails helps anyone else on their own, personal journey, that’s a bonus.

But ideally, I’d like to be entertaining too. And that means learning to be a better writer. So I really do appreciate the comments I receive, even if they are not numerous, because every one of them helps in its own way.


[1] Henry Miller moved to No. 18 Villa Seurat in September 1934, coinciding with the publication of Tropic of Cancer. In fact, his publisher delivered the first copy of his book to him on his doorstep on the day he moved in.

Miller had lived at this address on a previous occasion, with his landlord and friend Michael Fraenkel; and it is to this period that he refers in the opening pages of the book, changing the name of the street to the Villa Borghese.

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One thought on “Delusions of Grandeur

  1. Thank you for these words, Keith.

    Nothing stands still, and nothing is new under the sun. Sure enough, however, it is the angle which we see from, the experience we go through and want to share, the feelings we live with, the words we elaborate coming from our mind and heart. There is nothing new, and yet, our story is unique and having a witness to our life is a confirmation to our short fleeting moments which ultimately is our life.

    I like those words of yours:
    “What I do know is that I enjoy writing..”

    I think when you reach this statement, everything else falls into place and you don’t think anymore whether you are a writer or an artist. It is the basic of all, like breathing.

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